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Piney Flats meals headed to Houston for relief efforts

Nathan Baker • Updated Aug 28, 2017 at 9:27 PM

Business at Chef Minute Meals can be either feast or famine, oftentimes literally.

As Hurricane Harvey pounded the Gulf Coast of Texas over the weekend, bringing 130 mph winds and 25 inches of rain, phones at the Piney Flats business were ringing.

WW Grainger, a worldwide industrial supply company that deals in everything from staplers to snow blowers, needed long-lasting prepared meals to send to Houston to help feed the people flooded out of their homes and the first responders who helped rescue many of them.

Chef Minute Meals CEO Barry Sendel immediately began rounding up employees Sunday after answering the call, and together they loaded seven tractor-trailer truckloads of the company’s self-heating meals headed south.

“We’ve got demand for everything we’ve got, plus whatever else we can produce,” Director of Sales Ramon Sanchez-Vinas said Monday, as a dozen employees boxed, packed and loaded hundreds of the company’s beef stew meals. “It’s that devastating.”

The company keeps a half-million completed meals in its warehouse, ready to go at a moment’s notice. The materials for another half million stay on standby, and can be assembled at a rate of about 60,000 per day.

The company’s products each contain a foam tray with a magnesium pad inside. When an included packet of salt water is poured over the magnesium, a chemical reaction causes heat, which is used to steam the meal.

When a federal disaster is declared, like it was Friday night in Texas, emergency funding becomes available for state and local relief efforts.

That’s usually when orders start pouring in for the boxed meals, Sanchez-Vinas said.

“What’s happening is FEMA is not going to know until Wednesday what they’re going to draw down on, and we’re already delivering,” he said. “The trucks went out last night and the Houston mayor already said they’re going to have a police escort to take them to the convention center.”

After selling out of its main line of eight different meals, Chef Minute Meals then sold all of its halal and kosher meals. Those are headed to mosques and other religious centers serving as emergency shelters.

Though the pace of work was quick Monday — the workers on the line assembled a meal every second — Sanchez-Vinas said three times as many people will be working Tuesday. The goal is to fully load two truckloads with 30,000 meals each per day.

“If we have to go around the clock we will until demand slacks off, and we don’t know how long that will be,” he said.

The assembly line isn’t usually so frenetic, but times of national disasters are when the business shines. Sanchez-Vinas said the company’s leader is dedicated to the mission of helping others in need and during lulls in need, has operated at a loss.

But the next weather disaster is usually and unfortunately right around the corner, and they seem to be getting more frequent, he said.

“When I first met Sendel, it was a couple of years between events,” he said. “Last year we had Matthew. Matthew had a big surge on business. In the middle of this year, we had some additional events, and now you have this, which is an unprecedented flooding.

“Whether somebody believes or doesn’t believe in climate change, we’re seeing the frequency of it change. It could be spurious, it could be coincidental, but something’s causing lots of havoc in Mother Nature.”

Chef Minute Meals is still looking for temporary employees to help fill the demand. Contact the company at 926-0092.

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