FORT WORTH, Texas –
Shanghai, Jordan, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Germany and The Caribbean are among destinations firewood from Gourmet Wood® Products, Inc. reaches.
“We’re the preferred cooking fuel of chefs worldwide,” said Chad Helfenbein, COO of Gourmet Wood Products (GWP). The cooking fuel dimension is important because the product of the company is so much more than firewood.
The flavor GWP helps impart to food is what brings chefs from around the globe calling – and making suggestions. Chad even experiments with different wood species — sassafras getting his attention recently.
Post oak dominates in products from GWP with mesquite, hickory and pecan following in that order. Apple and cherry are in the mix occasionally.
The tempo of production is lively, with an average of eight truckloads of wood leaving the 22-acre GWP site each day. And essential to making the firewood are two Multitek 2040 processors. A Multitek Logbuster and Multitek tumblers are also on the roster.
“We used to do everything by hand with a chain saw and splitting maul,” said Chad. “Now we are fully mechanized and hardly touch the wood at all.”
The effort to introduce as much mechanized production as possible began five years ago. It was an essential part of being a viable competitor to bigger companies in the same niche.
Mechanization also makes the work environment more comfortable for the 30 employees, many of whom have been with the company for a long time. “Good help is hard to find,” said Chad. “No one wants to work out in the heat and the elements.”
The Multitek 2040 couples ease of use with comfort. “I’ve run [the Multitek machines] quite a lot,” said Chad. “If you’ve ever played video games, you can run one – just two joysticks, and AC and radio.”
The two Multitek 2040 firewood processors get a real workout. “We use them every day,” said Chad. “They run six to seven hours a day.”
Multitek draws praise from Chad as a machine and as a company. “As far as the machine goes, it’s one of the best on the market,” said Chad. “They’re a great company to work with. They’re awesome.”
Multitek North America, LLC is based in Prentice, Wis. “They’ll do anything to help you succeed,” said Chad, adding that the bond between Gourmet Wood and Multitek is very much a partnership.
Chad believes he has worked with everyone at Multitek, even the production manager, often making suggestions and requests. In recent years, he has worked particularly with Scott Eifler.
GWP bought its first processor from Multitek in 2008. It was a Multitek 2040XP2. “We used it so much we had to trade it in,” said Chad, explaining there was no question of staying with Multitek based on the strong performance of that processor.
“The processor can only accept 21- inch diameter logs, so I don’t purchase big trees,” said Chad. “If I do, I use the [Multitek] Logbuster.”
Chad had only been with GWP for two years when that first Multitek was purchased. He started working at the company in 2006 when he was a sophomore in high school. “I’ve had many different roles,” said Chad. “I started in the bagging shed at 16, like everyone else, and worked my way up.”
Today, Chad handles all day-to-day operations at GWP. His father, Greg Helfenbein, president and CEO, established the company in 1983.
There have been many changes since GWP was featured in these pages in 2010 (see http://www.timberlinemag.com/ articledatabase/view.asp?articleID=3009), notably a bigger product line in firewood for cooking fuel. Two things have not changed.
First, Multitek firewood processors and ancillaries remain vital players. Two, the logo, which is printed on all bags and boxes, is a curious armadillo standing beside a mesquite tree.
Greg has refocused his efforts on a variety of new projects. But Chad shares his father’s can-do and will-do spirit. (At 19 Greg was already working as a civil engineer.)
Striving to meld economy of choice with quality of outcome, Chad has made some noteworthy decisions for the company. For example, there was the purchase of a concrete plant. It made sense because so much paving was planned.
Eight acres of the company site are now paved. “Storing firewood on concrete is better for production,” said Chad, explaining that hardscape keeps wood drier and cleaner.
Tumblers from Multitek are used to remove debris from wood prior to packaging. In an interesting arrangement, when a Multitek tumbler is paired with the Multitek Logbuster, it is fitted to run off the hydraulics of the Logbuster.
All wood is either bagged or put in boxes. That work is done manually.
Loggers deliver lengths to GWP. Chad said the loggers are using Bell three-wheel fellers, which they like because of the feller’s agility and air-cooled engines, and grapple skidders.
“We retain a little logging capacity [inhouse],” said Chad. It’s called into service for species for which there’s an immediate need but a short or nonexistent supply – often mesquite.
Two Prentice loaders move logs in the GWP yard. Seven Caterpillar wheel loaders are in use. Caterpillar movers get the nod from Chad because of the speed with which the manufacturer supplies parts.
Front-end loaders are used to put wood wedges into kiln baskets. All firewood is dried according to USDA heat-treatment schedule T314-C. “Sixty to 70 percent of our business is across state lines, so we have to sanitize the wood,” said Chad.
Kiln drying also gives product more resistance to mold. And because water content is reduced, it’s a bit lighter to ship.
GWP has a full maintenance shop with complete electrician capabilities. Not only did the company built its own warehouses, but it also built its own kilns for drying firewood – nine to date and two more in progress.
“Each one’s better than the last,” said Chad of the kilns. “[We] build it [and ask] what if we changed this, might this work better?” Wood waste is used for boiler fuel to heat the kilns.
Cooking product heading to domestic buyers in population centers like New York and Dallas is typically boxed because restaurants do not have much storage space. International product is also boxed because it’s easier to move through customs. Twocubic foot polyurethane bags are used for most product.
Bags are filled with clean, uniform splits, generally either 4 ½-inch or 3 ½- inch. All kindling is separated from splits before bagging.
Ninety-nine percent of GWP’s sales are to restaurants. GWP cooking fuel reaches customers in one of four ways. Seventy- five percent goes to food service distributors. “They’ll come and pick up at my facility,” explained Chad.
A freight forwarder handles international shipments. UPS is used for some deliveries and for local deliveries GWP uses its own truck.
The post oak (aka, iron oak) that is tapped most often by GWP grows abundantly in the region – the north-central part of the state — around the company’s home base in Fort Worth, Tarrant County, Texas. Because loggers thin stands instead of clearcutting, the larger trees drop acorns into open spaces offering plenty of sunshine for germination. Thus, regrowth is fostered by the select cuts.
‘BBQ with Franklin’, a PBS program featuring chef Aaron Franklin, has boosted interest in barbecue, said Chad. The appetite for wood-fired pizza has done the same. In the second week of December, Chad himself was using cooking fuel wedges made from post oak to cook 120 hams heading to a charitable-giving event.
Consistent, clean and chemical-free quality product defines the commitment of GWP. The emphasis GWP puts on continuous improvement mirrors that of its vendor partner Multitek. New features on the Multitek 2040 firewood processor in the last four years include a laser-guided measuring system and a variable displacement hydraulic pump that improves fuel and hydraulic economy.
GWP is a member of the Texas Restaurant Association.
Chad exudes enthusiasm for his profession. “I love my job,” he said. “I love this industry…meeting good people.”
Although Gourmet Wood Products takes up most of his time right now, Chad does not mind. There has been no time for scuba recently or vacations not tied to work. But he is happy with his busy schedule. Being able to sustain a business that provides opportunities for employment for others is a satisfying result of the input of time and energy, said Chad.
The receptiveness of Multitek to questions, suggestions and ideas has made the company a great partner. “We work very, very closely with our vendors,” said Chad.
Not one to ever suggest something can’t be done, Chad sees action as the solution to any obstacle. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” he said. “If there’s not a machine that meets our needs, we’ll design one and send it off [to be built].”
Bumps occur as they do everywhere. But most days are pleasant ones and the team is having fun, which affirms that things are being done right, explained Chad.
“Everybody that works here – everybody feels like they’re at home,” said Chad. “It’s really enjoyable when you work with a good team.”