SML Stainless Steel Group, formerly Sani Metals Ltd., is North America’s largest distributor of high-end commercial kitchen equipment, specializing in the custom manufacturing of turnkey stainless steel parts and products for foodservice, medical device, transportation and other specialized industrial applications. The family-owned business, founded in 1966 and headquartered in Quebec City, Canada, is the leading choice for top chefs and restaurateurs to fabricate high-end, made-to-measure kitchens noted for high end functionality. SML clients include such major names as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Michael Mina, Grant Achatz, Alain Ducasse and Rob Feenie. A large part of its custom business is with casinos, which include Caesars Palace, Stardust, Wynn, Ballys, Casablanca Casino and Virgin River Casino in North America, as well as the Atlantis Resort and Casino and Paradise Island in the Bahamas. The Atlantis Resort was a $10 million project for the manufacture, supply and installation of eight kitchens, seven cafeterias, and 16 bars that was the largest contract ever awarded to a Canadian foodservice manufacturer/distributor.
Building a custom kitchen is more than fabricating stainless steel components. “It’s about sharing a passion,” says Francois Morin, vice president of business development for the Quebec City, Canada based manufacturer. Recently, SML expanded that passion with a new business unit focusing on the perfect complement to any good meal produced in its prestigious kitchens – winemaking.
A good wine is a product of nature effectively captured and bottled by a skilled winemaker using craft and technology. If it is true that no wine is good before its time, the time it spends fermenting in the wine tank is absolutely crucial to whether it will be any good. So the quality of the tank bears directly on the quality of the wine.
Blending the tenets of artisan winemaking heritage and tradition, SML Group’s new division, La Garde, melds engineering innovation and cutting-edge technology to produce stainless steel tanks of unequalled quality that produce similarly unequalled wines. “We like to think of ourselves as the Rolls-Royce of wine tanks,” says Poitras Gilles, director of business development. Indeed, the SML Group’s history of engineering excellence and precision translated to its La Garde division resulting in a line of extraordinary wine tanks unlike any other. These distinguishing features include a compact footprint, seamlessly integrated controls, durability, exceptional finish and appearance.
Unlike most cylindrical wine tanks, La Garde tanks are cubical, making better use of floor space. “Our tanks can hold 22 percent more than typical cylindrical tanks of the same height, width and depth,” Gilles notes. “That means a winery using La Garde tanks is capable of producing 22 percent more wine without needing to expand its square footage. For a winery that has space restrictions, this is the way to go to boost productivity without having to expand the facility and incur construction expenses.”
All La Garde tanks are easily movable with a forklift and usually are stackable. They are also versatile. In addition to use for regular fermentation, La Garde tanks can also be used to fill up other tanks or as wine aging tanks. Optional micro-oxygenation capabilities also make La Garde tanks a cost-effective, long term, eco-friendly alternative to traditional oak barrels that have at most a three year lifespan and require a sometimes hard to obtain and expensive natural resource. La Garde tanks offer winemakers the ability to be “green.”
While La Garde doesn’t make the controls that monitor and regulate the fermentation process, it does partner with the leading manufacturers to customize the tanks with the desired features and functionalities. Because the tanks are handmade, everything from a simple temperature control with a probe to a fully automated web-based fermentation management control system can be integrated to the control panel in front of the tank. “There are no unsightly wires or junction boxes,” Gilles points out. “Even the electrical power cords are housed in stainless steel tubes to avoid ‘connection clutter’ around the tanks.”
Which is one reason why, Gilles says, “We’ve got the best looking tanks in the market. Indeed, we like to think of our tanks as works of art, but instead of hanging them on the wall, winemakers get to use them practice their own art in making great wines Some tanks can look really, really ugly. But in the wine industry, aesthetics are important. Take a tour of any winery and one of the first things you’re going to see are the tanks. In fact, that’s often the focal point of the winery’s visitor building. Now, when you’re making finely crafted wines, it doesn’t leave a very good impression to have them stored in dull and ugly containers.”
Of course, stainless steel is also an extremely durable material, and Gilles touts La Garde tanks as capable of withstanding almost any operating environment. “We have all heard or lived the stories of tanks that busted, legs that sagged or pipes that burst. Besides being incredibly upsetting, it can be dangerous. La Garde tanks are beautiful, yet at the same time highly robust,” he says.
Of course, the polished stainless steel surface makes for a highly attractive package. But that attraction is more than skin deep. A highly polished surface optimizes cleanliness. “Rough surfaces are ideal homes for bacteria that can throw the fermentation process out-of-kilter, resulting in a less than desired taste,” Gilles says. “Moreover, welds can rust, which can further contaminate what could have been a superior wine.”
Both the inside and outside of La Garde tanks are hand polished to an arithmetic average roughness (Ra) of 10 to 15 microns. “This means that the roughness of the finish – the little holes and bumps on the walls and weld surfaces – have a total average variation of 0.000010 to 0.000015 meters,” Gilles says. “This means that you can clean the tanks more quickly and effectively, and, at the same time be assured that no micro-organisms or other harmful substances are attached to the tank walls.” For situations in which the winemaker wants to be an absolute stickler to the highest possible standard of cleanliness, La Garde offers an electropolishing option that achieves an Ra of 5 to 10 microns.
La Garde tanks are custom designed using CAD/CAM (computer assisted design/computer assisted manufacturing) to laser cut components for each application which are then assembled by hand. “This is basically the kind of custom work that SML does in general for all its stainless steel products, so we do have some advantages in synergies,” Gilles says.
The SML Group as a whole employs 200 dedicated men and women, located in the head office in Quebec City, plus affiliate locations in Las Vegas, New York and Toronto, as well as at various ongoing installations throughout North America. The company maintains a 70,000-square-foot production facility for stainless steel and non-ferrous metals parts and equipment in Quebec City, along with an additional 10,000 square feet of office space and another 30,000-square-foot production facility for stainless steel parts and finished products; a 30,000-square-foot production facility for millwork, natural and manmade stones, laminates and related materials in Lauzon, Quebec; 10,000 square feet of office space; a 21,000-square-foot production facility for stainless steel parts and equipment and architectural work in Las Vegas, Nev., and storage facilities and offices in Toronto and New York.
“We can draw from our production force as needed to respond to demand,” Gilles points out. “Basically, we need two people to make a wine tank. In addition to the main SML manufacturing plant, we recently purchased another 12,000-square-foot building here in Quebec for the express purpose of making wine tanks. The only thing we outsource is if a customer wants the tank electro-polished to achieve a greater Ra, which we currently don’t have the equipment to perform. All our stainless steel manufacturing is ISO 9001-2000 certified and the company as a whole has a 44 year history of producing stainless steel products that are unsurpassed in quality and craftsmanship. Everything we make is based on traditional and artesian techniques combined with new methods and cutting-edge technology in what we like to call ‘technotradition’; it’s how we stand out in the market.”
Morin adds, “Our success as a company is the result of a team effort. ˆTime and again, as a company we have risen to the occasion because of the combined expertise of our people. We have people in our shop who have been with us almost from the start. At the same time, we have younger people who are just as enthusiastic and dedicated to their craft as are veterans. For our larger stainless steel fabricating operations, we do have some automated processes to improve efficiency and reduce costs, but at the same time you absolutely must have the knowledge and dedication of highly skilled craftspeople to produce a top-of-the-line product. The wine tanks are a case in point. These are made entirely by hand, to ensure the highest finish that not only provides the best environment to produce the best wines, but also the best-looking wine tanks.”
Commitment to quality above all is the essence of the SML Group’s reputation. “We put the delicate finishing touch of meticulous attention to detail on premium equipment that defines the category,” Morin says. “All of our equipment fits perfectly together. Fusing an odd joint in the field so it integrates seamlessly is the kind of craftsmanship that’s expected for a world-class kitchen. That’s the kind of scrupulous detail we supply.”
That same attention to detail is, of course, the hallmark of a La Garde wine tank. As a result, needless to say, La Garde wine tanks aren’t the least expensive on the market. “Our products are comparable to the premium tanks made in Europe,” Gilles says. “Right now we’re focusing on the middle high-end in North American markets. At some point we’d like to sell in Europe, as well, but with our manufacturing based here in Canada, right now transportation and distribution costs make it difficult for us to compete. Also, in Europe there is a quota limiting winery expansion, unlike here where a vineyard can purchase as much additional land and plant as much crop as it wants. “
Gilles notes, “We are looking to develop business in South America. This would be ideal because the harvest seasons between the Americas are opposite; so the time when North American wineries aren’t hard pressed to shop for tanks is the peak of South American purchasing, and vice versa.
Consumption of higher priced wines has declined during the slow economy, Gilles observes. “Lately, the three to six dollar a bottle segment has been doing the best,” he point outs. “But we’re beginning to see some increased demand for the more expensive wines, so I think wineries are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. We at La Garde stand ready to help them meet whatever new production requirements they need to satisfy as we get out of this downturn.”
One advantage La Garde has is the shining reputation of its parent company. Morin says the importance of reputation can never be emphasized enough. “Word of mouth is extraordinarily important and has largely accounted for our growth in the custom, high-end kitchen equipment segment. Once the key influential people come to know and depend on the quality of your work, word does get around.”
As he works to broadening the brand recognition of La Garde as a relatively new tank manufacturer, Gilles says that the future looks as bright as the tanks the company makes. “You know, the wine industry is often perceived as having a certain snobbishness, but in my experience in meeting with and working with winemakers, nothing could be further from the truth,” Gilles says. “These are down-to-earth business people who are focused on making the best possible product they can. As are we.”