A silver lining to starting from scratch

After a fire, Pretzels Inc. turned lemons into lemonade by seizing the opportunity to rebuild with flexibility and capacity that the previous facility couldn’t have accommodated.

Heat and Control’s Fastback System gently conveys the freshly baked peanut butter-filled pretzel nuggets, allowing them to sufficiently cool before weighing in Ishida combination scales.
Heat and Control’s Fastback System gently conveys the freshly baked peanut butter-filled pretzel nuggets, allowing them to sufficiently cool before weighing in Ishida combination scales.

In early June of 2016, Pretzels Inc., a co-manufacturer and private-label supplier of pretzels and other baked or extruded snacks, was dealt what looked like a major setback. At the time, the company had two production facilities, one in Bluffton, IN, the other in Canonsburg, PA. Company leadership was in the midst of expansion planning for Canonsburg when that facility had a major oven fire break out between shifts. While the company thankfully avoided any major injuries or loss of life, the building was a total loss, and no equipment was salvageable.

The fire rendered the company dark on the market for a popular peanut butter-filled pretzel nugget product that had been a Canonsburg specialty. The peanut allergen-sensitive Bluffton facility could not pick up the slack of a peanut-intensive line. But because Pretzels Inc. was one of only two volume suppliers of that specific product in the U.S., time was of the essence, and every dark minute was damaging.

“The date of the fire was June 4, 2016. The family ownership and executive team decided within two days that we were going to rebuild,” says Paul Schaum, COO. “By June 8, we had design/build team Austin Company showing us 22 different pre-certified sites in Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan, all convenient to the existing Bluffton production facility. We narrowed the field to a greenfield location in Warsaw, Indiana, and a 45,000-square-foot shell building—just four walls and a roof that we’d have to alter, but no floor—in Plymouth, Indiana. Ultimately, the existing structure in Plymouth gave us a significant head start that got us back to market sooner. We actually went into production before the plant offices were completed.”

By April of 2017, the first production batches of peanut butter-filled pretzels were being packaged and delivered to Pretzels Inc.’s myriad customers. Schaum credits Pretzels Inc.’s owners, the Mann and Huggins families, and specifically the executive team of Chip Mann, Steve Huggins, Scott Smith, and Craig Anderson for aiming high on the project. He also credits the Engineering Group of Troy Vigar and Cory Green, and Plant Managers Carin Malanowski and Ted Elrich, among many others, for reorganizing their work lives to coordinate and startup a plant from scratch in an accelerated build-out that was completed in six months.

The silver lining? By starting fresh in an all-new facility, Schaum and Pretzels Inc. were better able to build for the future than they would have been by adding to the Canonsburg facility.

Unique equipment needs
While Pretzels Inc. only makes one item in Plymouth—the peanut butter-filled pretzel nugget—production gets decidedly complex as soon as the product meets the package. That’s because even though the company maintains its own Harvest Road brand of extruded snacks and pretzels, 85% of its business is in co-manufacturing and co-packing for other well-known national and private-label brands. And its portfolio of small, upstart private labelers is growing like gangbusters.

This translates into a slew of different package formats and sizes. The company has to quickly react to the demands and changes in the market and adapt to various different brands on a daily—and increasingly, hourly—basis. And it also means that the packaging line has to be extremely flexible and changeover-friendly. The peanut butter-filled pretzel package formats include pouches ranging from 10 to 28 oz, blow-molded barrels ranging from 18 to 24 oz, plus bulk cases and totes of product, up to 600 lb, that are destined for mixing with other ingredients at customer facilities.

With these unique requirements in mind, Schaum found himself with the unusual task of equipping a new facility from scratch without the burden of any legacy pieces. But with 35 years of experiencing in equipping and operating food production and packaging facilities, Schaum had more than a few ideas, existing relationships, and experience to lean on. He looks at the Plymouth buildout as the culmination of a career’s worth of accumulated knowledge. He turned to Heat and Control to assist, and act as primary supplier and integrator for the packaging project.

The packaging line
Finished, salted pretzels exit the five-temperature-zoned convection oven and moisture-reducing kiln at 256°F and are quickly elevated to the mezzanine level, where they exit the baking room on an Intralox bulk transport system.

As product leaves the baking room overhead and enters the packaging room’s mezzanine, it immediately is fed onto a Heat and Control Fastback horizontal motion conveyor system so that it can cool while traveling. The mezzanine is carefully air conditioned and controlled, so by the time the product switches back twice in the Fastback, it has cooled to an important threshold—a stable 105ºF. Gentle product handling on the Fastback is key in keeping the hot peanut butter-filled pretzels from rupturing and leaking their hot, viscous contents into the downstream equipment or into pouches and barrels. Sufficiently cooled product is fed into one of four Heat and Control Ishida combination scales, also on the mezzanine.

After product on three of the scales is weighed, it is dropped into one of three Ishida Atlas baggers, complete with Ishida’s Integrated Total Packaging Solutions (iTPS) system, positioned underneath. Or, weighed product is diverted from the baggers, instead leaving the scales in a custom filling tube that drops product into the 24-oz blow-molded barrels. Product can also be diverted back onto Fastback decks on the lower level for bulk filling totes and other volume packages destined for future mixing.

Under the fourth combination scale, a single PSG LEE RP-6TZE-30 stand-up pouch-filling machine also receives the product, and the pouches are output onto a Balpack conveyor. “With the system being fed with premade packages we have the ability to change from one customer to another with the same package size incurring zero lost impressions and zero loss in efficiency,” Schaum says. “With the PSG LEE machine we can change bag size and customer packaging in two and a half minutes. Although premade pouches cost more per impression, our customer and package changeover frequency makes the premade pouch more efficient for Pretzels Inc.”

The baggers use Dataflex 6420 thermal transfer overprinters from Videojet for coding and marking the bags and pouches to the customers’ specifications.

After product leaves the baggers and pouchers, all four of the lines finish with CEIA THS/G21E-200 vertical metal detectors, with the bulk filling line going through a Mettler Toledo metal detection system, after which the packages are packed and palletized by hand and automatically stretch wrapped with a Lantech pallet wrapper.

“Because of the sheer variance of packaging formats, it still makes sense to case pack, erect cases, and palletize by hand,” Schaum says. “We just have too many different sizes, formats, and short runs, so changeovers are too frequent for any machine I’m aware of. I’ve seen some case packers that are close, but until I find true push-button format changeover capability in case packers and palletizers that can handle our level of variety, this makes the most sense.”

New players force different thinking in equipment
“It’s a good time to be in the snackfood business,” says Schaum. “The market is certainly growing in general. Recently we’ve been seeing an influx of small marketing companies with new and different slants on traditional pretzel snacks. They’ve become an increasing part of our business.”

These outfits tend to come in with novel, higher-end product ideas that may have stemmed from an old family recipe. They also tend to be led by passionate, entrepreneurial evangelists who make for a strong marketing ground game to get product visibility. What they don’t have is the ability to scale up to production. They lack the sophisticated GMPs intrinsic to a high-volume food manufacturing and packaging facility, and they also lack the tens of millions in capital to plunk down on one.

This is a newer market that Pretzels Inc. is currently courting and developing, not knowing who could be the next Garrett’s popcorn. It’s a big reason the new Plymouth facility went with a Safe Quality Food Institute Level 3 Certification (SQF3), in case of unforeseen new ingredient requirements. But if you were thinking that private labeling for dozens of national and store brands meant frequent changeovers, such accounts have nothing on these small startups in terms of the flexibility they require from Pretzels Inc. to efficiently run a multitude of ultra-small batches and formulas.

“It forces us to think differently, think outside the box, and experiment more than we would have to do with large volumes of similar products,” Schaum says. “We are asking ourselves, ‘How can we do a kaizen to make us more flexible?’ This also influenced the design of the new building. We don’t necessarily need to be SQF3, on par with dairies, but our increasing variety of customers forced our hand. We designed the building to be able to react to new products, to be ahead of any new legislation beyond FSMA, and to just be ready for anything.”

U-shaped efficiencies
In designing the Plymouth facility and specifying equipment, Schaum got to implement a lifetime’s worth of food manufacturing facility know-how. The facility acts as a “plant within a plant,” with disparate sub-plants feeding one another in the value chain, all laid out in a 45,000-sq-ft ‘U’ shape. Raw materials like peanut butter enter the facility at the segregated allergen receiving dock, where they are prepped before heading to a blending room. Once ingredients are blended to the correct consistency, they are sent to a separate processing room, where dough is made, extruded, cut, and then conveyed to ovens in a baking room. After baking, cooling products take a U-turn and head up the other side of the facility for packaging. After packaged product is palletized, it is held briefly in an inventory room before exiting shipping doors and being loaded onto trucks. Although from the outside of the building it would appear that shipping and receiving are one dock, inside the building they are separate and segregated areas so that raw material and finished goods are never mingled.

One area of interest is a walkable ceiling above the blending, processing, baking, and packaging rooms. In order to keep these areas uncluttered and to assist in the clean operation of the manufacturing process, all ancillary and support systems are located or accessed from above by way of the walkable ceiling, located below the structural roof. This allows electrical, pneumatic, HVAC, and material supply systems to be plumbed into each individual room, meaning the vast majority of maintenance activities can be carried out without interfering with the production process.

Plymouth ramps up
“When the facility was completed in April 2017, our intent was to go 24/7 in mid 2018 and install the second line in 2019,” Schaum says. “Business opportunities have allowed us to accelerate this timeline significantly. We went to a 24/7 schedule on January 2, 2018 with great success and have ordered our second line with a scheduled install in July of this year and a scheduled production startup of September 1, 2018.”

The company is working with Spee-Dee Packaging Machinery and Kleenline Conveying Systems, a ProMach Company, to increase blow-molded barrel capacity and versatility. On the product side, it has added band cut and twisted pretzels to the Plymouth plant portfolio, and has expanded product offerings and certifications to include gluten-free products.

To learn how Pretzels Inc. used PMMI and OpX Leadership Network’s work product, “Framework for Workforce Engagement,” to get the most out of its team, click here.

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