Shoppers buying store-branded ice cream cakes and frozen novelties might think those desserts were made onsite by retail staff, but depending on the location, there’s a chance they were manufactured offsite by Totally Cool. For more than 25 years, the Baltimore-area company has created ice cream cakes, pints, and cups for private-label and wholesale clients across the U.S.
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Totally Cool was founded by CEO and President Mike Uhlfelder in 1992. Inspired by his work at a Carvel ice cream manufacturing and retail store when he was 15, he funneled that passion into his own company seven years later. Uhlfelder’s business model as a co-manufacturer and private label partner took off quickly, and by 2003, demand for his ice cream cakes—Totally Cool’s core product—was exceeding his ability to produce them.
“We could not get enough throughput,” says Uhlfelder. “At the time [our ice cream cakes] went into specific molds for different sizes. Then those cakes went into a blast freezer, which is static freezing, so our turnaround time to further process that product was 24 hours. The next day we would take the cake out of the molds, and decorate, package, and finish them. So, we had a huge lag time, and the only way we could get ahead was to freeze items instantaneously, like 20 to 30 minutes as opposed to 24 hours. That’s why we bought our first tunnel freezer.”
Uhlfelder purchased an Air Products Freshline CryoQuick nitrogen-chilled tunnel freezer, which “was the major stepping stone for me to grow this business and expand,” he says. “Before the Air Products freezer, we were using about 2,000 molds [for ice cream cakes]. And when we bought this tunnel freezer, we reduced it to around 200 molds because the product comes out completely frozen, so we can release it from the mold instantly and wash and fill that mold again without any overnight lag time. Overall, this tunnel helped us reduce labor costs, material costs, and we significantly increased throughput.”
The tunnel freezer also reduced wear and tear on Totally Cool’s conventional walk-in blast freezer by not having to use it for overnight freezing anymore. “We ran it at around -50°F all the time, so the tunnel helped us reduce energy costs with the walk-in,” notes Uhlfelder.
In the ensuing 20 years from that first Air Products tunnel freezer purchase, Uhlfelder bought a non-Air Products tunnel freezer in 2011, but returned to Air Products in 2018 to buy a second Freshline CQ. Then in 2022, he bought a 30 ft Freshline IQ tunnel freezer, and a second 30 ft Freshline IQ tunnel freezer will be installed this quarter. All four of those Air Products freezers will be used for production in 2023, and Uhlfelder says each purchase has marked a timeline in his company’s upward trajectory.
“You grow to a certain point where your throughput starts to bottleneck, so if your tunnel is at full capacity, it makes it difficult to meet demand,” explains Uhlfelder. “When we bought our second tunnel, it took a lot of pressure off the first tunnel. We were able to run two tunnels but at a slower speed to get a longer dwell time, which is a more efficient use of the nitrogen. When you freeze with nitrogen, you’re not letting water molecules into the ice cream, so you get a much better, more stable product.”
With four Air Products tunnel freezers populating Totally Cool’s 42,000-sq-ft plant, the company can produce 800,000 to 1.5 million ice cream cakes, pints, and cups per month, according to Uhlfelder.
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The controls on each Air Products tunnel freezer have evolved for ease of use over the years, which is essential for employees working on the lines, Uhlfelder adds. “All the tunnels are fairly easy to operate,” he explains, “and the new ones have touchscreens and Allen-Bradley controls. They also link to Air Products’ [Smart Technology], which helps with troubleshooting and optimizing the machine in real time, in case there’s an issue. These machines run at -320 °F, so that option really helps with operator safety too.”