This odd juxtaposition of modern technology and do-it-yourself ingenuity might be surprising, but then again, Blue Bell is a company that makes a point of doing some things its own way, says Gene Supak v.p. of operations.
"For instance, we don't run around the clock," Supak says. "We shoot for about 12 hours maximum. We could run the same volume on less equipment, but we want our employees to have quality time at home too."
This is the same company that has developed the 3rd-best selling ice cream brand in the United States while growing its market one or two counties at a time. Blue Bell still sells no ice cream north Oklahoma, but its routes now cross 16 states from the Carolinas to Arizona.
It's also the same company that came up with what might be the simplest new flavor idea in 50 years (chocolate and vanilla in one package) and turned it into a home-run product called The Great Divide which is now producing successful line extensions.
The Brenham facility is Blue Bell's largest and shares its site with the company headquarters, but it is not Blue Bell's original plant. There is a small landlocked plant in the center of Brenham (the company refers to it as the Creamery Street plant) that bears that distinction, and is now used exclusively for novelties.
While the façade antique delivery vehicles and period furnishings at the headquarter site suggest a much older building, the main plant and offices were actually constructed just 33 years ago. The plant sits on 26 acres and runs anywhere from 22 to 26 lines that can be configured for use based on what the company needs.
Yes, it should be no surprise that the facility which produces so many delightful innovative products should be just as interesting as the ice cream. Let's have a look at what's new and what hasn't changed in Brenham.
Steady expansionThe plant's dual receiving bay receives an average of 10 truckloads of milk a day, seven days a week. The bulk of the milk and cream comes from a 200-mile radius of the plant. When needed, milk is pulled from other areas such as El Paso, and Portales, N.M. Milk is tested before being accepted and seal numbers are checked. Milk and cream are then either directed to raw milk silos or sent directly to processing.
Three blending systems feed into three HTST process systems used at the plant. The room can process about 14,000 gals per hour when operating at full capacity.
Plant personnel at Brenham refer to three production areas, due to their historical context-they represent three phases of construction and expansion that began with the original construction of the plant in 1972.
The original production area, or area one, features a row of about a dozen two-barrel Cherry-Burrell 500 freezers.
"Those were built in the late 50s and early 60s," Supak says. "We've upgraded them, but they are real workhorse machines for us. The capacity of each one is only 500 gals, but we can tie as many as four of them together to feed one line."
The Brenham facility has a total of 60 barrels, and the same freezers are used at other plants as well.
The original production floor can be configured to run five to six filling and packaging lines. These consist primarily of half gallon lines and two cone fillers. Blue Bell uses a distinctive round half gallon container for much of its ice cream, and those are filled with a variety of filling equipment, including Solo Cup Co. (formerly Sweetheart) fillers and APV feeders.
"We usually start a production day with our Homemade Vanilla, which is our top flavor," says Bill Weiss, public relations mgr. during a recent visit by Dairy Foods. "We start out with our most basic flavors and then add people to the lines as we add flavors."
Weiss explains that the company runs a shift and a half with two slightly staggered shifts that overlap. There are more than a dozen employees working in the room with an average of three people on each line.
"We're a lot less automated on the production side than we are downstream," Supak says. "Quality comes first around here. And the best way to ensure quality is to have a hands-on approach at the filler. We consider our operators and packagers to be the final QC inspectors."
One result of that approach is that there are a lot of employees at Blue Bell plants. The company philosophy and work environment invite a stable work force.
"We're in a semi-rural area, away from the big cities, so people tend to want to stay around," Supak says. "We have a good number of employees who have been with us for 20 to 25 years.
"We have the same access to technology as all of our competitors, so the quality of our personnel is the key to the success of the organization," he adds.
With that said it's easier to understand why one employee might be filling 3-gal tubs of ice cream by hand, while another might at the same time be monitoring an automated conveyer system that sends full pallets of ice cream to cold storage.
The second production area was added during an expansion that was completed in the early 1980s. This area is made up of five to 8 lines that include half-gals, pints and two molded stick novelty lines that are used to produce Fudge Bombstiks and Rainbow Freeze bars. The product-in-product molding equipment used to make the Rainbow Freeze was the first installation of its kind in the country when Blue Bell first began using it.
Line additions and line extensionsThe newest part of the plant began with a facility expansion in the early 1990s. This third production area includes a couple sandwich lines, additional half-gallon capacity, and a mezzanine level extruded novelty room that was added in 2001 and expanded this summer.
"We refer to it as the Gram room, because Gram Equipment supplied the whole system," Supak says. "It's an extruded frozen snack line that's really used for premium novelties. It's an extremely versatile frozen snack line in that it can run cookie sandwiches, premium extruded stick novelties and even cones."
When Dairy Foods visited, the line was being used for one of Blue Bell's newest products, the Great Divide Bar. Great Divide was a simple flavor idea (sort of like Neapolitan without the strawberry) developed for the 2004 season. It was so successful, (see sidebar page 78) that a frozen snack and a pint version now accompany the original half gallon. But while it uses the same simple flavors, the Great Divide Bar is a bit more complex, and its quite a feat from a production standpoint.
"The new frozen snack is half vanilla ice cream and half chocolate on the stick and the entire bar is coated in vanilla and half in chocolate coating," explains Carl Breed, Blue Bell's director of marketing.
Chocolate and vanilla ice cream bases are fed to the filler from the Gram freezers and the bars are extruded with a chocolate top and vanilla bottom half. They are grabbed 8 at a time from the plates and first dipped completely into a bath of vanilla coating and then submerged halfway into a chocolate coating.
Once finished they are laid into rows which are fed into a wrapping unit that wraps from roll fed stock and cuts and seals the wrapper into individual packages. The wraparound images on the film wrappers stylistically reflect the two-toned theme of the product.
Blue Bell currently uses the Gram line for chocolate chip and oatmeal cookie novelties including a variety of no-sugar-added (NSA) frozen snacks as well as the Great Divide Bar. The popularity of these products was the driver behind Brenham's latest project which doubled the capacity of the line.
"We were running 8,000 bars an hour, now we are running 16,000," Supak says. "It was a fast-track program. We approached Gram in late May or early June to increase our capacity. They had the equipment available and they shipped it in mid July and by the second week of August we were in full production with it."
Moving beyond the fillers, the Brenham plant has a history of being at the forefront in terms of freezing, handling, storage and distribution. It includes six blast freezers that are part of one of the largest capacity hardening systems in the U.S. Products spend six to seven hours in the blast freezers.
Robotics and logisticsThe plant's 125,000 sq ft distribution center serves as the main origin DC for the company's entire operation that includes three other plants and 45 regional distribution facilities.
The most recent automation upgrade at the plant is in the palletizing area. During the past two years, Blue Bell has phased in additional robotic palletizing cells with a total of six Fanuc robots that handle a large portion of the Brenham plant's palletizing needs. (Two robots have also been installed at the Broken Arrow, Okla. facility.)
"It takes our people out of a difficult job in an unpleasant, cold environment," Supak says.
The cells are set up to handle multiple products and simultaneously build pallets of different products.
"Each cell handles two products coming from two separate lines," Supak says. "One cell is set up for three gallons but it can also process the frozen snacks from the Gram room. That was the original. The remaining cells handle our higher volume items, which include pints and half gallons."
The integration process was not seamless, Supak says. Blue Bell actually began looking at robotics three years before the system was fully integrated, making adjustments along the way. FlexiCell Inc., Ashland, Va., aided in the design and custom fabrication of components for the various cells in place now.
From the robotic palletizers, pallets are automatically wrapped and labeled and deposited on an automated conveyer system. A traffic operator works from a control room to direct those pallets to auxiliary cold storage, through a network of conveyors.
A high-rise cold storage warehouse added in the late 1980s, is a seven-level, rack supported building that stores about 8,000 pallets The system uses three storage/retrieval cranes each equipped to service both sides of an aisle. Each table can handle two pallets and can extend 13 feet into the rack. The cranes have on-board operators who receive directions as to where to place and pick pallets from an onboard terminal.
Auxiliary storage, which was part of the original facility, is a conventional rack system with more than 4,000 pallet positions.
A fleet of 48 trucks is dispatched from the Brenham facility. The trucks are equipped with onboard computer systems that track truck data and allow drivers to enter order information.
Blue Bell has its own direct store delivery network, so that product doesn't leave the company's control until it is on the store shelf. Blue Bell drivers ensure that the ice cream remains at a constant temperature throughout the process, eliminating the chance of heat shock. This allows Blue Bell to protect the integrity of the product so that the consumer can be assured of consistency and quality.
At Brenham there is a company-owned shop for truck repair and maintenance and a dedicated shop for repair and maintenance of the fleet's Thermo King refrigeration equipment. Blue Bell even applies its own truck decals.
But then, what would you expect from a company that makes ice cream and builds pallets?
Sidebar: Blue Bell Creamery SuppliersEquipment
Solo Cup Company
Johnson Truck Bodies
Sidebar: Blue Bell Offers Unique Product MixThe folks at Blue Bell Creameries pride themselves in offering high-quality products, and in fostering a brand that garners the kind of loyalty Texans generally reserve for their home state and their football teams.
Walk down the ice cream aisle in Texas or elsewhere in Blue Bell's market and you'll see that it's no accident. Thanks to a crack R&D team, and an employee tasting panel drawn from across the company, Blue Bell is continually introducing a slew of products that offer a unique combination of traditional simplicity and fresh excitement-and in some cases a subtle combination of both.
For instance, the company has often developed new flavors inspired by other kinds of desserts, such as Key Lime Pie, Birthday Cake, Georgia Peach Cobbler and Banana Pudding. But in July, Blue Bell rolled out a new comfort food flavor based on a sandwich! Peanut Butter and Jelly Ice Cream is a combination of creamy vanilla ice cream with roasted peanuts and swirls of peanut butter and grape jelly.
"Blue Bell fans and our own employees bring us new ideas all the time," explains Brenda Valera, Blue Bell's R&D director. "This was one that initially sounded kind of strange, but when we made up a batch, everyone agreed that the unique flavor combination was delicious."
Blue Bell has never been afraid to blaze new trails. Homemade Vanilla, introduced in 1969, inspired a rash of imitators.
Blue Bell says it was the first company to mass-produce Cookies ‘n Cream back in 1980, and also the first company, in 1995, to produce a complete line of mini-size frozen snacks. More recently, in 2003, Blue Bell became one of the first to produce a line of Hispanic flavors, including such popular treats as Dos Amigos, Fiesta de Frutas and Tres Leches con Pina y Coco, in what it calls the Southwest line.
The company also has a knack for flavors that are simple without being dull, and down home without seeming old school.
For instance, Sundae's Best, introduced this year is a vanilla ice cream with three soft swirls: Chocolate fudge, strawberry and pineapple. And one of the biggest hits in 2004 resembles one of ice cream's oldest and most popular flavors with one missing ingredient.
"The Great Divide is just Homemade Vanilla on one side and chocolate on the other," says Director of Marketing Carl Breed. "Neapolitan has always been a popular flavor and we thought if people like a combined package of three popular flavors, why shouldn't they like a combination of the number one and number two flavors. "
Thanks in part to a clever name, and outstanding packaging design, Great Divide has joined a year-round line up of more than 20 flavors which includes three different vanillas, three different chocolates. Rotationals include Blueberry Cheesecake, Peanut Brittle, Key Lime Pie, Good Heavens!, and Wedding Cake.