Turkey Hill’s Conestoga, Pa., plant keeps up with efficiency and new product rollouts.

It might be hard for some to believe the plant that makes the country’s fourth largest-selling premium ice cream brand started as a one-man milk-bottling operation more than seven decades ago.

But maybe that’s not such a big leap for those familiar with the Frey family, who through hard work, determination and commitment to quality products have built a company that brings a taste of Lancaster County, Pa., to folks in nearly half the nation. Here, atop the bit of geography that provided the company with its name and ancestral home, Turkey Hill Dairy processes some 78 million gallons of ice cream, milk and chilled beverages annually.

Lately the plant has been giving its all to keep up with the demand for one of Turkey Hill’s newest products: Duetto, a scoopable blend of ice cream and water ice in the same carton. The company sold 3.9 million units of the 48-ounce size Duetto since last year, according to Derek Frey, purchasing coordinator and fourth-generation family management (his father is Quintin Frey, company president).

Once the R&D folks got the flavor and consistency worked out, the operations team figured out how to get it all in the package. Separate lines bring the ice cream and Venice Ice from their respective continuous freezers up to the point of filling, where they’re swirled together as they enter the carton, Frey explains. Out of the rotary filler, the cartons are lidded, ink-jet coded and shrink-bundled in units of six cartons, then conveyed to the freezer.

Of course, the Duetto challenge wasn’t too difficult, since the Turkey Hill ops gang had already tackled a similar situation to package Banana Split, which features banana ice cream swirled with fudge, strawberry ice cream and chocolate ice cream with walnuts. The fudge ripple is pumped into the freezer full of banana ice cream, the walnuts are fed into the chocolate and they both meet the strawberry at the filler head.

All flavors are created in the flavor vats using either a white or chocolate base, which is pasteurized before flavors like vanilla and coffee are added.

Ice cream is manufactured six days a week on three shifts, Frey says. Frozen production encompasses five lines, ranging from fillers for 48-ounce cartons, which run at up to 50 cartons a minute, to the pint, small-cup and 3-gallon filler lines.

Turkey Hill started hand-packing ice cream on a small filler for home delivery in the 1960s. By 1980, the company added rotary fillers in anticipation of entering the retail market, and purports to be the first U.S. processor to use the round nest-style 64-ounce carton. Initial ice cream sales were 400,000 gallons a year.

By 1990, the company was expanding ice cream distribution into the Philadelphia and New York metro areas, and sales grew to more than 10 million gallons. A plant expansion that year added, among other things, a second ice cream hardener, more freezer storage, new material handling systems, a quality assurance laboratory and new loading docks to accommodate an expanded truck fleet.

Liquid assets

The fluid side of the business has seen similar improvements, especially with the significant growth in refrigerated iced tea sales over the past several years. Another major expansion in 2000 added refrigerated warehouse space, fluid processing and corrugated systems to supplement milk cases. This expansion also allowed use of bulk totes for dairy ingredients and computer-controlled batching systems in ice cream mix production. New corporate offices also were built that year, allowing management to move out of the historic family farmhouse.

Turkey Hill offers a regional fluid milk line, but the hot business is iced tea. There’s 434,000 gallons of tank storage on site for fluid products, of which 120,000 gallons is for milk, which comes from farms within a 30-mile radius, including the Frey family farm next door.

The newest tea line features a 30-valve Federal rotary filler for gallons and half gallons. Gallons run at 80 to 100 gallons a minute, while half gallons come off the line at up to 140 units a minute, Frey says. Another line fills 20-ounce bottles and pints at up to 200 units a minute.

Frey says Pennsylvania has historically been a strong state for refrigerated iced tea, and the brand is now taking off in new markets. “It’s always been a good seller. We were doing iced tea before anyone else really was,” he says. “It only got hot in the last five years. We’ve been doing it for 40.”

Plastic bottles are supplied in bundles, descrambled, labeled and conveyed to the filling lines. Filled bottles of tea and drinks are capped and cased – plastic cases for local customers, corrugated for more distant markets, Frey explains. The cold warehouse holds 18 to 36 hours of inventory, which is loaded out through the truck docks for DSD and warehouse delivery.

Keeping it running

Turkey Hill’s executive committee reviews all capital needs and prioritizes them based on urgency and measurements of internal rate of return and return on investment. “With expanding iced tea sales, additional SKUs and growing DSD business, additional warehouse space is being considered,” says Jim Hatfield, vice president of logistics and information services.

The company maintains its truck fleet in its own shop, and also custom-builds equipment as needed in its maintenance shop.

Lean manufacturing principals are applied to each filling line; the company is beginning to apply this system to processes in all departments. “The paper order-picking system in our warehouses was automated and tied into our customer order program,” Hatfield says. “Order accuracy improved dramatically when paperwork was replaced with a headset system that allows order picking and validating via a voice-recognition system.”

To enhance worker safety, Turkey Hill launched its Speak Up Program and developed a team of department trainers. “All departments are dedicated to safety improvements and adherence to safety policies,” says John Cox, executive vice president. “Each position is reviewed for ergonomic efficiency and safety improvements are made as necessary. For example, a drop-pallet system was designed and built in our frozen warehouse, allowing associates to build pallets at the same level instead of bending and having to build from the floor up.”

SOPs have been developed for most processes and procedures in manufacturing. Most 50-pound powdered ingredient bags have been replaced with 2,500-pound totes; most pails of drink bases and ice cream variegates have been replaced with drums and drum lifts. “We’re working on replacing pails of ice cream ingredient flavor bases and inclusions with totes and automated transfer systems,” says Tom Wright, vice president of marketing.

Allergen control has required a rethinking of how product is processed and packaged, Cox says. “Production scheduling has been dramatically redesigned; product changeovers have become much more complex, with many additional challenges related to down time, product waste and CIP/water usage/costs,” Cox says. “Growth of SKUs and increasing complexity of flavors required to continue market leadership adds to plant costs and inefficiencies. Lean initiatives have helped meet these challenges including changeover and washout times.”

Turkey Hill is in the process of developing a “Think Green” program, which will focus on conserving and reducing fossil-fuel use, as well as reducing waste in packaging and landfill needs.

The company maintains a fully equipped QA laboratory that’s staffed round the clock, with a full micro lab for testing all raw ingredients and finished products. “Petri film is used for all micro testing to reduce turnaround time and allow results before any product is shipped beyond our distribution control,” Cox says.

Micro testing and cuttings are performed for first- and last-off samples on all ice cream products. Full micro testing, butterfat/total solids and flavor testing are done for all fluid milk products and mixes. Retention samples for all packaged milk and drinks are held at 45 degrees F for full code life of the product.

“We build our quality in. Our line operators are responsible for front-line quality of packaged products including temperatures, weights, package integrity, codes, fills and flavor,” Cox says. “Our QA department provides process auditing and product sampling on a scheduled, consistent basis.”

QA performs GMP, sanitation and allergen control audits on a regular basis; all associates undergo periodic GMP training updates. Environmental sampling and testing is performed on a regularly scheduled basis.

“The company has a product-on-hold procedure that reduces the chance of below-standard product leaving the plant,” Cox says, “and a full recall program that ensures the successful recovery of recalled products if necessary.”

Annual vendor questionnaires are sent out to suppliers, requesting updates on ingredient specifications, production or process changes, HACCP programs, food-safety programs, allergen programs, GMPs, kosher updates and hold-harmless guarantees. Additionally, vendor plant inspections are performed as needed or backed up by third-party plant audits.

Turkey Hill also has a food-safety committee made up of senior manufacturing and marketing management that meets monthly to review all consumer complaints and complaint trends. “The committee helps to identify and offer corrective action,” Cox says, “for all consumer-related quality problems before they become a major issue.”

At a glance: Turkey Hill Dairy

Location: Conestoga, Pa.

Year opened: 1931, with expansions in 1935, 1948, 1954, 1980, 1988-90 and 1998-2000.

Size: 244,159 square feet on 22 acres.

Number of employees:  650

Products made: Milk, ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet, water ice, iced tea, fruit drinks, soft-serve mix, eggnog.

Total processing volume: 12.5 million gallons mix, 55 million gallons milk and drinks.

Pasteurization: HTST, three units for fluid totaling 16,500 gallons per hour; one for ice cream mix, 4,000 gallons per hour.

Number of filling lines: Ice cream – four rotary fillers for 48 ounce, one in-line dual-lane filler for pints, one in-line filler for small cups (4- and 8-ounce), one for 3-gallon bulk cans; fluid – four for gallons and half-gallons, one for 16- and 20-ounce bottles.

Storage capacity: Two @ 60,000 gallons milk, six @ 12,000 gallons cream, three @ 10,000 skim; ice cream – 14 tanks totaling 96,000 gallons plus two 2,000-gallon tanks for yogurt; other fluid, 12 tanks totaling 112,000 gallons.


The following companies are among Turkey Hill Dairy’s suppliers:

Allen Flavors
Cannon Equipment
Chr. Hansen
Consolidated Container Corp.
David Michael & Co.
Denali Ingredients
Flavors From Florida
HB Fuller
Great Lakes Corp.
Jamison Door Co.
Lyons Magnus
Portola Packaging
Rocket Products
Star Kay White
SWF Companies
Tetra Pak Hoyer
Virginia Dare
WS Packaging Group