Lucerne’s Arizona ice cream plant reaches out to Safeway’s nationwide store network.

Strawberry ice cream, speckled with chunks of fruit, fills the round cartons. To some, it’s just another batch of frozen treats coming off the line. But it’s another indication that store brands continue to grow in strength as consumers seek to stretch their grocery dollar.

Scheduled to hit the freezer cases of Safeway-owned supermarkets nationwide last month, batches of Lucerne Creamery Fresh were in production at the grocer’s Phoenix Ice Cream Plant in early March after four months in development.

“I think it rounds out our entire line,” says Jason Glover, the plant’s general manager. “It gives the consumer more choice and gives us the opportunity to compete in region-specific areas.”

Products that Safeway makes at its Phoenix plant are competing alongside national and regional brands all over the country, from Dreyer’s at Safeway’s Vons stores in Southern California, to Blue Bell at its Randalls locations in Texas, to Turkey Hill at Genuardi’s in Eastern Pennsylvania. “We ship all the way to the East Coast,” Glover notes.

How long is Safeway’s Arizona-made ice cream traveling to get to the chain’s outermost extremities? Four to five days to get to those Genuardi’s stores in the East, he says; Safeway and Carrs stores in Alaska get their frozen treats in about a week, after being trucked to the Port of Tacoma via Safeway’s Seattle distribution center, then loaded aboard a container ship.

The new Creamery Fresh line brings the total number of SKUs manufactured at the Phoenix plant to 300.

World-class processing

Cranking out products for an expanding product line requires a physical plant operating at peak efficiency, a goal the plant is constantly striving to better. “We always look to employ world-class manufacturing techniques. We’re really focused on mechanical uptime. This year, we’re targeting to be 85% or better mechanical uptime,” Glover says. “The sandwich line is the best-operating line in the plant. It’s at 90% efficiency on a period-to-period basis.”

That’s an achievement, considering the plant makes 200,000 ice cream sandwiches every day, in vanilla, Neapolitan, mint chip and cookies & cream. “The facility is constantly challenged by our consumer demand group on the retail side with product innovation,” says Randall Dei, Safeway’s director of dairy supply operations. “Product yield is measured daily and tools are in place to improve yields to improve costs.”

Individual sandwiches come off the Norse Dairy Systems sandwich filler and are wrapped and boxed. Boxes are sealed, passed through a metal detector and shrink-wrapped in bundles of six before heading to the freezer.

The new Creamery Fresh line comes in 56-ounce round containers at a time when the big national brands are moving toward a 48-ounce container. This Lucerne line is designed to compete against those category leaders as well as brands with strong regional followings, Glover explains.

Chris Blessington, the plant’s quality assurance supervisor, oversees a product cutting of six of Creamery Fresh’s eight SKUs. Glover says Kerry Sweet Ingredients was chief among the handful of flavor houses with which Safeway collaborated on developing the new ice cream line.

“We do a daily cutting every morning on the floor so the operators can see what they made the day before,” says Paul Knoebel, assistant plant manager. Glover explains that products are scored based on several criteria including quality and distribution of inclusions. “They get real-time feedback,” he says of line operators.

From the seven production lines, finished products go to either the polytray (for round and square packages) or spiral hardener (sandwiches, pints and pails) for up to five hours. At temperatures as low as -20 degrees F, the polytray hardener can hold up to 6,000 cases of product, while the spiral hardener may have up to 5,000 cases of product in it at one time.

Emerging from the hardeners, products are directed toward one of two robots for palletizing before staging in the 4,500-pallet-space freezer for shipment; up to 35 trucks are loaded daily. “If there’s ever any mechanical failure, we can divert to another robot without impacting production,” Glover says of the robotic palletizers, nicknamed Chilly and Willy. “From a throughput standpoint, every piece of equipment downstream will take another 5 to 10%, so there are no bottlenecks.”

Raw milk used to create the various mixes needed for the 300 different products made here is delivered by the United Dairymen of Arizona. After passing the standard battery of lab tests, milk is offloaded to the raw tanks before being pasteurized. Before HTST processing, ingredients such as skim milk powder, whey, cocoa and stabilizers are added, depending on the recipe needed. Following pasteurization, the mix goes to the batch tanks for additional ingredients per specific variety, then heads to the freezers (there are 12).

The entire process is automated, Knoebel explains. “We can, from any terminal on the floor, check on every area,” he says. “For example, we can check how much mix is left in the flavor vats.”

There are two separate dry-storage warehouses; the north warehouse stores plastic packaging and ingredients for HTST processing, while the south houses flavorings, shelf-stable ingredients and paper packaging material.

There’s been some “greening” going on in the storage areas, Glover says: “Last year, we converted 80% of this facility to motion-sensitive lighting to reduce utility usage.”

Relying on people

The plant was constructed in 1993 to manufacture novelties. Safeway acquired the facility in 2002 and, over the following year, stripped down the plant, wall to wall and floor to ceiling, and outfitted it with new equipment for its new life-making packaged ice cream and sandwiches.

“When they built this facility, they streamlined the process from receiving to shipping,” Glover notes. A glance at a map of the plant shows its linear flow, from raw receiving at the rear, to HTST, production, packaging, storage and shipping.

“When we built this factory, we built it to be state of the art,” Glover continues. “To date, there haven’t been any changes needed because we believe we have the best equipment around.” But there are some automation-related capital projects pending: “We’re looking at a couple big projects here to help drive labor costs down.”

These days, very little in food manufacturing is done without at least one eye on keeping costs down. “We look at every aspect to drive costs out of the process,” Glover says, including lean manufacturing tools, working with suppliers to keep costs in check, continuously monitoring waste and tracking output on a cost-per-unit basis. “We benchmark prior-year performance versus current year, making sure we’re truly driving out cost year to year.”

Another key focus, in the plant’s quest to improve mechanical uptime, is maintenance. “That’s been one of our main focuses toward world-class manufacturing,” Glover says. “When you come off a year like we’ve had [in manufacturing], you really have to focus on the details.”

Plant management also has improved its hiring process in the six years the facility has been in operation under the Safeway banner. “We’ve really stabilized our work force. We’re more selective about our hires. Our turnover is down to less than 20%,” Glover says. “Some of the core people we had in the factory [when it opened] are seasoned operators now. We’ve made the transition from good to great.”

As a part of that, “we went a whole year without any reportable accidents,” he notes.

“Our streak is 681 days without a reportable accident,” Knoebel adds, during DFR’s visit in early March (that number surpassed 700 by press time).

“Our programs and training are the cornerstones that build success within our facility,” Dei remarks.

Of course, food safety is a priority as well, and Glover says a testament to that is no Safeway frozen dessert products were involved in the recent peanut recall. “It validated we have significant controls already in place, so it was very easy to identify we were not part of it,” he says, crediting a combination of in-house and external audits and supplier partnerships as part of the plant’s HACCP-based safety program. “Everything coming in is checked against specs or COA. We do line checks every half hour that meet strict guidelines.”

In fact, plant protocol documents include up to 80 pages of daily checks on products at various stages of production, including microbiological, weight, melt and distribution of inclusions. Nothing gets to market without meeting these criteria, Glover declares: “Everything has my final signature on it.”

While Safeway prides itself on having the latest high-tech equipment in its manufacturing facilities, it recognizes the value of a skilled work force to truly make everything come together. “When you look at technology available to us and our competitors, what sets us apart is our people – their pride of ownership, their will to win, is what we base our operating philosophy on,” says Glover, who’s been with Safeway for his entire 17-year food industry career; his previous post was running the grocer’s milk plant across town.

“When you’re achieving world-class manufacturing, you’re never quite as good as you could be. Incremental gains get tougher. You rely on your people to really drive your business.”  

The following are among Phoenix Ice Cream’s key suppliers:

A&B Process Systems
Anderson Instruments
Berry Plastics
California Custom Fruits
Crain of California
Denali Ingredients
Fisher Nuts
Kerry Sweet Ingredients
Norse Dairy Systems
Pacific Fruit
Sensient Technologies
Sensory Effects
Southwest Nut Co.
Tate & Lyle
Tetra Pak Hoyer
WCB Ice Cream
Willamette Valley Fruit Co.

At a glance

Location: Phoenix
History: Built 1993, refurbished 2003.
Size: 112,000 square feet.
Employees: 80 on three shifts.
Products made: Ice cream, frozen desserts and sandwich novelties.
Capacity: 150,000 gallons per day (12 freezers).
Pasteurization: HTST, 3,000 gallons per hour.
Lines: Seven, for 56-ounce squares and rounds, 5-quart pails, pints and sandwiches.
Storage: Raw, 80,000 gallons; pasteurized, 150,000 gallons; freezer, 4,500 pallet spaces.