Quest for efficiency helps Wawa free up plant capacity to broaden its manufacturing horizons.

Contract packaging is pretty common among fluid processors. You’d be hard-pressed these days to find a milk plant not running something for a certain Arkansas-based superstore chain or Seattle-area warehouse club.

But until just recently, most of Wawa Beverage Co.’s product was manufactured  for its parent company’s growing chain of popular convenience stores. So why get into co-packing now? “We have the capacity,” explains Jim Lee, Wawa’s director of dairy operations. “We spent the last couple of years on a kick of efficiency in machinery and manpower, and we found ourselves with all this capacity.”

Visitors to Wawa’s historic plant on Baltimore Pike in Delaware County, Pa., can see just what an achievement that is, in such a compact facility. “Creative engineering has crammed at least five fillers and associated equipment in a room designed for 3½ fillers,” says Kevin Peter, dairy plant manager. “If we ever have to replace our gallon filler, we’ll have to cut a hole in the ceiling to get it out.”

The Neoclassical-style building was built in 1929. Its façade has been declared a historic landmark, so any additions have to be made on the rear of the structure; the last additions to the front were storage tanks installed before the historic designation.

Processing operations are tucked inside the building on two levels, with office space on the top floor. As one enters the filling room, the door opens right onto a half-gallon line that runs plastic jugs of milk, tea, juices and drinks. Five other lines fill all beverages in plastic and paper containers ranging from half pint to a gallon; the newest is the half-pint plastic line, installed in 2007.

Federal rotaries with Portola cap feeders fill plastic, with Evergreen form-fill-seals for paper; there’s also a filler for 20-quart dispenser packs. Only the gallon line fills milk exclusively (tea is not offered in gallons).

Daily volume ranges from 80,000 to 90,000 gallons for milk and 50,000 to 100,000 gallons for tea, juice and drinks, depending on time of year. Tea and drinks are in greater demand April to October – 30% more than the rest of the year, Peter says – while milk outpaces non-dairy beverages during the school year. “We run a lot of school milk, so we actually run more milk than teas and drinks,” he says. “But during the summer months, teas and drinks far surpass milk.”

Bottles, crates and racks

Wawa purchases all of its bottles; rooms bracketing the filling area open off of truck bays for bottle deliveries and house descrambling and labeling equipment. “In the ’70s, we had a blow-molding machine, but the volume wasn’t there [to support making bottles in house],” Peter says.

At the end of each line, filled and sealed bottles of Wawa beverages are loaded into distinctive bright-orange plastic crates. The crates stand out not only because of their hue, but that they belong to only one owner; Wawa’s captive operation precludes invasion by other dairies’ crates as well as defections to other plants. Peter says Wawa’s new co-packing customer likes the crates – they’re easy to keep track of because of their color.

Finished and cased products head into the cooler, equipped with an automated storage and retrieval system, which can accommodate more than 106,000 cases. The system was installed in 2000 when the plant handled distribution of all products to Wawa stores. “But the company just grew too fast,” Peter says, explaining that distribution of non-dairy products is now handled from an off-site location.

UPC labels on each case are scanned on their way into the system, then again on their way out after they’re picked up. “We were the first to do that with individual cases [versus pallets],” Peter says.

Going into the ASRS, stacks of six cases are destacked and routed onto multiple levels of chain conveyors into specific racks. “Everything in this system is based on [multiples of] four cases, and each slot can’t be used again until it’s empty,” Peter explains. “But most stores don’t order in four-case quantities.” So products had to be reconfigured to better fit the system, with higher-volume items taken to a separate area of the plant for loadout.

Cases were used to hold 16 pints each, but in 2007, the plant started packing 22 pints in each crate, Peter notes. “That freed up 30% more storage space,” he says.

Eight truck bays serve the load-out area; stacks of crates are picked up by a fork truck with a grabber attachment and loaded onto route trucks. “Our stores get at least three deliveries a week, some of them every other day,” Peter says. “It’s a really tight system. Some stores, summer to winter, their volume will fluctuate up to 60%. In the summer, we set up special delivery sites on the [South Jersey] shore for tea and drinks just to keep the shore stores stocked.”

Batch to basics

The plant’s two receiving bays take in a dozen tankers of milk each day except Sunday, along with a daily load of liquid sucrose; a truckload of orange juice concentrate arrives every week to 10 days. The plant ships out tankers of pasteurized cream to a company that co-packs Wawa-branded cream products.

Raw milk comes from farms in the Land O’Lakes and Maryland & Virginia cooperatives, most of them in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster and Chester counties, with some milk coming from Delaware and eastern Maryland, Peter says. All milk comes from cows not treated with rBST.

After passing lab tests, raw milk is offloaded into three 30,000-gallon silos. Four 10,000-gallon, two 30,000-gallon, one 8,000-gallon and two 3,000-gallon tanks hold pasteurized milk and cream, while eight 30,000-gallon tanks and two 10,000-gallon tanks store finished juice, tea and drink products waiting to be bottled.

There are four CIP systems, with the dairy and non-dairy systems segregated. Batching for flavored milk and drinks is done in two 3,000-gallon tanks, with milk done first each day.

The batching room presented a challenge for the plant’s engineering team, Peter explains. “Our biggest dilemma was getting flavorings out of these drums. Our concern was that if we had to lift these drums to empty them into the liquefier, someone was going to get hurt,” he says, relating how the in-house crew designed a pump using off-the-shelf parts. “It can empty a 55-gallon drum in 30 seconds. Now, if we need any special equipment, I just tell the guys.”

Wawa bottles skim, 1%, 2% and whole milk, plus 1% chocolate and strawberry milk, plus heavy cream and half & half. Non-dairy beverages include orange juice, pomegranate-cherry juice, lemonade, orange drink, fruit punch, tropical citrus punch and kiwi strawberry, along with a dozen regular and diet tea varieties.

Wawa’s work week starts on Sunday evening, when processing is initiated. Bottling begins by 6 a.m. Monday, with two, 10-hour shifts running through Saturday. A maintenance shift winds up in the wee hours on Sunday morning.

Everybody's job

“Technologically-speaking, we are pretty run of the mill,” Peter says, with Allen-Bradley process controls and Seiberling Associates software. “Each filler has its own touch screen. We have the ability to monitor how they run according to warehouse needs.”

The system also tracks tank hours, HTST runs and times and system changeovers. “It allows us to track and improve on efficiency and learn from what we could have missed while it was happening,” Peter says.

Future projects include a new CIP (clean-in-place) system for the rotary fillers and a new cooling system for orange juice concentrate.

The plant’s age and footprint present a number of challenges to production, Peter says, including tank space, room and zoning when working with an old facility and a housing-friendly community. “We have to reuse tanks as often as possible to expand our product line, and create runs and run days to minimize changeovers and empty tanks faster,” he says. “The plant is 80 years old this year and has evolved from making cottage cheese, butter, sour cream and fluid milk to concentrating on fluid milk, juices, drinks and tea. We went from cold milk separation to hot in 1994 and have segregated our drink system from our milk system with designated lines and CIPs within the last six years.”

Food safety is a top priority at Wawa, which has established quality standards exceeding PMO for temperature, wash tag and bacteria. Before unloading, each raw milk tanker is checked and tested for, among other criteria, unbroken seals, foreign material and aroma.

After unloading, additional samples are tested again to indicate the presence of bacteria. Test results are shared with milk suppliers to assure continuous improvement. Past holding tanks are monitored for temperature, and butterfat content is verified before the tank is released by QA for bottling. Lab analysts monitor the milk by testing and sampling while it’s being bottled. Samples are held and tested through the end of shelf life to assure compliance to standards.

“QA is everybody’s job,” says Jeffrey Maiatico, quality assurance manager for the past two years, noting that Wawa is moving toward SQF standards. “It’s an attitude that prevails here – everyone takes quality seriously. You can have all the systems you want, but they’re only as good as the associates that execute them.”

Wawa’s internal auditing program includes thrice-daily GMP shift audits. Suppliers are audited by QA before initial purchases and periodically thereafter.

In the event of a recall, Wawa employs an automated system that sends e-mail and voice messages to each store.

Worker safety merits comparable attention. Employees, who are trained annually on all OSHA mandates, run their own safety program. “We pushed it down that far,” says Gerry Bonhage, facilities maintenance manager. “Their involvement is why we have such a good response to safety.”

The latest result of this program: a 54% drop in incidents last year over the previous year. “A lot of it is how well we respond to incidents as a management team,” says Craig Faragalli, transportation manager. “There’s a very quick response from all the departments to get the problem corrected.”

Employees are at ground zero for making improvements in plant operations. “The associates help us do that,” Bonhage says. “We lay out the blueprints and they look at how we can smooth things out, because they’re working on it every day.”

That’s something most folks at Wawa Beverage can say, from the top down; Bonhage says at least half the managers have worked their way up from line operators. Kevin adds: “Only a handful of people have been here less than five years.”

That goes a long way toward establishing a sense of family at Wawa. “It’s not just a job,” says supervisor Josh Wiker. “We all know each other, are comfortable with each other, joke with each other.”

And that camaraderie extends from the break room to the plant floor. “All the departments work well together,” Faragalli says. “They have respect for each other. It makes it easier to accomplish tasks we need to accomplish.”

At a Glance: Wawa Beverage Co.

Location: Wawa, Pa.
History: Built 1929; major additions in the 1960s, late 1970s and 2000.
Size: 187,000 square feet, encompassing processing and warehouse space.
Employees: 300
Products made: Fluid milk, fruit drinks, teas and juices.
Total processing capacity: 60 million gallons annually
Pasteurization: HTST, two units totaling 12,000 gallons per hour.
Filling lines: Five fillers for plastic gallons, half gallons, quarts, pints and half pints; one FFS for half-pint and 4-ounce paper cartons; one 20-quart dispenser filler.
Storage capacity: 93,000 gallons raw milk; 114,000 gallons pasteurized milk; 260,000 gallons drinks, teas and juices; 5,500 gallons orange juice concentrate; 10,000 gallons liquid sucrose; 380,000 gallons cooler (106,000 cases).

The following are among Wawa Beverage’s key suppliers: 

Allen Flavors
Ball Corp.
Consolidated Plastic Co.
Forbes Chocolate
Gamse Lithograph Co.
KDV Label Co.
Louis Dreyfus
Portola Packaging
Seiberling Associates
Sensory Effects