YoCream International has amazed financial analysts by shrugging off the latest recession with double-digit growth, and the company’s operations team has impressed management by keeping up with it all.

In fact, YoCream’s single plant in northeast Portland, Ore., still has plenty of room to grow.

“Our latest investment in the plant has brought us to 35% capacity, maybe 50 to 55 during peak times,” says Chief Executive Officer John Hanna. “We’re positioned to respond to continued growth in the industry.”

YoCream is constantly investing in plant enhancements to keep up with sales for its frozen yogurt and beverages, which have doubled in the past three years. “We’re always looking at what’s going to come,” says Issam Khouri, director of manufacturing operations. “We just finished an expansion last October. We don’t wait until we get the business to expand; it takes 6 months to a year to build.”

This latest expansion, within the plant’s existing footprint that hit nearly 76,000 square feet after a major construction project in 2007, included new pasteurizing and fermentation capacity, as well as a new half-gallon filling line that allowed YoCream to double its output of frozen yogurt mix for Costco and other high-profile clients. Plus, the company recently leased 40,000 square feet of dry storage a couple blocks down the street from the plant, providing space for truckloads of ingredients and packaging that are more cost-effective than the smaller batches the company previously had been able to purchase.

Culture klatch

All of YoCream’s milk comes from Safeway’s dairy in Clackamas, a suburb of Portland about 20 minutes south of the plant. “All milk comes to this plant already pasteurized, but we pasteurize it again when we make the yogurt,” Khouri says.

After passing labs, milk is offloaded into two receiving silos with a combined capacity of 20,000 gallons. Three other receiving tanks totaling more than 30,000 gallons take loads of fructose and sucrose.

Recipes take shape in the blend tanks, where liquid ingredients measured by gallons are combined. “We bring in all the liquid we need, blend it, test it and pasteurize it,” Khouri explains.

From the pasteurized storage tanks, with a combined capacity of nearly 100,000 gallons (three new 12,000-gallon tanks were added last October), the mix goes to the 13 flavor vats, where specific recipes are completed and sent to various lines all over the plant. In all, 13 flavor tanks ranging from 500 to 1,000 gallons contain the bases for various dairy, non-dairy and fruit-based treats.

“We have a special tank for yogurt incubation because we make fresh yogurt every day,” Khouri says of the process that takes six to eight hours. “We do the fermentation in house; we grow it from scratch to get high-count yogurt. We make the base and then blend them to make different yogurts for different products. Of course, all culturing is done after pasteurization in order to maintain the high culture counts that characterize our products.”

Over the past four months, YoCream installed new incubation tanks to handle increased demand – four tanks each holding 3,000 gallons of yogurt. “We still have room to add more,” Khouri notes while passing through an open area of the plant designed for future expansion.

Khouri notes that all processing functions are computer controlled and accessible at touch-screen computer workstations. The entire plant can be run from any station, and a Logix computer system allows remote round-the-clock access. “We can control anything from online at home,” Khouri says. “We used to have to drive in whenever there was a problem.”

At the core of YoCream’s packaging operation are two Evergreen half-gallon form-fill-seal machines, one just recently added to double the plant’s capacity to 200 half gallons per minute. Yogurt mix is filled as a liquid into the gable-top containers, then frozen for shipment, to be thawed by the end user.

Some of those cartons of mix coming off the line carry the Kirkland brand name, since the Costco warehouse club store chain, based near Seattle, uses YoCream’s yogurt in its food courts. After being sealed, the cartons pass through a metal detector before they head into the case packer and are whisked off to frozen storage.

Meanwhile, an aseptic filler handles dairy and fruit products. “We do a double check to make sure there’s no contamination between runs,” Khouri says. Used to fill plastic bags of mix for foodservice beverage dispensers, this filler handles half-, 1-, 3- and 5-gallons containers. Packaging for this filler must be sterile, so the bags are irradiated for purity.

A new high-acid system fills non-dairy products, such as fruit toppings for foodservice use. This line handles gable-top cartons ranging from 8 to 32 ounces.

Two lines fill carbonated and noncarbonated frozen beverages including the Jolly Rancher-branded products, in plastic bags ranging from a half gallon to 5 gallons. A dedicated 15,000-gallon silo holds sugar unique to these products.

Most finished products (other than aseptic items stored at room temperature) wind up in the cooler, which is made up of three separate rooms, including a flash freezer. The flash freezer’s climate is monitored to save energy; when products are hardened, they are moved to another room in order to minimize use of wind chill-inducing fans, which require a lot of power.

In addition to 1,500 pallet spaces (3.5 million pounds) of freezer storage, there’s room to store up to 250 pallets of fresh product, Khouri says. “We flash-freeze here and ship to outside storage,” he says, noting it takes up to four days to bring products down to zero degrees. “From outside storage, it goes to distribution centers and brokers. … We ship to destinations throughout the U.S. and to Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Australia, Mexico and Italy.”

Ambient storage provides space for products with up to 1-year shelf life, including aseptic fruit products, syrups, and the new smoothie product for Jack in the Box. The company also recently leased 40,000 square feet of dry storage a few blocks from the plant. “We store our powder and packaging there and bring it here as we need it,” Khouri says.

The plant’s 3,400-square-foot refrigerated shipping dock features four truck bays and two turntable pallet wrappers.

Since it was built in 1987, the plant has gone through at least two major expansions, in 1999 and 2007. The ’07 project added 7,000 square feet of production space, 10,600 square feet of freezer storage and a new QA lab. The recently added processing capacity required a new condenser, which was installed about 8 months ago and pushed the plant’s ammonia use from 200 to 500 tons.

Safer and safer

Food safety procedures at YoCream are constantly being reviewed and updated, and SOPs go well beyond minimum requirements.

For example, even though “raw” milk arrives already pasteurized, it’s put through the same tests as if it came directly from the farm, Khouri says. Products in process get the same attention.

“Every batch we make, we test again to be safe,” he says, noting that all tests are done in-house except for pathogens, which are sent to an off-site lab. “The lab takes a sample from each line, no matter what size batch or if the same tank is going to two different lines.”

YoCream is in the early stages of implementing the GSSI-approved Safe Quality Food program, which was requested by at least one customer, according to Dr. Ted Whitehead, food safety and quality assurance manager, a certified SQF practitioner.  “This additional certification program will help keep YoCream on the leading edge of food safety. We have done a lot of review and updates,” he says. “Our HACCP plan is under constant review, especially with changes in ingredients.”

Five plaques proudly display ratings of “excellent” on third-party food safety audits. YoCream is also kosher certified through the Orthodox Union.

“We have metal detectors on every line to make sure nothing goes out to the customer except yogurt,” Khouri says, noting the devices are sensitive enough to catch particles so small that most customers wouldn’t notice even if they consumed them.

Mock recalls are performed at least annually; others are done at the request of auditors, Whitehead says. Finished products undergo standard tests, and the plant is monitored for Listeria every two weeks. Ultimately, nothing is shipped from the plant without a green light from QC, Whitehead stresses.

Further, a High Jump warehouse management system is expected to be installed soon as “another way to ensure nobody mispicks a pallet,” Whitehead says. “It will allow us to track things much faster.”

While YoCream continues to keep up with demand as it grows into its plant capacity, a second plant someday is not out of the question, if growth continues at its current pace.

“Utilizing our capacity has helped fuel our growth,” Hanna says. “We enjoyed healthy margins, even during that time [recession]. Of course, with continued growth, it might be a consideration.”  


These companies are among YoCream’s key suppliers:
Anderson Instruments
Cannon Equipment
Dairy Conveyor Corp.
Ever Fresh Fruit Co.
Evergreen Packaging
GEA Niro-Soavi
Gerkens Caoco
International Paper
Lucerne Dairy
Pacific Fruit
Pearson Packaging Systems
Perma Cold Engineering
Rapak Asia Pacific
Statco Engineering   & Fabrication
Tate & Lyle
Tillamook County Creamery  Association
Virginia Dare
Vita Pakt

AT a glance

YoCream International
Location: Portland, Ore.
Year opened: 1987
Size: 115,000 square feet
Employees: 115
Products made: Mixes for soft-serve frozen yogurt, ice cream, frozen custard, sorbet, ices, chilled juices, smoothies, fruit concentrates.
Processing capacity: Up to a half-million pounds in an 8-hour shift.
HTST: Two @ 2,400 gallons per hour.
Packaging: Half-gallon gable-top, ESL gable-top (8, 10, 16, 32 ounces), aseptic and fresh bag-in-box, frozen beverage syrup.
Storage: 20,000 gallons fluid milk; 97,000 gallons pasteurized; 18,000 gallons finished yogurt; 30,000 gallons sweeteners; 10,600 square feet frozen.