Jim Carper  
Chief  Editor

Euclid Avenue runs east from downtown Cleveland and out to the University Circle neighborhood and the famed Cleveland Clinic medical center. The boulevard is dotted with abandoned buildings and empty lots. But there are signs of redevelopment here and there. While other businesses have shut down or left, an ice cream processor remains committed to the MidTown area.

Pierre’s Ice Cream Co. has been operating within three miles of its current location since it was founded in 1932. In 1995, Pierre’s built a 56,000-square-foot headquarters office and distribution center to the west of the plant. In September 2010, the independent ice cream processor broke ground on a 35,000-square-foot manufacturing facility on its campus. Remarkably, the new $9.2 million plant was operational in just 10 months. Before shutting down the old plant, Pierre’s increased production so it had enough product in the warehouse until the new plant was up and running.

The new, one-story factory replaces Pierre’s former 34,000-square-foot production building located nearby on Carnegie Avenue, which was built in the 1920s and acquired through mergers and purchases.

With the new facility, the ice cream processor has increased its manufacturing productivity and potential output. The move positions the company to grow by making more of its own brands and to handle additional co-packing accounts.

The new plant was designed to ensure food safety, increase efficiency and promote sustainability, says chief executive officer Shelley Roth, who points to several improvements in equipment and processes, including:

• New and energy-efficient automated production equipment, including a flash-freeze spiral hardening system that enhances freshness and quality

• Special paneling, floors and equipment to maximize food safety

• New stainless-steel holding tanks for liquid ingredients

• New flavor tanks, mixing equipment, piping, pumps and filling equipment

• New conveyors

• Energy-efficient construction practices to manage energy consumption

The Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper reported that at the ribbon cutting this summer, Roth said her late father, Sol Roth, would be thinking: “Are you crazy? What do you think you’re doing? Do you know how much ice cream you’ll have to sell to pay for this?”

Taking the tour

When Dairy Foods toured the new facility this summer, plant manager Tom Settle explained that he runs 10-hour production shifts from Tuesday through Friday. The other three days of the week are devoted to additional maintenance and cleaning projects. Pierre’s makes ice creams, frozen yogurts, sorbets and sherbets for retail and foodservice accounts.

Three milk silos hold 4,000-6,000 gallons each. Pierre’s built the silos on the outside of the building so they would not take up space on the production floor. (Silos were inside the former production building). The silos feed five milk tanks that are accessible from alcoves inside the building. Each alcove is clearly labeled with a number and a letter.

Milk arrives several times a week from local sources. Pierre’s uses the high-temperature/short-time pasteurization process on the milk. All other raw materials are also pasteurized before use. Allergens are labeled by vendor and with an internal label. They are stored in a designated area.

Suppliers must meet Pierre’s rigid supply chain quality procedures. Certificates of Authenticity must be in hand before the ice cream processor accepts deliveries.

“We work hard to source the freshest ingredients from the very best suppliers,” Roth says. “Each and every cookie, brownie, candy, chocolate chip, berry and chunk earns its place in a Pierre’s recipe following a meticulous evaluation process.”

At the beginning of each shift, operators consult a flavor start-up list so they know what is being made and which cups and lids are required at each filling station. Pierre’s also co-packs for retailers and private-label clients. (The company’s ice cream sandwiches and frozen novelties are manufactured by another processor. Pierre’s sources from suppliers who share its requirements for food safety, ingredient quality and kosher certification, Roth says).

Three batch tanks sit in a separate room. Dry goods are added to a liquefier, then pasteurized and homogenized. From the flavor vats, mix is pumped at 20°F to any of the six new freezers on the manufacturing floor. The freezers are outfitted with touch-screen controls. Recipes, now stored in a database, can be called up on any touch screen. This is a manufacturing improvement, resulting in a more consistent product and one made with less waste of raw ingredient materials, says Rick Zenobi, vice president of finance. Mix from the freezers flows to the fillers. (Inclusions and ribbons are added before the filler).

Flexibility in manufacturing was central to the design of the plant. Pierre’s fillers are on casters so they can be easily connected or disconnected from the freezers and rolled to various production lines, depending on what’s being produced that day. The plant fills pints, quarts, 48- and 56-fluid-ounce scrounds and 3-gallon foodservice cans.

 After filling, lids are added by machine and the containers pass through a metal detector and code and date stamper. The ice cream packages move by conveyor to a wrapping station where an operator consolidates eight pints to a tray, which are then shrinkwrapped and stacked. Trays move on to the spiral hardening freezer where the temperature can reach -40°F. This is another improvement. The new freezer flash-freezes ice cream in less time than in the old plant. Faster freezing better preserves Pierre’s signature fresh and creamy taste, Roth says.

Product is loaded directly onto pallets after exiting the freezer and moved into the distribution warehouse. Again, this is an improvement over the old plant. The old factory had a static freezer that required two days until product froze to the required hardness. Then, after the ice cream was frozen, Pierre’s loaded partial pallets onto trucks for transport across the campus to the warehouse. The new plant eliminates this double handling.

The warehouse has a loading dock with six bays. Though most of the product is distributed in the Midwest, Pierre’s ships across the country and exports to customers in the Caribbean and southwest Asia.

Updating warehouse and sale technology

CEO Roth reads widely, including technology magazines. Zenobi says Roth will leave articles for him, asking about the applicability of certain technologies to ice cream processing or back office automation. One technology investment was in new warehouse voice-picking software that increased accuracy to 99.9% from 99.7%. That two-tenths of one percent improvement is meaningful and cost-saving, Zenobi says. The software reduces re-work and increases customer satisfaction because deliveries are more accurate.

The software is also easy to learn and use, which is important because of the seasonal workforce. Pierre’s employs summer help, usually college students, who master the system after one or two days of training.

“They are very good in three to four weeks,” Zenobi says. (With the old picking system, the learning curve might last all summer).

Pierre’s sales ordering systems allow customers to order from a delivery driver or a sales rep, from a website or over the phone. A proactive telemarketing department keeps an eye on customers’ ordering histories and makes sales calls, as needed.

Drivers use handheld devices to record customer signatures. This allows them to be paperless, something certain customers had requested. The devices can also be used as telephones. Sales reps have order-entry software installed on their cell phones, so that they can transmit orders from the field to the office. The software “helps them be more efficient. They can spend time merchandising the product in the store,” Zenobi says.

Over the last few years, Pierre’s purchased rack servers that have built-in redundancies, virtualization and uninterruptable power supplies. A VPN network with remote access allows the freezers to be monitored and controlled by an off-site technician.

Pierre’s designed the building itself, which was built by Fogg Construction, a Cleveland design-build contractor. Though not a LEED-certified green building, the plant does incorporate many of the practices encouraged by the organization Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Pierre’s used insulated panels to optimize heating and cooling. The plant’s process heat and process cooling is recycled to heat and cool rooms throughout the complex. Windows and skylights provide natural light on the manufacturing floor.

Many of the new technologies in the plant are computer-automated and designed to work together. This increases efficiency, reduces energy usage, maintains a consistent level of ingredients and allows Pierre’s to consistently achieve a creamy texture in its ice cream products.

All Pierre’s employees are fully trained and certified for their job responsibilities and participate in an annual safety review. Pierre’s also publishes a monthly “Scoop on Safety” newsletter to reinforce safety tips and procedures. Enhanced ergonomic features in the new layout and equipment include conveyors at comfortable heights for less lifting and an overall improved environment.

“We want to make our employees’ jobs better through automation and continual investments in technology,” Roth says.

Emphasis on food safety

Pierre’s is in the final stages of Safe Quality Foods certification.

“This will enable us to continue operating at the highest standards of food safety,” Roth says. “It is also a visible assurance to our customers that Pierre’s is committed to making the safest, highest-quality products available.”

HACCP procedures are refined every year. The company runs quality assurance tests in its lab and sends samples to a third-party lab. “Everything gets tested twice,” says plant manager Tom Settle.

Pierre’s prides itself on a “robust” HACCP plan and a thorough emergency contingency plan is in place.

“We have a very stringent vendor qualification program. Through our HACCP program, we created a robust vendor evaluation, and require high standards of our vendors. Internally, we uphold our HACCP program, and perform weekly and monthly self-audits,” Roth says. “We work with suppliers to ensure full traceability of products, ingredients and packaging, which is in full compliance with the food defense program.”

Pierre’s has one clean-in-place program for its raw processing operations and another CIP one for pasteurization. The mix room and the production room each receive a thorough washdown at the end of each day. COP tanks on the production floor clean implements and other accessories.

Pierre’s has an on-site lab where all incoming ingredients and finished products undergo general microbiological and organoleptic testing. Although basic microbiological testing is done on site, Pierre’s takes an extra step by sending samples to an outside lab for further testing. Multiple samples are taken at various stages throughout each product run. QC technicians look for proper taste, texture, color, consistency of mix-ins as well as a battery of microbiological tests. Testing is performed by Pierre’s own quality assurance manager with assistance from the plant manager, production manager, lead flavor man and a designated daily taste panel. The Ohio Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have jurisdiction over the manufacturing.

With a new manufacturing facility, better workflows, flexible lines and upgraded technologies, Pierre’s is in position to continue to grow its own portfolio of dairy foods, and to help its co-packing accounts succeed. 

AT a glance

Pierre’s Ice Cream Co.

Plant location: Cleveland

Year opened: June 2011

Size of the plant: 35,000 square feet

Number of production employees in the plant: 25, 85 total

Products made: Premium ice cream; light ice cream; no-sugar-added reduced-fat ice cream; lactose-free ice cream; frozen yogurt; probiotic frozen yogurt; sherbet; sorbet

Total processing capacity: 10 million gallons

Number of shifts: Two (one production shift and one clean-up shift)

Storage silos (number and capacity, if applicable): 3, from 4,000-6,000 gallons each

Pasteurization type/units/capacity: High temperature/short time

Number of filling lines: Two, with the ability to add a third.

Warehouse size: 40,245 square feet