Keeping Pace

by James Dudlicek
As demand for its new Pub Cheese flavors grows, Rondelé upgrades its Merrill, Wis., manufacturing plant.
Covering the spread — the phrase has its own meaning in the world of sports betting.
But when it comes to its gourmet cheese products, Rondelé Specialty Foods quite literally has its spread covered — that is, making sure the company’s manufacturing end keeps up with the growing demand for its wares.
Rondelé’s 55,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Merrill, Wis., makes the company’s extensive line of gourmet spreadable cheese products, in a multitude of flavors and in formats for practically every snacking scenario, for consumers and foodservice.
Hot items right now are Rondelé’s three new varieties of Pub Cheese, which combine cheddar cheese and other flavors with the company’s gourmet spreadable cheese. “We just added a whole new production line just for Pub Cheese,” says Bob Constantino, Rondelé president and chief executive officer. “The equipment is being moved in and installed in July.”
The plant also makes cream cheese on a limited basis, primarily for ingredient use by outside customers.
From Cow to Cracker
Rondelé receives up to 400,000 pounds of milk per week, all from local producers in north-central Wisconsin. Trucks are weighed in on a covered scale and offloaded in two receiving bays. Their contents are pumped into tanks for short-term storage; six silos are available.
Samples are taken at delivery for testing. Raw milk undergoes testing for presence of antibiotics, along with a somatic cell count and standard plate count, explains John Delago, vice president of operations.
Milk then moves on for pasteurization. Rondelé uses a high-temperature, short-time system. The plant has three pasteurization units with adequate capacity to handle the facility’s production demands.
“The current system is a replacement,” says Delago. “It’s an upgrade. About a year ago, we took everything out of the rooms, stripped out the floor, put in new 1-inch pavers through the whole area, and then brought in the new pasteurizer and re-piped the entire system.”
After pasteurization, the milk has cultures added before it’s separated, on its way to being made into Rondelé’s spreadable cheese and then combined with other ingredients to make various final products.
Making the spreadable cheese is a proprietary process that is different depending on the finished product for which it is being created, explains Delago. “The base is not universal,” he says.
Rondelé products are run continuously, as many as 12 flavors per day on the plant’s six packaging lines. Equip­ment is cleaned in place between runs of different flavors.
Of Rondelé’s numerous varieties, Garlic & Herbs is the No. 1 selling flavor regardless of format, says Delago. “It covers the whole spectrum, from foodservice to snack-pack portions,” he says.
The Merrill plant employs different types of fillers, depending on which product is being run. Fillers in use are form/fill/seal machinery that’s able to accommodate containers from a half ounce to 5 ounces, as well as equipment that handles preformed containers with fill sizes of 6 ounces all the way up to 80 ounces.
Once they’re filled and lidded, the containers move down the line for labeling. The type of label applied depends on the variety of product. Labels used are machine-applied plastic or paper affixed with adhesive. Paperboard cartons and sleeves are used to enclose plastic tubs. In addition to standard ingredient and nutritional information, Rondelé packaging features bold graphics with the lowercase ‘r’ corporate logo, and often includes suggested servings and recipes.
Although the standard case packing capacity for most of Rondelé’s products is 12 units per case, the casing amount can vary by product and, sometimes, customer demand.
Cased product is palletized manually, with the pallet pattern determined by the individual product. Rondelé’s cold-storage facilities have the capacity to store up to 600 pallets. The cooler is kept at a constant temperature of 36 degrees F.
Orders are picked manually and shipped out through the two loading docks located in the plant’s refrigerated warehouse. Size and frequency of shipments are dependent on the customer or distributor.
“We ship to most customers every week,” says Delago. “But we’ve seen the world change where inventory positions at retailers and warehouses are shrinking. Twenty years ago, whenever there was a promotion or something going on for a holiday, the retailers or distributors would take an inventory position and work off of that. Those days are absolutely gone.”
Delago says one of the company’s strengths is its ability to be responsive and flexible to meet customers’ needs. “Generally, all of our shipments are less than truckload,” he says. “Of course, volume is greater during peak seasons. Basically, we’re serving clients on a weekly basis.”
Changing Operation
Opened in 1970, four years before the Rondelé brand was introduced, the plant employs 68 people working on a single daily shift.
Since the plant began operations, it has undergone various renovations over the years to add the office, cooler and dry-goods warehouse. Product offerings emerging from this facility have evolved from the Rondelé dairy box format as its primary product to the deli cup spreadable cheese as the product of primary volume and focus.
Evolutions in technology and equipment have allowed Rondelé to make products in different formats and flavors, whether that’s the deli cups or the new flavors of Rondelé Pub Cheese that Constantino describes as “cheese with cheese,” versus cheese with added flavors. The completion of a dedicated Pub Cheese line this summer is expected to enhance production of the new varieties.
Outside the cheese itself, Rondelé continues to make packaging changes to maintain a fresh, clean look for its products. The newest packaging is the paperboard sleeve on the deli cups. Featuring full-color photography, the new sleeve depicts a variety of usages for Rondelé products. The design is intended to persuade consumers to increase their use of Rondelé products by consuming them in ways other than atop a cracker or other snacking medium.
According to Delago, the Merrill plant’s most innovative aspect is its extended shelf-life (ESL) technology. ESL gives Rondelé the ability to merchandise its products, made with all real dairy ingredients, out of refrigeration.
Rondelé has been selling shippers — self-contained display units — successfully for many years. Shippers create the opportunity for retailers to make money using floor space, rather than space on shelves or in traditional refrigerated dairy cases, to showcase ESL cheese products.
“It provides a merchandising opportunity separate from the refrigerated case,” says Delago. “You could find Rondelé free standing on an aisle. You could find Bagel Temptations near the bagel bins in a display unit. You could find Bread Essentials with the artisan bread in its own display unit, or you could find the 4-ounce Pub Cheese in the liquor department. You open it up, put it together and you’re good to go.”
ESL technology actually paved the way for the development of Rondelé’s Bagel Temptations and Bread Essentials lines. “Both are the perfect cross-
merchandising product in the bakery department,” says Constantino. “Retail­ers can sell more bagels and bread with the spread at a convenient reach,
creating an impulse purchase.”
Rondelé continues to make investments in packaging and production equipment, the next on tap to accommodate the growth of deli cups and Pub Cheese.
Safety First
At Rondelé, safety of its cheese products as well as its employees is a top priority.
“Our food safety measures start with raw material receiving, with inspection and testing procedures,” says Delago. “We have a documented HACCP plan for all of our critical manufacturing steps. This includes drug residue testing on incoming milk loads, pasteurization records, filter checks, metal detection and critical ingredient pathogen testing. We also maintain a library of all products produced, which is kept throughout the shelf life of each product and is regularly evaluated at expiration date.”
The company also has a documented trailer inspection program before any finished product is loaded and shipped.
Furthermore, Rondelé conducts regular in-house quality and safety audits. In addition to internal programs, the company takes steps to provide suppliers and customers with the added proof of external audits. Rondelé has received a superior rating from the American Institute of Bakers (AIB) for five consecutive years. Its plant is certified kosher on a monthly basis, and is annually recertified organic by Oregon Tilth.
Moving from products to people, Rondelé regularly cross-trains its employees in various duties. “There is a standard rotation of employees at various workstations throughout the day,” says Delago, explaining that it’s done with ergonomics in mind. “We are rotating the folks around the repetitive-motion tasks.”
Employee training programs start at the hire date and are reviewed annually. These programs include training for good manufacturing practices (GMPs), safety, lock-out tag-out, HACCP, confined space entry, plant security and sanitation.
Certified Proud
The folks at Rondelé say their company faces the same challenges as most other businesses, in particular the rising cost of doing business — factors such as the cost of raw materials, energy, insurance and continual efficiencies.
But that never stops Rondelé from demanding excellence, whether for products that carry its own brand name or for the private label products it also manufactures.
“We are a Wisconsin company. We use milk and cream from local suppliers,” says Constantino. “We are environmentally friendly. We have all the approvals we need to make our products safe. We have our own in-house lab. So we take a lot of pride and make extra efforts in making sure our products our safe. We’ve never had a product recall. In addition to doing our own testing on every batch we make, we send product out for independent testing and challenge studies on a regular basis. So we really stand behind our products to make sure they’re safe.”