Getting it Down Cold

by James Dudlicek
A unique product requires specialized handling at Dippin’ Dots’ Paducah, Ky., plant.
On the ingredient list at Dippin’ Dots: Ice cream mix, 41,000 gallons. Liquid nitrogen, 172,000 gallons. Oreo cookie crumbs, about 4 tons.
That’s just some of what goes into the weekly output of those unique flash-frozen beads of ice cream the company makes at its plant in Paducah, Ky., just across the Ohio River from Illinois.
Of course, the uniqueness of the product goes beyond how it’s made; it extends to how it must be shipped and stored to maintain its integrity. “We’re one of the few companies that has to warm up its ice cream to serve it,” quips Terry Reeves, corporate communications director at Dippin’ Dots.
Opened in 1995, the plant sits on a tract of nearly 16 acres in an industrial area near Interstate Highway 24. It encompasses about 70,000 square feet under roof, including a processing facility, cold storage and a kiosk erection shop where carts and stands for retail sales are built. The company also maintains a truck shop and storage areas at various off-site locations.
About 45 of the company’s 170 workers are employed in ice cream production, but that work force swells to almost double during the peak summer months.
Someone looking for a historical perspective at the plant might start a visit to the Dippin’ Dots production facilities at an indoor underground pit. According to Reeves, this cavity can hold 17,000 gallons of ice cream and keep it cold without mechanical help, an asset he says helped to keep utility bills low in the plant’s early days. Pallets of product were lowered into the pit with a crane.
“But life goes on and we outgrew that after a couple of years,” says Reeves, noting the pit was used up until recently to store some special flavors.
A dry-goods storage area is filled with ingredients and packaging materials for Dippin’ Dots products, which include ice cream, yogurt, sherbet and flavored ice. Among the ingredients are boxes upon boxes of Oreo cookie crumbs. Reeves says the company uses 33/4 tons of the crumbs every week to make Dippin’ Dots’ third most popular flavor, Cookies ’n Cream with Oreo. “Medium crunch” and “small crunch” grades are used depending on whether the ice cream is destined for bulk distribution or vending sales.
Nearby, in a roofed, open-air structure, specially designed reefer boxes are charged with carbon dioxide. Each case holds 360 gallons of ice cream; a four-day charge of CO2 keeps each shipment of Dippin’ Dots at –100 degrees F.
Production-wise, there are three temperatures important to the creation of Dippin’ Dots, Reeves explains. The frozen beads of ice cream are made with liquid nitrogen at –325 degrees F, they’re stored at the plant and retail locations at –40 to –60 degrees, and their optimum serving temperature is around –20 degrees. “It allows the dots to remain free-flowing but not stick to your tongue,” says Reeves.
Cool Runnings
During summer’s peak production months, three trucks from the Prairie Farms cooperative arrive at the Dippin’ Dots unloading bay each day with 15,000 gallons of ice cream mix.
All the mix arrives pasteurized, but “we classify it as raw until we pasteurize it ourselves,” says production supervisor Robby Heisner.
Samples are pulled from each truckload for a standard plate count and coliform testing, says lab manager Glen Thompson. “We’ll also take a temperature and viscosity test to ensure quality and consistency,” he says.
Mix is then pumped over to a storage silo, from where it goes on to be pasteurized later that evening for the next day’s production run. “Then it goes to storage tanks, and from the storage tanks it will be broken off to flavoring vats,” says Thompson. “From there the mix goes to the individual cryogenic processors, with sampling taking place at pasteurization, at the flavoring tanks and the finishing product — beginning, middle and end.”
On a typical day, Heisner says, the plant will run four bulk flavors (gallon bags), plus a line of 3-ounce prepacked pouches line and a precup line of foil-sealed single-serve cups. “It could be anywhere from four to six flavors made in a day,” he says. “We have the capability to make a few changeovers. We have made as many as seven flavors in one day.”
In fact, the production of Dippin’ Dots top-selling flavor — banana split — could be its own case study of efficiency.
“We’ll run a single flavor such as vanilla, and then at some point in the process, we can add banana, strawberry and chocolate into the processor and make a flavor change to Banana Split,” Heisner explains. “We also could be running a straight chocolate ice cream and add mint at some point during the day, to result in mint chocolate ice cream.”
But just where does the “magic” process take place that turns flavored ice cream mix into flash-frozen Dippin’ Dots? “After the mix leaves the flavoring vats and goes into the cryogenic processor, that’s when the dots are made,” says Thompson.
That magic happens in the super-secret production room, where clouds of cold vapor envelop the machinery and its operators. This is where that 45,000 gallons of liquid nitrogen (N2) is put to good use. Ice cream mix is introduced into the N2 to form the frozen beads, which are immediately packaged and whisked off to cold storage to await shipment on demand.
“We had two cryogenic processors when we moved in here, one that averaged about 350 gallons an hour and the other one about 175. Those were both used for bulk production,” Heisner says. “We now have four cryogenic processors for bulk production, and they average around 600 gallons an hour. We have a fifth processor that’s used for our prepacked production.”
On the prepack line, a roll of pouches is fed into the filling machine, which blows each pouch open with a puff of air. They’re filled with Dots, heat sealed and packed 50 to a carton.
Over on the bulk line, operators press a foot pedal that releases a cascade of frozen beads into a hopper for bagging. The gallon plastic bags are weighed and heat-sealed, then packed six to a carton.
“They’re sent immediately to the warehouse, where they are stacked and moved into the freezer,” says Heisner. “We don’t have to do anything special because they are so cold; it can sit for 35, 45 minutes before it even warms up enough to clump, especially if the room temperature is 20 to 40 degrees Fahren­heit. It’s so cold that it stays cold longer than any other product would. The dots come out of the machine at about –180 Fahrenheit, and after they’re packaged, they’re sent out to the storage freezer, where they ‘warm up’ to –50. It’s basically the opposite of what the other ice cream companies do — they send theirs to a hardening freezer.”
According to Reeves, the company has experimented with automatic package sealing, but the process actually turned out to be not as efficient as doing it by hand. The company plans to revisit such automation in the future, he says.
All cartons of product are taken by conveyor belts to the storage freezer, which can hold 180,000 gallons of ice cream at –47 degrees F. Opening the door to the foggy room, home to dozens of frosty pallet racks, lets in an updraft of warm air that causes snow to trickle down onto visitors below.
Ice cream is stored and shipped as needed to fill orders, says Reeves. Dots have a shelf life of two years.
The journey to the current freezer was an education process that began in 1997, when the company built the plant’s first above-ground storage facility, says Reeves. “We learned some lessons about insulation, how concrete is affected in a 60-below environment,” he says.
Ingenuity has been required in many aspects of production. “All of the processing and packaging equipment has to be specially adapted to withstand the extreme cold temperatures associated with liquid nitrogen,” says Heisner. “We are basically the only ones doing this. A lot of the equipment we design and build ourselves, or we modify other companies’ designs to fit our needs.”
Rime or Reason
Current facilities at the plant are the result of an expansion project that’s at two years and counting. The first phase has been completed, with a price tag of about $7.5 million.
“Two summers ago, we started looking at an expansion project. We knew we had to expand our production capacity and our cold storage,” says Connie Ulrich, vice president of finance and sister of company founder Curt Jones. “We ended up looking at some various alternatives but ended up splitting up the design phase into phase one and phase two. Essentially we have completed phase one, and for the most part we have that behind us. When we looked at the original design, we were trying to look out a few years. So now I think it’s not too far down the road before we see ourselves bump up against our capacity that we’ve set for phase one.”
The first phase involved beefing up the plant’s storage capacity for ice cream as well as raw and pasteurized mix, explains Tom Timmons, plant engineer. “After that was completed, we’re probably about 70 percent full on our storage, as far as the freezer is concerned. We still haven’t gone anywhere near capacity on our silo storage,” he says.
The six silos have a capacity of 20,000 gallons each, while the freezer capacity has been brought up to 230,000 gallons from 90,000.
“There’s actually two parts to this freezer,” Ulrich explains. “The second part, we’re using right now for a cold-storage staging area for loading ice cream.”
The two parts together would yield about 380,000 gallons of freezer storage capacity. “That would be what would be kind of down the road,” says Ulrich, explaining further construction will be done as need and finances allow. “When that happens, that will push the loading area out, and we’ll have to build another shipping warehouse on the other end of the plant. We did all the ground work in preparation for that to happen down the road, dug a water-retention area at the far end of the property.”
Phase two of the expansion deals primarily with increasing production and bringing more facilities in-house that currently are offsite, says Timmons. “None of that has started yet,” he says. “We have worked on beginning to automate all of our equipment in our production room and we’re just at the beginning of that.”
Still, the current facilities are a far cry from the company’s early days, when Jones and his family made Dots in a 400-square-foot garage. “The office area was about the size of my desk,” Ulrich recalls, referring to the desk in her current office at the Paducah headquarters.
Heisner names the plant’s new HTST pasteurization system as another recent key improvement, “We’ve gone from a capacity of 900 gallons an hour to 6,000. The new three-tank CIP system, too, has made a huge difference for turnaround in between production shifts, as well as the installation of the six, 20,000-gallon mix silos,” he says. “We’re able to run full-day production runs of up to four different types of mix. We have the mix storage for that, in raw and pasteurized form, and room for finished product as well. These are all advantages we didn’t have before these new items were brought online.”
Toeing the Dotted Line
Dippin’ Dots makes a fun product, but as in any food production facility, safety is serious business. Whether that’s safety for employees or the product itself, Dippin’ Dots has its bases covered.
“We have weekly safety meetings for all the employees in all departments. Each meeting is department-specific,” says Heisner. “We also, during the production safety meetings, have extra GMP training. Then each week, during those meetings, each new employee receives GMP safety training.”
The plant’s 45 production employees work on a single daily shift, followed by an evening cleanup and night sanitation.
Dippin’ Dots keeps close tabs on its suppliers, and takes extreme care in every phase of production. “We require letters from our suppliers stating any allergen concerns,” says Thompson. “We try to get the updated versions of the HACCP programs they have in place. We also have implemented a HACCP program here, and have spent the past four or five years getting that set up to where we do a lot of internal audits per department. We have several checklists that we go over for anything from unloading tankers to receiving product coming in, inspection of boxes, bags, things of that nature.”
The company performs internal audits and also hires outside firms to perform audits for HACCP certification. “The USDA comes in about every six months and does our inspections,” says Thompson. “The FDA comes in on a yearly basis to do an inspection. The Kentucky Board of Health comes in, generally prior to the USDA, and they will sample from us on a six-month basis — take product samples to the state lab for testing.”
The Milk Control Branch of the Kentucky Depart­ment for Human Resources also runs tests on the plant’s pasteurizer to make sure it’s calibrated properly, Heisner adds.
In addition, a St. Louis-based rabbi comes every two months for kosher certification, says Thompson. “For some international customers, we have an inspector come in and inspect the loading procedure,” he says.
Taking a Stand
The influence of the Paducah plant doesn’t stop once the Dots leave the premises. In order to maintain a consistent brand identity, the company maintains its own kiosk manufacturing facility.
Here, carpenters fabricate all Dippin’ Dots retail sales stands, from mall kiosks to mobile units for parks and fairs. The shop also turns out themed units for specific venues, like booths decked out in wood grain, trimmed with bamboo and sporting a thatched roof for a zoo concessions location.
According to Reeves, 80 percent of Dippin’ Dots franchise mall locations are a standard 10-by-10-foot, three-sided kiosk with a canopy sporting the company logo, pastel graphics and the trademarked slogan, “Ice Cream of the Future.” The rest are individual stores. Dippin’ Dots is also known for its hundreds of 4-by-6-foot mobile fiberglass carts found at theme parks, water parks, stadiums and other outdoor entertainment venues.
Freezer units installed within carts and kiosks are decorated with a graphics wrap. While these freezers are most often installed at retail locations, the company has fulfilled requests from a few luminaries who have become enamored with its products.
Reeves says the company recently installed a freezer in the home of Shaquille O’Neal when the NBA star asked for Dippin’ Dots to be served at a party for his kids. Joey Fatone of pop group ‘N Sync also asked for one to be installed in his “play room” at home, says Reeves.
“We try to look at very unconventional marketing methods,” he says. “You never know when you put one in place, who’s going to see it.”
Set For the Future
While making Dippin’ Dots has always been something of a high-tech process, the company has not always had the surroundings to match. After two years in founder Jones’ southern Illinois garage, the company still had a few steps to go before landing in its current surroundings.
“When we came to Paducah, we rented what was an old liquor store at about 2,200 square feet,” Ulrich recalls. “We remodeled the production area in there and rented it for almost six years. For the last two years of that time, we tried to get this property ready to go.”
Now, the self-proclaimed “Ice Cream of the Future” appears ready for the future, with strategic plant improvements that will allow facilities to expand as needed.
“We won’t do it until we have to,” says Ulrich. “If we’re at 70 percent of our capacity on the cold-storage side — and in the summer months we’ll fill that more than in other months — we’ll try to get by with that. I’m thinking we’ll want to get through next summer. It depends how much our sales go up.”
Meanwhile, the company is prepared. “The walls are up on the second half of the cold storage warehouse. The engineering and the earthwork, all that’s been done and ready to go,” says Ulrich. “But rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, we think of it in stages. We’re planning for growth. We just don’t know exactly when we’ll have to get to that point.”
Of course, as with most companies, space is a key issue. “Every time we offer new products, new flavors, it doesn’t take just that much more new storage. You actually have to allocate a little bit more room,” says Ulrich. “And it depends on what other products we come out with. I would say we would probably try to get through next summer with the existing cold storage unless our existing product offerings just go through the roof.”