Hands-On Process
by James Dudlicek
Automation is aimed at enhancing, not replacing, the human element at Carvel’s Jessup, Md., ice cream cake plant.
IIt’s not quite like in “I Love Lucy,” where the candy comes whizzing down the conveyor belt at a breakneck pace.
But the decorators at Carvel’s ice cream cake plant in Jessup, Md., do wear caps and smocks, and they perform their handwork with speed and precision as cakes progress quickly down the line.
“Automation will slowly come. It always does,” says Tim Shanley, vice president for manufacturing and R&D. “But I think it’ll never be automation as the word at its extreme implies. It will be what I term ‘mechanically assisted.’ We’ll move toward a Henry Ford model of ‘product move, people sit.’ Right now, we have ‘product sit, people move.’ So, improving efficiencies and semi-automating is definitely coming.”
The importance of handwork in decorating Carvel’s made-to-order ice cream cakes is what sets the Jessup plant and the company’s two other manufacturing facilities apart from most other food plants. The three facilities collectively employ about 300 associates at seasonal peak to hand-decorate more than 6 million ice cream cakes annually.
All Carvel product lines except for the Flying Saucer sandwiches are produced in Jessup, as well as others that are finished at other sites, accounting for more than 70 SKUs of finished goods and 30 intermediates. Thirteen teams of decorators per shift produce upwards of 15 items per day.
“This supports our fresh, handmade brand equity, and allows us to run a very tight made-to-order production model — 21/2 days from production to route truck, and five to seven days from production to store shelf in core markets,” Shanley says. “Our associates are the most critical element to our success — they are the hands in maintaining our fresh, handmade equity.”
Helping Hands
The past few years have seen many improvements at the Jessup plant, which employs 180 people at its seasonal peak on two production shifts with a third for sanitation and shipping/receiving. Now at about 33,000 square feet, the plant was only about a quarter of this size when it opened 12 years ago. It had only grown to 11,000 square feet less than three years ago, by the time Carvel parent company FOCUS Brands entered the picture.  
“The new management team quickly realized we were limiting our growth, hindering our high-quality competitive advantage and probably wasting money to boot,” Shanley says. “As part of the new supply strategy, we consolidated six facilities into three, and made Jessup the engine of manufacturing, tripling the size of this location by building a more modern associate facility, and implementing financial and quality systems.”
The result: Per-piece costs dropped 20 percent while order fulfillment rose from 85 percent to 99 percent, and quality defects fell by 50 percent. “By simply getting out of our own way and providing associates with a quality work environment, we’ve improved both our top and bottom line,” Shanley says.
Infrastructure improvements included moving from a dozen simple machines for producing ice cream three years ago to a continuous automated freezer. Frozen storage space has increased fourfold; dry storage has increased threefold and helped lower inbound costs by 10 percent due to direct shipments of ingredients. Decorating has become systematic with the establishment of teams and critical control points. These efforts have allowed decorating capacity to be expanded by an additional 30 percent when needed. Plus, a packaging redesign — a box that locks the cake in place, so it can’t move even if turned upside down — has reduced in-transit damage and cut post-production scrap by 50 percent in the past year.
“Our biggest improvement has been around associate facilities, where we went from 2,000 square feet to over 7,000 modernized square feet equipped with wireless communication, state-of-the-art terminals and new furnishings,” Shanley says. “All of this has allowed us to achieve the results stated above, as well as increase the capacity of the site by over 300 percent from five years ago.”
Esprit Decor
The journey of a Carvel cake begins with ice cream mix, the same mix used at Carvel franchise stores, made to the company’s own recipe by Morningstar Foods and delivered in 220-gallon totes. “We go through about a tractor-trailer a day – about 18 to 20 totes,” Shanley says.
Mix is pumped into the flavor tank; the plant uses only chocolate and vanilla, creating other flavors on site as needed. From there, flavored mix is moved into two freezers, one each for chocolate and vanilla, and each equipped with a feeder for adding inclusions. “It’s very critical for us to control extrusion temperature and overrun. We are a low-overrun product,” Shanley says. “We also have the ability to add ingredients, ripples, fudges. It’s a very flexible system.”
Cake “blanks” are created using the same molds as the franchise stores. Vanilla ice cream is piped into the molds, followed by a special blend of chocolate crunchies added by hand, and topped off with a layer of chocolate ice cream. “The cake is made upside-down,” Shanley says, explaining that the ice cream and crunchies are layered in the molds, frozen, then inverted and removed. “Vanilla is always on top. White frosting wouldn’t cover a chocolate top.”
Various tests, including weight and overrun checks, are performed hourly, Shanley says. ”The critical test is temperature,” he says.
Filled molds pass through one of two liquid nitrogen tunnel hardeners, freezing the cake blanks at -150 to -200 degrees F for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the cake.
Emerging from the tunnel, the frozen blanks are released from the molds with a quick tap by an associate. “We used to have eight people on this operation [demolding] when [the plant] was smaller and cramped,” Shanley says. “Now it’s efficiently run with two to four people.”
The used molds are washed, sanitized, dried and stored for reuse. There are enough molds on hand for four hours of continuous operation, Shanley says.
Cake blanks to be decorated at Jessup are stacked in plastic totes for movement to the decorating area; blanks headed to another location for finishing are packed in corrugated boxes. “This item technically has a one-year shelf life,” Shanley says of cake blanks. “We use it within 10 days at the most.”
In the decorating area, 20 tables are manned by teams of two decorators each; every team has their own daily schedule. Two to six different cake models are made at each table, with 10 to 20 SKUs make in a single shift. Other associates keep the tables fed with ingredients as needed.
“They do all the steps – whiting, borders, confetti, lettering. They decide what each one is good at; they know how to work with each other well,” Shanley says, noting that at one time team members were assigned specific tasks. “This has worked out much better and they enjoy it more.”
Cakes are on the decorating floor for no longer than 20 minutes after leaving the hardener. They hit the floor at -20 degrees F and leave it for storage and shipment at no higher than -15, Shanley says. Three quality checkers go from table to table inspecting lettering and other details; each cake box is marked with the table number, time of production and other data to help trace any defects.
Meanwhile, the whip room churns out the cake frosting, making all the colors and fudges needed by the decorators. White is used most often, followed by blue, so these colors have dedicated mixing machines; other colors are mixes as needed in a third machine.
Coloring is mixed into liquid icing in 44-gallon pails; then the mixture is whipped and aerated with nitrogen for better stability and hygiene. “It makes a very consistent and small-size whip,” Shanley says.
Cakes are whited and bordered on a turntable at each work station, then placed in box for completion with lettering and other details. “We have special training for certain steps [like lettering specific messages],” Shanley says, “‘Happy Birthday’ being one of the most critical.” Carvel gives its retail customers guidelines for matching factory detailing so in-store bakeries can customize cakes with specific names or other messages.
Along with other recent improvements came expansion of freezer storage space. The original 800-square-foot, single-level freezer held 35 pallets; now at 3,800 square feet with a 350-pallet capacity, the freezer can handle about three days of storage.
“Controlling flow is more critical than space,” Shanley says, noting that about half the freezer capacity is for stock being held before shipment. “Our limiting factor is freezer storage. We’ve put in the infrastructure for decorating and people.”
All direct-sale distribution orders are sorted on bakery racks for ease of movement from loading dock to truck to grocer’s freezer. About 90 percent of the plant’s volume is loaded into tractor-trailer trucks at the plant and transferred at remote locations to smaller trucks for DSD delivery, which Shanley says helps control delivery time and cost. Some cakes go through a distribution center in Florida, which picks and delivers product on its own, he says.
Support System
With so much handwork a part of Carvel’s process, most plant improvements come in the form of making associates’ lives a little easier. “Our training is our technology, the infrastructure around the people,” Shanley says. “We spend the money on the infrastructure and let them do what they do. There’s no better ‘machine’ than these people.”
Shanley says the company has gone a long way to improve morale and working conditions over past two years, though existing conditions must have been favorable since the Jessup plant still counts its very first associate, Joanne Burton, among its best decorators. The work force is very diverse, he says, and about 60-40 female to male.
Safety efforts, Shanley says, have been a “monumental success” for Carvel and Celebration Foods, its manufacturing unit. “One of our greatest accomplishments in the past two years has been lowering our safety incidents by over 50 percent and improving our frequency rating from a 13 to a 6; the national average is 10,” he says. “We accomplished this by dedicating resources and implementing unique programs oriented to our highly manual process.” (Carvel’s Commerce, Calif., plant received a 2005 Dairy Industry Safety Recognition Award from the International Dairy Foods Association; see the special section starting on page 28.)
“Preventive maintenance is critical to any well-running facility,” Shanley says. “The biggest form of preventive maintenance for an associate is a safe environment; we are ‘maintaining’ our associates by improving their safety.”
The company has a full-time safety/risk manager who works closely with plant personnel and outside vendors to create programs best suited for the company. “For instance, we now have an incentive program that rewards all associates within a facility that goes incident free for a month with gift certificates,” Shanley says. “It immediately rewards the correct behavior in a form that is very relevant to the associate base. The response has been outstanding.”
Ensuring quality and safety of product is particularly important with the cachet of such a historic brand at stake. It has required Carvel to develop its own protocols and critical control points. For example, in decorating the company implements a screening program that uses transparent templates to ensure decorations are within standards, yet are not artificial or “cookie-cutter” looking.
Damage has been conquered with the aforementioned box redesign, but the company has little control over perhaps the biggest culprit of temperature fluctuations in distribution — the defrost cycle of grocery freezers.
But Carvel has taken steps to minimize its effect, by ensuring the smallest possible ice crystals are formed during production. “Large crystals cause freezer burn. Therefore, we have established processes that maintain a ‘deep freeze’ — highly maintained ice cream freezers, quick freezing in liquid nitrogen only, maximum dwell times during decoration and picking,” Shanley says.
The Jessup plant also employs all the expected quality, safety and micro programs, including a full micro hold without a micro recall of any type in five years. Programs cover a wide spectrum, including inspection of raw ingredients, certification programs for vendors and co-packers, adherence to good manufacturing practices, HACCP programs, in-line inspections and third-party audits. Every program has been re-evaluated in the past two years and constantly monitored.
In-house auditing includes daily pre-operational inspections, quarterly third-party audits, regular audits by city, state, federal and military authorities (the latter for supplying military commissaries and exchanges). Suppliers are audited by the director of quality assurance and scored on criteria including incoming materials control, plant facility/in-process control, hygiene, food safety and laboratory practices. To be certified as a vendor, suppliers must score at least 85 percent and show no deficiencies that could cause product contamination, adulteration or failure of a critical control point.
“One of the benefits of having our own DSD system is that we have hundreds of quality ambassadors — route drivers, supervisors — on the front line making sure nothing gets to the consumer we don’t want,” Shanley says. “In the past 18 months, the volume of returned product from these ambassadors has dropped by over 50 percent. In addition, consumer complaints have dropped by 25 percent.”
Moving Forward
Even as technology continues to beget automation, Carvel’s mission to deliver unique, made-to-order products is best served by people, which company managers consider the best machines money can buy.
“As we grow nationally, the capital prohibitiveness of it will start to go down,” Shanley says of mechanization. “Inventing machinery that can maintain a hand look will be something you’ll want to look into. Some form of automation will come; we already have prototypes at some of our other facilities. Do I envision a day where there’s an inscriptor making ‘Happy Birthday’? Maybe way down the road. I know some of our competitors have looked into it, put in hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment, then ripped it all out. You just can’t get look or the quality that you can with people.”
Craig Hall, chief operating officer of Celebration Foods, says automation would take Carvel away from a core part of its success, not to mention the flexibility that handwork can offer.
Carvel also customizes some products for customers, and “it would almost be impossible to automate that,” Shanley says. “This model works very well for us, and I think it will be tweakings of this model that make us more efficient.”
Currently, Carvel is implementing systems and infrastructure that will drive efficiencies and embed a “manufacturing is a science” mentality. In all, the company reports spending more on plant improvements in the past two years than in the previous seven years.
To maintain high quality, a made-to-order approach and quick, efficient distribution, Carvel is in the process of starting up systems and procedures that will help to maintain a made-to-order environment with minimal mistakes and maximum efficiencies. The company has employed new processes from inventory control to a new state-of-the-art, real-time scheduling system.
Challenges for the future include keeping manufacturing infrastructure ahead of demand and maintaining a quality employee base to protect brand equity.
“We have laid out an aggressive growth plan for the business, and now we have a corresponding manufacturing strategy to support that,” says Steve Romaniello, president and chief executive officer of FOCUS Brands. “It includes major expansions out west, spot expansions at our existing sites and building partnerships with key suppliers. Specific to Jessup, the improvements we’ve made the last 18 months have positioned the site for future volume.”