On A Roll
by James Dudlicek
Processes designed for agility make Friendly’s ice cream cake production easy as pie.
John Zomermaand loves his work. It’s apparent in the way he bounds through the plant, eager to show off how he and his team have enhanced production, efficiency, sanitation or other process in some new way.
“See the people here?” says Zomermaand, vice president of manufacturing at Friendly Ice Cream Corp., bragging about the enthusiasm and pride of the work force. “Isn’t it amazing?!”
Of course, enhancing production is important for the Wilbraham, Mass.-based company, with a single plant to fill the ice cream and frozen dessert needs of 4,500 retail customers, not to mention a chain of some 515 Friendly’s restaurants throughout the eastern United States.
“In the summertime,” Zomermaand says of the ice cream industry’s peak season, “this place is busy 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
So that’s why Friendly’s values its tightly knit, long-tenured operating force, nurturing it with team-building activities to foster a closeness that’s “very atypical in today’s world,” he says. “We’ve got an employee group that’s absolutely phenomenal.”
Layers of Production
The journey from cow to Friendly’s cakes begins in a familiar way. Milk and other liquid ingredients arrive via the three-bay raw receiving area, one of the plant’s more recent additions. The plant receives 10 to 15 tankers of milk, cream and condensed skim milk each week from throughout the eastern United States. Morning farm pickups are processed by evening, Zomermaand says.
Each tanker must pass the routine battery of lab tests before unloading, and the milk is tested again in the raw tanks before use, to ensure it meets quality specifications, explains Martha Leyburn, director of quality assurance. Raw storage encompasses three tanks for milk, two for cream and two for condensed skim.
Mix is batched and HTST pasteurized before it heads off to be made into cakes, rolls or packaged ice cream. A computerized system linked to two 1,000-gallon batching tanks adds the ingredients by weight based on a programmed recipe. “It’s extremely accurate,” Zomermaand says. “If we’re shooting for a 12 percent mix, we’ll hit between 11.9 and 12.1 about 95 percent of the time. Both from a quality and cost point of view, it’s an important issue.”
The cake room is a closely guarded area in the plant, housing equipment that Friendly’s folks hope give their products an edge over competitors’ offerings in the marketplace. “This is an area that’s advancing in technology and it’s a competitive advantage to have what we have in here,” Leyburn says.
The line moves with precision. An operator places a cake mold on the line; the next one fills it with vanilla ice cream from an overhead hose linked to the freezer. A third employee adds a layer of crunchies from a funnel over the line, followed by another who adds the chocolate ice cream layer. The fifth team member on the line smoothes the ice cream even with the top of the mold, handing off to a co-worker who places the filled mold into a nitrogen tunnel in rows of three.
The molded cakes emerge rock hard and take a short trip down the belt to be iced. Each cake is hand-smoothed with a layer of icing, each batch whipped on the plant floor at point of use. A proprietary automated system applies icing rings and sprinkles to round cakes. 
Messages are hand-lettered; cakes are then boxed by hand, passed through a metal detector and sent to the freezer for storage and shipment. Cakes come in four sizes — 26, 60, 80 and 100 ounces — with a range of varieties in each size, including flowers and various special-occasion messages.
“We’re very proud of this area. We’ve come a long way,” says Michael St. Marie, vice president of production and distribution operations, explaining how the operation was moved from a former Ohio facility in 1999. “We’ve done an awful lot of good work over the past year to provide variety in the retail arena, which it really needs.”
While hand work continues to play a role, Friendly’s cake operation employs a greater degree of automation than other cake plants. “Each step in the process is measured for quality, taste and consistency,” Leyburn says. “This is an area where we’re looking for technology and automation to improve the manual labor we do.”
Ice cream rolls are somewhat unique to Friendly’s and are seen as a key growth area. Few seem to be familiar with the format outside the company’s New England core, where the Jubilee Roll is a holiday hit and was in full production during Dairy Field’s late November visit.
Vanilla mix is made into chocolate chip ice cream, then combined with a chocolate ice cream core in a custom-built extruder, which forms the ice cream into a continuous strip laid out on the line over individual cardboard flats. The extrusion features two grooves on top that are filled with fudge and topped with nuts; another extrusion of pink-colored ice cream is applied atop the middle and crowned with candy pieces.
This decorated belt of ice cream is sliced to fit on each flat, then run in rows of six through the hardener at -105 degrees F. “We use the nitrogen tunnel because we put a lot of work into how this looks,” Zomermaand says, pointing out the detail of the decorated roll. “By freezing it instantly, the consumer sees exactly what we see on the line.”
The hardened rolls are boxed, cased and shipped at a rate of 3,600 cases per day, six rolls per case. Zomermaand’s estimate put the year-to-date total at the time of DF’s visit at 1.5 million ice cream rolls.
Seven types of rolls are made on this line, which can be rolled away and replaced with cup-filling equipment for the Friendly’s Sundaes-To-Go line, produced at a rate of  7 million cups a year, according to Zomermaand. “This department is designed for agility,” he stresses.
Package Deal
The Friendly’s packaged ice cream operation encompasses a form-fill-seal machine for 56-ounce square paper cartons along with two bulk fillers that handle 4- and 6-gallon cans for restaurant use. The company uses a unique square can, so plant forces built a filler from scratch to handle it, Zomermaand notes.
A computerized checkweighing system weighs 10 consecutive cartons and calculates their average weight. So rather than having to pull random cartons from the line for weighting, operators just have to watch the on-screen graph to make sure weights stay within acceptable tolerances, Zomermaand explains. “Most plants rely on the operator to keep weighing,” he says. “We developed this system so the operator doesn’t have to weigh product, just monitor the average.”
Individual cartons wrapped in plastic, then shrink-wrapped in bundles of six before heading to the -40 degree hardener. “We’re very efficiency-focused,” Zomermaand says, pointing to a digital readout on the line showing output per minute.
Two palletizers are dedicated to the 56-ounce line, while a third can handle all product types. Frozen storage capacity recently reached 5,400 pallet spaces after an 1,800-space addition. The cooler holds manufactured ice cream products as well as various foodstuffs for the company’s restaurants.
“We decided to make the investment in 2003 because we were spending a significant amount of money on outside storage,” St. Marie says about the cooler addition. While the project cost about $3 million, Friendly’s was able to save about $750,000 through a program with local utilities that offers financial incentives for projects that help reduce energy consumption, he explains.
Apart from ice cream manufacturing, the Wilbraham plant also features a syrup department that makes Friendly’s famous fudge for in-plant use. It also makes fudge for the restaurants, along with chocolate sauce, pancake syrup and other toppings.
On-site fudge availability is “a major cost advantage for us,” Zomermaand says. The operation includes two 600-gallon fudge vats that feed pouch fillers. Fudge is heated to 210 degrees F, then cooled to 50 degrees before it’s filled into plastic bags for shipment out to restaurants. Fudge used for manufacturing is piped into portable containers.
Behind the Scenes
Zomermaand repeatedly stresses the importance of cleanliness at the plant: “It’s so important to us.”
Rest assured, plant forces are constantly at work not only keeping the place spic and span, but running like a fine watch as well. The plant employs 15 refrigeration, mechanical and electrical technicians to maintain all the processing and refrigeration equipment, perform facilities work, handle wastewater and maintain HVAC for both the plant and adjoining corporate offices.
Zomermaand notes the plant’s tech team also can build equipment to meet specific manufacturing needs that might not be precisely met by stock equipment in suppliers’ catalogs. The plant’s engine rooms have been modified from reciprocating to screw compressors, a project the local power company helped fund through an energy rebate program.
Friendly’s prefers to keep details of its most innovative technology under wraps, due to the competitive nature of its business, Leyburn says. “The technology focuses on making progress in manufacturing efficiencies through automation projects,” she says. “We are always looking at ways to improve the process of making and packaging ice cream products.”
Recent technology updates include seven new freezer barrels for the high-volume 56-ounce and bulk ice cream lines. A state-of-the-art materials program enables all operators to see results immediately after a manufacturing order is completed. There’s also a new automated chemical handling system, which automatically dispenses premeasured amounts of chemicals for each work station. Employees key in their work center numbers to the computerized system, which dispenses what they need into jugs and pails.
It’s all about maintaining a consistent product, Zomermaand says. “We use technology any way we can to deliver the consistency the consumer expects,” he says.
The key to success, Zomermaand says, is properly training all employees. “Employees attend mandatory training for safety and quality. All operations are shut down for monthly training sessions,” he explains. “There is a minimum of 10 hours of training per employee, with technical jobs getting 30 to 40 hours of training per year.”
In addition, the company encourages its employees to attend the various technical conferences offered by industry groups, Leburn says.
Friendly’s offers a variety of recognition programs for efficiency, quality and safety performance. Employees enjoy pizza parties for celebrating each 90 days with no lost-time accidents. “Time off work is also used to recognize exceptional performance,” Zomermaand adds. “Employee communication meetings help keep employee groups informed and involved.”
Beyond training, two things are “unbelievably important,” Zomermaand says — employee safety and product safety. The plant has been awarded by the Western Massachusetts Safety Council for going two years without lost-time injuries, he notes.
Friendly’s has a thorough auditing program that includes both food-safety questionnaires and a full on-site audit of all packaging and raw material vendors, Leyburn explains. “We review all new suppliers prior to purchasing materials to ensure they meet our strict quality and food-safety guidelines,” she says. “Internally, we are always auditing ourselves for compliance with a wide range of food-safety programs, such as HACCP, GMPs and receiving practices.  
As a Grade A facility for a portion of its business, Friendly’s must be audited by the state of Massachusetts to maintain its IMS rating. “As part of this rating, we maintain a state-certified quality-control laboratory in which our laboratory technicians are routinely state-tested for their ability to perform certain microbiological and chemical tests,” Leyburn says.
The plant has a full HACCP program “that begins with the incoming raw materials and ends with the palletized finished products,” Leyburn says. Food-safety devices in use include grates, screens, metal detectors, optical cameras and barcode scanners. “We have also used and experimented with the latest x-ray detectors,” she says.
“Once the finished product has passed all of the required food-safety and quality criteria, the product is shipped to our com­pany-owned distribution centers for sale in our restaurants and to distribution centers for sale in retail stores.”  m
PLANT AT A GLANCE
Location: Wilbraham, Mass.
Year Opened: 1961; about 10 additions since then.
Size: 200,000 square feet on a 30-acre site.
Employees: 180
Products Made: Packaged ice cream, cakes and rolls, bulk packaged ice cream for Friendly’s restaurants.
Output: About 16 million gallons annually.
Pasteurized Storage: 20 tanks ranging from 3,000 to 15,000 gallons each.
Frozen Storage: 5,400 pallet spaces.