Beyond the Basics
by James Dudlicek
Strategic improvements have helped Pierre’s streamline its plant operations.
The day starts at 5 a.m. No, this isn’t a dairy farm. It’s when the flavor man arrives to start setting up, get the freezers ready for the day’s production, which begins at 7.
By 7:30, freezing starts and runs through at least 3:30 p.m. In between, 48 scrounds and 60 pints every minute are filled with Pierre’s Ice Cream. At the end of the shift, the mix crew comes in to prepare mix for the next day.
This cycle occurs five times in a typical week at the Pierre’s plant in Cleveland. Technology has been upgraded, but the basics have stayed the same for the past half-century at this facility, which manufactures about 300 SKUs of Pierre’s branded and private label ice cream and frozen desserts.
“There’s always going to be new stuff on the horizon,” says brand development manager John Pimpo.
One of the most significant new things is the installation of integrated business management software, “to help track costs and better track efficiencies for planning purposes,” plant manager John Gaughan explains. Sales and delivery teams go into the field wielding hand-held computers and cellular phones with custom software and order-entry tools. Pierre’s also uses a radio frequency inventory control and stock rotation system.
The company’s state-of-the-art distribution center, which opened in 1995 along with a new corporate office building, features modern efficiencies such as a penthouse that allows easy access for monitoring and repairs. The shipping dock area is kept at 32 degrees F to maintain product integrity during load-in and load-out. Automatic pallet wrappers secure all orders before they get loaded onto the trucks. In addition to the Pierre’s brand product line, the center handles 500 SKUs of national brand ice cream, novelties and frozen desserts.
During the day, the distribution center receives product from the nearby production plant and national suppliers; it ships load-outs at night to complete a nearly round-the-clock operation.
The distribution center features two power sources as a safeguard against local power outages. This safeguard was put to the ultimate test a few years ago during a massive blackout that impacted most of the northeastern United States. “The entire grid of northeast Ohio went out,” Pimpo recalls. “When the entire grid goes down, for the entire half of the country, it was tough for us to hold. But the great thing about our facility, during the 24 hours that we were down, we only gained four degrees [of temperature] in our entire distribution facility.”
Launching the 40,000-square-foot distribution center allowed Pierre’s to expand capacity at its manufacturing plant, where production of novelties had already been moved off site to free up more room for filling half gallons (now 56-ounce scrounds), pints and bulk containers.
The manufacturing plant — which dates back to the 1920s and was retrofitted for ice cream production in the ’50s — is a compact yet flexible facility that has received its share of upgrades to keep pace with technological advancements in the industry. “As we’ve progressed, we’ve updated tanks and other pieces of equipment,” Gaughan says. “We have a couple of new shrink-wrappers out there, irrigator pumps, plate chiller — that’s something that saves us quite a bit of energy. We just continue to evaluate where we think we can make the best return on our investments.”
In and Out
Pierre’s receives 700,000 pounds of dairy ingredients every month from farms and suppliers in Ohio and other Midwestern states.
Dry and liquid ingredients are mixed in the blend vats before pasteurization. The completed mix is then sent to one of eight mix tanks, depending on which of the various products for which it’s intended. Pierre’s uses 35 types of mix, including a no-sugar-added blend for the company’s Slender® line of products.
Mix is pumped to the flavor vats for the creation individual varieties of ice cream and may pick up some inclusions from the fruit feeder while en route to the freezers.
Pierre’s fills pints, scrounds and bulk cans simultaneously among its different lines. Several years ago, the company made the switch from round half-gallon containers to 56-ounce scrounds for its main lines of ice cream and frozen yogurt products, mirroring the industry trend.
A lid descrambler makes sure each container is topped off properly as they move from the filler to the shrink-wrapper, where scrounds are wrapped in bundles of three and pints on cardboard flats of eight before heading to the blast freezer.
Finished products are stored among the 4,000 pallet spaces in the freezer at the distribution center, kept at a constant -25 degrees F. The Pierre’s consumer Web site notes that the company’s frozen warehouse holds the equivalent of 36 million scoops of ice cream.
Delivery to retailers and foodservice operators in Pierre’s own trucks is streamlined by the aforementioned computerization of stock-tracking and order-entry duties.
Safe and Sound
At the heart of safety initiatives at Pierre’s is its HACCP program, which the company takes pride in noting has been recognized by the state of Ohio and used as an example for other manufacturers. The program was further enhanced last year.
“We have a pretty hearty HACCP program that was put in place three years ago. It covers all aspects of food handling,” Gaughan says, noting the company thoroughly screens its ingredient suppliers.
“As raw materials come in, we have procedures to check and make sure the load is what they say it is, it’s all accounted for, and they check for tampering. They also label for allergens; we store things segregated so we don’t have any cross-contamination. Every load comes in with COAs [certificates of analysis], either prior to or at receiving. We have a program where we go through and check all the raw materials. We do taste testing. We do evaluation of color, size, any attributes that should be there. We do micro testing on all those.”
While the industry is moving to have suppliers be even more accountable for ingredient guarantees prior to shipment, Pierre’s has taken the initiative to go beyond basic requirements, performing extra tests to ensure the highest-quality finished products. The company submits to third-party audits as well.
“We do listeria testing on every finished product that we make, which is not required. Most plants don’t do it — you’d probably be hard-pressed to find one that does,” Gaughan says. “Nothing is released from the production building over to the distribution building until it clears all the batteries of tests. Each product is evaluated daily by the operator, by the flavor man, by our quality manager.”
Another area increasing in importance over the past five years is traceability. Pierre’s implemented a thorough contingency-planning manual not long after 9/11, notes Laura Hindulak, director of marketing.
“We wanted to look at what was happening in the industry, what was happening with terrorism: What could we do as a food-producing plant to make sure we are safe and can trace things properly?” she says. “We have a meeting every year to update the manual. It has all the contact numbers for our suppliers, the majority of our buyers and folks we do business with. At the end of that meeting every year, we have a mock recall where we take a specific lot number of a product and trace back not only from production and ingredients, but to the distribution side to find out where those materials came from and where that finished product ended up. We can know within two hours exactly where that product came from and where that product went.”
With a constant eye on food safety and regulatory compliance, the Pierre’s production team spent the past two years working toward the labeling revisions to comply with allergen and trans-fat regulations, as well as the new bioterrorism security requirements for food processors.
Meanwhile, regarding its employees, Pierre’s is dedicated to its very comprehensive safety-awareness program. The company has several safety committees made up of members from every department. These task teams meet monthly to survey their work environments and suggest ways to improve or enhance safety within their areas of responsibility.
Employees receive continual safety and operational training. “Our entire company focuses on making safety first,” Hindulak says. “To reinforce this message, Pierre’s puts out its ‘Scoop on Safety’ monthly newsletter that highlights specific safety topics, and teams remaining injury-free for each 30-day period are rewarded for their accomplishment.”
Making it Work
Pierre’s has made numerous additions, changes and enhancements to its manufacturing facility throughout the years it has been in business.
The company has expanded the low-temperature storage area at its production facility and performed a complete overhaul and upgrade of the engine room. As needed to keep pace with the times and demand for product, Pierre’s has acquired new tanks, fillers, freezers, fruit feeders and shrink-wrapping equipment. As business continued to expand, the pasteurizing, homogenizing and clean-in-place equipment were updated.
Of course, everything costs money, and controlling the costs involved with manufacturing continue to be a significant challenge, even beyond the nuts and bolts.
“The cost of raw ingredients, utilities, packaging and labor are constantly monitored, and we strive to achieve efficiencies in each of these areas,” Hindulak says. “In terms of suppliers, we work closely with our vendors to not only improve quality, but to reduce costs through adjusted order sizes, frequencies and accurate forecasting. This approach allows greater flexibility on the supplier side, helping them to lower their costs which allows them to extend lower costs to manufacturers like ourselves.”
Pierre’s Ice Cream
PLANT AT A GLANCE
Location: Cleveland, Ohio
Opened: Built in the 1920s as a warehouse, converted in the ’50s for processing; new distribution center opened 1995.
Size: 10,000 square feet on a 12-acre campus.
Products made: Ice cream, sherbet, frozen yogurt and sorbet.
Capacity: 8 million gallons
Milk storage: 12 tanks for raw and pasteurized products, plus four sweetener tanks
Processing: One HTST system
Filling: Four lines for 56-ounce scrounds, pints and bulk containers.
Cooler storage: 14,000-square-foot freezer; 40,000 square feet (4,000 pallet spaces) in distribution center.$OMN_arttitle="Beyond the Basics";?>