Getting It Done
by James Dudlicek
Perpetual upgrades help make Roberts’ Omaha plant all things to all customers.

In 1922, ConAgra predecessor Nebraska Consolidated Mills reported its first profit, the Omaha Grain Exchange launched radio station WAAW and Roberts Dairy opened its flagship plant at 2901 Cuming St. in downtown Omaha.
With numerous additions and improvements over the ensuing eight decades, the plant has evolved in to a round-the-clock facility that helps its sister plants fill more than 900 million gallons of milk annually for the company, along with juices and drinks, sour cream and dips as part of Roberts’ complete line of branded dairy products serving seven states, plus ice cream mix for Dairy Queen.
“We’ve developed as a company to be pretty much everything to everybody,” Roberts president Jeff Powell says in explaining many of the improvements made at the Omaha plant in recent years to better serve customers. “Look at the channels of distribution — if you want it floor loaded, we can do that. If you want a corrugated box, we can do that. If you want a milk case, we can do that. An 80-count bossy, a dolly — we can do that.”
Risings costs of everything from raw materials to fuel to insurance deepen the importance of new technologies and other devices to boost efficiency and drive costs down. Among the most prominent of these improvements at Roberts has been an automatic packing system that can package milk and cultured products in a broad array of formats being demanded by retail and foodservice customers. The machine offers a variety of packaging combinations including cardboard flats, boxes and shrink wrapping.
Processing improvements have included a new HTST pasteurizer and enhancements to Roberts’ sour cream and dip operation. “It opened up some bigger opportunities for us that we previously hadn’t been into as far as warehouse business,” Powell says. “It made us more efficient and able to turn out more volume with the manpower that we had.”
Further upgrades in Omaha include a blend skid, which Powell says enhanced processing capabilities and helped improve product quality; and paperless picking by warehouse forces armed with handheld computers. Meanwhile, the Kansas City plant was outfitted with a robotic palletizer. “Where feasible and where advantageous,” Powell says, “we’ve helped improve efficiency.”
The last 80 years have seen the neighboring interstate highway and an expanding Creighton University basically landlock the plant. But Roberts officials say the proximity to good transportation, as well as a metropolitan area that continues to worship the brand, make the site a good home.
The Basics
Up to 18 trucks arrive daily at the Omaha plant’s two receiving bays, each with 6,000 gallons of raw milk provided by dairy farms affiliated with Dairy Farmers of America, a joint owner of Roberts Dairy.  “Right now is our slow time,” plant manager Deron Welty says during a July visit. “In another month, with schools open, we’ll be up to 18, 19 trucks.”
The first of a battery of routine tests is performed on the raw milk before it’s unloaded. Further testing is done on the raw tanks and finished products, as well as hourly checks on the fillers, Welty explains.
Following pasteurization, milk moves to the filling lines. The four fillers package milk in formats ranging from 4-ounce paperboard to plastic gallons. Plastic jugs are blow-molded on site and fed to the fillers on overhead tracks. Three molding machines — 4- and 6-head units for gallons and a 6-head for halves — churn out 4,000 gallon bottles and 3,000 half-gallon bottles per hour. An automated labeling system ensures all those bottles are properly marked for their contents.
Alongside its fluid operation, Roberts’ Omaha plant manufactures sour cream and sour cream-based snack dips. At the heart of this set-up are five new 2,500-gallon sour cream tanks. There are nine cultured tanks in all, ranging from 1,000 to 2,500 gallons.
Finished products take their turn in the aforementioned automated packing system, which forms cardboard trays (as needed by customer request) upon which containers of products are stacked. The loaded flats then head through a shrink tunnel for wrapping in clear plastic film.
From there it’s on to the cooler to await shipment on Roberts trucks for direct-sales distribution or movement to off-site distribution centers. The cooler was enlarged in 1990, Welty notes, with a roller bed added to ease the strain on product pickers who track orders on hand-held computers. “No matter how big your cooler is, you always need more space,” he quips.
Rounding out the Omaha campus are a climate-controlled dry goods warehouse; a fleet garage for maintenance of trucks, some of which were still having 100th anniversary graphics applied this summer; and a crate shop that receives and cleans incoming plastic milk cases.
Playing it Safe
Roberts Dairy takes safety seriously, and during its affiliation with Quality Chekd Dairies Inc., the company received an extra boost in that department. In 2004, all four of Roberts’ plants at the time — Omaha, Kansas City, Iowa City and Des Moines, which has since closed — received Merit of Excellence Awards from Quality Chekd, signifying production that surpasses the high standards necessary to carry the QC stamp.
Currently the company conducts monthly unannounced internal audits in all of its manufacturing facilities, performed by the plant managers from the other locations, explains Dayle Reynolds, manager of quality assurance, control and safety. “This has increased our awareness to each other’s internal needs and has allowed each manager to see another operation on a day-to-day basis.”
Audits developed by the managers include various aspects of security, quality, distribution, sanitation and plant safety,” Reynolds says. “The audits are scored, and the goal is to have our facilities ‘inspection ready’ at all times and spark friendly competition to constantly improve the scores,” she says.  
Roberts Dairy maintains a list of approved suppliers that comes from its corporate partnership with Prairie Farms, as well as a few suppliers the company has worked with to get them elevated to its approved suppliers listing.
As in nearly every food company since 9/11, bioterror concerns have grown in importance. Roberts’ biosecurity training program has been in place since 2002, and all employees attend annual training. “We evaluate the program and respond to our employees needs based on our training class feedback,” Reynolds says.
Samples are submitted to an outside laboratory monthly for quality testing. These tests are scored and reported to each location monthly. “Extra-credit points have been added in various categories that each plant can earn to improve their monthly score,” Reynolds explains. “These scores are tied back to each location as an incentive to laboratory personnel and shift supervisors to take ownership in the overall quality and safety of their facility.”
Beyond food, safety for the people who make it isn’t ignored either. Roberts does all of its required safety training in house, with each tailoring its program so it’s site-specific.
“I am a certified OSHA trainer, but I rely on our corporate owners for ideas and, occasionally, training guides,” Reynolds says. “Training employee to ‘Think Safety’ daily has helped us lower our soft-tissue injury rate and given ownership to the employees in their daily tasks.”
All of Roberts’ locations have active safety committees that meet monthly to discuss safety issues and do facility walk-arounds to document any new concerns.
Having been a part of Roberts Dairy for 84 of its first 100 years, the Omaha plant and the folks who make it work are obviously prepared to continue the company’s reputation for quality and safety well into its next century.  
Location: Omaha, Neb.
Opened: 1922; extensive remodeling since then.
Size: 50,000 square feet on a full city block, encompassing processing, fleet maintenance and dry storage, plus corporate and Omaha Division offices.
Employees: 230
Products made: Milk, juice/drinks, sour cream/dips, ice cream mix.
Capacity: 720,000 gallons weekly.
Processing: Two HTST systems @ 3,000 and 6,000 gallons per hour; nine cultured tanks ranging from 1,000 to 2,500 gallons each.
Filling: Four fluid (gallon, half gallon, quart/pint/half pint, 4/8 ounce), two sour cream  (8/16/24 ounces, 3/5 pounds).
Warehouse: 26,000 square feet cooler, 10,000 square feet dry.

In addition to the plant at its Omaha headquarters, Roberts Dairy manages three other processing facilities:
Kansas City, Mo. — Roberts’ plant on Emanuel Cleaver Boulevard is the only full-line fluid dairy located in Kansas City. Milk at this plant is supplied by local Kansas and Missouri farmers. Roberts’ 16-ounce To Go Drinks are bottled here, in a variety of milk and fruit flavors. Before Roberts became Kansas City’s hometown dairy, the former Fairmont® Dairy joined Zarda® Dairy, resulting in the Fairmont-Zarda Dairy. In 1998, Fairmont-Zarda Dairy joined with Roberts Dairy and adopted the Roberts name.
Iowa City, Iowa — The facility on Dodge Street in Iowa City was formerly known as HomeTown Dairy, established in 1922 by the Swaner family. In 1980, the operation joined with Roberts and kept its HomeTown Dairy name until it was changed to Roberts Dairy in 1994. The name change enabled Roberts to take advantage of regional distribution and advertising support. Roberts’ Iowa City plant is the company’s only production facility in the state; a distribution center in Grimes helps move fresh dairy products to schools, restaurants and other foodservice institutions in the region.
Norfolk, Neb. — In May 1996, the Hiland-Roberts Ice Cream Co. was formed through a joint venture of Roberts Dairy and Hiland Dairy of Springfield, Mo. Hiland-Roberts is Nebraska’s only active ice cream production facility. It generates more than 10 million gallons of ice cream, yogurts and sherbets annually and frequently produces dairy goods for other brand names.  
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