Sweet Home Alabama
by James Dudlicek

Improvements continue at Blue Bell’s southeast launching pad.
When Blue Bell Ice Cream finally hit stores in Florida about five years ago, the company honored the arrival with a new flavor, Key Lime Pie. That flavor and the other treats enjoyed by Floridians — not to mention Georgians, Alabamans and Carolinians — are made in Sylacauga, Ala., about an hour south of Birmingham.
Consumers in the southeast are obviously eating their Blue Bell heartily, if construction work at the Sylacauga plant is any indication.
A new automated cold-storage warehouse is expected to come online in February with more than 7,000 pallet spaces, a move that will more than triple the plant’s current finished-product storage capacity, says general manager Kevin Wood. “By the time the new cold storage is up and running, we’ll have over 10,000 pallet spaces,” he says.
Additionally, Sylacauga will join Blue Bell’s Texas and Oklahoma plants by adding robotic palletization, plus an automated first in-first out rack system with a track-driven crane. “Right now, we’re still stacking manually,” Wood says.
These are just the latest in a constant stream of improvements made to the 1930s-era facility that Blue Bell acquired in 1996 from Flav-O-Rich. Additions have been accommodated by purchasing adjacent properties and vacating a street, with an eye toward eventually having a contiguous city block as the plant’s campus. The work force has risen from 40 to 200 over the past 10 years.
The Sylacauga plant makes Blue Bell’s top-selling flavors, including its much-in-demand Homemade Vanilla, along with cones and other frozen novelties. A flavor unique to this location is Black Walnut, supplying a regional demand for this variety.  
And like the company’s other locations, the plant features a Blue Bell Country Store and ice cream parlor that hosts 20,000 visitors per year, mostly school groups, who get a peek at the manufacturing process from the viewing gallery that looks down on plant floor. “We are a big part of the community,” Wood says, noting the company’s donations to local charities like the Boys & Girls Clubs and the March of Dimes.
And in this town of about 12,000 people, Wood laughs when noting: “We’re the biggest tourist attraction in Sylacauga!”
Basic Ops
In the triple receiving bay, built a decade ago when Blue Bell bought the plant, trucks deliver about five loads of heat-treated milk and cream every day. Skim milk comes from Texas, while cream arrives from Florida and Louisiana. Meanwhile, granulated sugar and fructose is delivered by rail.
Ice cream mix is blended, then HTST pasteurized before flavoring. Flavors and colors are added before freezing; inclusions and variegates are added on the line, including ripples made in Brenham. The various recipes are distributed to about a dozen filling lines for product and package formats ranging from stick novelties to 3-ounce cups, along with Blue Bell’s trademark “Still a 1¼2 Gallon” half-gallons. A large part of Sylacauga’s output is 3-gallon foodservice tubs to serve restaurant accounts on the East Coast, Wood says.
As is common to Blue Bell’s quest for total quality control, the Sylacauga plant makes its own chocolate as well as the cones for novelties like peanut-topped Nutzos.
A toasty oasis from the chillier areas of the plant, the cone bakery features two room-sized ovens. Inside, football-shaped “pancakes” are baked and wrapped around a cone-shaped mold, then cooled by a series of fans placed over the conveyor belt. Finished cones travel into the next room, where they’re boxed for movement to the line.
Improving Ops
Blue Bell is constantly seeking new ways to streamline operations in the face of rising costs for everything from ingredients to energy. For example, the volatility of fuel prices has forced the company to “make every load count,” says Gene Supak, vice president of operations.
Robotics, too, has helped refine the process, but Supak says improved communications — like a computerized management system and handhelds — has had the most significant impact. “Having data almost instantaneously helps with inventory and helps with scheduling,” he says. “We have multiple plants making the same products, so better communication helps us make sure we’re all making the right products.”
Communications within each plant have improved as well, says Tommy Supak, quality control and mix processing manager. “It will tell operators what tests have to be run on which products,” he says of handhelds used by the QC team. “Instant information has helped us out a lot.”
Additionally, bar-coding will help to better regulate inventory. The improvements in Sylacauga, Gene Supak says, are the “first steps toward going totally automated.”
Meanwhile, food safety continues to be a priority at every plant, keeping the QC team busy making sure that regulations concerning security and traceability are followed to the letter. “That itself is a full-time job,” Tommy Supak says. Food safety- and quality-concern meetings are scheduled throughout the year to go over new regulations covering all aspects of operations at every Blue Bell plant and “to keep in line with food safety audits,” he says.  
“It has changed drastically” since 9/11, Supak says, “and there’s more yet to come.”
Ops Evolution
Blue Bell hand-cranked its first ice cream in 1911 at the rate of two gallons per day in a facility of less than 8,000 square feet. Today, the company’s four production facilities (Sylacauga; Broken Arrow, Okla.; and two in Brenham, Texas) occupy close to a million square feet.  
In all, Blue Bell operates some 35 production lines with a capacity to make 23,000 gallons per hour of packaged goods, 6,000 dozen per hour of snack items and 10,000 dozen stick novelties per hour.
“The changes have been drastic,” Gene Supak says, reflecting on the company’s evolution. “In the early days, most everything was done by hand. Today, the use of modern continuous ice cream freezers, automated filling machines and lines capable of producing varieties of shapes and sizes of stick novelties allow us almost unlimited possibilities in terms of the types and quantity of products we can produce. The newest computer technology assists us in planning, scheduling and accountability in the day-to-day operation.”
New technology is evident in all aspects of most plant operations, Supak says. “Today’s technology has helped in reducing the volumes of paperwork and improved the capabilities of record keeping and documentation,” he says. “Technology has helped automate the process control functions and allows us to acquire and store the necessary data related to processing, product inventory control and product traceability.”
Development of modern refrigeration methods both for manufacturers and consumers was a boon to the ice cream industry. “Going back to 1911 and the ‘ice age,’ when an ice box was really a box dependent on ice, most homeowners did not have a means of keeping frozen goods in the home. The development of the home freezer and commercial refrigeration had a tremendous positive impact on the market for ice cream products,” Supak notes. “In 1939, Blue Bell began packing ice cream by hand in pint containers. Most was sold for immediate consumption because of limited or nonexistent home freezer space. It was not until the early 1950s, when home freezers became readily available, that ice cream marketing took on a new direction.”
The development of the continuous ice cream freezer and the automation of mix processing have allowed ice cream manufacturers to efficiently produce ice cream products at high capacities. “The use of various quick-hardening systems has allowed us to increase production output, therefore greatly improving and maintaining product quality,” Supak says. “The continued development of higher-capacity ice cream freezers and packaging equipment, along with improved refrigerated transports and distribution trucks, have helped Blue Bell expand its markets.”
Blue Bell Plant at a Glance
Location: Sylacauga, Ala.
Year opened: Purchased in 1996; facility dates back to the 1930s.
Size: 175,000 square feet.
Employees: 200
Products made: Ice cream and frozen novelties.
Processing: HTST 4,000 gallons per hour.
Filling: Three half-gallon, one 3-gallon, one quart, two pint, two 3-ounce cup, three novelty lines.
Storage: Eight raw tanks ranging from 5,000 to 30,000 gallons; 10,000 pallet spaces after completion of cold storage addition in early 2007.
TEXAS TREATS
Brenham headquarters plant keeping up as well.
Improvements are also continuing inside and out at Blue Bell’s flagship plant in Brenham, Texas. Construction work aims to match the plant’s façade to the historic office building and visitor center next door. Meanwhile, efforts are ongoing to boost operational efficiencies.
Brenham is enjoying its third year of robotic palletizing. Five robots are constantly on the move, stacking 308 half-gallon cartons on each pallet.
Dale Sommerlatte, fleet/warehousing operations manager, says robotics has made palletizing safer and more efficient. “The quality of the stack has become better than in the past,” he says.
But the plan was not without its kinks. “One of the challenges we had was that we reuse our sleeves, and we can’t always guarantee their condition,” Gene Supak, vice president of operations, says of the cardboard shipping sleeves used for Blue Bell’s four-carton units. “It took a while to perfect that.”
Also enhancing operations is a flexible novelties line that can make cones and cookie sandwiches as well as stick novelties. “The novelties line has given us new, innovative products that we haven’t had,” Supak says.
The Brenham plant makes 95 percent of the chocolate it uses; in 2006, that was about 3 million pounds. A second chocolate refiner was installed last year for no-sugar-added products. “It allows us to give the consumer value and tweak the product to make it unique,” says Paul Prazak, assistant plant superintendent. “The goal is to be as efficient as possible, so that we can eventually pass the benefit in quality and savings along to our consumers.”  
Furthering that mission are the on-site can formers; having flat carton stock shipped in rather than finished containers gives Blue Bell a fiscal edge. The formers operate more than twice as fast as the fillers, so most cartons get boxed up for later use. “It saves us money forming them in-house,” Supak says.