by James Dudlicek
New cooler is the latest project to keep this historic processor state of the art.
Plastic crates filled with picked product form tall, narrow canyons as they await load-out for delivery to retailers across Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky.
Business is good for Nashville, Tenn.-based Purity Dairies, so space is at a premium at the company’s Murfreesboro Road plant. “We have to stack milk seven or eight cases high in the cooler,” says milk plant manager Tommy Biggs, jumping across a chain through a gap in the moving crates.
With so much product and so little space, Purity has resorted to using trailers — as many as 18 — for short-term product storage. “We have to load those trailers and then backload them into the cooler. It’s tremendous labor,” Biggs says. “We’ve got one outbound chain, so we can only load one truck at a time.” The cooler was last expanded, to its current 21,500 square feet, in 1985.
But help is on the way, in the form of a new $11 million cooler expansion that will more than double the plant’s storage to 50,000 square feet and ease the flow of the more than 130 million dairy product units that Purity moves annually. In fact, the new facility is expected to give Purity the flexibility to not only expand its business within current geographic boundaries, but perhaps push out a bit as well. The 28,500-square-foot addition is expected to be operational by January 2008.
Planned since 1999, when Purity started buying the five parcels of land needed, the expansion will also include new technology allowing production, shipment and tracking of product in real time. The company also is revamping its power supply to provide enough power for the compressors in the new cooler.
“With everything around here being tied together, it’s going to increase our transport efficiency,” says distribution manager Roger Roberts. “We’ll be increasing utilization of the trailers by being able to reload them more than four times within a 24-hour period, and we’ll also have a faster load-out cycle.”
The cooler expansion is just the latest in a series of ongoing improvements at Purity, which reports sales growth of more than 60 percent in the past six years.
“We’ve put in a new separator, which boosted our production from 4,500 gallons an hour to 8,000 gallons an hour,” Biggs explains. “We also put in a new HTST system and a new homogenizer. We were running 6,000 gallons an hour; this took us up to 8,000 gallons an hour. Also, we doubled the capacity on our ice cream short time. It was running 3,000; now we’re up to 6,000.”
Earlier improvements, dating back to Purity’s acquisition by Dean Foods in 1998, involved cultured operations. “We started producing cottage cheese and sour cream for some of our sister plants, so we put in two new sour cream vats and two new cottage cheese vats,” Biggs says. “In the first year [after the Dean acquisition], we replaced our process control computers.”
Ongoing assessment of operations will determine the next project required to further streamline operations as demand for Purity’s extensive line of milk, ice cream, cultured products and other dairy foods continues to grow.
Most of Purity’s milk is local, says president Mark Ezell; it arrives at the three-bay receiving area from farms in central Tennessee and southern Kentucky. Stainless-steel fixtures and tile up to the ceiling promote a sanitary environment at this end of the operation. Up to 30 trucks per day are weighed and unloaded following successful lab testing.
Purity’s lab conducts quality testing on all fluid and frozen products; 700 tests are performed daily on raw and finished products, explains Daryl Gaw, quality assurance manager.
“Dean Foods has kept us equipped with the latest technology,” he says. “We’re top of the line here.”
Ezell notes that attention to detail by lab personnel has gone a long way toward helping Purity’s products win awards at the World Dairy Expo and other competitions. “What these people do really does make a difference,” he says. “We’re just really blessed.”
Gaw adds: “Our goal is to go in and win every one of them.”
Two trucks at a time can unload raw milk into a 50,000-gallon tank. Milk is then transferred through a plate heat exchanger to five 3,500-gallon tanks. Raw fluid product is separated into cream and skim prior to pasteurization and blended back as needed, Biggs explains. The newest separator, a year old, operates at 8,000 gallons per hour.
Purity’s milk plant uses two HTST systems. The first is a blend system that processes fluid milk and juices at 8,000 gallons per hour; the other is a batch system for ice cream mix, chocolate milk and cultured products, operating at 6,000 gallons per hour.
“In the last three years, we’ve upgraded to a new computer,” Biggs says of the process control system. “Dean Foods has allowed us to reinvest with state-of-the-art equipment.”
But in some areas, it’s good to cling to old ways. Purity takes particular pride in its cultured products, especially cottage cheese. “I like to think of us as a mix of modern technology and the old-fashioned way of doing things right,” Ezell says, noting that Purity has employed only two cheesemakers in its history, giving each time to learn and perfect the art.
So notes Doug Cole, who has made cottage cheese at Purity for 34 years. “It’s a hands-on process,” he says. “A lot of TLC goes into it.”
Cole oversees the three cheese vats — two at 3,500 gallons and one at 3,000 gallons — where 100,000 pounds of cottage cheese is made four days a week. Biggs says Purity’s cottage cheese stands out due to its unique dressing that features a different blend of cultures than competitors use.
Purity offers its cottage cheese in three varieties: whole, light and nonfat; Ezell says the company’s relatively limited distribution area doesn’t make it practical at present to offer fruit-added or other varieties. “We could make cheese a lot faster,” he says, “but we think it’s important to do it slower.”
Meanwhile, Purity makes 65,000 pounds of sour cream four days a week, in four tanks with a total capacity nearing 5,000 pounds. The tanks feed to three fillers that handle cottage cheese and sour cream.
On the fluid side, Purity offers an assortment of sizes and flavors ranging from gallons in light-blocking yellow plastic jugs blow-molded on site to paper half-pints for schools, as well as Dean’s famous Chug. Ezell says there are no immediate plans to offer plastic half-pints. “Our school customers have been pleased, especially with the value appeal of paper cartons,” he says, noting that switching to plastic “would require a bit of retooling.”
However, the paper half-pints have been revamped with new graphics featuring images of sports figures, and new flavors like orange cream have been added to further add value to school offerings.
Purity built the ice cream plant at its Murfreesboro Road headquarters in 1986, when production began with six employees making eight SKUs of product, recalls ice cream plant manager Ronnie Gaw.
The operation now rosters 40 people who handle 340 SKUs of product. Open to the public, the ice cream plant hosts up to 15,000 people a year at its visitor center.
Purity ice cream actually starts life out over in the milk plant, which makes the ice cream mix. The mix is transferred through pipes under the parking lot over to the ice cream plant where it awaits flavoring in eight mix tanks.
Gaw says Purity uses up to 34 different mixes for its many ice cream products, which start gaining their personality in dual-compartmented flavor vats before the continuous freezing process takes over.
Still clinging to the full half-gallon as its flagship offering, Purity puts its ice cream in squares and scrounds. For its novelty line, Purity makes its own cones, cups and sandwiches (a sister plant makes its stick novelties). The plant also makes 3-gallon cans for foodservice, which go through the tri-tray hardener along with the other products — rare among ice cream manufacturers, according to Gaw.
The ice cream plant — which has had three additions in its history, the latest in 1995 — is very flexible in handling different products each day. “All our equipment rolls in and out,” Gaw explains of the compact facility.
Purity makes ice cream five days a week for 20 hours each day. Freezer storage encompasses 2,500 pallet spaces, including room for 800 SKUs of competing national brands that Purity distributes in its marketing area; 80 percent of the products are moved through direct-sales distribution.
Both the fluid and frozen plants employ practices to ensure food safety and security.
“All of our packaging and raw ingredients that come in, the trailers are seal-tagged. That’s where we start here at Purity,” Gaw says. “Production documentation tracks every ingredient and every package all the way through to the customer, through lot numbers and production dates. We get certificates of analysis for all our raw ingredient suppliers. Then all the raw ingredients are checked here at our lab as well. For all outbound trailers, we have a seal program in place.”
Likewise, employee safety and well-being are a priority. In fact, the ice cream plant offers a fitness center for use by employees.
“We have training sessions that we do monthly for safety,” Biggs says. “When we buy equipment, we try to make sure it’s ergonomically friendly. We use pads for people who have to stand in one place for an extended period of time.”
The company employs its own safety director, Gaw notes. “We do all the hearing testing, from GMPs to fork-truck training, lockout-tagout,” he says. “It’s a monstrous task these days to keep up with all the documentation and the work it takes to ensure your work force is working in a safe environment.”
Purity Milk Plant
At A Glance
At A Glance
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
Year opened: 1945; several additions since then.
Size: 155,000 square feet.
Employees: 128 (600 in whole company).
Products made: Milk, cream, buttermilk, sour cream, cottage cheese, ice cream mix, eggnog, boiled custard, tea, juice and drinks (177 SKUs).
Processing capacity: HTST 14,000 gallons per hour.
Lines: One plastic gallon filler, one plastic half-gallon/gallon filler, one paper half-gallon, one plastic pint, two paper half-pints, one paper quart, three cultured, one bag-in-box.
Milk storage: Condensed skim, 15,000 gallons; pasteurized, eight 15,000-gallon and four 1,500-gallon tanks.
Cooler storage: 21,499 square feet, expanding to 50,000 square feet.$OMN_arttitle="Catching Up";?> $OMN_artauthor="James Dudlicek";?>