Bulking Up
by James Dudlicek
Editor

New business brings stream of innovation to Guida’s Connecticut plant.
As the company finds new niches to fill, Guida’s Milk & Ice Cream is making the changes needed to best deliver that business.
In the past two years, organic business has doubled for the New Britain, Conn.-based processor through a strategic contract-packaging partnership with Organic Valley. Guida’s responded by investing in robotic palletization and installing dual corrugated packaging lines for gallons and half-gallons, explains Wes Sliwinski, director of plant operations.
It doesn’t stop there. “The amount of pasteurized product we sell to other manufactures through bulk trailers has increased dramatically,” Sliwinski says. “Guida’s has responded to this challenge by building a new computerized bulk-loading system with an integrated certified metering system to insure proper delivery.”
Meanwhile, the number of new flavored milk and ice cream mix items among the company’s product offerings has increased dramatically. “To meet this challenge, Guida’s installed a state-of-the-art blending system incorporating the Wonderware software platform,” Sliwinski says. “This system automatically recalculates all processing formulas to match the parameters of the existing milk supply and delivers these ingredients directly to the processing vessel. Any system failures or failure to add manual ingredients is automatically detected and prompts the system to prevent transfer to pasteurization.”
Not bad for a plant that has steadily evolved from a core that dates back to the 1880s, with nearly 100 employees who process dairy products — including milk, juice and ice cream mix — ranging in size from 4 ounces to 5 gallons.
The Basics
The Guida’s plant encompasses three levels, with the three receiving bays on the bottom. As many as 30 trucks deliver milk to the plant seven days a week. About 60 percent of the raw milk comes from farms in Connecticut, with the rest from Vermont and Massachusetts.
Due to a tighter supply, procurement of organic milk casts a wider net, to New York and Pennsylvania as well as those other neighboring states. Hugh O’Hare, assistant plant manager and quality control manager, estimates 50 to 60 percent of dairy farms in Connecticut ship their milk to Guida’s.
Samples are taken from each load and sent upstairs to the lab via pneumatic tube. Cold separation is performed at receiving, which O’Hare says yields better flavor, especially for skim milk. “You get a better color and better mouthfeel and flavor,” he says.
The lab above, relocated less than a year ago to its current spot, is “really the hub of the facility,” O’Hare says, noting that it operates around the clock. Guida’s invests in the latest equipment to ensure good quality; tests such as fat and sugar profiles can be performed in 45 seconds.
The lab also tests all ingredients, liquid and dry, and performs a battery of other tests outlined in the manuals on a room-long shelf. The facility also features special equipment needed to simulate conditions of use for specific customers.
Meanwhile, back downstairs, three HTST pasteurizers process 15,000 gallons of milk per hour; a dedicated juice line features its own blend and pasteurized tanks. “We’ve spent quite a lot of time and money on this part of the plant,” O’Hare says, explaining that the company continues to explore ways to increase product shelf life. One method involves flushing the system with near-boiling water. Additionally, the pasteurizer room is ventilated with filtered air to maintain good air quality.
Processed milk is delivered to nine pasteurized tanks (three of them recently installed for an additional 40,000 gallons) through a cluster of 84 mix-proof valves. This valve array was originally located in the ceiling of the packaging room, but was moved during remodeling for easier access and maintenance, O’Hare explains.
New control-system software ensures consistent product through changeovers; all recipes are programmed and can be called up at the touch of a button. A fail-safe system ensures correct amounts of ingredients are used and that new cycles such as washdown cannot be started before the previous process is complete. A glycol cooling system maintains proper product temperature; a backup system automatically takes over in the event of a system failure.
The frequency-driven system adjusts its speed based on filling line needs, O’Hare notes, and the entire system can be accessed from any touchscreen in the plant. In full swing, the plant can package 1,000 gallons in seven minutes.
And to make sure it all keeps running, Guida’s keeps $1 million worth of spare parts on hand for repairs, O’Hare says.
As the milk makes its way to the fillers, so do the bottles. Gallons and half gallons are blow-molded on site by Consolidated Container Co., which has leased space for the operation in the plant since the mid-1990s. Excess production is sold to other bottlers; other plastic containers like the 10- and 16-ouncers come from outside suppliers.
Filling equipment includes a new single-serve machine that allowed Guida’s to go from a standard bullet bottle to a new container with a full-body shrink-sleeve label sporting award-winning new graphics. Two other fillers handle 4-, 8- and 10-ounce paperboard cartons — emblazoned with updated graphics for school customers — at up to 680 units per minute. Two fully automated corrugated lines deliver packs of six or eight half-gallon bottles, with yet another line dedicated to gallons.
A robotics system is used for palletizing finished product. “We do a lot with a little bit of space,” O’Hare remarks.
Guida’s makes ice cream mix for its own brand of ice cream (made by a co-packer) as well as other frozen-dessert customers. The company also does a brisk business selling bulk fluid milk for yogurt and other products, as many as seven truckloads a day. “That’s been a good growth category for us,” O’Hare says.
Finished product makes its way to the cooler, which after a 2001 expansion tripled in size to about 60,000 square feet. “By tomorrow, this will be empty,” sales manager Dan Tegolini says, referring to a broad grouping of crated product stacked 12 high.
Most of the plant’s output reaches stores in the company’s own trucks, a fleet composed 50-50 of semis and straight trucks; Guida’s performs all its own fleet maintenance.
The company sends product as far as away as Ohio and North Carolina, as well as a Dunkin’ Donuts distribution facility in New Jersey, from where eastern franchisees backhaul milk and cream after dropping off supplies from New England.
Ongoing Challenges
Despite its 120-plus-year age, the Guida’s plant in New Britain is a modern facility that employs every possible labor-reducing device, Sliwinski says, including robotics for packing and palletizing, as well as tracks and pushing devices to automate every step of the operation.
O’Hare describes 2000, the year he started working at Guida’s, as the time “when we got big all of a sudden,” with expansions to accommodate new business. That was when the company converted to a bundler system with conveyors, he explains, resulting in “less manpower, more volume … [and] much more efficient on the loading side.”
Such changes have been essential to the survival of Guida’s in a market dominated by large, national players. “Recent innovations have allowed us to remain aggressive in a very competitive market,” Sliwinski says. “A combination of new technology and innovative ideas has allowed us to fulfill our customers’ requirements.”
The rising cost of plastic resin due to high petroleum prices has made it a challenge to consistently deliver plastic packages economically. Tegolini says this led Guida’s, as part of the “Milk Rocks!” program, to launch a 10-ounce paper carton for school milk. This, along with a streamlining of delivery routes, has made upward-climbing oil prices a little easier to swallow.
Meanwhile, much attention is paid to the safety and security of the plant, the products it makes and the people who make it.
Internet-based security cameras have been installed at strategic angles. O’Hare explains the cameras are wired through the plant’s telephone lines, a setup he says is not only inexpensive but allows plant managers, supplied with the right security codes, to tap into the cameras on their home computers.
The company’s quality assurance department has a vendor approval program that includes screening of incoming ingredients, monitoring of vendor compliance for issues such as annual third-party audits, allergen programs, kosher certification, nutrition analysis, food guarantee statements, lot control systems and certificates of analysis. “We have a three-strike program for all vendor compliance issues,” Sliwinski says.
Guida’s employs three separate outside auditing firms on an annual basis to monitor good manufacturing practices and food safety system compliance. “Our facility is a fully certified HACCP operation for both dairy and juice products,” Sliwinski says. “We employ a variety of innovative methods for controlling product quality and consistency in order to maintain the current 18-day shelf-life for our dairy products.”
This includes HEPA filtration for all pasteurized tank air inlets, filtered positive air pressure in processing areas, central environmental sanitizing systems, computerized temperature control systems and QMI sampling systems on all lines, fillers and pasteurized tanks. “Our processing and CIP systems are fully integrated for product protection and efficient operation,” Sliwinski says.
In all, this compact facility — tucked into a quiet, aging residential neighborhood in one of lower New England’s historic industrial centers — has done whatever’s been needed to stay nimble and modern, giving Guida’s an edge in a highly competitive market.