Scoops of Bakersfield

by James Dudlicek

Massive California plant helps our Processor of the Year maintain market dominance.
“If you won’t eat your own product, you shouldn’t be selling it to somebody else,” Mark McLenithan says, offering yet another fresh-off-the-line treat for tasting. That’s the reasoning behind his encouragement of product tasting by line employees at the Bakersfield Operations Center of Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream.
And that’s a lot of ice cream to taste. “We remind people we’re the biggest producer in the system,” McLenithan, the plant manager, says. “But at the end of the day, we make ice cream. We’re making people happy. You’ve got to keep that in perspective.”
The folks in Bakersfield are making a lot of people happy, seeing as how the plant — since a $100 million expansion completed in 2005 — is one of the largest ice cream manufacturing facilities in the world (the similarly massive Dreyer’s plant in Laurel, Md., vies for the top as well).
A couple of fun facts to show how big: 90 percent of all Push-Up novelties sold in the United States are made in Bakersfield, as are 75 percent of the Drumstick sundae cones. Unable to confirm an exact figure, it's still safe to say a heck of a lot of the ice cream being eaten in the United States is coming out of the Bakersfield plant; Dreyer’s parent company Nestlé sells nearly 18 percent of the ice cream worldwide.
Product Diversity
“You can pretty much make any product you want in this room,” McLenithan says during a visit to the mix room. The continuous-batching system creates the bases for every product made in the plant among its 81 tanks with a capacity totaling just under 500,000 gallons. Mixes are HTST pasteurized before they’re piped out among the 28 production lines.
Two of those lines in particular are unique to Dreyer’s: Slow Churned and Dibs, two products introduced within the past few years that continue to experience wild success.  The proprietary technology is under careful watch, and Dairy Field was not allowed to photograph the more sensitive aspects of these lines.
Basically, Slow Churned is a unique processing technique that stretches the butterfat molecules, resulting in a lower-fat product with a taste and texture nearly identical to regular ice cream. The bite-size Dibs snacks are made with a sort of extrusion process that results in tiny frozen pieces of ice cream that are enrobed in chocolate coatings and packed in cups and tubs.
“Every single product on this line is validated for allergens,” McLenithan says, pointing out the camera on the Dibs line that takes a 360-degree photograph of every package to ensure every variety of the snack ends up in the correct container. This process virtually guarantees, for example, that a product containing nuts will not end up in a package without the proper allergen warning. After posing for pictures, Dibs travel up a spiral accumulator to the case-packing room on the level above.
Other products in the Dreyer’s stable of brands are less secretive in nature but no less important to the company’s continuing success. “When I bring my kids for a visit, the first thing they want is a Push-Up,” McLenithan remarks. “Then they want an ice cream sandwich.”
As noted above, nearly every Push-Up frozen novelty sold in the United States owes its existence to the Bakersfield plant, as do three-quarters of all Drumsticks as well as 100 percent of Carnation-branded vanilla ice cream sandwiches.
And if frozen novelties are the most fun to eat, a close second has to be watching them being made, by the dozens every minute. Push-Up’s trademark paperboard tubes are manually loaded for filling, then boxed and conveyed to the freezer. Trays of 40 cones each are placed into the eight-lane Drumstick machine, which methodically sprays the inside of each cone with chocolate, fills them with a dollop of ice cream (some with caramel centers), dips them in chocolate and tops them with chopped nuts before they’re wrapped and boxed. Flat-top cones are foil-wrapped and are filled with ice cream and caramel sauce in rows of six before they’re lifted robotically in rows of three into trays.
There’s still some handwork involved with making Skinny Cow round ice cream sandwiches. “They used to do the whole thing by hand on a soft-serve machine,” McLenithan explains. Each sandwich passes through a hardener before they’re packed by hand into plastic clamshell boxes, a step that McLenithan says will eventually be automated. The boxes are then labeled and shrink-wrapped.
Still having fun? Then come watch Nestlé Crunch ice cream bars being made. The stick novelties are dipped in chocolate mixed with crispy rice before they’re wrapped and packaged. Fruit Bars are made in 24-wide molds; finished bars are perodically checked for weight and volume. McLenithan notes with pride that the Dreyer’s Fruit Bars contain mostly fruit and fruit juice, unlike many competitors’ products.
Rounding out production is the Dreyer’s flagship Grand line of 1.75-quart round containers. Every 30 minutes, a carton is plucked from the line for a random cutting. The sample is tested for taste, appearance and consistency of inclusion distribution, McLenithan explains. “Every carton should be the same — every scoop should be the same,” he says. “It’s all about delivering a better product than the other guy, every single time. Not most of the time — every time.”
Finished cartons spend some time in the 31-foot-tall spiral hardener at -65 degrees F, a stark contrast to the nearby Mojave Desert, a mere 45-minute drive away and home to some of the hottest temperatures in North America. Ice cream leaves the hardener to be palletized for shipment.
Safety and Security
Food safety is a high priority at the Bakersfield plant from the moment one steps foot on the plant floor. At each point of ingress is an automatic hand-washing station, at which hands are placed into rotating cylinders for thorough cleansing and drying cycles.
McLenithan makes it clear that Dreyer’s spares little expense in setting standards for safety and quality that are well beyond mandated minimums. The 360 camera on the Dibs line is one example; another is a complex cluster of mix-proof valves that helps navigate the flow of mixes to each production line.
“This is something Dreyer’s chose to do to protect its products,” McLenithan says, Leak-proof technology eliminates the possibility of cross-contamination within the $250,000 valve cluster. “Processing is about how to apply technology to make a safer and better product for the consumer. We lead the industry. If you follow, you’re always behind.”
That attention to detail is also exemplified by the plant’s equipment cleaning room, built with stainless-steel walls to ensure sanitary conditions. “It’s about a level of detail that results in value to your consumers,” McLenithan says. “If I’m spending time painting a wall, I’m not figuring out ways to make better ice cream.”
McLenithan says the dairy industry in general and Dreyer’s in particular historically have a great food safety record. “Our systems have always been very good on food safety and allergen compliance. We use technology to improve that process,” he says. “From a safety standpoint, our industry is more aware of food risk. In dairy, we’ve always been aware of microbial concerns, which creates a heightened sense of awareness of contamination.”
Efforts to ensure employee safety are obviously paying off as well; all Dreyer’s plants routinely win safety awards from the International Dairy Foods Association.
McLenithan describes the Dreyer’s safety program as a “bottom up” philosophy designed to encourage employees to take an active role. “If people do it because they believe in it, you get a better result,” he says. “It ties into the Dreyer’s ‘I can make a difference’ philosophy. A thousand people work in this building. If we can motivate a thousand people to do their jobs better, that’s a powerful tool.”
Line employees sport patches on their sleeves designating their earned responsibilities and achievements, including Safety Employee of the Year. “If you want your people to be drivers of your business results, why would safety not be important? Our systems are all about having a safe work environment,” McLenithan says. “There’s three givens here: safety, quality and the Grooves. Goals and priorities change; grooves never change.”
There are four business units within the plant — “four factories under one roof,” McLenithan says — each overseeing different aspects of operations. The mix room supports the four production units: East Snacks, responsible for all Drumstick production; Central Snacks, responsible for all specialty novelities; West Snacks, responsible for all molded and extruded bars; and the packaging unit that is responsible for everything that’s put in containers. 
Each unit has its own daily pre-shift meeting to discuss each day’s projects and the previous day’s results. “The more timely the information, the more accurate, the closer it is to the people who need it, the more useful it is,” McLenithan says.
Dreyer’s uses a “robust screening process” to select new team members. Background checks on candidate as well as multiple rounds of interviews help “to guarantee we have the best people inside our walls,” McLenithan explains.
Those walls are highly secure as well, even more so since 9/11, as has become commonplace throughout the industry. All visitors must sign in at the front gate and are escorted through the facility, and guest passes expire after 24 hours, their validity illustrated by special inks that change color after a day.
“The hardest part of change is how much an organization can handle,” McLenithan says, reflecting on how much the Bakersfield plant has grown during its nearly 20-year history. Beginning with 73 employees in 1988, the work force rose to 460 employees by 2003; it’s climbs to 1,100 during peak production times since the 2005 expansion, which brought the plant’s size from 248,000 to 600,000 square feet — like six football fields under one roof. In 2003, the plant manufactured 80 SKUs, now it’s 300. Annual volume had increased 250 percent to 100 million gallon dozens.
In ingredients used, Bakersfield and a sister plant just up Highway 99 in Tulare together use 100 million pounds of sugar a year, along with 38 million pounds of butterfat and 36 million pounds of dairy solids, McLenithan says.
“All this change at one time, it doesn’t happen without some growing pains,” he says. “But it wouldn’t have occurred without great people. At the end of the day, your people make or break you.”
Incorporating all sorts of new processing technology, like Slow Churned and Dibs, is a challenge as well, and one that McLenithan relishes. “I think it’s fun. [In other industries,] you can sit in a factory where nothing changes and it’s boring. Here, we push the envelope on what we create to impart taste, texture and shape,” he says. “Our job is not to be the same old thing. It’s to create value for the consumer through taste and texture.”
He adds: “There’s nothing out there we don’t know how to make. If we can’t do it now, there’s equipment we can retrofit.”
Much of the inspiration comes from the Dreyer’s R&D facility next door, with its own pilot plant which, at 69,000 square feet, is as large as many ice cream manufacturers’ actual workaday plants. “The pilot plant can product more product than a lot of medium-size factories, and that’s just for innovation,” McLenithan says. “If you’re going to be a leader, you have to constantly innovate in the category.”
And an important part of innovation, he says, is motivating the work force to be actively engaged in the process. “All these things create a nimble organization,” he says.
McLenithan says what fascinates him most about food manufacturing is that strong human factor, a big different from the steel industry where he began his career 23 years ago. “When people ask me what I do, I say, ‘I work at the interface between man and machine,’” he says. “Dreyer’s and Nestlé are rare in that they truly value their people — your opinion is valued. It’s why people come here and stay here. They can make a difference. And it doesn’t hurt to be able to say you work for one of the biggest ice cream plants on the planet.”
Location: Bakersfield, Calif.
Year opened: 1988; expansion in 2005.
Size: 600,000 square feet on 47-acre site.
Employees: 1,100 at peak operation.
Products made: Ice cream, frozen yogurt, novelties, frozen snacks, totaling 300 SKUs. Products include Slow Churned®, Dibs®, Nestlé Drumstick® and Push-Up®, and The Skinny Cow®.
Capacity: 100 million gallon dozens.
Processing lines: 28
Storage: 500,000 gallons liquid, 23,000 pallet spaces frozen.