A cutting in an ice cream plant is rather like reading the reviews after the opening-night performance of a concert. The quality control team (the critics) looks at the finished product and packaging created by the production team (the orchestra). QC reviews whether the process went according to plan.

When Dairy Foods visited the novelty plant of Mars Chocolate North America one morning this year, various ice cream novelties had been arrayed on cutting boards on a table in a room overlooking a packaging line. The administrative offices and the plant of Mars’ ice cream division are co-located in the same building in Burr Ridge, Ill., a southwest suburb of Chicago.

Representatives from manufacturing, marketing, research and development, and administration were looking at Dovebar stick novelties, Snickers bars and cones, Twix bars and the brand new Milky Way bar.

Craig Hall, the general manager of Ice Cream for Mars Chocolate North America, explained that every morning a Quality Assurance team pulls product randomly from the previous day’s manufacturing output. The team checks packaging for dents, improper alignment and smeared date codes. Then it cuts open the novelties and inspects for conformance to standards.

A Dovebar lay on a cutting board. Laurie Winward checked the swirl pattern running through the new peppermint ice cream stick novelty. She broke the outer chocolate shell to listen for a satisfying crunch and checked that the stick was inserted to the proper depth. Winward is the R&D director for Ice Cream.

Winward and her colleagues were still tweaking the Milky Way bar in January, which will be released in March. The chocolate ice cream has a ribbon of caramel on top and the bar is enrobed in chocolate. Winward was not yet satisfied with the swirls and other cosmetic details in the coating.

She then inspected a Snickers cone, looking for at least nine peanut pieces on top of the ice cream, along with a coating of chocolate. The standard is not 100% coverage by the chocolate; some vanilla ice cream must be visible. Why? Because consumers have told Mars that they expect to see ice cream when they unwrap an ice cream cone.


Satisfying customers and consumers

Mars does nothing without a reason. It consults with its customers (retailers) and with consumers (the customers of retailers). The ice cream division holds consumer focus groups at its office to discuss flavors, formats, snacking occasions or any other issue that affects ice cream consumption. Before it can create a product, it has to know consumer attitudes, likes and dislikes.

Conversations with retailers tend to center around developing branded novelties that will turn over quickly and not languish in freezers. Truthfully, that has not been a problem for Mars. Dollar sales in the frozen novelty segment were up 3.5%, and unit sales were down less than half of one percent in the 52-week period ended Oct. 30, 2011, according to the Chicago-based market research firm Symphony/IRI. Ellen Thompson, marketing director for Ice Cream, Combos Snacks & Kudos Granola Bars, says the ice cream division outperformed the category. Privately held Mars Inc. does not report revenues.