A manufacturing facility is like a living organism. Think of production, purchasing, warehousing and quality assurance as cells. Each of these departments has a job to do that in some way touches the other functions. Each has to communicate with the others so that the whole enterprise runs smoothly. The corporate culture is the DNA and it must be in every cell. If the culture is one of teamwork and communication, then the manufacturing process is healthy and will run smoothly. But if one department breaks down, the impact will ripple throughout the manufacturing process.

Teamwork is the DNA of Rhino Foods, Burlington, Vt. The company is big on communications. It needs to be because it is a multitasker. Besides making ice cream sandwiches, Rhino Foods bakes cheesecakes, brownies and cake pieces, and it extrudes cookie dough for use in ice cream.

It is a small company running two production shifts, where the product can change daily. Before they step onto the production floor, employees pass a bulletin board showing key performance indicators. The KPI are updated daily, and some are broken down by the hour. The results are there for all to see. Director of Operations Gene Steinfeld said the charts let employees know, “Did I win today?”

The system works. As an example, company founder and President Ted Castle points to its employee safety record. When the company was measuring safety and injuries, the number of recordable injuries decreased from three times the industry average to below the industry average over a three-year period.

Employees can earn monetary bonuses, time off or merchandise by hitting or exceeding targets. Management explains what the goals are, what they mean and why they are important. The goals change over time. When Dairy Foodsvisited, Rhino Foods was measuring expenses, sales, safety and performance to schedule. Someone would get a very good schooling in business by working here long enough and taking note of what is being measured, Castle said.

Rhino Foods has its headquarters and manufacturing facility in an industrial park in Burlington. A warehouse is six miles away. On the dairy side, Rhino Foods makes its own brand of super-premium frozen custard vanilla ice cream sandwiches (the Chesster) and co-packs for others. On the bakery side, Rhino Foods developed a single-serve cheesecake (one or two bites) for a co-packing account. On the ingredient side, the company made a name for itself by developing cookie dough inclusions for Ben & Jerry’s. From its co-packing relationships with H.J. Heinz, Nestle and Unilever, Rhino Foods learned world-class production procedures.

Rhino Foods built its production line for flexibility. The manufacturing room is used for baking and ice cream. Equipment is on casters; tables, fillers and conveyers can be rolled in as needed. Only the ovens, the spiral freezer and the mixers are in fixed positions. Such flexibility has allowed the company to grow, said Steinfeld. All employees are cross-trained on baking, cookie dough extrusion and ice cream processing.


Ice cream sandwiches

Rhino Foods buys ice cream mix from Perry’s Ice Cream, Akron, N.Y., and other dairies, delivered in 300-gallon totes to the manufacturing facility. (All other ingredients and supplies arrive at the warehouse.) Eight years ago, Rhino Foods invested $1 million to build a pasteurization room. The mix is re-pasteurized using the high temperature/short time process, homogenized and then pumped to one of two 3,000-gallon balance tanks.

Ice cream sandwiches are made on an indexing line with cookies placed on the bottom and topped by hand. The company can produce 150 sandwiches a minute. The company’s niche is as a manufacturer of premium handmade ice cream sandwiches. (In 2005, when it had a huge co-packing order, Rhino Foods made 25 million sandwiches — utilizing their semi-automated hand work process.) Associates put down the bottom cookie, the filler deposits a generous dollop of ice cream (Rhino Foods calls this a “pillow” of ice cream) and then the top cookie is applied by hand. This gives the sandwich a homemade look. The Japanese concept of “wabi- sabi” (imperfection) is said to offer value that a machine-made cookie does not have.

Completed sandwiches are conveyed through a spiral freezer where they are frozen for 20 minutes. Upon exiting the freezer, the sandwiches go through a packaging machine and then are placed by hand into cartons. The cartons are conveyed into a freezer room where an associate builds pallets. Completed pallets are loaded onto a company truck and then moved to the warehouse.

Baking brownies

On the day Dairy Foods visited, Rhino Foods was baking brownies. Ingredients were added by hand to 500-pound mixers. The batter was rolled to a station and poured into depositors. This equipment distributed portions onto sheets which were then placed on racks and wheeled to ovens lining one wall.

After baking, the brownies are removed from the oven, cooled and then wheeled to the spiral freezer station. Here, associates de-pan the brownies, cut them in half and send them into the spiral freezer. After 18 to 20 minutes in the freezer, the brownies move through a cutter, which sizes the pieces to the customer’s specifications. The pieces are starched (if required) and travel along a vibratory conveyor through a metal detector. Then they are conveyed to a packaging station (where a scale checks the net weight). The sealed packages are conveyed to the freezer and palletized like the ice cream sandwiches.

The plant runs two production shifts and one cleaning shift. Steinfeld praised the cleaning crew for its efficiency and effectiveness. If production runs late, the cleaning crew works to get the plant back on schedule. “We’ve never had a late start,” he said.

Quality Assurance Manager Lauren Kavanaugh said “we clean [the bakery equipment] as if it were a dairy.” Rhino Foods takes ATP swabs after cleaning and the floor is scrubbed clean. Even though the high heat of the ovens kills pathogens, the crew cleans this equipment vigorously, too, Kavanaugh said.

Teamwork is at the heart of Rhino Foods’ corporate culture. So it is not surprising that there is a cross-functional HACCP team (hazard analysis and critical control points). Kavanaugh said the company performed a gap analysis to see where it had to improve. It is aligning its practices with the British Retail Consortium standard. Some of Rhino Foods’ food safety procedures were developed with Heinz, Nestle and Unilever, which are or have been customers. (“We learn from the big food companies,” Kavanaugh said.)

Because Rhino Foods has some international customers, it has learned to work with European standards, especially those governing allergens. It has also had to find sources that offer GMO-free and fair trade ingredients.

The Vermont Department of Agriculture audits the plant quarterly and customers send in their own auditing teams. Rhino Foods itself does monthly self audits and holds mock recalls. The processor uses an outside lab for pathogen tests. The in-house lab tests the ice cream mix for fats, solids and other components.

Every day, a team of employees representing the production and sales departments gathers in the tasting room to grade the previous day’s output. The products are compared to a picture of the ideal. The team tastes the products and examines them for texture, size and other attributes. Finished product is on a positive release system. Products are automatically on hold until the quality assurance department releases them. Only the QA department can release product.


Storage and logistics

Rhino Foods built a warehouse because there was not enough freezer capacity in the state of Vermont, said Steinfeld. The warehouse has three bays; one is reserved for company trucks and the other two are used by customers picking up orders or vendors delivering supplies.

Rhino Foods leases two straight trucks. The drivers shuttle between the warehouse and the plant all day long. Drivers load their trucks at the warehouse. Associates at the plant off-load the trucks and load them up with the finished products that were palletized in the freezer room.

The plant has a pallet inverter which transfers the delivered goods from wooden pallets to plastic ones. Steinfeld said he feels the plastic pallets are cleaner and more appropriate for a manufacturing zone.

The warehouse consists of 22,000 square feet of storage. There is 10,000 square feet of frozen space maintained at -20 degrees F which accommodates 1,200 high and low pallet positions, and 850 square feet of refrigerated space kept at 40 degrees F. Both are alarmed and monitored. The remaining space is used for dry storage.

Pallet labeling is a part of Rhino Foods’ food safety program. Each carton is labeled with four bar codes, enabling Rhino Foods to trace by pallet number, purchase order number, item number or lot number.

The company follows lean manufacturing principles. Several employees are designated as a “water strider,” a term in lean manufacturing. These employees are liaisons between distribution and production. They support production by making sure all the ingredients and supplies are delivered on-time and in an orderly manner. The water strider generates the batter sheets, which are the recipes and processing sequences needed. This individual also serves an inventory control function. If production asked for 100 pounds of an ingredient and used only 90, the water strider asks why?


Made to measure

As noted previously, Castle follows the maxim “what gets measured gets done.” But Rhino Foods is not the only party with key performance indicators. Its customers prepare “report cards” on Rhino Foods’ performance, said Marketing Manager and Demand Planner Gillian Bell. Customers rate Rhino Foods on on-time delivery and completeness of orders. Rhino Foods has gained market share because of its performance, Bell said.

Listening to customers, communicating inside and outside the organization and working in unison have taken Rhino Foods to a market-leading position. Departments know their roles and see how they fit into the organization. For example, sales forecasts affect purchasing. Purchasing affects inventory levels. Product demand affects production. Production affects costs and first-time quality, and so on.

These good manufacturing practices have a ripple effect throughout the dairy industry. They are seen in every ice cream package with a cookie dough or a baked inclusion. The ripple starts in Burlington, Vt., and radiates outward across the globe.