When Delray Beach, Fla.-based Franklin Foods was looking to expand, the company never imagined building its second plant in Casa Grande, Ariz. Admittedly it’s not the first place that comes to mind when you think of a dairy state. But that’s exactly what Franklin Foods found: big business dairy farms, a transportation hub and a booming manufacturing community.

Franklin Foods CEO and President Jon Gutknecht said the company couldn’t be more pleased with its newest location and the partnership it has formed with United Dairymen of Arizona, the local dairy cooperative that supplies the milk.

Since opening in 2013, the Casa Grande plant has surpassed production of the company’s other plant in Enosburg Falls, Vt. As of March, the weekly volume from Arizona exceeds Vermont’s by 10%. 

Franklin Foods’ output is 40% branded and 60% private label and co-packed. Franklin Foods’ brands include Green Mountain Farms and Hahn’s. Customers are retailers, private label and co-pack accounts, foodservice, industrial ingredients, custom applications and export.(See related article)

The plant, which is Safe Quality Foods (SQF) Level 3-certified, processes and packages almost all of the dairy processor’s products: cultured cream cheese, Greek cream cheese, Mascarpone, flavored dips and spreads, Baking Cheeze Blend (a cream cheese alternative blend), reduced-fat, Neufchatel cheese, whipped cream cheese, organic cream cheese and yogurt and cream cheese. Baker’s Cheese is made exclusively in the Vermont plant. The Arizona plant produces about 750,000 to 1 million pounds of cheese a week, depending on the time of year. 

It was through the United Dairymen of Arizona that Gutknecht first learned of the possibilities in Arizona, including the existing building that was available.  When Gutknecht was looking for a new location, he received a phone call from Keith Murfield, CEO of United Dairymen of Arizona.

“Keith asked me why I had not been in Arizona and I thought it was kind of interesting,” Gutknecht said. “He convinced me to come out, and he brought me to Casa Grande out to the farms, and I was blown away.”

Gutknecht described the milk supplies in Casa Grande as “wonderful.”

“I had no idea what was going on in Arizona. The farms out here are mega farms,” said Gutknecht. “To put it in perspective, the farm that supplies us [here] has 14,000 animals, whereas in the Northeast, where we’re from, you’re looking at an average size farm of 250 cows. Here it’s big, big business.”

The company gets its milk from a few different farms that are part of the co-op, the closest being only nine miles away. Since the company is a big user of cream, it also needed a good cream source. As it turned out, United Dairymen has a plant (and its headquarters) in Tempe, Ariz., where it separates the milk. This became Franklin’s cream source, and the marriage between the two companies came together perfectly.

The perfect set up

As if the milk source wasn’t enough good luck, the company lucked out again with the existing building it moved into, which had been the home of Arizona Dairy Ingredients, a milk powder blending operation. The building was the perfect footprint and layout for what was needed, with room to grow. The plant was referred to as the “football field” by several executives I spoke with during my visit in March. 

The interior was gutted and the company built everything it needed, including a new receiving bay. New tanks, silos and packaging equipment were installed, as well as new high-efficiency cooling for a new refrigerated cooler. It was also updated with automated production technology via Rockwell Factory Talk and HMI (Human Machine Interface) panels, which are located throughout the plant, and a new SAP system — Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). The company actually implemented this system company-wide before the new plant was up and running, a task Gutknecht described as difficult but very beneficial. With this new technology and the long and linear set up, Vice President and General Manager John Ovitt said “we’ve improved everything with the operation of this plant.”

The size of the plant (it totals 90,000 square feet) is deceiving upon first view from the front; it’s not obvious how big it really is. The lawn feels very Southwestern with its light-red dirt and pebbles, large cactuses and other various desert-like brush. The front of the building has a red-orange roof and is lower than the rest of the building. This front building is where the main offices and lobby reside. From there the building extends far back into the property where the plant is located. The company employs 37 full-time and 16 part-time people, and runs 24/5 during the non-busy season (May-July; Jan/Feb) and 24/7 during the busy season (August-December; March/April).

“We have a lot of room to expand. But the other thing that got us out here was really the personnel. The people in Casa Grande have been very hard working people, just really solid,” Gutknecht said. “And there is a lot of dairy here. Between Daisy and the new Ehrmann’s plant which was built after us, next to us.”

Ehrmann USA, which produces yogurt, has a plant located next door to Franklin Foods, and Daisy Brand, which produces sour cream and cottage cheese, has a plant just down the road in the opposite direction.

He continued, “There is just a lot of infrastructure, so when something happens in the plant you can literally go to Phoenix within an hour or two and have any parts we need or anything else, whereas in Vermont we have to stop, because it’s days away.” 

Ovitt actually oversees both the Arizona and Vermont plants. He has a home in Arizona and a home back in Vermont where he’s from and where his wife lives and works as a school teacher. He travels back and forth, one week there, one week here. I asked him if he finds this challenging. “You get used to it,” he said. His wife spends her vacations with him in Arizona.

When I sat down with members of management before touring the plant, the impression given was that Ovitt was the glue that holds the two plants together. The company’s goal is to act like a “single-plant company.” The two plants are not separate entities; they work together, according to Ovitt and Gutknecht. Every day representatives from both plants get on the phone for a customer service meeting to coordinate, make necessary changes and to problem-solve together as a team. Ovitt is always a part of this call. Ovitt said the phone call keeps everyone in check and on the same page. The meeting is so streamlined now, that what once took hours is now down to about 15 minutes.

Gutknecht emphasized how important this meeting is. Rocco Cardinale, vice president of marketing, added that for some companies, these are details that could get buried in a bunch of back-and-forth emails. 

Making the cream cheese

About four to five milk trucks and two cream trucks arrive daily. A sample of milk is taken from each truck and sent to the lab to be tested for antibiotics and aflatoxin. It usually takes about 20 minutes to get the result. Once the milk is cleared that it is up to quality standards, the truck is unloaded. It takes about 30 minutes to unload a tanker of milk and about 1 hour to unload cream. Cleaning can take about 35 to 40 minutes, and then the empty truck is sent on its way.

From the receiving room, milk and cream are pumped to the process room and stored in silos outside the building. Cardinale pointed out the over two miles of stainless steel piping that was newly installed along the ceiling for pumping the milk.

The plant has one large on-site lab. After the initial testing, the company then performs analytical tests that are needed for formulation, explained Ovitt.

“We test butter fat, total solids and proteins. Then we can do the formula,” said Ovitt. 

He explained that each cow gives different amounts of fat, protein and solids, so every load of milk is different. The company will create a formula to standardize it. Once the formula is ready, the milk is ready to be processed.

In the process room, the milk and cream are mixed together and put through the pasteurizer. The safe lactic bacteria-producing cultures are added and the mixture sits for 10 to 12 hours, breaking down the pH.  The mixture is then reheated and put through a separator to separate the curds and whey.

“Just like Miss Muffet, there’s curds and whey,” Ovitt said, referencing the famous nursery rhyme. I thought this was a funny but successful way to remember this particular process.

The curds are pumped to the homogenizer and the whey goes into the whey room where it’s further processed into cattle feed for dairy cows at one of the farms that supplies its milk.

The finished curds, or “white cheese” as Ovitt called it, are pumped across to the fill room. This is where any additional ingredients for flavors would be added before filling and packaging. The company runs the plain first and flavored at the end, if it’s scheduled for that day. Ovitt said they typically produce about 90% plain and 10% flavored. The Green Mountain Farms Greek cream cheese is available in strawberry, blueberry, jalapeno and onion & chive flavors.

On the day Dairy Foods visited, the company was making and packaging Green Mountain Farms Greek plain cream cheese and Hahn’s plain cultured cream cheese. The plant produces cultured cream cheese and Greek yogurt in the same process room. The company then uses a patented proprietary process to combine the Greek yogurt and cream cheese to make Greek cream cheese. This process and formulations naturally result in a product that performs like regular cream cheese but has 50% less fat, four times the protein and half the cholesterol.

Over in the fill room, several packaging lines were running on the day I visited. The room has four filling lines. Greek cream cheese was being packaged in 8-ounce bricks and the whipped version in 8-ounce plastic containers for retail. Hahn’s product was packaged in 3-pound bars and 30-pound lined boxes for foodservice customers. 

Next to the fill room is the dry storage room, where all cartons and packages are formed and conveyed back in to the fill room. Assembling packaging in a room separate from the packaging room line is a good manufacturing process, Ovitt said, because packaging can be dirty and emit dust and particles.

Back in the fill room, the empty cartons come in and are fed into the filling lane. The filler forms a foil pouch which is inserted into the box. The pouch is filled with cream cheese, folded over and sealed twice. Foil is used for the bricks and film is used for the 3-pound bars. 

The sealed product is conveyed to the packaging room (which also includes more dry storage), where it’s coded and then packed into a master case. An inkjet message that includes a production date code and product name is sprayed on the side and the case is palletized and sent to the cold storage room.  The company’s cold storage room is about 33,000 square feet. It holds the ingredients and finished product. 

Product is typically stored from seven to 10 days in the cooler before shipping, according to Ovitt. The Greek cream cheese is held for a minimum of five days for cooling, before being shipped nationwide and worldwide to retail customer distribution centers. 

Safety and efficiency equals quality 

Safety is very important to Franklin Foods. New employees go through a training certification program. This training is on everything from job duties to blood-borne pathogens, confined space and protective equipment. The plant has a monthly meeting where quality training (quality issues, customer complaints) is part of what’s discussed and a refresher on safety training always takes place.

A HACCP plan has been implemented. The plant is inspected by local, state and federal agencies. It also participates in third-party audits, kosher inspections and customer inspections. 

The plant is laid out to meet SQF Level 3 certification. A key feature of the facility is the segregation of process areas from packaging and flow of personnel to insure the highest levels of food safety and quality throughout the process, according to Ovitt and Cardinale. Employees have a separate entrance on the west side of the building. They change into fresh uniforms and footwear every day upon arrival before entering production areas. Nothing from the outside goes into the plant, said Ovitt.

On the morning Dairy Foods visited, the company had another SQF audit and was re-certified as SQF Level 3 again, with a score of 96, which is excellent, according to Ovitt. 

The plant is cleaned and sanitized throughout the day and evening.  The chemical tank room houses chemicals like caustic acid and sanitizer, which the company uses most to clean its equipment, something that’s done typically after every set. The plant has a fully integrated and computerized CIP system which monitors and records connectivity, wash, rinse, and sanitize times and cycles.

In the lab, testing falls into three categories: microbiological, analytical and environmental. A preventive approach is taken, with product tested hourly from the line. Lab personnel look for proper pH and moisture levels, check weights and do organoleptic analysis (taste testing, etc.). The lab technician, quality manager and production supervisor all participate in sampling product.  Other tests performed include yeast, mold coliform and TPC (total plate count). Retains are kept for shelf-life testing. Any pathogen or Listeria testing that is required is sent to an off-site, third-party lab.

To keep things efficient and make communication easier, all department heads (Kelsea Monks, SQF practitioner/QAQS coordinator/Lab; Brian Ledding, production manager; and Nick Lacharite, inventory specialist) work out of the lab. Their desks lined one wall. 

Sustainable practices and the future          

With the ultra-filtration and reverse osmosis systems used for whey processing, the company doesn’t waste anything. The company uses the protein internally, while the UF permeate goes into reverse osmosis where it is consolidated. As mentioned earlier, the whey is used as cattle feed.

“[The farm doesn’t] have to buy quite as much corn. The whey gives the cows energy, so it really is symbiotic,” said Ovitt.  

Looking to the future, the company already has plans to expand in this location, starting with a second clean room in 2016 to increase the filling capacity of the plant.   


Franklin Foods, Casa Grande, Ariz.

  • Year plant opened: 2013
  • Size: 90,000 square feet on 7 acres
  • 37 full-time and 16 part-time employees
  • Products made and formats: Direct-set cream cheese, cultured cream cheese, mascarpone,  Greek cream cheese, Neufchatel, Baking Cheeze Blend, flavored cream cheeses. Product is available in: 1-ounce portion cups, 8-ounce bars and cups, 3-pound bars, 5-pound tubs and 30-pound boxes.
  • Total processing capacity: 70,000,000 pounds
  • Number of shifts: 2-3 shifts per day, 5-7 days/week
  • Storage silos: 3 raw milk, 4 cheese
  • Pasteurization type: High-Temperature Short Time
  • Number of filling lines/types: 4 filling lines; 8-ounce bar, cup line, 3-pound bar, 5-pound bulk line, 30-pound bulk line.
  • Warehouse size: Approximately 30,000 square feet, approximately 2,100 pallet positions; using 3 bays, expandable to 10.  

Photos by Vito Palmisano Photography