The small town of Arkansas City, Kan. — also known as Ark City — is home to the Cowley County Waterfall, which Yahoo Travel included in its 2014 “Top 12 Most Beautiful Waterfalls in America” list. It is also home to a decidedly less touristy — but arguably equally fascinating — “attraction”: a KanPak US dairy processing facility that employs aseptic technologies to create custom shelf-stable liquid-based products for quick-service restaurants, retail and other customers.
Wichita, Kan.-based KanPak US is part of KanPak LLC, which includes KanPak China and is owned by Golden State Foods (GSF) of Irvine, Calif. The 110,000-square-foot Arkansas City facility is one of two aseptic processing plants KanPak US operates; the other facility is located in Penn Yan, N.Y.
Inside the plant, 268 employees work across three shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week to produce a variety of dairy and nondairy products, including soft-serve ice cream mix, coffee creamers, coffee-based beverages, nutritional drinks, milk, cream and more. The facility has the capacity to produce approximately 25 million gallons of product annually.
A unique soft-serve mix
During Dairy Foods’ visit, the plant was processing soft-serve ice cream mix. Milk for the ice cream mix and other dairy products is sourced locally and delivered to the plant a number of times each day via local farms and cooperatives, says Bryan Bartee, vice president, manufacturing operations for KanPak US.
To produce the mix, plant employees first gather the ingredients, including the milk, sugars and flavorings, he notes. They then schedule and “kit up” the ingredients that are to be blended into the batch tanks.
The liquid mix next undergoes ultra-high-temperature processing before it is aseptically packaged in bags on a sterilized filler. The bags get date coded and are placed into boxes, Bartee says, before being stacked and stored on pallets for controlled release to the customer.
The shelf-stable mix, which boasts a shelf life of six-plus months, does not need to be stored under cold conditions. The end user, typically a quick-service restaurant or retail customer, does the freezing when ready to use.
“KanPak offers unique processing of dairy products, allowing all product to be kept at ambient temperature,” Bartee explains. “The heat treatment and packaging kill enough bacteria so that milk, or similar products like soft-serve ice cream mix, won’t spoil for extended periods of time — months or even years.”
New bells and whistles
The Arkansas City plant was constructed in the 1960s, with the formation of the then family-owned KanPak LLC. The facility has received a number of upgrades and additions since then.
Most recently, the plant added five dairy silos (2017), a high-speed aseptic bottle filler and processing equipment (2018 and 2019) and an ultramodern 202,800-square-foot warehouse. According to the company, the warehouse boasts insulated load-bearing precast paneled construction, eight HVAC-variable-air-volume units, 33 dock positions, an early suppression/fast response sprinkler system and more.
“The proximity of the warehouse to our manufacturing plant increases efficiencies, and the elimination of a third-party facility allows KanPak to be a one-stop shop for our partners,” Bartee notes.
Inside the plant, KanPak also added new blending technologies that encompass high-speed batching and bottling, Bartee notes. And it now offers multiple styles of packaging to meet the evolving needs of its customers. In addition, the plant recently changed from running staggered lines to operating multiple lines at once.
“Organic growth from longtime customers and the onboarding of several new accounts has afforded us opportunities to produce more often and longer runs of multiple different formulas,” Bartee explains.
The new bells and whistles are welcome, but it is the company’s aseptic technology that is key to more efficient liquid packaging, shipping and storage, he adds.
“There are multiple advantages that aseptic processing and packaging provide,” Bartee explains. "They include the cost savings and decreased environmental impact of our shelf-stable products not requiring refrigeration during distribution and storage [and] ‘cleaner’ labels, as the process makes the use of preservatives unnecessary. … Additionally, small aseptic pouches create 25 times less waste than traditional packaging, reducing disposal costs and impact.”
No food-safety shortcuts
On the food safety side, the plant has a built-in advantage via its aseptic processing and packaging technologies. However, it goes well beyond those technologies to ensure it is producing the safest possible products.
For one thing, it has a crew that is dedicated solely to sanitation and housekeeping, Bartee says.
“Lines are cycled through main cleans, where every section is cleaned, sanitized and sterilized,” he adds. “This allows our regular staff to be proficient in both operation and cleaning. Additionally, we have no third-party vendors cleaning our equipment.”
And like all of GSF’s other liquid product manufacturing sites, the KanPak US Arkansas City plant is certified under the Global Food Safety Initiative, notes Bill Glover, director of quality, KanPak US.
“Our most recent 2021 audit with the British Retail Consortium, which reviews every aspect of food safety at a facility — from site standards to incident management procedures — resulted in the ‘A’ rating,” he adds.
The facility also relies on other internal and external audits to monitor and maintain quality and food standards, Glover notes. In addition, it has a fully staffed on-site quality assurance laboratory that scrutinizes quality across not only the production process, but also finished products.
The products are produced under the framework of the plant’s food safety plan, he adds. That plan relies on a risked-based analysis for the identification of potential hazards and specific mitigation protocols.
“The primary means for product monitoring are our food safety plan, in conjunction with the policies and procedures outlined in our quality system, which is a combination of laboratory testing and line evaluations,” Glover says. “Some of our typical laboratory analyses include total solids, pH and fat analysis, as well as a number of customer-specific tests we can conduct, depending on product.”
The Arkansas City plant does have a couple of food safety challenges, however.
“The seasonality of milkfats, along with adapting to extreme changes in weather, can be difficult challenges to overcome,” Glover says. “KanPak has added heating and cooling redundancy in many areas to ensure employee comfort and product stability.”
A ‘unique, small town culture’
KanPak US’ Arkansas City plant also prioritizes the safety, wellbeing and career growth of its employees.
“Our safety culture is deep-rooted with fantastic employees who care for each other and equipment alike to ensure safe operation of the facility,” Bartee says.
To promote safety and optimize production, the plant aims to hire the “best and brightest,” no matter the job’s skill level. KanPak US seeks out new hires that not only are energetic and possess excellent interpersonal skills, but also demonstrate the capability of becoming a leader, Bartee says. They must have at least a high school diploma or GED and have two to three years of equivalent experience.
Once hired, employees will find a “unique, small town culture” within the plant that celebrates its collective employees’ work ethic daily, Bartee says. In addition, those employees who wish to take on more responsibility will find plenty of “opportunities and pathways for career exploration, growth and training.”
As part of GSF, KanPak US is driven by its Creed and Values, and the Arkansas City plant is no exception. “We treat others how we’d want to be treated and maintain the highest standards for ourselves and our associates,” Bartee stresses. “These are not just words on a website or lobby wall, but truly reflect the way we do business and the positive changes we want to make in the world every day.”