With 175 years under its belt, dairy giant HP Hood LLC knows a thing or two about making dairy products. It operates 13 plants across New England to create its numerous product lines.

And its 153,000-square-foot Suffield, Conn., facility has the distinction of being where the company crafts its plethora of ice cream offerings. The plant produces 20 types of ice cream mix, “from sherbet, to yogurt, to low-fat ice cream, to regular ice cream, to premium ice cream,” at this location alone, notes Peter Fabbri, plant manager. All told, the plant manufactures approximately 350 SKUs — amounting to 40,000,000 units of ice cream and 40,000,000 ice cream sandwiches a year.

The products produced at the Suffield facility have changed over the years. About 15 years ago, Hood decided to stop producing frozen novelties, Fabbri notes. However, the plant recently re-added ice cream sandwiches — in both mini and regular sizes — to its operations. The plant continues to change to meet the market demands and the ever-changing workforce.

Flavored ‘the old-fashioned’ way

Operations begin in raw receiving, where the plant unloads milk tankers five days a week, Fabbri notes. 

“All our milk is sourced locally, from farms in both New York and Massachusetts,” he adds.

The facility also receives other raw goods in this part of the plant, including cream, condensed skim milk (most of which it gets from Hood’s other plants) and three types of liquid sweeteners. It operates six receiving bays.

“So in total, we have six liquid ingredients that we receive via tanker trucks, and they get unloaded into various holding tanks at the facility” Fabbri explains.

All ingredients go through a rigid testing process before being utilized in the product generation for all ice cream products.

“So the recipe is generated, the batches created and then made, and we automatically meter in all the liquid ingredients into one of five blend tanks,” he says.

Once the mix has made it into a blend tank, any dry ingredients a recipe might call for are incorporated via a liquefier blender, Fabbri notes. It takes about 15 minutes to build a batch, and afterward it is ready to be pasteurized/homogenized via the plant’s high-temperature/short-time system.

“The ice cream mix then is delivered to any one of 16 pasteurized storage tanks at the plant,” he adds.

“We have two lines producing sqrounds, one line that produces quarts, one line that produces a three-gallon bulk container, and then we have another work center that produces ice cream sandwiches,” Fabbri adds.

At the work centers, plant employees use a combination of high-tech and low-tech processes to create flavors. Each work center has six flavor vats, and operators employ the “flavor center” — a proprietary software system — to pull up a given flavor’s recipe. However, while operators use the software as a reference point, the mixes are flavored “the old-fashioned way,” by hand, Fabbri emphasizes.

“Once you have a flavored ice cream mix in the 200-gallon vat, it's ready to create ice cream mix to be delivered to the freezers.”

Freeze and package it 

The ice cream mix goes through an initial freeze, which transforms it into a soft-serve consistency, he notes. After this step, any ice cream that is a straight flavor goes directly to the filler, while recipes that call for variegates or inclusions travel to an ingredient feeder.

“So those inclusions are automatically metered, based on a formula, into that ice cream stream continuously,” Fabbri says. “If we're adding a variegate, it's the same thing.”

Once the ice cream makes it through the filler, a lid is applied and stamped with an inkjet code containing the expiration date, the time it was produced and the line on which it was manufactured. Any Hood-branded products also contain “the filler operator’s name as part of the code,” Fabbri explains.

The products are then weighed and travel through a vision system that checks that the right lid has been placed on the right container, which is an important step because of the potential allergens at the Suffield facility, Fabbri notes.

“We take a picture of every single cup and lid that goes down the line to make sure they match. And if they don't match, it gets automatically rejected,” he adds. “We also put a tamper-evident band on every cup and lid for food safety purposes. All of our ice cream goes through a metal detector. And then we go through a bundler, which basically shrink wraps six containers together to form a case of ice cream.”

After the ice cream is packaged, it travels through one of three blast freezers to complete a hard freeze. The plant has two spiral blast freezers and one tray blast freezer; the products are frozen between -30 and -40 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on which freezer is used.

“We're going from approximately 22 degrees [Fahrenheit] core temperature to a zero-degree core temperature when it comes out,” Fabbri explains. “When it comes out, it's like a brick.”

After exiting the freezer, the ice cream is palletized and moved into cold storage before it travels through Hood’s distribution channels.  

On top of new technology

Hood strives to continually update its plant to include the latest technology, Fabbri notes. For example, the facility regularly replaces its ice cream fillers, freezers and ingredient feeders with the newest equipment. The technology Fabbri says he’s most proud of in the plant is its aforementioned flavor center.

Another piece of software the plant uses is Rockwell Automation’s FactoryTalk, which helps the facility track efficiencies. Operators put in production and downtime data, and the plant can use this information to make decisions.

In terms of near-future expenditures, Fabbri says Hood will focus on buying items that will increase the plant’s sustainability, including “LED lighting, new energy-efficient boilers, new energy-efficient air compressors [and] energy-efficient ammonia compressors.” There also is a plan to eventually invest in new mix-proof valve technology.

“But at the end of the day, ice cream is an old technology,” he points out. “And there's really only like incremental improvements you can do to it.”

Focus on training

To ensure both food and employee safety, the facility conducts regular trainings, Fabbri says. It also has a dedicated environmental health and safety (EHS) manager who reports to a regional EHS director, and there is a senior director who manages EHS at all Hood plants.

“Written programs for all aspects of EHS and quality are implemented across all facilities,” explains Dave Crowley, senior director, EHS. “All written programs require employees to be trained on their job responsibilities. Each processing plant has established a safety committee, as well as a quality action team, some locations combine the two teams together.”

Fabbri adds that all training is conducted locally at each plant, following OSHA guidelines on the subject matter.

“Because we are SQF level 3, all food safety training is conducted by our [quality assurance] staff regularly to ensure human and food safety,” he points out.

All new hires go through a “robust onboarding training process” that includes safety trainings, and Hood also has monthly staff trainings on rotating topics.

“It depends on the month whether we [are] going to focus on allergens or food safety or HazCom or you know, safe lifting,” Fabbri says.

Recently, Hood added training manager positions to its plants, Crowley says. People in this role work to refine existing training materials.

“Training managers also serve in the capacity as a coach and mentor to [ensure] designated trainers at each site are guided to follow best practices in training,” he adds. 

Hood also focuses a lot of training on ergonomics to help prevent workplace injuries, Crowley explains.

“Part of the ergonomic efforts include periodic in-person employee training, demonstrations and safety observations,” he notes. “The safety observation program is a combination of peer-to-peer observations, as well as observations conducted by supervisors and managers.”

On-site testing

Hood ensures food safety and customer satisfaction through the stringent guidelines it follows before releasing a product from its plant, Fabbri notes. Once the ice cream mix has been pasteurized, it is tested for “chemical and physical and micro.” The product is also sampled throughout production, Fabbri says.

“It's tested for flavor, appearance, texture and also micro, including Listeria,” he says. “We also have to ensure that all the required documentation is intact before it's released since we are SQF. And then every day, everything that we made the prior day is evaluated by the lab.”   

The plant operates an on-site lab where it conducts most testing, explains Jonathan Fischer, group vice president, food safety, quality and regulatory, and it uses third-party labs to “over-check” its processes and verify its results.

“Our internal evaluations in our facility laboratory [are] designed to understand compliance to regulated food safety standards,” he says. “Our teams consistently monitor the manufacturing environment, our sanitation practices, our in-process controls, and we evaluate our finished goods to [ensure] compliance with public health expectations and the high quality standards we have had throughout our 175-year history.”

Products aren’t released from the plant until all micro and pathogen tests are completed satisfactorily, Fischer notes.

“Our quality systems at our facility are established to monitor, measure and control all aspects of our ice cream processes across the integrated supply chain, from raw materials compliance up to and including customer delivery,” he adds.

Hiring from within 

While there’s not a set career path for plant employees, there is a typical progression for employees who want to move up within the plant hierarchy, Fabbri explains. Most new hires start as what Hood calls “machine tenders,” which means that they work one of the easier lines such as packaging or ingredient addition.

“Once they have a couple of years' experience machine tending, then they're eligible to be promoted to a filler/operator role, depending on availability,” he continues.

After working successfully in that position, employees are eligible to move into one of three specialized roles: flavor center operator, mix operator (the person who batches ice cream mixes) or raw receiver.

“Once you have all of those skills under your belt, the next path would be as a utility operator,” Fabbri points out. “And the utility operators can perform pretty much any job in the plant.”

The next “promotable role” would be as a lead or working supervisor, which means the employee would oversee a shift. If the employee is successful in this position for a few years and the opportunity opens up, the next step would be a salaried supervisor and from there, a production manager.

“So our production manager started off in an entry-level role. Our first shift production supervisor started off as an entry level,” Fabbri explains. “We have a couple of other supervisors that were hired from outside the plant, but one person came from another Hood plant, and he pretty much started out as an entry level. So yeah … we definitely have people in these positions that have worked their way through the system.”