Pinnacle Foods' operations employees welcome new equipment, product and safety measures.

By Bob Garrison

Want to know if something is as good as advertised? They used to say, “the proof is in the pudding.” However, if you’re talking about Pinnacle Foods, you could say the proof is in the pizza … or the pancakes … or the frozen peas.

Truth is, industry observers need only visit a Pinnacle Foods factory to see that this Mountain Lakes, N.J., business is making the right moves behind the scenes. Then again, Pinnacle isn’t concerned about impressing outsiders. Rather, officials say they’re out to earn the trust and confidence of leading retailers, consumers and their own employees at plants previously owned by the former Birds Eye Foods and Pinnacle itself.

Chief Executive Officer Bob Gamgort says Pinnacle is on a multi-year plan of stepped up capital investment – with an extra $20 million per year spent to enhance quality and upgrade infrastructure.

For example, he says Pinnacle has invested to bring all of its plants up to global Safe Quality Food (SQF) 2000 standards. Pinnacle also has embarked on a program to upgrade product recipes. Gamgort says Pinnacle switched to whole-fish filets for its Van de Kamp’s seafood and the company added more expensive whole grains to its Aunt Jemima line.

“Many of our brands and facilities were assembled by different firms and rolled up into companies where there had been a short-term mindset,” he says. “With our long-term mindset – driven by a goal of taking Pinnacle public – we see the opportunity to invest in our brands and supply chain.

“Everybody wants to be proud of what they do,” he continues. “We know that when you work in a plant, you want to hear good things [in the community] about your products.”

Echoing the sentiment is Daryl Pike, Birds Eye Frozen Division senior vice president of manufacturing.

“There’s been something going on everywhere,” he says. “Our employees are elated to see money invested in the facilities to enhance and upgrade the infrastructure. It’s been a breath of fresh air.”

Pike says his group has had nearly 200 capital improvement projects. The frozen group has purchased and installed more efficient baggers, fillers, formers and other process machinery. Other significant projects have involved a restaging of Pinnacle’s Hungry-Man frozen entrée line, the introduction of frozen sauce chips to various entrees and an entirely new pizza line in Jackson, Tenn.

Refrigerated & Frozen Foodsalso visited Birds Eye’s frozen vegetable plant in Waseca, Minn., in conjunction with the magazine’s “Processor of the Year” feature. Pike notes that Pinnacle also has upgraded this approximately 70-year-old operation with new vegetable blanching and cutting equipment.

A 32-year industry veteran with ties to former vegetable processors Southern Frozen Foods and Curtice-Burns, Pike understands planting and harvesting. He says Pinnacle’s investments are seeded to reap maximum yields – both now and in the future.

And although it wasn’t easy, Birds Eye already achieved an early “win” this June. Pike says Pinnacle managers adapted a cross-functional planning approach and coordinated sales forecasting, manufacturing and supply chain to enable retail customers to place just one order, receive all Pinnacle frozen products on just one truck and handle just one invoice.

“We have seasoned people who see a bigger picture as opposed to functional silos,” Pike says. “That was good because – first and foremost - this was about customer service. It took a ton of work to execute but we had every functional group involved and we’ve been able to deliver.”

Increased productivity is a leading priority across Birds Eye’s frozen network. Pike believes the company’s frozen plants soon will have greater efficiency “built in” with updated equipment that is both more automated, smarter (synchronized) and versatile for greater efficiencies and new products. In conjunction, Pinnacle’s is rolling out SQF certification programs this year and next across its entire operations network. Pike says the program (with two frozen plants about to be certified) teaches employees about world-class food safety and quality standards.

Birds Eye engineers and employees aren’t the only ones with more work on their plates. Asked about his near-term priorities, Pike says he’ll also be working closely with Pinnacle’s I.T. personnel to unify all six frozen plants on a common enterprise network.

“Our plants already have their day-to-day reporting systems and we integrated them on the basis of the bricks and mortar,” says Pike. “During the remainder of this fiscal year, we’ll work at establishing our enterprise network so that all facilities have systems that are equal, speak the same language and measure our performance metrics equally. This also will tie into our warehouse management systems and even preventative maintenance.”

He concludes, “It’s important to keep this process as transparent as possible so each operating site can focus on its issues at hand.”

Even so, Birds Eye frozen foods division employees probably could not be happier – than to be extremely busy.

At a glance: Birds Eye Frozen Food Division operations
Top executive: Daryl Pike, senior vice president of manufacturing
Plants: 6
Locations, products: Fayetteville, Ark. (dinners, entrees); Mattoon, Ill. (bagels); Waseca, Minn. (vegetables, see profile, p. 22); Fulton, N.Y. (vegetables, complete bagged meals); Jackson, Tenn. (pizza, breakfast, seafood); Darien, Wis. (vegetables)
Employees: 2,200 to 2,400 (varying by seasonal needs)

At a glance: Waseca, Minn., plant
Plant manager: Aaron Skogen
Plant total:340,000 square feet
Repack production: Approx. 100,000 square feet
Production lines: 5
Employees: 116 full-time and salaried; peak of nearly 400 seasonal
Products: Frozen creamed corn, corn on the cob, peas and other mixed vegetables for retail and foodservice packaging