Onion rings, chopped-and-formed potato appetizers are growing businesses for Lamb Weston's Pasco, Wash., plant.


“Reach for the brass ring.”  The phrase may be somewhat dated - considering it originated from a carousel ride popular in the early 1900s. Yet it’s still frequently used to describe someone striving toward a reward.

Visit ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston in Pasco, Wash., and you’ll find the maxim also embodied there. Although, this is a different type of ring altogether.

After years of producing specialty french fries, this 43-year-old operation now is on the cutting edge of frozen foodservice appetizers - processing battered onion rings as well as specialty chopped-and-formed products. In 2007, parent ConAgra Foods invested millions in a seven-month project that added 85,000 square feet to the Pasco plant footprint. The investment brought in state-of-the-art food processing, packaging and freezing equipment.

Rick Gardner, senior director of manufacturing, explains the significance.

“There was some pain that went along with the expansion but it brings great benefits. Thanks to this technology, we now can make products that are cutting edge and that address specific niches. This [investment] really will ensure the long-term viability of the facility here in Pasco. That’s the reward.”

For the record, Pasco already was a big operation. Acquired in 1994 from Universal Foods, Pasco’s main building housed 400 employees and 375,000 square feet. Then came a fast-track addition bringing entirely new product lines and 150 more employees.

In an interview, Gardner gestures toward the year-old addition.

“We built this without shutting it [the french fry plant] down at all,” he says. “We never would have been successful without a high level of coordination and teamwork between existing plant operations and the project team. It was absolutely outstanding.

“Three years ago, if you would have told our people about onions, cheese and all these other specialty ingredients, they would have looked at you like you were from Mars. However, they have embraced it and taken it on.”

Still, there has been a learning curve. Besides the fact that the appetizer building has its own receiving and shipping activities, Lamb Weston had to train appetizer workers to handle many new high-value ingredients; operate more complex, automated production and packaging lines; and efficiently change lines over from one product to another.

Simultaneously, Gardner has spearheaded an entirely different education process. Similar to sister operations throughout the ConAgra network, Lamb Weston Pasco is embracing a “ConAgra Performance System” approach to total quality management in every aspect of operations.

“Our goal is team member engagement,” says Gardner. “We’re trying to increase our employee involvement. . . . This means eliminating traditional management styles with ‘supervisors’ and ‘employees,’ and giving more decision-making power to team members. Meanwhile, team leaders are freed up to pursue continuous improvement ideas.”

ConAgra literally is investing in its program through training - taking workers from the floor and bringing them into adult training sessions on aspects of team dynamics, decision making and continuous skills development.

Gardner shares one example of the new process in practice. Whereas earlier plant safety meetings would have a supervisor up front reading from a handout, safety team members now conduct their own sessions.

“We started this about 18 months ago and we’re becoming more and more focused on it,” he says. “I’m a firm believer that you’re never there until everyone has the same perspective. I think of it like we’re ‘capturing’ people every day - as they understand the difference in this approach.”

Perhaps most importantly, Gardner says he appreciates how Pasco employees are responding to change on all levels.

“I’m proud the team here has embraced [appetizer new product] innovation with open arms. Our lives used to be more simple. . . . The new appetizer segment is extremely challenging in terms of customer expectations but - a year after - we’re continuing to learn and we haven’t lost our appetite.

“This team in Pasco is poised for success. Our team member employees have a great perspective on the value of servicing our customers and they continue to embrace growth.”

At a glance

ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston-Pasco

Address: 960 N. Glade Rd., Pasco, Wash. 99301

Size: 460,000 square feet

Products: Approximately 50 types of foodservice seasoned straight cut and twister fries, appetizers, chopped-and-formed specialty appetizers, onion rings

Production lines: Four

Employees: 550 hourly / 60 salaried

Schedule: 13 days running / one day off

Processing: The straight story...

R&FF profiles Pasco’s step-by-step processing of straight-cut battered french fries.

Steps 1-3: Raw product arrives either directly from area farms during the harvest or storage buildings the rest of the year. Pasco receives truckload potato shipments in receiving bays and then separates potatoes by size into even-flow bins. Potatoes of different quality are blended from the even-flow bins and drop onto a conveyor carrying them through a wall into the process area.

Steps 4-7: Potatoes travel through a steam peeling process to remove outer skin. Afterward, a scrubber-washer process further cleans each potato and removes any remaining peel. Next comes a trimming process where employees visually check potatoes and cut away any damaged areas. Then it’s on to a pre-heating system that uses hot water to warm product to about 125

First Person: Gary Cuddeford, vice president, global operations

A 23-year company veteran, Gary Cuddeford is responsible for managing 26 ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston, Gilroy Foods & Flavors and Lamb Weston / Meijer plant locations in the United States, Canada and Europe. He most recently managed Lamb Weston / Meijer operations in Europe before returning November of 2005 to run all global operations.

Refrigerated & Frozen Foods: Please tell us about your U.S. operations, which have seen two years of constant growth via acquisitions, joint ventures and plant expansions.

Cuddeford: It’s been a very exciting couple of years. It’s absolutely fantastic to be in growth mode, which is always fun. Moreover, these acquisitions not only have involved potatoes but also signal our growth in vegetables and an expanding appetizer business. This also provides opportunities for capital investment and plant improvements. That said, it has been very hectic.

R&FF: Let’s talk - from an operations standpoint - about the recent purchase of Watts Brothers. What does that bring your group?

Cuddeford: It opens up some new doors. Included in that deal is a vegetable processing plant and packaging center, an organic dairy and farms. One of biggest synergies involves the agricultural part - how we grow potatoes and handle rotation crops. The frozen vegetable business is new, but there are synergies there too with some common customers. We also distribute in the same lanes with carriers and store product in the same way.

Meanwhile, the vegetable processing plant gives us another way and reason to innovate. One of our strengths is product and process innovation and we’re not constrained to innovate only for french fries. We’re looking at vegetables and appetizers too. 

R&FF: Why pursue a joint venture with Ochoa Foods, another potato processor?

Cuddeford: It’s a matter of efficiency and flexibility. We look for ways to use our operational expertise to bring costs down and make these operations more competitive. We’re also looking at specializing these operations on certain customers and processes. Now, they don’t have to be all things to all people and there’s tremendous synergy - and efficiency gains - as we focus them on certain products that fit their process capability.

This also lets us concentrate customers in some plants while we free up capacity to look at other products. Over the last few years, we’ve also run our plants hard. We haven’t taken a lot of downtime and we want to make improvements to existing facilities. We needed to pick up potato processing capacity so we could take other lines down to make renovations and upgrades.

R&FF: What are a few goals for your operations group?

Cuddeford: Safety and quality are cornerstones of a “zero-loss” manufacturing system. During the past few years, we’ve adopted a ConAgra Performance System (CPS) version of total quality management. In a conventional processing environment, you end up with about 40 percent of your time spent in daily operations and 60 percent is spent firefighting.

In a CPS world and a zero-loss house, we would spend 20 percent of our time on daily operations, 20 percent in firefighting efforts and 60 percent on innovation and efficiency improvement matters. The idea is to free up our employees’ time so they can contribute and improve the process. This will be our goal and focus during the next few years - and actually the next decade.

R&FF: Please tell us a little more about how employees are involved.

Cuddeford: Employee engagement is essential and this program gives us the tools and the mindset to involve everyone on the plant floor. We’re not distinguished by “hourly and salaried” anymore. We’re all team members and anyone on the plant floor can make a decision very quickly to avert a major issue or problem with the process. They just need to be given the training and authority to make decisions instead of having to wait for a supervisor. Ultimately, this is the goal we’re trying to reach. Today, we measure employee “engagement” and it’s one of our key performance indicators.

R&FF: How would you describe your company’s approach to sustainability and energy reduction?

Cuddeford: We have a very active sustainability program at ConAgra and conduct our planning and operations and advocate public policy with full consideration for protecting and preserving the environment… a concept becoming more broadly known as ‘sustainable development.’  We believe that the preservation and protection of the vital natural resources of clean air, clean water and land is a high priority.  We also place a high priority on the operation of our facilities and conduct of business in compliance with the laws and regulations of those communities where we operate.  We are strongly committed to the reduction of waste and pollution, the minimizing of energy and water usage, and the sustainable utilization of resources.