Director of Sales and Product Development Jeff Gehres explains the lasagna-making process to Managing Editor Carolyn Chapin as product travels down a conveyor.

Contract processing is not a predictable business. Just ask the executives at Request Foods in Holland, Mich.

“We may have a product line that does $5 to $10 million one year, but then the customer decides that the items did not meet their volume requirement and the items are discontinued,” says Director of Sales and Product Development Jeff Gehres. “That is the nature of our business.”

That’s not to say that the executives at this dynamic frozen entree and side dish processor don’t excel at what they do. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Workers at the company’s 370,000-square-foot processing plant and headquarters embrace the challenges.

Says Ray Huizenga, manager of plant operations, “A challenge for us has been to configure [an] expansion and do more with less space. … It was weeks until we could figure out how to make it work, but when it finally happens, it makes you feel good.”

This whatever-it-takes philosophy is de rigueur at Request’s plant. And it works. Last year saw the operation process a record-setting 140 million pounds of product for a broad array of foodservice and retail customers.

“We expect to process more than 240 million pounds in 2010,” Gehres says.

Part of the reason for the expected influx is a major new contract signed with an existing customer last year. Because the deal calls for an entirely new product line, Request undertook a 100,000-square-foot modification due for completion this May.

“With the new modifications we will have nine different kitchens, eight spiral freezers and four pasta presses,” says Huizenga. “We’re adding complete kitchens, assembly lines, 20,000-pounds-per-hour spiral freezers, three automatic palletizing machines and some automatic case packing.”

While the $26 million renovation represents a larger undertaking than is typical of new contracts, it demonstrates Request’s approach to doing whatever it takes to meet customer needs.

“What gives us a distinct advantage is that we are so flexible,” says Steve DeWitt, director of purchasing and quality assurance. “We really put the customer first.”

Adds Gehres, “When people think of Request Foods we want them to think of a company that is customer-oriented. There is not a day that goes by that our team members are not focused on producing high quality products.”

Growing in anticipation of future customer needs is another way Request excels.

President Jack DeWitt explains, “Our philosophy has been that whenever we get to 80 to 85 percent capacity, we look at doing another expansion because we want to be ready for the next opportunity.” He continues, “We want to have the space available - not necessarily the equipment. But if we have the space, within six months we can be ready to run whatever product category or line the customer would like.”

Case in point, Request has added 278,000 square feet and 10 acres in four additions since 1994.

Aside from major expansions, line reconfigurations are routine here. With more than 400 SKUs being processed on 10 lines, flexibility plays a key role.

“The challenge is to try to manage and handle different configurations,” Huizenga says. “We have a lot of equipment that’s portable - on wheels or moved by a high-low.”

For example, on lasagna lines, machines that deposit shredded cheese and herb toppings can be wheeled over and added to the line - or taken away - depending on which customer formula is involved. “It can be a challenge trying to do more with less space,” Huizenga adds. But it’s not that he’s complaining.

“That’s one of the things that I like to do,” he says. In recent years, improvements have included replacing metal detection equipment with X-ray machines (all lines but one are equipped with X-ray) and a recently installed “linear” combination scale on a single-serve entrée line.

“I have been with the company 13 years, and every year we continue to purchase additional state-of-the-art equipment,” says Gehres.

DeWitt adds, “We’ve automated and we’re continually looking for automation to keep labor costs down and efficiencies and productivity up. We’ve been spending a lot of money on large freezers. ... The largest one we’re putting in now is going to do 24,000 pounds per hour.”

New equipment aside, Request officials also have zoned in on other areas of the plant. Food safety precautions are a focus area.

Request has an in-house microbiology testing lab staffed with two trained lab technicians (one for each shift). The technicians conduct daily microbiology tests on in-bound and out-bound ingredients as well as the plant floor.

“Food Safety is a top priority. We work together with our customers and USDA to be the very best,” DeWitt says.

This includes allergen awareness, which has become a significant focus area for the company.

“Part of it is consumers read more labels now,” Steve says. “There’s just more awareness and I think the general consumer is just more educated [about allergens].”

As a result, he says, processing schedules carefully are choreographed so that products containing allergens (eggs, dairy, wheat, etc.) are processed after allergen-free products - thus avoiding contamination.

“The awareness of allergens has really made us a stronger company and it goes all the way through production and into sanitation as well,” Steve says.

Huizenga adds that the plant excels in other food safety areas.

“Our AFRs [accident frequency rates] are under 3.5 percent, which I think is very good for our industry. Also, our lost-time rate is always less than 1 percent,” he says.

He is quick to attribute all successes to Request’s plant workers.

“More important than equipment, is our people,” he says. “In preparation for our new line start up this coming May, I’m proud of that fact that we have been able to promote several of our employees to positions of greater responsibility.”

In fact, even though Request is operating at 90-percent capacity and is ready for further expansion, DeWitt says he is reluctant to venture away from this Western Michigan workforce.

“We like it here. The west Michigan area has a good strong work ethic,” he says. “I’m proud of our people here. And as we grow there are opportunities for people to grow and get promoted and become team leaders. That’s a nice thing to see.”

DeWitt plans to see Request - and its workers - grow even more in the next year.

“In the next 12 to 18 months we will be breaking ground [on a new plant] somewhere,” he says. One choice for construction is a plot of land adjacent to Request headquarters, but DeWitt says the Carolinas, Indiana and “a number of different places” also are in consideration.

No matter where they settle, it’s likely that the plant will fall under the same philosophy of constant improvement and shape-shifting.

Says DeWitt, “We’re big believers in, ‘We did something yesterday. Today is here now. Let’s do it better tomorrow.’”

Just the Facts

Request Foods

Plant location:Holland, Mich.

Plant manager:  Ray Huizenga, manager of plant operations

Products:  More than 400 varieties of frozen entrees and side dishes including lasagna, macaroni and cheese, chicken dishes, rice dishes, meatballs, salisbury steaks, cabbage rolls and stuffed peppers

Channels served:  Contract processing for foodservice distributors, restaurants, retailers, retail brands and club stores

Size:  370,000 square feet

Production lines:  10

Employees:  430 full-time and 60 temporary employees

Schedule:  5 to 6 days per week, two shifts

A Stand for Sustainability

Request Foods has made headway in one of the food industry's most significant challenges.

“Sustainability has become a high priority at Request Foods,” says Jeff Gehres, director of sales and product development.

As its co-packing customers become increasingly wary of energy consumption and packaging concerns, Request has stepped up to the plate with sustainable efforts including buying local ingredients when available, and  reducing its carbon footprint by using smaller packaging.

Manager of Product Development Mike Bader says, “More customers are paying attention to how many pieces of packaging are there for a product, and what can we do to reduce the amount of packaging. It’s certainly something the people are paying more attention to now than ever before.”

Gehres adds, “We now look at our packaging and how we can get better with the designs.”

Recycling is another area of improvement. “We recycled over 118,705 pounds of cardboard, metal and plastics this year, compared with 102,000 pounds the previous year,” Gehres says.

In addition, Request installed new energy efficient lighting in the plant, and started a program that uses inedible product to make natural gas. Gehres also notes that 150-watt computers were swapped out for models that consume 15 watts instead.