These food plants demonstrate industry-leading best practices in environmental achievement, worker safety and process technology. 

Michigan site spans 500,000 square feet with about 900 employees. 

Had enough of winter? It wasn’t long ago that the landscape for greenfield food plants looked just as bleak.  That’s when a weak national economy forced cold food processors to freeze all capital projects. Then it was just a matter of time before a thaw in consumer and corporate spending.

So here’s a metaphorical look at springtime in the food industry. Three ofRefrigerated & Frozen Foods’“Food Plant of the Year” honorees are entirely new facilities that came online during the past three years. Meanwhile,R&FF is just as pleased to showcase three existing operations’ efforts to improve environmental performance, worker safety and productivity.

Read on for category-by-category profiles of:
ENTREES: Sara Lee Corp.’s Zeeland, Mich., plant makes its name for worker safety; supports a growing Jimmy Dean breakfast business.
MEAT & POULTRY: Cargill Inc. plants in Beardstown, Ill., and London, Ont., make noteworthy improvements to benefit the environment and workers alike.
FRUIT & VEGETABLE: ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston builds the world’s first LEED Platinum certified frozen food plant in Delhi, La.
DAIRY: General Mills picks its Methuen, Mass., Yoplait yogurt plant for the company’s first solar energy project.
BAKERY: Chicago’s Gonnella Baking Co. invests in the latest technologies for its frozen dough plant in Hazle Township, Pa.
SNACK, APPETIZER & SIDE DISH: Kettle Creations uses its new Lima, Ohio, plant and skilled employees to meet refrigerated side dish demand.

And the award goes to…
To choose this year’s “Food Plants of the Year” honorees, R&FF solicited nominations from industry experts and observers, industry suppliers and the editors of sister publications such as The National Provisioner, Food Engineering, Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery, Dairy Foods and Dairy Field Reports.

Plant performance was evaluated against one or more of the following criteria:
-    Worker Safety
-    Community Involvement
-    Food Safety
-    Environmental Initiatives
-    Process / Packaging Innovation
-    Productivity

R&FF then selected one plant from each of six refrigerated and frozen food processing sectors (regardless of sales channel).

Want to be featured in 2012? Industry suppliers and food processors may submit nominations to Editor Bob Garrison at (574) 935-3724 or, by e-mail, at

Pride Inside: Jimmy Dean first- and second-shift team members.


Sara Lee’s Zeeland, Mich., makes its name for worker safety; makes its mark in the freezercase.

Make no mistake. Everything about Sara Lee Corp.’s processed meat plant in Zeeland, Mich. – is BIG.

A flagship in Sara Lee’s North American Retail business, Zeeland is a 500,000-square-foot operation on a 123-acre site. It employs as many as 900 people and produces more than 200 million pounds of processed meats for nearly every Sara Lee’s retail and foodservice brand.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Zeeland also has been a big contributor to Sara Lee’s Jimmy Dean breakfast business. When company officials wanted to push brand growth in frozen bowl breakfast entrees, they selected Zeeland (in southwest Michigan) and renovated a portion of plant for frozen food processing.

Zeeland has helped fuel a growing business. Sara Lee has expanded the Jimmy Dean Breakfast Bowls line to seven items since the product’s 2006 debut. Officials say the latest offering, a new Jimmy Dean D-Lights Ham Bowl, offers 21 grams of protein per serving, contains just 220 calories is ready in less than three minutes.

Sara Lee says those popular new items – coupled with creative promotion – have propelled the brand to a 55.7 percent market share in the frozen protein breakfast category, according to Information Resources Inc. data (12 weeks ending Jan. 9, 2011).

Plant Manager Ross Myers says no one could be more proud of Jimmy Dean’s success than Sara Lee’s Zeeland employees.

“For Sara Lee to put its breakfast bowl line here was exciting for all us. It represented a big investment,” says Myers. “When it came to designing the new line, Sara Lee also sought input from those employees who would be running, maintaining and cleaning it. It was fun to take it from a concept and make it a reality.”

Meanwhile, Zeeland employees also have much to be proud of. Sara Lee recognized the facility as “Meat Plant of the Year” during fiscal 2009 (for achievement against internal key performance indicators). Sara Lee also honored Zeeland last year as the company’s top distribution center. Myers says the plant (certified at SQF Level 3) recorded “perfect scores” across a multitude of criteria including worker safety, on-time delivery and cost. Last but not least, the American Meat Institute also gave Zeeland a 2010 Worker Safety Recognition Award for employee safety and health performance.

Myers notes that Zeeland’s recordable lost-time accident rate (as of February 2011) is less than 0.5 on a year-to-date basis. And again … remember Zeeland has nearly 900 employees.

Myers says Zeeland embraced Lean Manufacturing in 2003 and says – eight years later – its workers now adhere to a behavior-based safety program. Zeeland’s goal, he says, is to train every employee and involve them cross-functional, self-directed safety teams. In this context, he says co-workers help their peers identify and correct any potential issues.

“It’s all about employee buy-in,” says Myers. “To be leaders in safety, employees have to be the ones who make things happen. It’s clear that they take pride in what they do.”

For that matter, Zeeland employees likewise can point to several environmental achievements involving…

… packaging and transportation. Myers said Zeeland employees helped corporate engineers design the Jimmy Dean breakfast bowl entrée line and even the bowl itself. Together, they eliminated handles that were fixed into the original bowl. Not only did this make line filling operations more efficient but the change also slimmed down the package – resulting in more cartons per case and more cases per truck.

Officials say the slimmer package represents a paperboard savings of 74 metric tons per year and a reduced shipping case for corrugate savings of 34 metric tons per year. Plus, because Zeeland could add one more case to each pallet load, it saved an estimated 236 truckloads, 161,834 liters of diesel fuel and 431 metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, they say.

… energy. Zeeland converted two older product mixers from hydraulic power to electric power. Myers estimates the shift “saves us the equivalent energy used to power as many as 150 homes.”

… wastewater. Zeeland converted from a traditional brine chill system to a cold water chilling alternative. By eliminating salt in its chiller systems, Zeeland reduced overall chloride levels in its discharged water by as much as 50 percent, says Myers.

While Zeeland does its part, corporate officials in nearby Downers Grove, Ill., continue to do more to build Jimmy Dean and other brands.

“We’re all proud when Jimmy Dean does anything – from a line extension to a new product,” says Myers notes. “And that goes for everyone here. We regard everything we do as a cross-functional team effort and it involves everyone from management to our hourly employees.”

Company: Sara Lee North American Retail
Food plant(s) honored: Zeeland, Mich.
Selection criteria: Worker safety, environmental initiatives
Employees: Approximately 900
Facility size: N.A.
Products: Processed refrigerated meats, frozen breakfast entrees

Yoplait plant reduces process steps, saves energy while product line grows.

DAIRY FOODS: When life gives you sunshine...

General Mills picks Methuen, Mass., yogurt plant for its first solar energy project.

You’ve heard about turning a bad situation into something good (“When life gives you lemons …”). Yet how about when life gives you a good thing? In one instance, General Mills is using sunshine to make refrigerated yogurt.

Last year saw General Mills’ Yoplait dairy in Methuen, Mass., become the company’s first U.S. operation to install and use solar panels.

Ed Dulski is Yoplait’s Methuen plant manager.

“Although a northern state like Massachusetts may seem like an unlikely place to install solar panels, the sun shines an average of 202 days per year here,” he says. “That makes it an excellent location for generating solar power.”

For that matter, Massachusetts is widely recognized among the nation’s top 10 states offering solar energy rebate programs at home and commercial levels. Although it did not disclose the Methuen’s plant’s financial details General Mills said it partnered with both state and local government officials to finalize the project. A Massachusetts supplier, Nexamp Inc., North Andover, designed and installed the solar panels. The three-month installation was completed last July.

Seven months later, Dulski remains quite pleased.

“The solar panels are on target to supply nearly 80 percent of our power needs in the summer and 40 percent for the rest of the year,” he says. “The panels now provide power to our facility on a daily basis. Using renewable energy has been a win-win for us. It helps reduce our footprint on the environment and save money on utility bills. We’re proud to be General Mills’ first U.S. facility to produce its own electricity.”

Specifically, officials estimate Methuen’s solar panel array will provide a year-round average of 55 percent of the annual electricity consumed by the plant’s warehouse building. They say the panels generate enough electricity (110.7 kilowatts) to power approximately 12 average Massachusetts homes every year. Finally, they estimate that the solar power will offset more than 112,000 lbs of carbon dioxide annually (equivalent of taking 10 cars off the road).

For the record, Yoplait is a $1.5 billion business for General Mills. Although the company declines to say much about its U.S. dairy operations profile, Methuen and its sister facilities (including a growing Murfreesboro, Tenn., site) have been busy. Last year saw the brand introduce several new products and lines, such as 100-calorie Yoplait Delights yogurt parfaits, Yoplait Greek yogurt, Yoplait Splitz yogurt parfaits for kids and an all-natural version of Yoplait in larger containers.

It’s here that Dulski adds an important note about in-plant efficiency – an achievement connecting production to Yoplait’s finished products.

“General Mills has been taking a Holistic Margin Management (HMM) approach to each product and business line,” he says. “As part of that effort, we are identifying ways to reformulate specific products and improve manufacturing efficiencies.

“For example, a change in the product formulation of Yoplait Thick & Creamy yogurt has allowed us to streamline production,” he continues. “This product is now made with a unique process that eliminates a production step, which saves energy and increases our manufacturing capacity – all while it maintains the product taste and quality consumers love.”

Back in Minneapolis, General Mills continues talking openly about the importance of green programs. In its corporate social responsibility report last November, the company reviewed its activities involving energy, greenhouse gases, water and solid waste generation.

Jerry Lynch is General Mills’ chief sustainability officer.

“General Mills has been making steady progress on improving our environmental footprint for several years,” he says.  “But from a sustainability perspective, we made considerable in 2010 by way of the following company ‘firsts.’”

- Energy from oat hulls.“We brought online a new unit that burns leftover oat hulls to provide 90 percent of the steam to operate our Fridley, Minn., plant,” says Lynch. “This site makes the oat flour for Cheerios and other products.”

- Energy from the sun. “Our first U.S. facility to produce its own electricity via solar panels came online at our facility in Methuen, Mass.,” Lynch says. “We also installed a second bank of solar panels at our main office in Minneapolis.”

- Environmentally friendly buildings.“Our first LEED-certified buildings opened their doors,” he notes. “These include a distribution facility in Georgia and an existing building in Minneapolis that was upgraded to meet LEED specifications.”

Solar to account for 80 percent of yogurt plant’s summertime energy demand.


Company: General Mills, Yoplait
Food plant(s) honored: Methuen, Mass.
Selection criteria: Environmental initiatives
Employees: N.A.
Facility size: N.A.
Products: Refrigerated yogurt

LEED-certified inside and out; equipped with state-of-the-art machinery.

Fruit & Vegetable: Sweet thing (of beauty)

ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston builds the world’s first LEED Platinum certified frozen food plant.

It’s one of those of rare cases when trendy facts and figures add up to bricks and mortar.

ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston, Tri-Cities, Wash., has processed and marketed sweet potato items for about a decade. Then, four or five years ago, officials say something changed.

“Sweet potatoes are generating a big buzz in the foodservice and retail industries and the category is growing at an incredible rate,” says Andy Johnston, Lamb Weston’s vice president of marketing. “They have a tremendous nutritional profile. They are interesting and different. Even kids think they’re cool because they’re orange and taste great.

“Today, sweet potatoes are no longer seasonal or regional,” he concludes. “We realized that they have absolute staying power.”

Rising consumer and customer interest had Lamb Weston officials talking in 2007 about a new, dedicated facility. Determined to go where the crop was, Lamb Weston stepped out of its familiar Northwest region and looked to the Southeast. After a lengthy site process, officials picked a 138-acre site in the northeast Louisiana town of Delhi. The company broke ground in September 2009 and produced its first case of product just one year later, last September.

For the record, this $150 million plant will eventually process more than 20 foodservice and retail SKUs of sweet potato items under brands such as Sweet Things (foodservice) and Alexia (retail). The operation brought jobs to an estimated 275 people in a heavily agricultural area once known for cotton, sweet potatoes and paper mills.

“We had an opportunity to build something from scratch and set out to build a great sustainable plant because it was right for the business and who we are as a company," says Rick Martin, vice president for manufacturing. “We’ve been producing sweet potato products for the past 10 years, which allowed us to bring the best of what we’ve learned during this time to the design and construction of the Delhi plant.”

Although they cannot share details, Lamb Weston officials say Delhi features several sweet potato process innovations.

Meanwhile, one thing they can discuss is Delhi’s sustainable design.

Martin and Doug Beyer, senior director of engineering, say Lamb Weston was committed early to U.S. Green Building Council guidelines for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. Beyer led Delhi’s construction and start-up and says Lamb Weston officials soon realized they could construct the world’s first LEED Platinum frozen food plant – simply by working harder to source and transport at least 75 percent of plant construction materials from within a certain radius.

Even so, there are many more features. Just consider that …

… the entire plant is climate controlled to increase worker productivity, safety and comfort. Climate control in such a hot, humid environment reduces condensation build up and water on the floors, reducing slip and fall and hazards. Materials, such as low VOC (volatile organic compounds) carpeting, cleaning products and paints, are used in the interior of the plant to reduce occupant exposure to airborne pollutants.

… energy-saving equipment is projected to save 40 percent of the annual energy consumed at a comparable plant. By identifying and recovering potential wasted energy within the building systems and processes, energy demand is greatly reduced.

… biogas, produced by treating process waste water, is piped back to the plant boilers to produce steam. This process is expected to offset approximately 20 percent of the annual natural gas demand of the plant, and prevents methane, a harmful greenhouse gas, from entering the atmosphere.

… more than 100 acres of the property will be maintained as open space, including protected wetland areas, ponds and restored native vegetation. Water is conserved outside the building by landscaping with native plant species that require no irrigation once established.

A 28-year Lamb veteran, Beyer moved to Louisiana to handle plant construction and start-up. He notes that Delhi’s story still goes well beyond its sustainable appeal.

“This project represented a tremendous investment of dollars and sizeable risk for us – to go to a new part of the country and try some new [processing] things. Ultimately, you can have a beautiful facility but if the quality isn’t there, it hurts your reputation,” he says. “That’s why people make all the difference.”

It can’t be overlooked that those valuable people relationships extend deep to area communities and farmers who never have considered such a sizeable field planting commitment for commercial grade sweet potatoes (required by Lamb Weston). Beyer credits Louisiana State University AgCenter Research & Extension representatives for their sweet potato research, grower outreach and field-planting strategies.

Company officials also wanted to attract a “quality workforce,” those people willing to consider Lamb Weston Delhi for a career. For that reason, Beyer says Lamb Weston set an aggressive pay and benefits package. It also worked closely with Louisiana Economic Development and its “FastStart” program to train new employees in quality control and in such “soft” but critical areas as teamwork and leadership.

“This is our chance to develop a great initial culture. You only start once and your first impression is what endures,” says Beyer. “We talked with our employees about the start-up process at a new facility, knowing there would be some frustrations. But we all work together to fix the problems. A year from now, we can look back and laugh at the tough things we worked through.

“Most of all, I’m proud of what we’ve done to engage employees here,” he concludes. “We’re lucky to have found a workforce that’s so excited and passionate for what we’re doing.”

Facility will process 20 sweet potato SKUs for foodservice, retail channels.


Company: ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston
Food plant(s) honored: Delhi, La.
Selection criteria: Environmental initiatives, process innovation
Employees: Approximately 275
Facility size: N.A.
Products: Frozen sweet potato products for foodservice, retail channels.

Cargill reclaims methane from the wastewater lagoons and converts that methane into biogas to fuel plant boilers. Biogas now replaces up to 30 percent of natural gas demand at 11 meat plants.

Meat: Thinking outside (and inside) the box

New technologies, creativity and partnerships help Cargill push environmental, energy achievements.

"Waste not, want not” is the time-tested admonition. Yet what are meat and poultry processors supposed to do when so many daily production activities create waste?

The answer: Don’t waste that by-product … particularly if you can reduce, re-use or recycle it. And chances are your good deeds won’t go unnoticed.

When quick-service restaurant giant McDonald’s Corp. published its 2010 Global Best of Green sustainable supply chain report, it recognized Cargill Incorporated’s North American meats business for its waste recovery and reduction achievements. McDonald’s credited Cargill Pork’s Beardstown, Ill., plant, which eliminated 95 percent of waste that previously went to a landfill or land application. McDonald’s also commended a Cargill Meats Canada poultry facility in London, Ontario, which reduced daily freshwater use (by 28 percent) and started recycling all other chilled water – not once but twice.

Environmental improvements are literally a big deal for Cargill, a $108 billion global giant with 32 North American beef, pork and poultry operations. Recognizing its corporate responsibility, this private company talks quite openly about activities in five “cornerstone” areas including environmental and energy practices.

“McDonald’s is one our largest customers and we partner with them in every area from menu development, to restaurant operations and risk management solutions,” notes Scott Hartter, vice president of Environment, Health and Safety for Cargill’s Animal Protein group. “Understandably, McDonald’s is very passionate about sustainability,” he continues. “It’s one of their cornerstones and – at their first U.S. sustainability conference – they challenged suppliers about best practices in this area. We sit on their sustainability leadership committee and believe that this is a non-competitive issue where it’s important to be transparent and share our ideas.”

Hartter says he leads a global team that just set aggressive five-year improvement metrics across every environmental and energy area. He notes Cargill’s commitment to the Chicago Climate Exchange (a 2007 pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions 6 percent by 2010) as well as ISO 14001 Certification (whereby all Cargill processing locations, feedlots and farms adhere to a strict environmental management system governing efficient water use and reuse).

Cargill likewise has detailed goals and programs for responsible energy use, greenhouse gas reduction, water reduction and waste reduction. Many of those efforts caught McDonald’s eye and the foodservice operator chose to honor …

…Beardstown, Ill. Cargill Pork Beardstown constructed a site to compost all agricultural waste from its plant – combining it with other cellulose material – to create a valuable compost material. This helped Beardstown eliminate 95 percent of its land-applied and landfill waste materials. Other Cargill Meat plants have adopted this practice and reduced Cargill animal protein’s direct land application and landfill volumes by more than 75 percent during the past five years.

…London, Ont. In its primary, slaughter area, this Cargill Meats Canada poultry processing plant uses fresh water to prepare birds for further processing. The system to chill these birds to their proper temperature uses approximately 71,000 gallons of water per day. The facility also evaluated using recycled water a second time from the HVAC system to pre-rinse empty chicken crates. Cargill London installed a rotary screen process to filters out solids from the chillers’ overflow water system. This reduced the amount of solids going to the wastewater treatment plant. London now pumps that chilled water to a make-up air unit in the primary area (cooling the room for employees). Then, it pumps the same water to a booster pump at the crate washing area. This helps create high pressure water which employees use to remove large pieces of material before crates go through a fresh water and sanitizer spray.

Cargill says this improvement reduced London’s freshwater consumption by 28 percent during the past 24 months. Moreover, literally 100 percent of all the chilled overflow water is being recycled twice. Employees now work in a cooler environment during summer months and London has eliminated fresh water use at the crate washer entrance.

For his part, Hartter is just as excited about even more environmental achievements involving …

…the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef. Cargill co-sponsored the fall 2010 conference with McDonald’s, the World Wildlife Fund and a handful of other companies. Cargill described the event as a forum to review current sustainability practices and build alignment around key impacts (both positive and negative) within the beef system. The conference featured tracks dedicated to science and research, better management practices and dialogue among all supply chain members.

…methane recovery at all large facilities. Cargill invested millions to install anaerobic reactors at all of its largest beef and pork processing plants. Here, Cargill reclaims methane from the wastewater lagoons and converts that methane into biogas that fuels plant boilers. That biogas now replaces up to 30 percent of natural gas demand at 11 meat plants. Cargill estimates that this already has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by more than 1.3 million metric tons in the last four years.

“I call this a ‘triple bottom line,’ win-win-win proposition,” says Hartter. “It reduces pollution, increases our renewable energy and cuts cost. We are very proud that one out of every five cattle processed is done so with 100-percent renewable energy.”

Cargill’s London, Ont., poultry plant known for water reduction, recycling efforts.


Company: Cargill Incorporated
Food plant(s) honored: Beardstown, Ill.; London, Ont.
Selection criteria: Environmental initiatives
Employees: N.A.
Facility size: N.A.
Products: Fresh and processed beef, pork and poultry

Front row (left to right): Kate Calvelage, factory account manager; Sally Bash, director of quality; Dave Klausing, plant manager; John Sarka, plant engineer. Back row (left to right): John Klausing, CFO; Keith Stoll, COO; Don Klausing, president; and Jim Stuteville, director of sanitation.

SNACK & SIDE DISH: Growth on the side

New plant, skilled employees helps Kettle Creations hit the ground running to meet refrigerated side dish demand.

Want the recipe for success? Believe it or not but the formula doesn’t require too many ingredients – just the correct ones.

Kettle Creations is an example. This Lima, Ohio, refrigerated foods processor supplies foodservice, contract and retail private label accounts. Visitors can see that the plant uses very few ingredients – such as fresh, real potatoes, dairy items and macaroni – in it its refrigerated mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese.

Likewise, Kettle Creations President Don Klausing says there weren’t many additives to his family’s new business start-up in 2008. It was simply a matter of supply and demand.

“The demand for refrigerated side dishes has been exploding – particularly in the retail meat department,” he says. “Although there are many foodservice [refrigerated side dish] customers, there were few retail market suppliers. So, we felt our timing was good. The market was taking off, capacity was limited and we had the experience to come in and set up a new business.”

Experience indeed. Klausing and Kettle Creations’ other founders (including two brothers and one sister) came with decades of experience from I&K Distributors in nearby Delphos, Ohio. Klausing’s father, Ronald, co-founded I&K in 1966 after buying the Yoder’s deli salad business. I&K later expanded into mashed potatoes and broader retail product distribution.

Having once presented refrigerated sides to meat departments, the Klausings recognized market opportunity. That led them to approach Chief Operating Officer Keith Stoll, an I&K veteran with operations expertise; and another 30-year veteran, John Sarka, as director of engineering. Klausing says he hired an initial group of 20 workers who already had an average of 20 years experience in refrigerated prepared food processing.

Meanwhile, Klausing invited Stoll and Sarka to design and equip a state-of-the-art refrigerated side dish plant. Constructed by September 2009, the 103,000-square-foot facility was operational in time for the fall side dish season. The plant also has a second 26,000-square-foot production room prepped for future items such as green bean casserole, scalloped apples, broccoli and rice and sauces.

Back on the completed side, Kettle Creations’ facility features some of the industry’s latest ideas in …

… process innovation.Officials say Kettle Creations uses one-third less process water than traditional manufacturers of similar potato products. The cooking process – one of the largest energy consumers – utilizes a newly designed process for recapturing steam normally exhausted. That steam then plays an important role in potato cooking. Kettle Creations then fills product into a customer’s requested packaging. Next, the company uses a water chilling spiral system – instead of a traditional air chill process – to cool containers to below 40

Mashed potatoes en route to spiral chilling system.


Company: Kettle Creations LLC
Food plant(s) honored: Lima, Ohio
Selection criteria: Process innovation, environmental initiatives, food safety programs
Employees: 68*
Facility size: 103,000 square feet
Products: Approximately 25 SKUs of refrigerated mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese in retail 16- to 32-ounce mircrowaveable trays as well as five-pound bags
*As of January 2011

New facility produces about 100 frozen dough breads and rolls. Optimum layout, synchronized machines deliver greater “uptime.”

BAKERY: Better baking

Gonnella Frozen Products designed optimum production into its Hazle Township, Pa., dough plant.

New York newspaper icon Horace Greeley was well known, in part, for the phrase, “…Go West, young man.”

On the other hand, get to know Chicago’s Gonnella Baking and you’ll hear the phrase: “We bake to differ.” Moreover, Gonnella, a 125-year-old company in its own right, has been pushing east. This private family-owned company began a storefront bakery and grew into a Chicago-based supplier of fresh baked buns and rolls to metro area retail and foodservice accounts. After entering the frozen dough business in 1975, it purchased a suburban Schaumburg, Ill., plant in 1980 to produce as many as 50 different types of frozen dough and frozen fully baked items for in-store bakery, foodservice and co-packing accounts.

In 2006, Gonnella Frozen Products LLC, a division, broke ground in Hazle Township, Pa., (about 100 miles north of Philadelphia) for the company’s second dedicated frozen dough plant. That facility officially opened in January 2008.

“Gonnella Frozen Products had reached capacity in Schaumburg, we already had an East Coast customer base and we wanted to expand our reach there,” explains Meg McDonnell, vice president of sales. “We picked the Hazle Township location knowing that 25 percent of the nation’s population is within 300 miles. The location also put us in close proximity to major ingredient suppliers. These were all important considerations in an overall cost-containment program.”

Then again, Vice President of Manufacturing Kent Beernink says he had a rare opportunity to think about best practices – rather than dollars and cents – when designing a new 110,000-square-foot frozen dough operation.

“Hazle Township is the culmination of all the experiences and lessons learned in Schaumburg,” he says. “First, we laid out the production lines the way we would if there were no constraints. Then we wrapped the supporting processes and building around them.”

So everything was right in the world? Not exactly.

“It was challenging to achieve consistencies between production formulations at the two plants,” Beernink admits. “And we were managing this expansion while facing unprecedented flour and energy price increases . . . Our first big success simply was the ability for both plants to produce products that mirror each other precisely in quality and consistency.”

Today, however, Beernink shares many more achievements. For starters, he notes that the American Institute of Baking certified both Gonnella Frozen plants last year for “Superior” food sanitation and good manufacturing practices. Likewise, both facilities earned Kosher certification recognition.

Perhaps most importantly, Hazle Township not only appears to be hitting its stride – but it is running faster and more efficiently than expected.

“We have seen a 40 percent increase in our pounds per labor hour compared to last year,” says Beernink. “This puts us as much as 25 percent above production goals.”

In part, Gonnella literally designed greater productivity into its new bakery.

“Most of the process equipment was designed to allow for continuous running with on-line backups – in some areas – in case of equipment jamming or failure,” notes Beernink.  “Downstream, we also designed it so blast freezers even have sequential defrost features, to ensure 24/7 operation without loss of capacity.”

Beernink says Gonnella likewise is tapping into new software technologies (a “line performance system” and “manufacturing execution system”) to better synchronize process equipment operations, optimize entire lines and produce real-time machinery performance and quality data.

Gonnella also incorporated several sanitation-friendly features into the new frozen dough plant.

“Our process area is designed to be easily cleaned and to keep all the flour dust from migrating throughout the plant,” says Beernink. “All electrical panels are mounted remotely – outside the production area. This makes it easier to clean the equipment and keeps the flour out of the panels.

“Every piece of processing machinery has a single lock-out point on it,” he continues. “This feature not only controls the electrical and pneumatic energy sources, but monitors them to ensure they have been properly removed from the equipment.”
Officials say these kinds of new features help take care of so many daily details – while they strive to add more overall volume.

“Gonnella’s frozen business continues to grow by attracting new customers and expanding our offerings,” says McDonnell. “Meanwhile, by adding capacity, it’s clear that we’ve positively helped our efficiency.”

For his part, Beernink also says he’s ready for growth.

“We designed Hazle Township’s infrastructure to be doubled both in size and capacity,” he says. “The building pad is ready to go. Our electric, gas, water, sewer, and refrigeration systems also allow for easy extension into the future.”

Production room, controls are dust free, wash-down friendly.


Company: Gonnella Frozen Products, division of Gonnella Baking Co.
Food plant(s) honored: Hazle Township, Pa.
Selection criteria: Productivity, sanitation
Employees: Approximately 90
Facility size: 110,000 square feet
Products: Approximately 100 SKUs of frozen dough breads and rolls