Inside the Plant: Eyes on the prize
Blount Fine Foods keeps its focus on food safety, quality while expanding its plant and product lines.
Even though Jonathan Arena spends most of his time in a soup plant, it’s hard to get him stirred up.
That’s because change is a constant for Blount Fine Foods’ vice president of operations. Arena manages a seasonal workforce (fluctuating from 300 to 400 people) and a seasonal product line. Although Blount supplies refrigerated and frozen mainstays (lobster bisque, clam chowder) year ‘round to national restaurants and retailers, the company makes more than 300 items and annually switches out as much as 80 percent of its soups – just like fall fashions.
Even President Todd Blount laughs at the topic.
“A general manager once asked me, ‘Why can’t we make the same products we made last year?’ But the answer is ‘no.’ This is our DNA,” he says. “We don’t sit still. We are always thinking about the next thing.”
Although it’s hard to say whether so many fluctuations bother Arena, it’s clear that he is excited by Blount’s latest capital project. Last year saw the company expand its Fall River, Mass., plant by 58,000 square feet – nearly doubling the size of a 65,000-square-foot building constructed in 2004.
To visit Blount’s plant in October was to see employees bustling everywhere – from raw goods receiving to finished goods packaging. Then again, still more workers were busily prepping newly finished interior rooms for process equipment and finished goods packaging machinery that had just arrived – or was just about to arrive.
Officials say the $13 million expansion made room for a large spiral soup chiller, new production line soup fillers and versatile, automated packaging machinery. Blount also has built new temperature-controlled rooms to process, fill and package refrigerated dips, spreads and salads. The project included 46,000 square feet of additional packaging areas as well as freezer storage and cooler storage for raw materials and finished goods. It also created a new shipping/receiving dock and a 12,000-square-foot mezzanine (over packaging lines) for dry storage.
Arena says the project – completed in late summer – involved several phases. Each had Blount arranging everyday production around construction on the shipping dock, in storage areas and in finished goods handling rooms. By early October, it was clear that the benefits far outweighed any temporary inconvenience. Blount’s receiving and shipping dock now boasts nine doors instead of four. Expanded freezer and cooler storage means Blount can hold its own inventories (particularly finished goods) longer without relying on nearby third parties.
“Knowing that fall brings our larger volume, peak season, we looked to have everything installed and operational by the end of July,” says Arena. “Not all construction was finished on time – yet the process ended quite smoothly and we had 30 days or so to synchronize activities in our new distribution and production areas . . . There were times when [ongoing construction] was complex but we staged everything so we never shut down.
“All in all, it’s been a wonderful thing to expand,” he concludes. “We’re still building efficiencies but within the next six months of fall and winter, we’ll be ready to post as much as a 20 percent increase in pound volume.”
With that, Arena shifts the conversation to matters closer to the heart of Blount’s day-to-day production. Specifically, he says food safety and product quality demand increasing vigilance.
“As we grow larger in [packaged] consumer items, we’re seeing production volumes jump,” he says. “We may have between 10 and 15 different ingredients in each batch and the raw materials for all these SKU’s is growing tenfold.”
Blount wants to literally stop any potential food safety issues at the receiving dock door. It starts with more audits of raw material vendors’ plants and time-and-temperature tracking for their loads. Fall River plant visitors then see a quality assurance office positioned right off the plant’s new, refrigerated receiving dock. Although Blount receives most raw materials on a just-in-time basis, Arena says the company allows ample process time for QA personnel to conduct thorough microbial and quality tests.
Arena says Blount also has beefed up its track-and-trace programs and QA procedures throughout production as well as in-house finished goods storage. For the record, Blount earned its Safe Quality Food Level 2 certification last year. Administered by Silliker, the SQF certification program assesses whether a processor has a rigorous, credible food safety management system.
“We’re getting into more ready-to-eat, cold-fill products so all these food safety steps are more critical,” he says.
No less important is employee training. Blount employee teams – across production, employee safety, food safety, quality assurance and other functions – are tasked to identify continuous improvement steps and train new workers. Moreover, Arena says Blount is developing a scorecard measurement program with complete job descriptions and performance expectations. The program will help employees and supervisors assess performance and then proactively address weaknesses.
“We’re always in a development mode and realize that people get you where you need to be,” says Arena. “We want to make them smarter about our business, give them more ownership and responsibility – and they want that.”
That enhanced teamwork will only benefit Blount in years to come.
Arena admits that venturing into entirely new product areas – more salads, dips and sauces – is “challenging.” Even so, Blount’s operations leader believes the company is ready for the task.
“We communicate well and we’re building flexibility into this facility,” he says. “We’re looking at each piece of equipment with eye out for three to five years of flexibility for growth . . . When we have a good sense of volume needs, we know how to build in capacity. We’re not looking at automation as a replacement of people. Yet we do now that more people don’t necessarily equate to more volume. We’re preparing to truly move some pounds through our facility in the near future. That will accelerate growth as we bring down costs.”
At a glance: Blount Fine Foods
Address: 630 Currant Rd., Fall River, Mass. 02720*
Total facility: 125,000 square feet
Processing: 42,000 square feet
Production lines: 6
Packaging lines: 5
Dry warehouse: 10,000 square feet
Finished goods warehouse: 50,000 square feet
Employees: 300 up to 435 in peak season (September through March)
Products: Refrigerated & frozen soups and chili, refrigerated salads, dips and spreads
Schedule: Three shifts, five days a week (peak); two shifts, five days a week (full year)
Blount goes green
Blount Fine Foods is making headlines for green initiatives – and we’re not talking about pea soup.
Blount’s 2011 building expansion in Fall River, Mass., included a 100kW solar panel installation on its new food plant roof. Officials say the project should pay for itself within the first four to five years thanks to federal tax credits and state incentives.
The integrated solar panel system has a life of at least 25 years, according to the panel supplier-installer. The technology should reduce CO2 emissions by 4,844,385 pounds during that period. That is equivalent to the CO2 emissions from the electricity use of 267 homes for one year, the supplier said
Blount officials say the expanded, renovated Fall River plant also features a state-of-the-art central refrigeration system (upgraded, efficient controls), high-speed doors and energy efficient lighting. Blount even changed its base roofing to a new, energy reflective white fabric.
Blount says it already is one of New England’s leading organic waste recyclers. Last year, it converted 3,650 tons of organic material into compost and premium landscape materials, which otherwise might have been solid landfill waste, officials say. During the past 12 months, the company also recycled more than 165 tons of cardboard and paper.
Blount also says it has taken a sustainable approach to ocean and product matters. Officials note that ...
• Its sea clams and ocean clams are managed by one of the most successful federal ITQ (individual transferable quota) that is based completely on a sustainable science model. It is touted as the management method of choice for sustainability.
• Blount Seafood helps raise and contributes more than $100,000 annually to be used for shellfish science to promote sustainability with the NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service).
• Blount Seafood vice president, George Richardson, has served as industry member on the NMFS Regional Council that oversees the quota setting process.
• Blount Seafood vice president, Steve Blount, serves as chairman of the NFI (National Fisheries Institute) Clam Committee that focuses on sustainability.
• Blount Seafood is a charter member of Ocean Trust, an Ocean conservation trust (http://www.oceantrust.org/).
• Blount Seafood has hosted several sustainable aquaculture conferences at our site, as well as secured sea grant funds for oyster restoration in Narragansett Bay, R.I. Blount Seafood has also been involved in developing the aquaculture programs at both the University of Rhode Island and Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.