If large volume wholesale bakers grade their production efficiency based on repetitious long runs, minimal labor and quick product turnaround, chances are that Green County Foods’ production facility would receive failing marks. Why?
Each year, the 102,000-sq.-ft. plant turns out as many as 1,200 SKUs, including product categories and packaging configurations. A handful of products come from extended runs, sometimes across three shifts for several days. But, most orders require short runs, some only one shift, once a year.
Customer demands for decorative products flourish and myriad packaging schemes require a labor force that would make a volume bread baker wince. And, finished products may go straight to the customer or into a holding freezer to satisfy estimated future demand.
While Green County Foods’ procedures are an anathema to cut-the-costs operators, these practices are exactly what has helped the bakery become successful.
Green County, the nation’s largest baker of petit fours and related sweet treats, is the wholesale baking arm of mail order giant The Swiss Colony, well recognized for its winter holiday gift assortments of gourmet cheese, sausage and sweets.
Swiss Colony opened in 1926 in Monroe, Wis., as a mail order cheese company, making and shipping its own products. After World War II, the business grew steadily. In the late 50s, the company expanded to include mail order candies and pastries, notably petit fours, and recruited several master konditours from Europe.
In the 1960s, Swiss Colony introduced franchised branded retail stores, whose number grew to more than 235 by 1982. However, the seasonality of the business and increasing store rents forced the firm to phase out the retail business by the early 90s. Concurrently, Swiss Colony turned to other avenues for growth, including non-food mail order sales and wholesale baking.
The bakery began as an artisan pastry and confectionery operation with all makeup and finishing done by hand. The business grew by the late 70s to the point where the company was installing automated equipment.
Changing target markets
Initially, Green County targeted selling to upscale department stores. After a few years, that business dropped sharply, as consolidation of operators surfaced and others went out of business. About 15 years ago, Green County turned to supplying foodservice and bakery supply distributors and other markets.
Production activity grew to year-round with the bakery currently supplying product for Swiss Colony’s spring and fall catalogs, its holiday catalogs for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Halloween, and to outside accounts, including supermarkets, wholesale clubs, and foodservice and bakery supply distributors.
Under its Richly Deserved® and Sweet Treasures® brands, Green County offers traditional, sugar-free and natural petit fours fully decorated, string iced or plain in scores of assorted flavors, counts and packaging designs; whole 11-oz. crème de menthe, dobosh and chocolate truffle tortes; decorated and plain enrobed cookies; mini strudel puff pastries; gingerbread houses; bon bons; fudge bites and specialty candies.
The bakery applies a delicate balance of automated production and complementary labor to produce plain to finely decorated sweets in a wide range of production runs. Green County has embarked on programs to improve automated production and fine-tune labor efficiencies to maintain production flexibility in the wake of growing customer demand.
At the heart of production are two 60-ft. band ovens to bake sheet cakes, cookies and fruitcakes, and five enrobing lines. A 250-lb. horizontal mixer prepares cookie and fruitcake batters, while a continuous mixer handles cake and cheesecake batters, which after being mixed are pumped into holding tanks and then are deposited for baking.
Two 48-pan revolving tray ovens process short production runs and more complex items. Harold Marzolf, vice president, food operations, says the company plans to replace the aging ovens, though officials have not decided which type to install; they plan to attend the International Baking Industry Exposition this month in Orlando, Fla., to pursue their search.
Sheet cakes, after exiting the band ovens, pass through cryogenic cooling tunnels. Sheets for filled petit fours and tortes are baked thin to as little as 1/8 in. thick and then pass through a strip icer. The strip icer applies filling to the sliced layers to create “bricks,” or whole filled sheets with three to as many as 25 layers.
The capacity to produce petit fours in thin multiple layers in large volume is a hallmark of Green County. The bakery’s seven-layer dobosh torte is a signature product.
After bricks are cooled and pressed, an indexer transfers them for cutting to an automatic water cutter. A programmable controller enables customizing width and depth dimensions. Operating at 32,000 psi, the cutter cleanly creates the petit fours, leaving little waste. Marzolf says the bakery plans to examine new cutting technology with a goal of replacing the current unit, which is several years old.
An indexer transfers the petit fours onto a conveyor belt in diagonal rows to ensure coverage in the enrobers, which apply chocolate and a variety of compound coatings. Six holding tanks feed the liquids to the enrobers.
As the petit fours pass from the enrobers, employees touch up any missed areas. “We must do this not only to improve appearance, but also to ensure that the cake is completely sealed to hold the moisture,” Marzolf explains. “That we do this is a big selling point with our customers.”
He adds that the company will replace one of the enrobers this fall with a unit that covers product more effectively, especially the bottoms. The existing unit showers product and allows the coatings to drip down the sides. The new machine has a second overhead belt that will press product down and through the coatings to allow even coverage. “This will minimize the need for employees to patch the product, so they can be used more efficiently elsewhere,” he says.
Officials discussed the enrobing needs with four equipment manufacturers, each capable of handling the task, Marzolf says, adding, “We did not make our decision primarily on price, but rather on service, technical advantage, number of units in service and price.”
If the enrober works as well as officials expect, it will enable enrobing products with rougher, less-well-defined sides. “That should open options to create new products,” he says.
A conveyor carries enrobed petit fours to packaging to be boxed non-decorated or to be finished by hand. Decorators apply a wide variety of designs, including seasonal, holiday and year-round, among them roses, St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween figures, and Christmas wreaths, candles, candy canes and reindeer. The company attempted to automate decorating with little success, due to the wide variety of decorations used.
Hands-on work required
“This also is a selling tool,” Marzolf says. “Each decorator has a unique style, which gives a truly hand-made touch.”
Finished petit fours are conveyed to packaging where crews bulk pack most flavors as they are produced, store them in the holding freezer and then pull them, as needed, to assemble the assortments by hand.
Green County is taking measures to avoid waste and improve profitability. With assistance from the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, bakery management has been working toward a “lean” culture, or lean manufacturing, Marzolf says, noting, “The objective is to waste neither time nor effort on non-value-added activity.”
Value-added activities in the bakery include formulating, mixing, baking, decorating and packaging. “But, unnecessary moving, storing or staging of product doesn’t add value to the product, and we’re analyzing and eliminating this whenever possible,” he says.
“Lean” does not mean “cut,” Marzolf continues. “We’re trying to pull boulders from in front of the wheels.” For example, packing crews assemble some types of petit four orders directly from the enrobing lines, rather than packing them in bulk, storing them, and then repacking them for shipment. This includes decorating petit fours in their packaging and using guards to prevent stray icing from striking the packaging.
“We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘Are we getting the most performance from our equipment?’ and ‘Do we have good instructions for our people so they may perform their jobs effectively and efficiently?’” he says. “We can teach people to ice cakes; but we cannot teach everyone the hundred different techniques to ice each variety.”
To improve training, the bakery has begun to develop instruction sets. Plans include making the information available on computer terminals with printers.
The detailed format of the instruction sets will reflect that of Green County’s quality assurance guidelines, beginning with selecting and storing ingredients and concluding with product handling procedures for customers.
“Because we cannot anticipate demand months in advance, we must buy and closely monitor turnover of perishable ingredients that give us flexibility,” Marzolf says. For example, the bakers use frozen egg products from 35-lb. pails, rather than refrigerated products in bulk. This enables them to pull eggs as needed from the freezer and temper them in a dedicated refrigerator to a desired temperature.
On the front end, the quality assurance staff assigns two-step temperature codes to products for long-term (freezer) and short-term (refrigerator) storage.
Wholesale customers, just as mail- order customers, receive instructions to store their products, whether in refrigerated or ambient conditions, according to turnover. To fine tune the instructions, the quality assurance staff adjusts them to customers’ storage conditions and needs.
Sensitivity to ingredient handling extends to the suppliers that Green County seeks. “Besides service and price, we look for technical competence in vendors,” Marzolf says. This includes applying food safety technology to their products, such as allergen control; to keep us from getting into a food safety issue, and, if something should happen, to have the financial wherewithal to back us up.”
Evolving for food trends
Identifying new suppliers has stepped up recently as the bakery has developed new products to address changing food trends. Karen Wright, director, product development, notes that the healthfulness of foods is driving much of Green County’s new product development.
The company produced its first natural petit four this year after a customer last January requested its development. After Green county presented several samples, the customer accepted the product.
“After we developed the petit four, we thought the initial development was completed,” Wright recalls. “But, customers keep coming up with their own requirements for natural products. No national standard or definition exists for ‘natural.’ Each customer has a different set of guidelines. This has been a challenge.”
Despite the difficulties, officials are optimistic about the growth of natural products and their capacity to add profits. Marzolf explains, “The margins are better because natural ingredients are more expensive. These customers expect this.”
Wright and her staff also are working their way through the maze of converting to trans fat-free formulas. Green County, like many other operators, has turned to palm oil from partially hydrogenated oils, which will require changing nearly 1,000 formulas, she says.
The company, Wright continues, is cautious when altering product formulas. “This comes from experience with our mail order catalog,” she says. “We must produce product all year to be prepared for the fall rush. When we had only a fall catalog, we never knew whether customers liked a new product and would order it again until the next year. We never received immediate customer feedback.
“As a result, we change petit four formulas only after we know that we can make product with good shelf life and still have great tasting product.”
The natural petit four is an example of Green County’s dedication to developing new products, which include line extensions of existing items. This year, the bakery created about 40 new packaging assortments. At least 15 new products will go into the spring 2008 catalog, Wright says.
Bakery management, including product development, is responsible for working with the corporate marketing department to create products based on wholesale customers’ ideas or items to propose to customers. “A major challenge for us is to develop a product that can be duplicated effectively from 100 to 10,000 times,” she says.
Wally Wagner, executive director, sales and marketing, says product development will play a key role in serving Green County’s changing customer base. The mail order business in recent years has become flat, and Green County is looking to its wholesale business to generate growth, he explains.
Appealing to supermarkets
“During the last three years, several supermarket chains have approached us, and we created a new line to give them what they want,” Wagner says. It includes products for dry shelves and refrigerated cases.
Because supermarkets are price oriented, Green County learned how to offer quality products at attractive price points, he says. “This is more an issue of aesthetics than of ingredient quality; for example, rather than offer hand-decorated petit fours, we will provide a string-iced product. Same quality, but less fancy design.”
The company’s supermarket business likely will grow by 300 percent this year, he adds, “because we’ve created interesting products and unique packaging designs.”
It is this drive and vision that are positioning Green County Foods to tap its niche product line to the fullest.
While many companies talk about “re-inventing” their businesses, Green County Foods is taking action to address changing markets and improve productivity, while keeping tabs on the attributes that have made it successful.