For five years, Bud Cason punched the clock every morning as an investment banker. Although cookies were his passion, a five-year non-compete agreement prohibited him from working in the cookie industry from 1986 to 1991. However, the very day the non-compete agreement expired, Cason began forming the business plan for his new venture: Bud's Best Cookies.
Happy to shed the suit and tie lifestyle of an investment banker, Cason donned his construction hat and set about building his ideal cookie operation in Hoover, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham.
Cason's latest foray into the cookie industry is the most recent chapter of a lifetime filled with cookie experiences. When he was 12 years old, Cason was introduced to the cookie industry through his Aunt's cookie shop. In 1970, after stints in school and the armed forces, Cason purchased the shop from his aunt. After successfully reviving the business, Cason bought an 85% stake in Bishop Baking. By this time, Cason had garnered a reputation in the cookie industry, and a Houstonbased food company made an offer to purchase his business. After initially refusing to sell, the offer was doubled and then continued to grow until Cason agreed to sell. As part of the purchase, Cason signed a five-year non-compete clause. "But, I told them that once my five years were up, I'm going right back in the cookie business," Cason says.
Cason held true to his word and started making plans for Bud's Best Cookies in 1991 as soon as the noncompete agreement ended. Instead of opting for the familiarity of his past cookie experiences, Cason based his business strategy on manufacturing bite-size cookies.
Why bite size?
"When I first started the plant and decided to make mini cookies, I had so many of my good friends call me up and tell me what a mistake I was making," Cason says. "I tell you what, we proved them all wrong."
Although immensely popular now, mini cookies were practically unheard of when Cason's first products rolled off the line. Today, consumers demand the convenience of bite-sized products, and many of the cookie industry's biggest brands, such as Nabisco and Keebler, have joined the mini-cookie bandwagon.
Cason's decision to produce mini cookies dates back to his cookie sabbatical in the late 1980s. During his time away from the cookie industry, Cason enrolled in a nutrition class, where he represented the only male in a classroom full of more than 30 women. "I was trying to find out as much about nutrition as I could," Cason states.
During one particular class, the instructor, who was a dietician, told Cason and his fellow classmates that when people crave sweets the first bite does not satisfy the need, but the second bite does. After that, the instructor said, the rest of the sweet food is just filler to a consumer.
Applying this knowledge, Cason decided to base his next business on bite-size cookies.
Starting from scratch
When Cason first started planning Bud's Best Cookies, he possessed a blank slate to build his ideal plant. He purchased an existing building in Hoover, Ala., and brought in architects to turn the once office and small warehouse into a facility that could produce cookies. After the building was structurally changed to accommodate cookie production, Cason began purchasing equipment and laying out three production lines.
Cason's first challenge was installing cookie sandwich lines that could process both bite-size cookies and regular cookies. "If something happened, and bite-size cookies fell on their face, I had to have a contingency plan with regular size cookies," Cason says. "I spent $2.5 million on a line to make bite-size cookies, but I always had the option to make larger cookies if they didn't sell."
Although Cason's demands for machines that could handle both styles of cookies presented money and manufacturing challenges, it did not detract away from his goal of building production lines that required no manual labor.
"I wanted to produce a product that was not touched by human hands until the consumer opened the bag," Cason says. "From the time the computer calls the ingredients from the bulk ingredient silos through the ovens and bagging, no one touches the product." Despite installing a completely automated system, Cason understood the importance that people played in a bakery. As a result, Cason conducted all the hiring, and brought in his ideal crew to run his ideal operation.
In Bud's Best Cookies first year of operation the company reached annual sales of $1.4 million.
At the end of 2003, the company's sales had grown to more than $20 million. The company sells its products in the Southeast and Northeast markets. The lion share of Bud's Best Cookies' business is branded products, which total 82% of the company's business. Copackaging accounts for the remaining 18% of the company's sales. In the company's early years of business, the ratio of branded product to copackaging products was a lot tighter. "I came in one day and realized that 40% of our sales were co-packaging," Cason says. "I knew I couldn't have that, and decided not to add more co-packaging business, and start pushing the Bud's Best brand."
To boost the Bud's Best brand, Cason's son convinced him that the cookies' packaging needed to be enhanced. According to Cason, marketing tests showed that people wanted to know that "Bud" actually existed. After much convincing, Cason reluctantly agreed to put a caricature of himself on the packaging three years ago. After making this move, the company's sales grew 40%.
With this sudden upturn in sales, the company was positioned to expand its facility. In 2002, the company added an additional 47,000 sq. ft. to its plant, giving the bakery a total of 110,000 sq. ft. With its additional space, the company moved its packaging operations into the new room, and doubled the size of one of its tunnel ovens to 160 ft. The company also installed a distribution system that automated the delivery of cookies to the company's form/fill/seal machines.
Quality assurance makeup
Bud's Best Cookies operates three production lines complete with three separate makeup lines and three separate tunnel ovens. Before converging on these production lines, the company's bulk ingredients are stored in two 110,000-lb. flour silos, a 110,000-lb. sugar silo, a shortening tank and a high fructose tank. The company receives two flour shipments per day from Milner Milling.
To maintain the company's highquality standards, it tags every incoming ingredient with two stickers. The first sticker is a color-coded tag that highlights when the product was delivered to the plant. "It's a quick quality measure that allows us to use our ingredients properly," David Alaniz, Bud's Best Cookies' quality assurance manager, says.
The second sticker incoming ingredients receive is a yellow allergen sticker that informs employees of the potential that an ingredient may contain one of the following allergens: eggs, peanuts, dairy, pecans or certified colors.
"We have to let our line employees know that we have allergens in the plant, and that we use them all the time," Alaniz says. "But, if we use them improperly, we have a big problem."
After incoming ingredients are tagged, a Fred D. Pfening Co. ingredient handling system blows the flour into the plant at 150 lbs. per minute. The flour, sugar and dextrose, which is stored in a 2,000-lb. bulk sack, is blown into one of three Peerless horizontal mixers.
According to Alaniz, the company's mixer operators serve as one of the bakery's most significant quality assurance measure. Each mixer operator carefully monitors the dough during various mixing stages and at the final mix. "We train our operators to know exactly what the dough should look like at various stages of the mixing process," Alaniz says. "This allows us to be proactive instead of reactive."
After mixing, the mixers' two-way tilt features dump finished dough onto a trough conveyor that transports the dough up an incline to the hopper.
Bud's Best Cookies operates three APV makeup lines: a wire cut, a rotary cut and one line that accommodates both wire-cut and rotary-cut products. The company designed one of its lines to handle both styles of cookies to maintain a level of flexibility in a highlyautomated plant. On this line, dough is conveyed to one of two hoppers. The first hopper drops the dough into a rotary cut machine and the second hopper leads to a wire-cut system.
After forming, the three lines convey products to three APV ovens of varying lengths: 100 ft., 80 ft. and 160 ft. The company's latest expansion involved adding a new 80-ft. section of oven to an existing 80-ft. oven to double its capacity.
As another quality assurance measure, the company takes samples of every cookie batch after the oven and performs tests to ensure that the cookies meet the standards of color and taste. "We want to know after the oven if the product meets our standards, not after it's been packaged," Alaniz states.
After baking, products are cooled before diverging into their assigned next step of the production process. On the sandwich cookie line, products are cooled then corralled into a sorting system manufactured by Campbell Hardage. The tops and bottoms of the sandwich cookies enter the sorting system in 40 rows. Products enter the sorting system, which resembles a stainless steel conveyor that has multiple levels, and slide down and inclined conveyor to the next level. During this process, the 40 rows are reduced to 24 rows. After declining to another level, the number of rows is reduced to 16.
Next, the sixteen rows travel down a vibratory conveyor and are separated into two groups of four lanes. The first group of four lanes serve as the bottom half of the sandwich cookies. These are placed on a conveyor and travel under a depositor that places the proper cream filling on the cookie. Next, the top of the cookies are place on the cream, and the completed sandwich cookies are conveyed to a cooling tunnel that brings the temperature of the sandwich cookies to about 40°F. This process "sets the icing so the cookies remain intact during packaging," Bob Holzhauer, Bud's Best Cookies' plant engineer, says.
After the sandwich cookies are cooled, they are ready to be packaged in Bud's Best Cookies' state-of-the-art distribution and packaging system. Because flexibility and automation are essential at Bud's Best Cookies, the company installed a comprehensive distribution system that can collect products from three production lines and automatically distribute them to the necessary form/fill/seal machines. The Heat & Control Fast Back distribution system consists of three vibratory conveyor lanes that accept products from the three production lines. This type of system is normally installed in meat, poultry and potato chip plants, but Bud's Best Cookies saw the system's potential, and installed it in 2002. "The system is absolutely fantastic, and the best thing we could have done to streamline the plant's packaging room," Holzhauer stated.
The Fast Back System uses vibratory conveyors to transport the three lanes of cookies to the next phase in the packaging process. Each conveyor has several gates that open up and drop the cookies onto one of eight vibratory conveyors. These vibratory conveyors feed the company's eight form/fill/seal machines.
"With the Fast Back system, we have no product buildup, which makes it easy to maintain," Holzhauer says. "The system also is good for allergen programs because it has no belts."
Another advantage of the system is its ability to handle a wide range of products with minimal downtime for changeovers. The entire system is PLC controlled, which allows the company to run as many as four different products at one time.
Despite doubling its facility in the last two years, Bud's Best Cookies continues to grow, as does its need for more capacity and new machines. The company is currently undergoing another round of expansions, which include adding a 50-ft. section to its 80-ft. tunnel oven.
However, the biggest expansion at the bakery involves four new Peters' sandwiching machines that the company has purchased. These new machines will allow the company to produce both mini cookies, which are 1 1/8 ins., and a 1 5/8-in. cookie. To handle the larger cookies, the company also has purchased another sorting system and three tray loaders from Food Machinery Sales. The company will continue to run the cookies on its existing sandwich production line, but will have to make minor adjustments.
At the front of the line, the company will need to simply switch the die to produce larger cookies. At the back of the line, the company plans to divide their conveyor that runs to the sorting system. "When we run the larger cookies, we'll hit a button and direct the product flow to the new system," Holzhauer says.
Once the new system is installed and running, Bud's Best Cookies will be closer to achieving its goal of "doing $1 million in sales a week," Cason says. Although just halfway there, Cason's track record at Bud's Best Cookies and in his other cookie venture makes one think that he'll reach his goals sooner rather than later.
|1 After baking and cooling, the tops and bottoms of sandwich cookies enter the sorting system.|
|2 A waterfall conveyor with multiple levels reduces the cookie rows from 40 to 16.|
|3 The 16 rows of cookies prepare to enter the vibratory conveyor.|
|4 The vibratory conveyor contains four lanes with four rows of cookies in each lane.|
|5 The vibratory conveyors transfer the products to the depositor.|
|6 Two lanes form the bottom of the sandwich cookies, and the other two form the top.|
|7 A cream filling is deposited on the bottom sandwich cookie.|
|8 Completed sandwich cookies are cooled to set the icing.|
Company Profile Bud's Best Cookies
Headquarters: Hoover, Ala.