In 1965, when Ray Kroc reached out to Northeast Foods’ John Paterakis, seeking a single-purpose McDonald’s bun supplier, the two entrepreneurs reached a handshake deal that blossomed into a massive business. Currently, Northeast Foods and its affiliate companies supply roughly 50 percent of McDonald’s total buns and English muffins in the United States. Paterakis’ company earned the opportunity to grow with McDonald’s business with its innovative approach to producing high-quality, low-cost hamburger buns, indistinguishable whether they end up in New England or New Mexico. The technology available to increase efficiency has changed over the years, and as a family-owned company operated by engineering-minded individuals, Northeast Foods has been an early adopter of the technologies that provide reliable, consistent products. And now more than ever, speed is the name of the game.
The company’s latest plant, Automatic Rolls of North Carolina, delivers unheard of production speeds to meet market demand at the lowest cost to date in the McDonald’s system. To get to these speeds, engineers had to roll out truly innovative solutions, earning Northeast Foods Baking Management’s Innovative Bakery of the Year award. According to Dennis Colliton, vice president of engineering, speeding up counterintuitively meant slowing down.
Speed and innovation
Automatic Rolls of N.C. is a McDonald’s-dedicated bakery location feeding two distribution centers that service more than 1,000 restaurants throughout the Southeast. The facility is capable of producing 4-in. buns at a rate of more than 1,400 rolls per minute. To achieve those rates, “we had to divide and conquer,” Colliton says.
Instead of a single makeup line, the engineering team, consisting of Colliton, Andy Black and Eric Mohrmann–both corporate engineers–and Richard Tommy, plant manager, went with a dual eight-pocket makeup system to produce rolls for a bun pan specifically designed to carry 40 pieces. This helped to bring the pan-per-minute rate down without sacrificing total output. A vertical two-in, one-out pan merge (pictured on the cover) delivers pans from each eight-pocket makeup line to a continuous proofer infeed at 35 pans per minute.
“We also have dual tray lines and three wrappers–to obtain these kinds of speeds, we had to dual everything,” Colliton says. “We run the pans horizontally to keep the speeds down.”
With the large specialty pans–Big Mac pans push 27 lbs. each–the team was forced to look at innovative methods of pan stacking and unstacking. Nothing existed that could handle the load for long periods of time without wear and tear–conventional systems would not be sufficient. They worked with various suppliers, and decided on a unique gantry robotic stacker/unstacker that gently maneuvers the pans using vacuum cups. The dual gantry system picks up the pans six at a time, stacks them and, at the same time, unstacks 40 pans per minute. The system is connected to an automatic storage and retrieval system for full automation–no human intervention is necessary.
The pans are flipped, brushed, air-knife cleaned and stored upside down, focusing their unusually heavy weight on the rims and relieving stress on the actual baking surface. Inverted stacking aids in food safety, also, as less airborne material and fewer particulates collect on the concave baking surfaces when they are inverted.
“That was always a problem with automated pan storage,” says Black. “All of the stackers out there stack right side up, and one of the complaints has always been when you’re ready for storage, you’re not getting that pan turned upside down like in the old bakeries when you were pulling the carts off yourself and flipping one upside down to keep it clean. We didn’t really have the option for inverted stacking until now. The robotic gantry was the biggest chunk, but it was a series of little things that, when you bring them all together–two mixers instead of one, two dividers instead of one, five-by-eight bun-pans instead of the traditional four-by-eight–all those little things added up.”
All buns leaving the N.C. plant are frozen, so the team borrowed freezer innovations from other industries, namely ice cream. The freezer system features a vertically oriented, four-story space for optimal energy savings and cool air retention. The storage and retrieval system in the freezer is
completely automated (AS/RS), so workers aren’t often asked to brave the -10°F inside.
A pallet infeed conveyor moves loaded pallets into the freezer. The system has several sections allowing loaded pallets to be staged for storage while the system continues storage and retrieval missions already in the queue. When the freezer infeed pallet conveyor presents two pallet loads to the AS/RS, a mission to pick them up is generated. The AS/RS picks up the load of two pallets, transfers it to an open space in the rack storage system. Meanwhile, the identity and location of pallets are retained in the system for accurate storage and retrieval.
The system allocates entire lanes for a single product type–only one product code (SKU) will reside in any particular lane. This permits flexibility in retrieving a product type by lot number, as it eliminates the need to move other products out the way when retrieving for first-in, first-out pallet shipping.
Operators enter orders for pallet shipments via 26 pallet-truck orders into an automated freezer system supervisory computer.
A supervisor identifies the order and requests product delivery to the shipping dock by computer while a trailer is docked at a truck door. Once the truck order is identified, the AS/RS performs the missions required to bring the requested pallets to the pallet outfeed conveyor. The system is optimized to perform the fewest possible missions to satisfy the shipping dock, calculating the fastest possible time for order retrieval.
Between the “double down” dual line approach, the creation of a specialty pan stacker/unstacker to handle extra-large pans, and the integration of a fully automated freezer/inventory system, the input to output flow at the N.C. plant is optimized for both speed and volume throughput.
“Early on, if you ran 1,800 dozen to 2,000 dozen buns per hour, that was state of the art. The new N.C. bakery produces 7,000-plus dozen buns per hour,” says Bill Paterakis, president and CEO. “Also, then you had 12 people on the line in production. Now we have six or seven, so we’re getting three to four times production with half the labor–driving costs down.”
For any McDonald’s supplier, the ultimate goal is consistency. Automatic Rolls of N.C. has a vision system in place to reject off-spec buns. Color, size, shape, slope, diameter, blisters, heel shape, flour on the heel and blotchiness are just a few quantifiable variables the system measures. When running seeded buns, the system does seed counts, addressing missing or discolored seeds.
The device relies on three cameras, one shooting from above recording color, seeds, etc. Another camera shoots from underneath, and also takes a line scan of the heel–piecing the images back together for measurements on the whole heel. A third, angled camera performs a laser triangulation measurement with a laser shooting down at a certain angle and a camera at a 40-degree angle. By measuring the difference in the laser height, the camera is measuring height and slope. The system measures and evaluates every single bun going through the system–at 1,400 buns a minute.
“And that was a challenge for the vision company,” Black says. “We added preventive measures all along the line as well, so if anything was out of spec as far as ingredient draws, if we’re over or under on any of the draws, that triggers the alarms. There are several steps along the way where if you were going to have variation, you would know about it, and the alarm would let you know right away.”
The alarm system itself is new to the industry. It consists of a voice alarm integrated with the processors on the lines. In real time, when an alarm is triggered, the system sends a pre-recorded voice alarm over the PA system. It also sends emails and text messages to cell phones, with a report that identifies where the problems are and how many minutes a particular machine may have been down.
“In a plant this big, with so many sounds, you can go kind of crazy with the buzzers and the lights. So the voice alarm directs workers to the issue,” says Black. “Sometimes you’ll get an oven alarm, or a proofer alarm, and you’ll see people go running. They know exactly where they’re going; there aren’t different buzzers that need to be differentiated in order to figure out where to go.”
Northeast Foods and partnerships
Bill Paterakis is always looking at what suppliers are doing that’s new and innovative. He challenges them; the ones that are progressive, the ones trying to add cutting-edge technologies, are the ones with whom Northeast Foods is likely to build relationships. The company isn’t publicly owned or owned by hedge funds, so it isn’t beholden to anyone in trying new things–Paterakis himself has an engineering background, and he looks for companies that share his forward-thinking approach.
“We have a long-term objective in our capital expense area. Most companies are looking for two- to four-year capital expense paybacks. We may look at that, or we may look at 10 years. If it’s the right thing to do, even long term, we’ll do it. When you look at N.C., there are some firsts in the industry. We are willing to take a few risks to achieve things that have never been done before if we can envision results that achieve greater efficiencies or reliability.”
For instance, Paterakis took a chance by partnering with a smaller, lesser-known supplier to create the new gantry robotic stacker/unstacker, but he recognized that the supplier was diving into the project as a risk for that company, too. The supplier shared Colliton’s vision, saw Paterakis’ end goal, and the two companies were willing to take chances on one another instead of making the safe play.
“At the end of the day, the logo says Northeast Foods, but without those suppliers and their own ingenuity, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Paterakis says. “I think there are quite a few companies in this project that we’ll look to be partnering with in the future.”
A strong internal engineering staff has allowed Northeast Foods to be picky when it comes to supply partnerships. Colliton’s engineering team is very specific about what it wants out of a partnership, and takes much of the burden of orchestrating installations upon itself. They started with the basic concepts for the N.C. plant, knew that they wanted to go with speed and developed their sustainability goals. And before any suppliers were contacted, the team made a wish list reflecting input from their collective experiences in high speed production baking, or as Tommy called it, “a do it right the first time list.”
Certain bigger companies have been successful cutting back on engineering staff, relying more heavily on suppliers but Northeast Foods hasn’t taken that approach.
“I don’t know how you survive in today’s climate, with more complicated technologies, unless you have homegrown talent, and not just in design, but in the software being used today,” Paterakis says. “You need people who understand the technologies that are evolving at rapid speeds. We do a lot of stuff internally because we have a lot of good ideas, and we don’t always know where to go to make it happen, we’re lucky to have those guys. While the overall industry might seem to be relying more on suppliers, I can’t imagine operating multiple volume bakeries without a strong internal engineering department.”
Paterakis attributes his company’s innovation streak to McDonald’s high standards. “Their unique partnership approach to the business is refreshing. It motivates you to excel and fits right in with our own business culture. The trust that started with a handshake still exists.”
“The overall idea is that, to be a low-cost producer, you need to have high levels of automation,” Colliton adds. “We think we’ve achieved that here.”
Northeast Foods at a glance
NEF plant locations and sizes:
Automatic Rolls of Baltimore, 65,000 sq. ft.
Automatic Rolls of New Jersey, Edison, N.J., 80,000 sq. ft.
Automatic Rolls of New England, Dayville, Conn., 70,000 sq. ft.
Automatic Rolls of North Carolina, Clayton, N.C.,
Bake Rite Rolls, Bensalem, Pa., 70,000 sq. ft.
Other Paterakis family owned businesses:
H&S Bakery (founding company), Baltimore: 230,000 sq. ft.; Crispy Bagel Co., Baltimore, 100,000 sq. ft.; Schmidt Baking Co., Baltimore, 250 routes from New Jersey through Virginia
Affiliated companies/Paterakis family partnerships:
Midsouth Baking: Two bakeries located in Texas and Mississippi, predominantly McDonald’s plants, covering restaurants from Georgia to New Mexico
New Horizon Baking: Two bakeries–Fremont, Ind., multi-customer base, and Norwalk, Ohio, McDonald’s bakery for Michigan, Ohio and Indiana
Ottenberg’s Bakers, Eldersberg, Md.
Total number of employees:
Northeast Foods, 570; H&S Bakery, 385;
Bill Paterakis, president and CEO, Northeast Foods;
Steve Paterakis, president, Schmidt Baking Co.; J.R.
Primary product line:
Buns, English muffins, bagels, white/wheat breads, and many variety breads & rolls
Northeast Foods/H&S/Schmidts; Maine to Georgia
NEF, tractor/trailer; H&S/Schmidts, 350 step vans, trailers
NEF and affiliated McDonald’s operations supply 50 percent of McDonald’s buns/muffins in the United States
H&S/Schmidts supply supermarkets, convenience stores, institutions and foodservice
Primary production method:
Sponge and dough, flour ferment, straight dough
High speed bun lines range from 960 dozen buns per hour to 1,400 buns+ per minute (N.C. plant)
Engineering green: Sustainability a top priority at N.C. plant
As an operating bakery, Automatic Rolls of N.C. consumes electricity, natural gas, water and sewer services. Engineers looked at each natural resource and engineered a way to reduce consumption of each of these resources while maintaining a high speed, highly efficient plant. Below are some of the highlights of a host of measure the new plant employs.
• The entire building roof is glossy white to reflect the sun’s heat, reducing the
• Skylights were installed to intensify natural daylight while reflecting heat. These skylights are lined up in rows, allowing them to “light harvest” high bay lighting. Automated photoelectric controls allow the complete shutoff of high bay lights without losing lumens on the plant floor.
• High bay lighting also uses “induction” style fixtures that emit a higher lumen value than the standard metal halide fixture, while consuming roughly 200 fewer watts of power, and reducing lighting energy consumption by 50 percent.
• LED flat panel, motion detecting lighting is used in all offices and non-manufacturing spaces.
• All filtered plant air intake units are matched with exhaust fans in specific areas, removing operational heat from the bakery. The entire air supply can change in eight hours. Inverter drives (variable speed motors) balance airflow, and maintain a minutely positive parametric pressure (helping to keep allergens and particulates out).
• Domestic and process water supplies are kept separate. Ingredient water is charcoal filtered to remove chlorine. With domestic water metered separately, ingredient water going into sewers can be monitored.
• Solar panels pre-heat hot water for domestic and process water, up to 120°F degrees on a sunny day. Conventional gas heaters need only heat from 120°F to 140°F, conserving energy.
• Inverter-driven, variable speed motors are on every motor, every piece of equipment, enabling motors to maintain precise horsepower and eliminating inrush currents. Power factor is at 90 percent or above plant-wide.
• A generator system will operate the plant in case of electrical failure. Also, the generators allow the plant to operate off the grid during high demand summer months, reducing rates as an interruptible customer.
• Concrete flooring underwent a hardening process that does not require further treatment, eliminating epoxy treatment. It also eliminates the need for normal small area expansion joints, benefiting food safety and sanitation.
• Direct drive inverter air compressor technology operates from 15 to 100 horsepower, delivering only compressed air without consuming traditional compressors’ power. All ompressors are water cooled and oil-less, benefiting food safety.
• Amonia freezer system chills glycol for the process equipment, mixers and ingredient cooling, eliminating separate equipment for process chilling. This increases efficiency and reduces additional refrigeration equipment for process.
• Computer server system tracks and records all process of operations, from ingredients to finished product, for traceability and enhanced operational efficiency.
• The receiving dock is on a bias ending in a containment basin blocked from storm water systems and designed to contain possible liquid or dry ingredient spills.
• Liquid sugar and vegetable oil storage tanks and bulk liquid yeast tanks are all in a containment area with no floor drains, allowing spill cleanup with zero potential for release into sewer drains.