By Keith Seiz , editor
Company Profile Uncle Wally's
Headquarters: Shirley, N.Y.
Uncle Wally's robotic pick and place system picks muffins out of pans and places them on a conveyor.
Before baking, Uncle Wally's sprays some of its muffins with a substance that helps the muffins "break" in the oven.
Uncle Wally's muffin line features a viewing area between the oven and cooler.
Uncle Wally's production line contains two depositors. This allows the company to produce multi-packs.
After exiting the blast freezer, Uncle Wally's muffins travel to one of three packaging lines.
Uncle Wally's operates three packaging lines because it produces a variety of muffin sizes in many packaging configurations.
Despite its short history, Uncle Wally's, Shirley, N.Y., can count many accomplishments. The company successfully emerged from bankruptcy, changed its focus from cookies to muffins and was named one of Wal-Mart's suppliers of the quarter in 2004.
However, the muffin manufacturer's greatest accomplishment, according to its senior executives, was the construction of its plant and the installation of a baking system that fit the company's unique productionneeds. The company's senior executives accomplished this feat with a wealth of business experience, but limited knowledge of manufacturing bakery foods.
"We went into the manufacturing business not knowing a lot about it," Lou Avignone, Uncle Wally's president, says. "This was good because we immersed ourselves in learning about manufacturing. We also had no preconceived notions about how a plant should operate."
This open-minded attitude allowed the company to thoroughly research many production line layouts and install an automated system that processes high volumes in a limited floor space. Since building its plant in 2001, the company's sales have swelled, causing the company to install a second production line. These two lines churn out an array of muffin products that are sold to retailers and distributors throughout the United States. More importantly, the company's senior executive leaders are now experts in plant operations.
Despite its success, Uncle Wally's has not always functioned with the efficiency that it does today. The company, which was founded by famous marketing professional Wally Amos, originally manufactured and distributedcookies to vending machines. This business was failing when Amos and Lou Avignone, one of the cookie line's distributors, had a chance meeting that developed into a relationship. After a while, Amos asked Avignone to manage the company.
Avignone accepted the position and brought in his own management team: Michael Petrucelli, chief financial officer; Jerry Ceccio, vice president of sales and marketing; and Jim Farrell, director of operations.
This management team inherited a company with product quality issues and a mountain of debt. According to Avignone, it was a disaster. "We had a great network of sales, but the quality was terrible," he says.
After fighting the cookie business for a couple of years, the company filed for bankruptcy and started anew. This time, Uncle Wally's abandoned cookies and formulated a plan to manufacture muffins. The company purchased a 7,500-sq.-ft. facility in Bohemia, N.Y., and started producing a line of fat-free muffins.
It became apparent that muffins provide an excellent future. Sales took off, forcing the company's executive team to man the production line until it could afford a second shift.
"When we first bought the facility, we got some large orders, but we only had one shift," Avignone says. "So, the executives took over the second shift. At night, [the executives] manufactured muffins and during the day we ran the business."
Uncle Wally's sudden growth put a strain on its small manufacturing facility, forcing the company to seek financing for a new bakery. Petrucelli found financial partners, and the company purchased land on Long Island in Shirley, N.Y. The company secured financing to build a 43,000-sq.-ft. plant. This new plant would be more than five times the size of its existing facility, but it still presented obstacles due to its size.
To satiate demand for its muffin products, the company knew it needed a high-speed line, a blast freezer and additional floor space to accommodate growth. These demands presented many challenges, mainly finding an oven with high capacities that did not take up a lot of space. Uncle Wally's solved this predicament by thinking vertically.
The company purchased an automated production line that uses a vertical oven and cooler. "It was very important that we could go vertical to create a highly efficient bakery line while maximizing space," Petrucelli says.
Uncle Wally's new muffin line is nearly identical to its existing production system. Externally, one of the only differences is the oven's height. The new oven is taller, allowing it to handle increased capacity. Internally, the new line's design makes it easier for Uncle Wally's maintenance staff to clean the oven.
Other than these differences, the lines are identical. The company mixes its muffin batter with two batch mixers that sit on a platform directly above the batter hoppers. The company operates two mixers to produce individually wrapped products and multi-packs. The mixers use programmable logic controllers to feed two batter hoppers.
The hoppers deposit muffin batter into muffin pans that are fixed on the production line. Uncle Wally's installed this type of line to minimize pan handling and to create a complete inline system.
"The pans are all locked in and never leave the line," Farrell says. "They just travel through the production process, get turned over and cleaned, and come back at the beginning."
Besides limiting pan handling, this type of system also eliminates automated pan storage. However, the company does have to switch out pans when running differently sized products. This process takes awhile, but the second line allows the company to schedule long production runs, relegating changeovers to off days and during scheduled maintenance.
Thermal oil oven
Both of Uncle Wally's production lines contain vertical ovens that convey muffin pans in a serpentine motion. Besides saving space, Farrell says the ovens also produce more consistent bakes because they bake muffins with thermal oil instead of traditional gas burners.
A boiler, which is located on the plant floor, heats the thermal oil and pumps it through metal tubes that run throughout the oven. The thermal oil transfers the heat from the metal tubes to the baking chamber by natural convection.
After baking, muffins pass through a ground level viewing station that serves as a quality assurance checkpoint, allowing the company to modify the bake to obtain the ideal color. Cooling takes place in a similar vertical system.
Pans are discharged from the cooler and muffins are depanned with a robotic system that picks the muffins out of the pan and places them on a conveyor belt feeding a spiral blast freezer. The pick-and-place robot handles multiple-sized products by changing its heads.
Muffins exit the blast freezer and are conveyed to one of three packaging lines. The company's packaging department features a significant amount of manual labor, which provides the flexibility to handle multisized products and an array of packaging styles.
Uncle Wally's two production lines produce a variety of stock keeping units that serve many channels, including retail aisles, in-store bakeries and club stores. The company bases its marketing strategy on quality and diversity.
The company's four main product offerings, Fat Free Gourmet Muffins, Sugar Free Gourmet Muffins, All Natural Home Style Muffins and Rich & Moist Muffins, are manufactured to maintain a homemade appearance.
"No matter how big we get, we have to make sure quality is our focus," Ceccio says. "And, we have maintained the homemade look and taste despite our growth."
Besides quality, the product line's diversity and diverse market channels ensures a solid business base for growth. By manufacturing both "healthful" and indulgent muffins, Uncle Wally's is protected from fickle consumer preferences. It also is protected from changing preferences because the company markets its products to multiple retailers and in multiple departments, such as the commercial aisle, deli and in-store bakery.
Uncle Wally's products also are found in Wal-Mart SuperCenters throughout the United States, and Uncle Wally's was named one of the retailer's suppliers of the quarter in 2004. This recognition is displayed in the company's lobby, and serves as a point of pride for the company.
The company's strong performance with Wal-Mart, Ceccio says, makes Uncle Wally's a better bakery because it forces the company to reduce costs and streamline operations. This has better prepared the company to distribute its line of muffins at various retailers and channels throughout the United States.