Because surprise is the HACCP inspector's calling card, it should come as no surprise at all that representatives from the American Institute of Baking (AIB) select a raw, unwelcoming morning in mid-December to come calling on The Blendex Company, a Louisville, Ky.-based processor of breadings, batters and dough.
"It might as well be today," shrugs Ron Pottinger, president of Blendex. "Today is no different than any other." Inspectors will spend their first day at Blendex reviewing the company's paperwork, making sure that all HACCP-related documents and records are up to date, Pottinger blandly relates, and their second performing a top-to-bottom survey of the company's plant. His offhandedness suggests he is an old hand at this. He isn't. Blendex only received HACCP certification the previous spring, the first custom blender in the nation to do so. This inspection is the company's first.
Weeks later, Pottinger reports that the plant received a superior rating, with only one small proviso. The perimeter of the 100,000-sq.-ft. facility that houses Blendex's offices, plant and shipping and receiving facilities is scored with grass, and inspectors have recommended that it be replaced with white gravel so that rodents can be spotted more easily. "They have a natural tendency to run along a building's edge," Pottinger says, "which is why we set our traps there." The inspection, he adds, was "extremely thorough. They aim to keep you on your toes." When reminded of how relaxed he appeared that morning, he responds that his father, Eugene, who founded the company in 1979, "had a zero tolerance for anything less than perfection." Pottinger's father is gone, but the sentiment lingers.
To be the best
Part of Pottinger's drive may have to do with perception. Even after 25 years, a period in which the company shed a chrysalis of seasoned flour to emerge as one of the nation's leading suppliers of custom-blended dough, breading mixes, seasonings and marinades -- a period in which it also built four bulk flour silos and oil tanks and boosted product throughput from 4 million to 45 million pounds per year -- Pottinger still regards Blendex as "a child in the woods." Most major dry ingredient blenders have been in operation for 75 years or more, having first learned the business by operating as mills, Pottinger says. Blendex, by comparison, simply started from scratch. The only way to compete, then as now, was to be the best.
Pottinger has been known to turn away entire truckloads of incoming product if it doesn't meet exact specifications upon receipt and inspection. Product that does pass muster is bar-coded for traceability before it is stored. Once ready for processing, all batch ingredients are double-weighed to ensure miscalculations don't compromise taste, texture or the processing operation itself. While one worker weighs the ingredients without any references, another checks them against specifications. If the numbers don't match, the blender , a ribbon blender, Pottinger points out, to promote consistency -- will remain idle until they do. Pointing to a large sack, Pottinger notes that all incoming spices are "bacteria reduced," meaning they have been irradiated prior to arriving at the plant. "Our suppliers charge a premium to do it, but it's well worth it," he says. "These days, you can't afford to take any chances." Pottinger and his crew are even sensitive to the ways that differences in weight and density among sugar, salt and flour can affect product integrity once product is shipped. "Train cars have a tendency to gallop a bit once they get moving, causing materials to naturally sift," he explains. "Ours don't because we use fine-ground salt and sugars that more closely match the profile of the flour. Consequently, the ingredients bind better. Materials like that are more costly, but again, they're well worth it."
Different day, same product
Shaped, as they are, by seasonal changes, geography and the unsteady hand of nature, materials such as flour, sugar and spice are sometimes subject to variability. Customer expectations, however, are not. Predictability is the life's blood of clients such as Kellogg, or the restaurant chains Wendy's and Texas Roadhouse, all companies that rely on their ability to produce the same product the same way day in and day out. "Consistency is tough when you're dealing with commodities," Pottinger says. "We may discover that a red pepper has the proper heat, but not the appropriate hue, in which case we'll add dye to it , whatever adjustment is necessary to ensure product is uniform. It's not always easy. You may find that the moisture content isn't the same, the ash content isn't the same"