Co-packer's Broad Operational Footprint Helps it Cater to Customer Demands, Trends

Pat Huffman runs Warrell Corp. operations with a sweet tooth and the heart of a plant manager.

By Bob Sperber, Plant Operations Editor

The first confectionery job Pat Huffman had more than 40 years ago was to go out into the plant, pick product samples off the line and bring them to top managers of the company. "And every place I've worked since, I've made sure that happens so we can see and understand the range of product we're making every single day," he says.

Oh, the places he's been. Huffman has worked for Grace Cocoa (now ADM), Wilbur Chocolate (now Cargill), Beich (now Nestle) and Jelly Belly Candy Co., where he was president, before joining The Warrell Corp., Camp Hill, Pa., a decade ago.

Today, as Warrell's president and chief operating officer, Huffman keeps the plant running at a steady clip all year long. The candy business is generally a seasonal affair, with 58 percent of candy sales — a projected $6.7 billion this year — clustered around Valentine's Day, Easter, Halloween and Christmas, according to the National Confectioner's Association. But at Warrell, outside of some specialty tins and other holiday products, business is relatively steady year-round, says Huffman, bolstered by some "counter-seasonal" production of snacks, cereal bars and other items.

Making it by the millions
The company, making fine confections since 1965, produces product under its own brands (Pennsylvania Dutch Candies and Katherine Beecher), but private label and contract manufacturing comprise the largest side of the business.

To churn out products for all manner of customers including some of the largest names in the business, the company maintains a 215,000-sq.-ft. plant in Camp Hill, which makes most products, plus a 38,000-sq.-ft. facility in York, Pa., dedicated to taffy and caramel products. The company runs eight distinct processes.

At Camp Hill, the company's chocolate enrobing operation can coat up to 17.6 million pounds per year of pretzels, cookies, peanut brittle and other goodies in chocolate as well as yogurt, caramel, peanut butter, all in regular, sugar free, low-carb and other formulations. Hot panning operations for non-chocolates have capacity for 14 million pounds per year using 16 rotating pans, or gas-fired copper kettles, which are crucial for proper sugar caramelization. A continuous brittle/crunch line, also with 14 million pounds per year capacity, mixes and blends candy with nuts, fruits and other ingredients to produce small bits through full bars.

Additionally, a batch operation produces specialties such as flaky, handmade peanut butter "pillows." Two continuous dry roasting lines handle 11 million pounds per year of peanuts and tree nuts; for that, totes of shelled nuts are dumped in, roasted, cooled and typically sent for chocolate panning, use in brittle/crunch or sold in bulk. The plant's 13-million pounds per year chocolate panning operation includes both traditional and high-capacity belt coating machines for the flexibility to apply various centers and coatings. Centers can include roasted nuts, dried fruits, pretzel balls, peanut brittle pieces, and specialty centers; coatings can be produced with multiple colors and flavors including "dusted" or "pearlized" coatings. The sugar mints operation produces up to 5 million pounds per year of butter mints, after-dinner mints and more.

The smaller Classic Caramel (brand) plant in York, acquired in 2009, includes two continuous systems and a batch line that produce up to 20 million pounds per year of caramel products shipped in everything from one-ton totes for bulk ingredient use to cut and wrapped candies for retail sale. The plant also hosts a 4-million pounds per year batch taffy and nougat operation offering infinite color, flavor and texture variations.

Overall packaging productivity, accuracy and flexibility are served by multiple makes of machinery, from high-speed combination weighers to packaging lines using barrier films and nitrogen-flush systems.

As a co-packer, the company also maintains multiple distribution options, shipping to customer distribution facilities or directly to customers' customers such as supermarket warehouses, domestically and globally.

Adapting to the trends
With so many processes, the company has a broad operational footprint, which helps it cater to customer demands and ultimately consumer trends. In addition to product variety, Warrell's operations require plenty of packaging versatility.

Addressing the trends, Huffman sees a "tremendous push" among leading brands toward more 100-calorie snack packs, although "more and more, calories are not as important as convenience," he says. This led him to pay attention to conventional, horizontal pillow-pack and stick-pack wrappers.

For larger-sized products, Huffman notes the popularity of the stand-up pouch and integrated, recloseable zipper -- but he also acknowledges the film is expensive. He reports multiple calls recently for flat-bottom bags, which may constitute a growing trend, particularly if the weak economy requires companies to reduce costs.

The company is now looking into a "generational" upgrade to new vertical form/fill/seal baggers, because some of Warrell's older machines are more cost-effective to replace than to maintain. Another reason, Huffman says, is that newer machines "have all the flexibility we need to run some of the new flexible films," which can be problematic on older machines at high speeds. Additionally, newer machines tend to accommodate faster changeovers, provide greater flexibility with more modular attachments and are better suited to current quality and process control technologies.

Process control meets human touch
Huffman's background provides a very human perspective on the industry, even when addressing technology.

Automation -- from instrumentation and controls to plant automation and information systems -- has come a long way since the early days of data processing and "green bar paper" Huffman used in the 1970s. Today, Huffman says, Warrell is making upgrades from plant-floor sensors to a new enterprise resource planning system.

"Sensors have improved dramatically," he says, especially those for time and temperature, weighing, blending, level and moisture. They account for both moisture cooked out of the product as well as the effects of ambient humidity.

He's especially high on mass flowmeters' ability to accurately meter syrup while maintaining precise moisture content. "For that, we need to measure the mass not just the volume of what goes through a pipe.

"The control that you maintain in your process can make the difference between having a piece of candy that's great and easy to run and a piece of candy that's sticky and turns off the consumer, because it can't be unwrapped," he continues.

Two things he stresses are the need to calibrate instruments on a regular basis and to never forget the "analog" or human side of process control, which is why he's firm in his policy of managers walking the plant and sampling products every day.

"We have all kinds of measurement and control technologies; we have a GFSI [Global Food Safety Initiative] certificate; we are BRC rated and AIB inspected; we have every inspector on the face of the earth walking through our plant. But if we don't go out into our plant every day, how will our people know we care?"