Food Safety / AEC Firms

Expert Advice On Improving The Viability Of Existing Food And Beverage Plants

Flooring is a good place to start, but there are a number of renovation projects worth considering to upgrade facility performance.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

Many of today’s improvements and renovations to food and beverage facilities are driven by higher sanitary standards under the Food Safety Modernization Act and third-party certified audits that are designed to support FSMA compliance. But many other desirable outcomes can come into play, from improved product flow to creating a work environment that matches employee expectations.

Each facility is unique, of course, and processes vary considerably depending on the food being manufactured. But there are some common threads that apply to many or even most food plants.

“If you have only one dollar to spend, spend it on the floor” is a maxim that David Dixon shares with any food executive who cares to ask. Dairy tile and acid brick are his materials of choice, although many owners have to swallow hard when it comes to cost.

The jury has returned a verdict on epoxy resins, and it isn’t good: Unless workers are the only traffic, seamless epoxy is unlikely to stand up to the rolling stock and thermal shocks that food floors are subjected to. Cementitious urethane is a better choice, although it doesn’t afford a long-term solution.

“When you’re putting in a floor, you’re putting in an asset that should be good for 30 years,” says Dixon, who heads the food & beverage business unit at O’Neal Inc. (, an architectural engineering firm in Atlanta. “Maintenance of a bad floor contributes significantly to the cost of goods sold.

“If you just have rolling carts and people in boots, you can use urethane,” he continues. “But it’s a short-term solution, and once it starts to delaminate, you have to replace the entire floor. With brick, you can isolate an area for repair.”

The owners of Brooklyn Brewery took a pass on dairy brick and opted for urethane cement for a recent upgrade. The fast-growing craft beer company is building a $70 million brewery in nearby Staten Island, N.Y., but it also jumped recently at the chance to renew the lease on the former matzo plant where it has operated since 1996 in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood.

The installation was done on seven consecutive weekends, relates Chris McDermott, vice president of Seamless Flooring Systems Inc. in Somerdale, N.J. “A lot of labor was involved,” with crews applying a degreaser prior to pressure washing, followed by treatment with a diamond grinder to remove contaminants in the cement, much of it worn down to expose aggregate. Urethane cement from Flowcrete was applied.

“There are a lot of urethane cements out there, but they’re not all the same,” McDermott maintains. An antimicrobial additive is standard in the Flowcrete floor covering, which his crews have applied to more than 40 breweries. “I won’t put epoxy down,” he warns.

“With the forklift traffic and dropping kegs, brewing is one of the most abusive industries we deal with,” he continues. Cementitious urethane isn’t a permanent fix, but it may be serviceable for 15 years. Quick curing is a plus. “They gave tours in the afternoon after we completed the work in the morning,” McDermott says.

Soft benefits

Hiring the right floor installer is at least as important as the materials of use, notes Gregg Carr, project planner-baking & snack with Cleveland-based Austin Co. ( It's a point few experts would dispute.

As with most facility upgrades, flooring projects defy ROI calculations, although the paybacks are real. Food safety and easier cleaning and sanitizing are obvious benefits, but product quality also can be positively impacted. Uneven floors not only make it difficult to roll materials and equipment around, they can disrupt dough development due to product jolting.

Employee welfare upgrades are another category of improvements that are difficult to tie to financial return, but both Carr and Dixon believe the benefits far outweigh the costs, particularly in older facilities.

Twenty years ago, air conditioning was a rarity in food plants, Dixon observes. Today, personnel comfort is a priority, particularly in facilities that rely on skilled workers to keep automated equipment humming. The European manufacturing model of fewer, better trained workers is being grafted on U.S. production. An example is Haribo, a German confectioner building a plant on the Wisconsin-Illinois state line. Salaries will average $80,000, according to Dixon, making a comfortable work environment a key to employee retention.

Older bakeries were built in an era when it was assumed replacement workers were readily available, reflects Carr, who has provided engineering consulting to bakers for several decades. Break areas on mezzanines open to the production area still exist. But “It amazes me they can get an AIB certification,” says Carr. “It was fine 20-30 years ago, but that’s not the way it works today. What does it cost to hire and train an employee? Do that for six employees and you’ve paid for a new break room.”

Beyond a break room with a microwave and an outside view, Dixon advocates employee clean-up rooms as both a food safety and worker comfort enhancement. Instead of boot washing stations, “I like a captive-boot program,” he says. “If you take a science-based approach, a high boot with a slip-resistant tread is worth the investment.”

The Big Chill

Variable frequency drives on compressor and condenser motors are an easy upgrade for plants producing refrigerated or frozen foods, although payback may be anywhere from two years to eight, depending on operating conditions, suggests Scott Mark, division vice president-food group at Stellar Inc. (, Jacksonville, Fla.
“It all depends on the load, peak rates in the area and how long you’re running the system,” Mark says of the ROI variance.

Besides mechanical operations, an infrared scan to check thermal conditions in the refrigerated space is a good idea when setting upgrade priorities. Not to be overlooked are access doors. “Make sure your SOPs for regular maintenance are followed and all the seals are maintained,” he says.

Woodman’s Markets made freezer-door efficiency a priority in constructing new warehouse-size supermarkets in Wisconsin and Illinois. The energy savings and productivity improvements were sufficient to inspire an upgrade to all of the Janesville, Wis.-based chain’s 16 stores and two distribution centers, all in the 200,000-250,000 sq. ft. range.

Conventional horizontal-opening doors are giving way to vertical doors from Rite-Hite Corp. (, a Milwaukee specialist in loading dock equipment. Powered by a direct-drive motor, the doors open and close vertically 100 inches per second, about three times faster than the firm’s prior generation of horizontally opening doors with chain-drive motors. A perimeter thermal air seal complements insulated door panels to boost R-value high enough to make panel defrost systems redundant.

“Fast cycle times and insulating properties mean the incremental cost (over horizontal doors) is paid back very quickly,” according to Nick Popp, transportation manager for Janesville, Wis.-based Woodman’s. “They’ve been such an upgrade in energy efficiency, they’ve allowed us to qualify for significant credits from Wisconsin Focus on Energy,” a state rebate program.

Forklift collisions have become a rarity with the fast-moving doors, but when the flexible doors do take a hit, they snap back into their tracks without a service call.

Something in the air

Improvements in dust control and air balance are on many to-do lists. Positive pressure and 10 to 12 air exchanges are a reasonable rule of thumb, Austin’s Carr suggests.

“In some older buildings, there is so much negative pressure that you can’t close the door,” he laments. In today’s regulatory environment, that would be a food-safety nonstarter.

Air needs to move from processing, the most sensitive environment, to packaging or warehousing, the least critical rooms in the plant. Temperature and humidity are critical variables, and a control system that monitors them from a central location is a wise investment, believes Stellar’s Mark.

Dust collection systems are standard on storage silos for flour and other powders, but there are other areas where collection systems also are worth considering. Bag dumps for specialty flours and dusting locations on bakery makeup lines are examples. Besides improving working conditions, dust collectors help minimize explosion hazards, reduce cleaning time and lower the likelihood mold will develop when dust accumulates in nooks and crannies.

Captured flour dust can be reused, though those savings alone will never justify system cost. “You can’t put an ROI on it, but it’s worth it,” Carr maintains.

Arguably the most impactful project and hardest to execute is improving product flow through a facility. A comprehensive engineering review is the first step. Stellar was able to improve flow through the roasting plant of Royal Cup Coffee & Tea in Birmingham, Ala., but only because green bean receiving was moved to another building.

Absent surplus real estate, flow improvements usually entail more automation.

More automation means more machinery, adding significant cost to a straight-line flow projected. A bakery might replace rack ovens with a tunnel oven and scrap cooling racks in favor of a spiral cooler to free up floor space. More often than not, however, automation might aggravate space issues rather than resolve them. And if automation is the solution, be ready for sticker shock: Subcontractors and vendors are in high demand in today’s marketplace. Long lead times and higher project costs are the rule.

Minor or major, facility renovations are like home additions: Owners may be hard pressed to realize a financial gain. Nonetheless, homeowners and plant owners undertake them because of the intangible benefits they provide. In the case of older food plants, upgrades may be the only alternative to moving.