A Web Of Support Propels Growth For Two Northwest Snack Food Manufacturers

Manufacturing extension consultants, trade groups and others fill competitive gaps facing small and mid-sized companies.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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“A Little Help from My Friends” could serve as a theme song for two snack food companies in the Pacific Northwest, where a spirit of cooperation tends to quell competitive urges.

Bridgetown Natural Foods in Portland, Ore., is a copacker that bills itself as an innovation and supply-chain partner for early-stage firms in the natural foods space. Eugene, Ore.-based Wildtime Foods specializes in small-batch production of granola, cereal and trail mix distributed in bulk or single-serve packages under the Grizzlies brand. Both faced capacity constraints when they began working with the Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership (www.omep.org), and although facility expansion and site selection were part of the assignment, the help they really needed was something else entirely.

Bridgetown (bridgetownnaturalfoods.com) began production in 2011 in a 140,000-sq.-ft. plant that will grow to 183,000-sq-ft. in the spring. Rather than take an asset-available approach, the company strives to collaborate with clients focused on organic and natural snack bars and energy bars. It was founded as a public benefit corporation -- a certified B Corp. -- and is selective about the entrepreneurs and early-stage brand owners it works with, seeking out those focused on fair and profitable growth and an established proof of concept.

All of Wildtime’s production, on the other hand, is dedicated to its Grizzlies granola, cereal and trail mix (www.grizzliesbrand.com). “There were certain processes that were amazingly efficient and intricate,” relates Brad Averill, cofounder, but after 30 years, the company had developed some inefficient practices in a facility it had outgrown. New equipment would dictate new processes in a larger plant, and leadership viewed a consulting relationship with OMEP as an opportunity to eliminate production constraints and improve efficiency.

Engineers, former plant owners and other manufacturing professionals provide guidance through OMEP, with a particular emphasis on lean manufacturing. “In this industry and this region, reducing waste is very important,” says Whit Hemphill, Wildtime’s other founder, though lean training stopped short of grooming future black belts. Laid back might best describe the culture of both the firm and its customer base. A regimented approach to production efficiency had to be avoided, “or there would be a revolt,” Hemphill shudders.

That didn’t preclude using the Six Sigma technique of spaghetti diagrams to identify wasted motion in processes. Isolated tweaks in discrete activities over the years created a spaghetti diagram that laid bare the overall inefficiencies. With expert guidance, Wildtime took a holistic approach to process flow. “It was a culture change for the way we make things,” says Averill.

An obsolete oven was an obvious impediment to more throughput. Quality improvements came simply by replacing it with a revolving rack oven that handles 10 times as many baking trays in a new 8,100-sq.-ft. facility. But that also necessitated upstream and downstream equipment improvements as well as different work patterns for five production workers. OMEP consultants guided Wildtime in the purchase of $500,000 in new equipment that more than doubled productivity and paved the way to a $400,000 annual increase in sales.

Helping small and mid-sized companies comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act is another OMEP focus. Wildtime is among the small businesses that had to comply with FSMA’s preventive controls rules this year. “Technically, it’s in place,” offers Hemphill. “Practically, we’re working on it.”

The company as a staff of 37, with one person dedicated to FSMA compliance. That worker recently participated in a certification program for preventive controls qualified individuals (PCQI) presented by the Northwest Food Processors Assn., which has certified more than 100 PCQIs, mostly at smaller food companies, in the past year.

Empathy for the little guy

Two million snack bars that are extruded, slab-formed or enrobed roll off the production lines each day at Bridgetown. When another line is commissioned next year, that figure will increase.

Empathy for entrepreneurs with a focus on healthy eating is part of the firm’s DNA: CEO Dan Klock’s wife, Kelly Flatley, cofounded Bare Naked granola in 2002. She developed the product in rented commercial kitchen space and nurtured growth until Kellogg Co. acquired the brand for $60 million five years later.

Bridgetown’s goal is to serve as a reliable manufacturing partner to the waves of food entrepreneurs who need help to scale up their businesses, according to Klock. Most of production involves new-to-the-market snacks, atypical of the model used by many contract manufacturers.

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