Private Label’s Siren Song: A Case Study in Supply vs. Demand

No matter how strong a brand is, food manufacturers who expand capacity must have a fallback when demand falls short. In this case study, we look at how product development and manufacturing for other companies will help justify Jelly Belly Candy’s latest expansion in Asia.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

A question food processors need to answer when contemplating a plant expansion is, how will they fill production schedules with the added capacity?

The fallback is particularly important when the processor’s brand is susceptible to big swings in demand. That describes Jelly Belly Candy Co., the Fairfield, Calif.-based confectioner that rocketed to fame in the 1980s thanks to the unsolicited endorsement of President Ronald Reagan, who kept the beans on his desk and gave visiting dignitaries a jar as a token.

Still family owned, the confectioner traces its roots to post-Civil War New York, according to Herman Rowland Jr., a member of ownership’s fifth generation. Production has skipped around to many locations over a century and a half, and in 2006 Rowland was dispatched to the Rayong Province in Thailand to oversee construction of a production facility that came on line two years later.

An economic incentive package that included tax-free trade zone status if all finished goods were exported was a key factor in building the facility in Thailand. “Our international market was not growing for many years,” recalls Rowland.

A nearby deep-sea port makes time on the water for shipments to 65 countries an easier logistics solution than serving the globe from Jelly Belly’s West Coast plant. GMO-free tapioca syrup rather than the corn syrup used in U.S. production helped unlock access to key markets like Germany, Japan and the U.K. and also benefited Jelly Belly’s domestic organic line.

Much of the company’s product development is done by the current patriarch, Herman Rowland Sr. Among his creations is Vomit, one of several vile-flavored beans that were bundled together in BeanBoozled, a board game introduced the same year the Thailand plant was commissioned. Popular with people too young to drink, BeanBoozled consists of a selection of savory and nasty-flavored jelly beans. Players spin a wheel that determines which flavor they must eat.

BeanBoozled became an international sensation two years ago, pushing production into overdrive. “We had to lease 100,000 sq. ft. across the street,” the younger Rowland says, with 100 temporary workers joining Thailand’s 150 full-time staffers. All good fads must come to an end, though, and international ardor for BeanBoozled is cooling.

Jelly Belly routinely leverages cross-marketing opportunities with movies like Jurassic World and the Harry Potter franchise, so the waxing and waning of pop culture trends is nothing new. Still, the timing is awkward for the Thailand factory, which recently added contract manufacturing of chocolate candies to the production mix.

The existing 165,000-sq.-ft. facility simply is too small to accommodate tempering equipment and other processes needed for chocolate production. Rowland considered adding a 40,000-sq.-ft. addition that would have maxed out space on the firm’s property, then scrapped the idea in favor of renting the adjacent 100,000-sq.-ft. building. “It will give us a chance to see how chocolate candies take off,” he reasons.

Whether Jelly Belly builds or leases, the chocolate project will push Thai capacity above the current 7 million lb. per year level, adding some urgency to private-label production. “I want to fill up Thailand’s production schedule,” says Rowland. “That’s why I’ve been pushing for private label.”

With that in mind, he plans to become a fixture at the three international private-label trade shows, beginning with November’s Private Label Manufacturers Assn. show in Rosemont, Ill.

Jelly Belly dipped its toes into private label four years ago at its North Chicago, Ill., facility. Later, branded production of jelly beans, chocolate malt balls and candy corn was transferred to California. Seventy workers were laid off as the company began soliciting contract manufacturing and private-label opportunities. The Illinois facility recently was certified to produce vitamin-infused products.

Candies with vitamins are another possibility in Thailand once chocolate manufacturing moves across the street. And a new starch drier will present other opportunities. “We’ve been asked many times, ‘Can you put marijuana in that?’ but it would never get past my sister’s religion,” says Rowland, referring to company president Lisa Brasher. “People are going to make a lot of money (on cannabis chewables), but not us.”

A best-in-class approach is taken in equipping the Thailand plant, which means the OEMs are usually thousands of miles away. “We have the parts and fix problems ourselves, unless there’s a programming problem we can’t figure out,” says Rowland, “and then the vendor does it online.”

Production runs are shorter in Thailand than at the California factory, which means coping with more changeovers, particularly in packaging. Automation is used on some of the dozen packaging lines, but throughput is faster on those with hand-packing than those with machines, he maintains.

Quality improvements are likely once chocolate production is relocated. Instead of storing work-in-process up to three days to stabilize it, a starch dryer will be installed to condition the beans, making final outcomes more consistent, according to Rowland. Beans then are sugar coated and transported to a panning room.

“No two pans are exactly the same,” he says. “Maybe there’s a little more sugar or a little more syrup. That is where the art remains. It takes two to three years to develop a top panning guy.”

Immediately before packaging, each branded bean is printed with the Jelly Belly logo in one of four machines that each print 22,000 beans per minute. That’s one potential bottleneck that private-label production will be able to skirt.

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