You don’t need a Golden Ticket to visit to Bud’s Best Cookies; however, the plant radiates a Willy Wonka-style feel. Murals adorn walls near the factory’s entrance, and a train-like electric cart, known as the Cookieland Express, motors young children, students and even senior citizen groups on tours of the facility year-round.
The Hoover, AL-based cookie plant has opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of visitors since it began operations in 1993, and recently, attendees of the Biscuit & Cracker Manufacturers’ Association Technical Conference toured the plant. When asked how the company prepared for the visit by colleagues from the cookie business, Albert L. (Al) Cason Jr. said that it didn’t have to take extra time to clean because it’s always ready to show off the 130,000-sq-ft facility. Cleanliness is a guiding principle for the company, according to its vice-president of sales and marketing and son of the company’s president and c.e.o. Albert L. (Bud) Cason.
Jan Cason Clark, Bud Cason’s daughter, leads tours of the bakery. In the future, groups will likely experience a bigger tour than they would today. Bud’s Best is preparing its site for a final expansion project, and the company intends to add another 40,000 to 60,000 sq ft to the building, depending on what is possible after the site preparation work is completed.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON.
Al Cason has been with the family-owned company since day one, learning the business from his father, who has spent nearly 60 years in the cookie business. Both father and son grew up in the industry. Bud Cason owned Greg’s Cookies in Birmingham for 35 years, having purchased this company from his aunt and uncle, who founded the now-defunct bakery in 1937. He later bought Bishop’s Bakery in Cleveland, TN; however, he sold both bakeries in 1986.
Bud Cason didn’t take long to get back into the cookie business after completing the 5-year non-compete agreement he signed upon selling the two bakeries. “He truly loves this business,” Al Cason said of his father. “Dad has the fire in his belly for the cookie business.”
And his love for the industry is infectious. Bud Cason recently told Al that after almost 20 years with the family business that his son’s belly was starting to smoke. “As I’ve see his dream grow and continue to build, it has become a dream of my own,” said Al Cason, sitting in the office he shares with his dad.
“I think maturity has helped the fire set in,” he explained, adding that the greatest thing about being involved in the family business is working with his dad. For a number of years, Al Cason took the fact he got to work so close to his father for granted, but in the past several years, he has really delighted in the time they spend together.
“Every day, I am excited about having the opportunity to come to here and work alongside my dad,” he said.
Al Cason fondly recalled sales trips the pair has taken together, including one in particular where they loaded his father’s G-Class Mercedes with product and even added a luggage rack to ensure they had enough samples. The Casons visited stores from New York, NY, all the way down the East Coast. While on these road trips, Al Cason said they only stopped at convenience stores that sold the company’s products, and anytime his dad saw someone buying the company’s cookies, he made the purchase for them.
Within the past two years, the company bought a share in a small airplane so that Bud and Al Cason can meet with clients across the country.
Al also has followed in his father’s footsteps by enrolling in a Harvard Business School executive education program. Bud Cason took part in the program in the 1970s, and now, Al Cason is participating in a 3-year program that meets at the Cambridge, MA-based campus for three weeks each year. This past year, Al said he was selected by his living group to give a presentation about his family business. He described this as nerve-racking experience, talking about the cookie company in front of more than 180 executives with companies whose annual revenues range from $10 million to more than $1 billion. After completing his presentation, he was asked, “What makes your company’s cookies better than its competitors?” And without hesitation, Al Cason answered, “Because our cookies are made with love. When you come into our plant, you can feel the difference — you can feel the love.”
Bud’s Best is a special place to work, he added, because of its family-like atmosphere. Many of its 160 employees have been with the company for a number of years, Al Cason said. “A lot of the family feel throughout the company comes from my father down,” he explained.
The company is also involved in many local charity events and takes immense pride in being part of its community.
Bud’s Best is situated on 14 acres in the hilly and tree-filled Riverchase Business Park, just south of Birmingham. When Bud Cason purchased the 40,000-sq-ft facility nearly 20 years ago from a medical supplies company, it offered plenty of room to expand, and that is exactly what has occurred through the years.
The company’s most recent facility expansion was completed in 2002, and Bud Cason told Baking & Snack soon after, “The building is as large as it can be.”
Well, Bud’s Best will be able to add on to the building one more time after all, but this expansion takes the structure right to the edge of its property line, which abuts Interstate 65. However, trees were cleared and more than 40,000 cu ft of dirt and fill is being brought in to level the site. The cookie manufacturer plans to add 40,000 to 60,000 sq ft to the plant in the coming year, allowing it to double the size of a third oven, put in a fourth cookie line and increase warehousing space.
In recent years, the company focused on building its two brands. Its Bud’s Best Cookie line is mainly centered on mini cookies packaged in bags and designed to be eaten by the handful. Its Uncle Al’s brand includes standard-size cookies packaged in trays and wrapped on horizontal form/fill/seal machines.
Approximately 85% of the company’s revenues are generated by these two brands, with the remaining sales created through private label partnerships. Not long ago, Bud’s Best served largely as a co-manufacturer. About 45% of its business was derived from co-manufacturing for a single customer, Al Cason said. The problem with doing such a large amount of co-manufacturing is that the company didn’t control its own destiny, he added. “Our brand took a backseat to allow oven time for our partner,” he said. “It’s nice to have our own brand, so we can control it.”
The company recently sold 120,000 cases to Wal-Mart, marking the first time in 10 years that it’s done that kind of business with the retail giant, according to Al Cason. Wal-Mart cut the Bud’s Best product against national brands and soon after ordered the cases, and it plans to make the item part of its “everyday set,” he said.
However, to meet this demand, the company began building up inventory before even making its first shipment to Wal-Mart. Al Cason said the company had to be certain it had inventory on hand to supply all of its clients. “We have to be able to take care of all customers,” he explained. “We will never overcommit to what we can do, and if we tell a customer that we provide product at a certain price, we honor that price.”
Bud’s Best continues to expand its market presence. Recently, the company began supplying cookies to 100 Publix stores in the Atlanta, GA, area, and the supermarket chain actually called Bud’s Best about being a supplier, rather than the other way around. “We’d never been able to do anything in Atlanta prior to this, and to have a market as big as Atlanta is huge for us,” Al Cason added.
As a result of picking up the Publix account, Atlanta-area Kroger stores also began carrying the company’s cookies. “We’re sending three trucks to Atlanta each week, and six months ago, we weren’t doing anything there,” Al Cason stated. “It’s going extremely well, and I see us doubling that from three to six trucks in the next 60 days.”
Quality, price and selection are three reasons the company has built market share, he added, making sure to point out that the company does not sell cheap products but rather “quality, value-priced cookies.”
“You’ve got to find your niche, and we’ve got one,” Al Cason said. And to sell quality products at a value-price, sometimes that means not selling as much. Accordingly, it doesn’t sell a 24-oz tray of cookies for $1, but instead, it offers a variety of sizes from 3 to 13 oz with retail prices ranging from 79¢ to $1.49.
Although the company concentrated on its mini-size cookies previously, now its business is evenly split among the Bud’s Best and Uncle Al’s brands.
Quality is an important value for the company. “Quality complaints are held to a minimum because of very aggressive adherence to strict quality standards,” Al Cason stated.
As such, the cookie manufacturer received Level 3 certification as part of the Safe Quality Food (SQF) program. It began SQF certification at the behest of a customer, but he said the company also believed it was the right thing to do. And although SQF certification required a substantial monetary and time investment, he added that it makes the bakery a better overall facility.
Bud’s Best is an extremely efficient operation, according to Al Cason, who pointed out that its lines generate less than 2% scrap. The company automated many processing and packaging steps to be as efficient as possible, and most of the labor needed along the lines currently is for packaging the thin and bar cookies.
Cookie production begins in one of three Peerless 1,800-lb horizontal mixers. A Pfening automated ingredient handling system feeds bulk materials to the mixer. The ingredient system includes three 110,000-lb silos — two for flour and one for sugar. Two 80,000-lb tanks — one for shortening and one for high-fructose corn syrup — are also used to store bulk ingredients. The ingredient handling system also incorporates a Metalfab system to dispense dextrose from 2,000-lb totes.
Also located in the mixing room is a fourth Peerless horizontal mixer, which is used for mixing cremes to fill its sandwich cookies. The company also has a 6X sugar processing mill to grind granulated sugar into powdered sugar for cremes.
After mixing, cookie dough is unloaded onto APV Baker automated dough feeding systems on all three lines. Line No. 1 makes wire-cut cookies, and Line No. 2 uses an APV rotary moulder to form products. Line No. 3 can produce either wire-cut or rotary-moulded cookies.
Cookies on all three lines are baked in APV tunnel ovens that were installed when the facility was commissioned in 1992. The ovens all are aligned in parallel. Ovens on Line Nos. 1 and 2 have been expanded through the years, from 80 to 160 ft and from 100 to 150 ft. The oven on Line No. 3 will be extended from 80 to 160 ft, doubling capacity on the line, after the next building expansion is completed.
Bud’s Best also will install a fourth line after the plant expansion is completed. Currently, the company is running near capacity and needs the extra line for future growth. “This will allow us to go out and sell more,” Al Cason said. “And that is what we want to do.”
Bud’s Best revenues this year are expected to exceed $30 million, but without increased capacity, sales will not grow as fast as they have in past years. In regard to needing more space for future growth, Al Cason said, “It’s a very good problem to have.”
He referred to the expansion as “optimistic growth” and quickly added, “but that is the direction we are going.”
Al Cason also pointed out that the company is in an unusual situation because it can finance the expansion on its own. While some companies are searching for lines of credit to expand their operations, Bud’s Best is able to pay as it goes, and ironically, banks want to loan money to help finance its expansion projects, he said.
SANDWICHING AND PACKAGING.
After cookies are baked they travel under exhaust fans that help to draw heat from them before they reach sandwiching or packaging stations. This is the area where lines begin to look more complicated because their layout is not so linear. Bud’s Best mini cookies and vanilla wafers are packaged in bags.
Bite-size base cakes travel through a Compass stacking system that feeds two Peters 4-lane sandwiching machines, while standard-size base cakes are stacked on a FMS system that delivers cookies to three Peters machines. The standard-size sandwich cookies are packaged in horizontal flow wrappers, and the bakery has one Campbell Wrapper and four Bosch Doboy machines to create this packaging format.
Mini cookies and vanilla wafers are conveyed to a mezzanine level where Heat and Control FastBack conveyors deliver them to Ishida weigh scales that feed three Eagle and four Sandiacre vertical baggers.
The most labor-intensive packaging is for the thin and bar cookies that are sold as part of the Uncle Al’s brand. These products are currently being hand-packed into trays and fed into the flow wrappers.
Within the past five years, Bud’s Best has invested in two robotic case packers from Langen Packaging Group, and since the initial installation, the company had to reconfigure the case packers to do 12-count cases as opposed to the original 24-count cases because of customer requests for smaller cases.
Case erectors feed boxes to the robotic systems. The cases of cookies then travel through a series of conveyors, including continuous vertical lifts from TKF Conveyors that move the boxes to the warehouse where they are palletized and stored until they are shipped. The longest that any product will remain in the warehouse is three weeks, Al Cason said, and many of its key products turn over much quicker.
The company will introduce new cookie varieties at the end of this year. Vice-president and general manager Denvir (Bud) Sizemore does most of the company’s R&D work.
Bud’s Best has received countless buyout offers through the years, but Al Cason said his dad just isn’t interested in selling the family business. “It’s not about the money. We love cookies and this special place we have built,” he said.