Lawler Foods: Hip to be Square
Lawler Foods builds an automated line to produce square cheesecake desserts in its $10 million expansion.

When Lawler Foods Ltd. opened its second plant dedicated to making round cheesecakes, little did the company know that square would be the shape of things to come. In fact, a little more than a decade later, demand for the company’s new individual-size square cheesecakes hijacked much of the plant’s capacity — not the most efficient use of the facility. Therefore, the Humble, TX-based bakery knew it once again needed to expand its operations, and in 2008, it opened a $10 million, 60,000-sq-ft addition on the back of its second facility.

Mike Lawler, president of the family-owned business, helped design the layout for the new production line along with the company’s chief engineer Bruce Fowler and vice-president of operations Aurelio Jaramillo. “We probably redrew that line 40 times because every time we talked, we came up with something else,” Mr. Lawler said, adding that this has been the most exciting endeavor he has taken on at the family-owned business. “These projects are risky, but that’s part of the fun I suppose. Quite honestly, I’m waiting for the next one. I can’t wait for the next big project.”

Eventually, the company installed an automated line specifically designed for making square dessert products. “We took what we needed to do and blew it up so that we built in a whole lot of capacity for the next products that we would need to do,” Mr. Lawler said. The expansion is large enough to house two or three additional lines, as the company looks toward future growth.

Currently, Lawler Foods, which markets products under the Lawler’s Desserts brand, is seeking to fill capacity on its existing lines. Having been in business for 35 years, the company operates two plants, both of which are just a few miles east of George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, TX.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.

In 1976, Lawler Foods was founded by Bill and Carol Lawler, Mike’s parents. Prior to that, the couple was selling RL Schreiber flavors and spices to local food service accounts out of their garage in Denver, CO. when a local cheesecake manufacturer asked if they would sell his products to their customers. They agreed to do so, Eventually, the Lawlers decided to get involved with the cheesecake manufacturer further and purchased a small percentage share in the business. Then, they decided to move to Houston and manufacture and sell the cheesecakes for the company in this new market.

A few years later, the company was sold to another investor, who purchased the Lawlers out from their share. At that time, the Lawlers changed the recipe for the cheesecake, put their name on the box and started Lawler Foods. In 1982, the company opened a plant in Humble. This facility was expanded on several occasions until it became landlocked. It still serves as the manufacturer’s first bakery, known internally as Building 1.

Although the founders are retired, Mike Lawler said his parents still have their fingers on the pulse of the business. “My dad is executive vice-president, and mom is president emeritus or CEO. And when she says, ‘Jump,’ we still answer, ‘How high?’”

Lawler Foods continues to deliver the quality and service that it did as a small startup. “Our quality comes from our ingredients and our processes,” Mr. Lawler said. “We take the time to do it right. We don’t substitute in fillers or cheaper ingredients.” Making a good cheesecake takes tender loving care, he added.

DEDICATION TO QUALITY.

Lawler Foods produces about 300 various desserts, including cheesecakes, brownies, pies, cakes and torts. The company sells the majority of its products to food service accounts, with about 40% going to retail and club stores and remainder to international buyers.

The products’ quality sets Lawler Foods apart from many other manufacturers in this highly competitive market, according to Mr. Lawler. “It is a lot better to sell a quality product for a little more than it is to sell a mediocre product for a little less,” he said. “I think the hardest part we have in making a sale is getting the appointment. Once we are able to get in the door and get the product in their mouth, it’s basically servicing their account from that point forward.”

And the dessert manufacturer’s sales staff doesn’t just make the sale and then turn the account over to a customer service crew. “The person to whom they sold that product is a corporate buyer or corporate chef, and that individual is not going to want to talk to a customer service rep,” Mr. Lawler said. “The customer wants to talk to the person who made the promise on the front end. What differentiates us is a superior quality, and we will not lose a customer on service.”

Steve Kempa, Lawler’s vice-president, sales and marketing, pointed out that food service customers don’t like to see their products on someone else’s menu. “As we call on our national accounts, they typically don’t want one of our stock items,” he said. “It’s a good starting point to show them a dessert, but they want to make it a custom dessert that is signature to their chain. Our willingness to do that, since we have started with food service, has expanded that segment of our business.”

On the other hand, some accounts don’t want a specific dessert for a whole new set of reasons. “They don’t want to have to be on the hook to commit to a volume to keep that production flowing,” Mr. Lawler said. “They want something that is already on the shelf and to know orders will be filled because we are stocking it for other customers.”

Lawler’s R&D department features four pastry chefs, each of whom has his or her own specialties when helping to create and develop products for its customers. One is trained in commercial production and helps to transition products from R&D to full-scale startups. Another is trained in food science, and yet another worked in quality assurance before putting herself through pastry school because she wanted to be in R&D. Mr. Lawler called the fourth pastry chef “the maverick, who is willing to think out of the norm.” And then after giving it a bit of thought, Mr. Lawler added, “They would probably all prefer to be referred to as mavericks.”

But one of the toughest jobs in R&D is replicating a dessert. Sometimes customers will have a falling out with their vendor, Mr. Kempa said, and they come to Lawler’s, without a recipe, wanting the company to make the same dessert. “They don’t want it better,” he said. “They want an exact match, and that is always difficult. But if that is the direction we give our R&D department, they will deliver and do a really good job at it.”

EMPLOYEE CENTRIC.

For its plants, Lawler Foods typically hires unskilled labor and trains them. “That is not to say we don’t hire people with experience, but that is both good and bad,” Mr. Lawler said. “On one hand, you can pick their brains to see how they dealt with a particular issue at their former workplace, but you also have to deprogram from habits that you don’t want in your facility.”

The company also encourages employees to move around to various departments. “We are happy to have them learn a variety of tasks,” he said. “A lot of our employees don’t know what they are doing next week — they don’t even know what building or shift they will be on. That is why our vice-president of production likes to bring them up in our culture. Their jobs are demanding, and they have to be flexible in the hours and jobs they are asked to do. They have to want to come to work. It is not an easy row to hoe, so we try to spoil them. We take good care of our employees and feel like it has paid back in spades.”

The company provides superior benefits, including top-line health insurance, profit sharing and 401(k) administration. Also, the company tries to make the workplace enjoyable for its employees by offering picnics and other activities throughout the year.

Lawler Foods employs more than 400 people, and many of them often work around 50 hours a week. And because it takes care of its employees, the dessert manufacturer also can better serve its customers.

“I’ve gotten phone calls on Friday afternoon, saying they need two truckloads of products now,” Mr. Lawler said. “And by Monday, they are on the road. Employees can be walking out on Friday thinking they have their weekend ahead, but we’ll say, ‘We need you to put two truckloads of product on the road in less than two days,’ and they do it. Our employees will go that extra mile to make sure we can do the same for our customers. We let our employees know that we appreciate that.

“We spoil our employees, and we spoil our customers,” he added. “And it’s working because we’re getting double-digit sales growth every year.”

INSIDE OPERATIONS.

The original Building 1 is a labyrinth, and those unfamiliar with the operation could easily get lost in the many rooms where various processes take place. Although the 65,000-sq-ft plant may not feature the most efficient layout, the company uses this facility to make its most labor-intensive products: layer cakes.

“Layer cakes go through so many stages,” Mr. Lawler said. “You mix, deposit, bake, cool and depan, and then all you have is a cake layer; you’re not even halfway through yet. You’ve still got to make the filling and icing and to assemble, decorate, cut and store the cake.”

While the company has three distinct packaging lines in its plants, it is much more difficult to pin down an exact number of processing lines because many pieces of equipment are rolled in and out depending on the dessert being produced. Building 1 features a wide range of processing equipment, including many different depositors, icing and filling equipment from Unifiller and Hinds-Bock, as well as a complete cake line.

Mixing room operators use 11 140-qt vertical mixers to create a variety of batters. Generally, longer-tenured employees are assigned to the mixing room because that part of the process requires more knowledge, Mr. Lawler said. “Any variability in our process is in this room,” he added, watching employees batching ingredients and operating the mixers.

Seven deck ovens bake products made at this plant, including both round and sheet cakes. On the day Baking & Snack visited the company in mid-January, employees were making layered carrot cakes, and one worker was prepping whole carrots to be shredded for the cakes. They also were assembling carrot cakes, injecting the cake layers with a caramel filling before the layers were iced and stacked on top of one another.

In the cutting room, employees loaded White & Dark Chocolate Mousse Cakes that had been made the day before into six FoodTools cutting machines. After slicing, operators manually loaded the cakes into boxes, which were then date-coded. Next, the products went through a McLean X-ray system as well as Mettler-Toledo Safeline metal detectors before being stacked onto pallets.

The company designed operations in Building 2 to be much more streamlined. Raw ingredient receiving is on the north side, and finished products ship out the south end. A similar layout was used when the bakery expanded three years ago.

Building 2 sits on 21 acres, with a good-size pond on the front of the property. Two 100,000-lb-capacity sugar silos are located on the north side of the building. A service alley separates the older portion of the building from the expansion. This corridor runs the length of the facility and houses generators, chilling equipment and other support systems for both sections of the bakery.

This plant was initially built to make cheesecakes, cheesecakes and more cheesecakes. The mixing room features 20 140-qt vertical mixers, and a Comas cheesecake line deposits the batter into pans that are automatically loaded onto trays and manually slid onto racks.

The bakery makes many varieties and sizes of cheesecakes. It started with a standard 60-oz variety but has since added the 80-oz Elite and the 108-oz Colossal, which measures nearly 4 in. tall when baked. The plant bakes these cheesecakes in one of 13 Cutler rotary deck ovens.

The finished product is frozen in an spiral blast freezer before moving to cutting and packaging.

Its newest line is the company’s most automated, employing four 300-l planetary mixers. Batter is pumped to the depositor, which makes sheets of cheesecake product. These are then baked in a 100-ft tunnel oven.

“Tunnel ovens used to be a dirty word for baking cheesecakes,” Mr. Lawler said. But that’s no longer true, he added.

A conveying systems links various processing steps. After exiting the oven, products feed into an spiral cooler, and after cooling, they cross a mezzanine level, where decorating equipment could be added if needed, before entering the spiral blast freezer. Products exit the blast freezer at waist level and flow into a food cutting machine. This machine portions and collates the cut cheesecake pieces to make variety packs that are sold at wholesale club stores.

This line also can be reconfigured to make other products. During Baking & Snack’s visit, the facility made miniature cheesecake pieces that become inclusions in other desserts. A cutting machine diced thin sheets of cheesecake into mini cubes.

Soon after the company built this line, “out of dumb luck,” as Mr. Lawler put it, more customers began asking for cheesecake products cut into cubes. “We don’t build for what we need today, but we build what we need or hope to need five years from now,” he said. “So we have a lot of capacity built into this line.” Asked what the future holds as far as the next new line or product, Mr. Lawler answered, “I wish I knew. We would start building it now so we could have it ready to go.”

But one thing is certain: Lawler Foods is ready to go when it’s time to add the next new line. “Within the next five years, there will be a second production line in that building, for sure,” he added.

BRIGHT IDEA.

Lawler Foods recently replaced every lighting fixture in its operations. “It is a sustainability issue, but it also saves us money,” said Mike Lawler, the company’s president.

When asked to identify the specific type of lighting installed, his response was, “Expensive lighting.” Nonetheless, Mr. Lawler said that the payback for the new lights is expected to be less than one year.

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