A league of their own

by Dan Malovany
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Some organizations build their teams around power. Others focus on speed. For Nation Pizza and Foods, the winning approach relies on both to adapt nimbly to a constantly changing market.

What gives the Schaumburg, IL, company its bench strength is not only its position as a co-manufacturer but also its role as a co-developer of pizzas, sandwiches, frozen snacks, handheld appetizers, cookies, sweet goods and various other frozen doughs for many of the nation’s largest consumer packaged food companies and foodservice chains. “We partner closely with our customers to create the best product possible for them and the end user,” noted Vince Nasti, a 14-year veteran of the company who now serves as vice-­president of operations.

As a co-developer, he explained, the team-like partnership goes a lot deeper than traditional co-packing or contract manufacturing. “Building long-lasting relationships is what we are all about,” Mr. Nasti said. “We work with our customers and listen to what they are looking for as opposed to telling them what we think they need. We spend a lot of time during the early stages to ensure that our company puts its best foot forward with a heavy focus on innovation, quality and value.”

Nation Pizza and Foods — or Nation for short — also prides itself on speed to market. But how fast is fast? The manufacturer’s cross-functional commercialization team recently developed a handheld breakfast item from concept to full-scale production at its 192,000-sq-ft facility in less than six weeks. “We have our weekly project meetings with  key individuals from several different departments to make sure everyone is involved,” Mr. Nasti said. “We review every project in detail so we don’t miss anything.

“What makes us successful is that our operations and R&D teams work together,” he added. “As a result, the commercialization of a product is much smoother, and it’s done much more quickly. You can dream up anything in R&D, but the next part is how to run it successfully in the plant. There you have to mirror what you made on the bench, and you have to do it well. That’s the challenge that we constantly face.”

Creating a national favorite

Munching on pizza has clearly emerged as America’s favored gustatory pastime. According to Chicago-based Mintel, retail sales of pizza hover around $5.5 billion yearly. Some industry observers estimate that annually as many as 70% of consumers eat pizza.

Despite such high market penetration, the business continues to expand for Nation Pizza and Foods. “We’re seeing growth in the snacking and health-and-wellness sectors,” Mr. Nasti observed. “As far as pizza, there is always growth [in that market]. Everyone is always looking for the new flavor combination or variety — whether it has to do with toppings or crust.”

He defined health-and-wellness as everything from all-natural and organic to gluten-free and even clean-label. Nation’s products run the gamut from value-added to premium. While pepperoni, sausage and plain cheese remain perennial top sellers, new concepts driven by foodservice chains, Italian restaurants and pizzerias keep the category fresh and fun, according to Mr. Nasti. In fact, the company relies on restaurants to inspire new flavors and concepts.

“If you watch the commercials for the major chains, they now make a pretzel crust or a jalapeño crust,” he noted. “They’re always looking for something new and innovative that will catch the eye of the consumer.”

In all, Nation offers 450 SKUs ranging from more conventional frozen and microwaveable pizzas to myriad grab-and-go, immediate-consumption foods for snacking or meals throughout the day.

The prepared foods provider also relies on its veteran team members — 650 in all — to adapt to consumer trends and ongoing shifts in the market and to possess a “can do” attitude to move products quickly throughout the development process.

“We have a lot of knowledgeable and experienced people who have been working here a long time,” Mr. Nasti said. “The teamwork atmosphere and the collaboration among everyone are vital. What we do here is challenge one another. If someone says, ‘We can’t do that,’ we ask, ‘Why? What’s preventing you from doing it?’ Our culture here is, ‘Hmm, that’s challenging. How can we do that? How can we make this a reality?’ ”

Ability for agility

The USDA-inspected facility in northwest Chicago-land houses six processing lines and seven packaging lines and is designed for both flexibility and large-scale production. Packaging, for instance, ranges from manual stacking and case packing of frozen pizza crusts to cartoning of 12-in. frozen pizzas hitting high rates of speed.

“Our packaging lines aren’t as automated as they could be, but this has allowed us to accommodate many different packaging configurations and has helped us with our speed to market,” Mr. Nasti said. “It gives us an edge to do things that others do not want or simply cannot do in their plants.”

As a co-manufacturer and co-developer, confidentiality is obviously the name of the game when dealing with customers. However, that trust extends to manufacturing consistently safe products. Certified by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the operation follows detailed standard operating procedures (SOPs) that are reviewed and enhanced as a part of its continuous process improvement and ongoing training programs.

 “For us, quality means making a product to spec and adhering to all SOPs and policies that protect the product, the consumer and the organizations involved from incoming ingredients to finished products going out the door,” Mr. Nasti said. “All of the processes that we have in place are well-documented to ensure that everything is followed through on the floor.”

Mr. Nasti pointed out the more flexible the operation, the more complex it is. During the past two years, the company worked on eight to 10 major projects with existing or new customers to grow the business. In such a dynamic environment, everything from managing purchasing to streamlining scheduling to eliminating allergen concerns provides a moving target for the operation. “Obviously, the focus is on producing a quality product at a competitive cost, but we are always looking for ways to do things more effectively and more efficiently,”

he said.

No ‘I’ in team

Smoothly choreographing production requires an organization based on teamwork in more ways than one. In addition to commercialization and project teams, the operation relies on sustainability, safety and process improvement teams to get employees involved in creating a better workplace.

From a management perspective, Mr. Nasti works closely with President Richard Auskalnis on strategic initiatives as well as Gerardo Del Rio, bakery production manager; Jesus Morales, topping production manager; Vincent Meakins, chief engineer; Armando Rodriguez, sanitation manager; Teresa Martinez, vice-president, quality assurance; and Lori Bruner, human resources manager.

Production runs three 8-hour shifts, 24 hours a day anywhere from seven to 13 days consecutively, depending on seasonal and customer demand, according to Mr. Del Rio. Located on 11 acres, the facility allocates 65,500 sq ft to processing, 20,000 sq ft for a centralized packaging department, 40,000 sq ft to warehousing and the remainder for office, freezer and other ancillary space.

Bulk flour is stored in four Shick indoor, enclosed 100,000-lb silos. Two silos are dedicated to each bakery line. The plant also has two cream yeast systems as well as a bulk tank for oil. All minor and micro dry ingredients are prescaled into tubs, creating the premix for each batch. The tubs are then bar-coded to establish a traceable chain of control from the beginning of the process. They are then palletized and shrinkwrapped to ensure BRC compliance.

Overall, the bakery is divided into two lines — Line No. 1 houses a Rheon makeup system, and Line No. 2 uses a Rademaker operation. Two Peerless 1,600-lb horizontal mixers feed Line No. 1 and three mixers supply Line No. 2.

After mixing, the dough on Line No. 1 is dumped into a trough and elevated to the hopper, where a chunker feeds the Rheon line to create a 52-in. wide, low-stress sheet. The dough starts out at 48 mm thick, but after traveling through a series of cross rollers, stretching rollers and reduction systems — as well as various flour dusting stations — it ends up as thin as 2 mm. The cross rollers and stretchers establish the proper width of the dough while the reduction system ensures the optimum final thickness.

After passing through a docking system, the dough encounters various die cutters that create round or square pieces ranging from 4 to 16 in. in diameter. Nation takes rework from the cutters and conveys it to dough troughs located above the mixers. The recycled dough is incorporated at a controlled rate into the mix to add flavor, tenderness and elasticity to the final doughs, according to Mr. Del Rio.

All pieces are either cold or not-pressed — never hot. Depending on the product’s size, the line can crank out 180 to 920 pieces a minute. Following die cutting, the pieces drop into pans via a retractable conveyor.

After traveling through a Northfield single-spiral proofer for several minutes depending on type of crust— time, temperature and humidity vary dramatically depending on the type of crust — depositors then apply oil. Another docking station degasses the dough pieces prior to entering a Capway oven loader and a new Senius proprietary-design direct-fired oven with six zones. Mr. Del Rio noted temperatures per zone vary — typically ranging from 300°F to as high as 700°F. Baking times can be as short as two minutes or as long as 12, depending on the type of crust.

After passing through a Capway vacuum depanner, the crusts travel through a JBT/Northfield spiral freezer set at -32°F for several minutes depending on type of crust.  Crusts receive Safeline and Loma metal detection before they are manually stacked and cartoned.

On Line No. 2, Mr. Del Rio said, the newer Rademaker 54-in. makeup system offers 30% faster speeds and 50% greater capacity. The mixing process is similar to Line No. 1, with rework incorporated into the dough batches. However, the second line uses an extruder, not a chunker, to feed the makeup line.

During Baking & Snack’s tour, Nation was making 6.5-in. deep-dish crusts. Mr. Del Rio added that a separate, second makeup line — not in operation at the time — is available for stuffed and other specialty crusts.

To create deep-dish crusts, the extruded sheet travels through an initial gauging station and cross roller, then to three additional gauging stations that gently reduce the sheet to as thin as 2 mm. After docking to ensure the products maintain their shape during proofing and baking, the crusts are die-cut and placed into cavity or flat pans.

Depending on the product’s size and line speed, dough pieces may run in either of two Northfield proofers. “Some products just require much longer proofing times,” Mr. Del Rio noted. Products are baked in a Meincke oven with nine zones to offer a blend of high-capacity and versatility. Each zone can be set at a different temperature to custom-bake the items. Following a brief cooling, products travel to one of two Northfield spiral freezers.

Topping it off

In a separate room, the four versatile, USDA-inspected topping lines add a variety of ingredients. “We can make almost any type of pizza you want,” Mr. Del Rio said. Although the facility creates a plethora of crusts, it also purchases several types of bread products from other wholesale bakers to accommodate its customers’ needs.

The topping lines include Quantum topping and waterfall applicators, Falco cheese shredders and Grote slicers and processing equipment. After topping, the pizzas travel through a nitrogen freezer prior to packaging. Nation partnered with Linde North America to supply the facility’s nitrogen tank farm feeding its various cryogenic tunnel and spiral freezers as well as its nitrogen gas-flushed modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) line.

For co-manufacturers, versatility in packaging is vital because of customer requests for many different sizes and formats. Mr. Nasti noted the packaging ­department houses an array of Bosch Doboy flowwrappers, a Conflex ­horizontal flowwrapper, GEA Tiromat PowerPak NT

form/fill/seal wrappers and Adco cartoners.

Packaging speeds range from extremely high speeds for the smaller items to lower speeds for the larger items. The department can also create club packs containing two family-sized pizza cartons that are shrinkwrapped before case packing.

Nation continues to search for new ways to automate production and packaging. Its biggest payback, however, comes from investing in its long-term team players who have a “heart for baking” and who are vital to the company’s future success, according to Mr. Nasti.

“The people who work with us are intelligent, motivated, hard-working and dedicated,” he noted. “They have a willingness to adapt and are not afraid to work long hours. The culture at Nation is that things are constantly changing and expectations continue to rise. Once we change or add something, we continue to look at it to determine how we can make further improvements.”  

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