Slideshow: Ellison Bakery at a cookie crossroads

by Charlotte Atchley
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Ellison Bakery

FT. WAYNE, IND. — For more than 50 years, Ellison Bakery supplied cookies for Archway Cookies. When Archway declared bankruptcy in 2008 (it is now a brand of Snyder’s-Lance. Inc.), however, Ellison wasn’t up a creek. That’s because in the 1980s, a chance opportunity to bake a cookie as a component in an ice cream sandwich snowballed into a full-fledged business of making cookie-based ingredients for all sorts of ice cream, yogurt and confectionery products. While the cookie industry itself may be experiencing flat sales, these other food industry segments are seeing plenty of growth, and so is Ellison.

For the past few years, all that growth had the bakery running full-out, filling up a major expansion done originally in 2006. It was time to add to production capacity, and Ellison’s put in a new mixer and oven line at the end of 2015.

“We have had tremendous opportunities as our existing customers’ volume has grown, and we have also brought on several wonderful new customers, so we were operating at nearly 100% capacity,” said Todd Wallin, president of Ellison Bakery. “Running at 100% capacity is very difficult on resources, both equipment and, more importantly, our people. In addition, we had potential customers who wanted to come on board with Ellison, and we could not accept new business since we were, in essence, out of capacity.”

With these latest additions, Ellison now operates three production lines with Line 1 running at 85% capacity, Line 2 at approximately 65% and the latest, Line 3, at 45%. That leaves Ellison Bakery poised to take on new business that Mr. Wallin expects will continue due to the company’s capabilities and size.

“There are fewer and fewer flexible, privately held, independent bakeries out there today,” he said. “This leads to more opportunities for those of us who are still in that space, have the flexibility and don’t need a million pounds of one item to build it into our system,” Mr. Wallin said. “We are fully capable of handling huge volumes or smaller volume projects and are nimble enough to do it very quickly in a cost-effective manner.”

The latest production line installed at Ellison Bakery only enhances the company’s ability to produce the wide variety of products its customers demand.

A company’s evolution

Like many bakeries in the industry, Ellison is an established family business. Started in Don Ellis’ garage in 1945, the company has stayed in the Ellis family throughout its history. Mr. Wallin is the first company president to not bear the name Ellis; however, he might as well be family.

When he was 14 years old, Mr. Wallin met Rob Ellis, current chairman of the board, when his family moved to Ft. Wayne. When he returned home after college in 1982, Rob offered Mr. Wallin a job at the plant. Mr. Wallin has worked in various roles at Ellison Bakery ever since — shipping, distribution, plant management, sales — before taking over as president in 2010.

Rob and his two sons Jeremy and Jon Ellis remain the sole owners of the bakery and are heavily involved in the business, with Jeremy as QA/R&D manager and Jon as plant manager. The family was supportive of Mr. Wallin taking over as president and made the transition easier because, as Mr. Wallin said, the Ellis family treats its employees like family. Many of those employees have worked at Ellison Bakery for decades. “It has felt like family for many of us for many years and continues today,” he said.

During Mr. Wallin’s time at Ellison Bakery, he’s seen the company make the shift from Archway Cookies supplier to ingredient supplier and private-label manufacturer. In 1950, Don signed the first licensing agreement with Archway Cookies, and until the 1980s, that was Ellison Bakery’s business: baking Archway Cookies for the Indiana, Kentucky and Wisconsin markets. That was until an ice cream company in Green Bay, WI, decided that the Archway Cookie was the best chocolate chip cookie to serve as the base for its newest product: an ice cream sandwich. The company approached Ellison Bakery with the proposition of baking a similar cookie for the new product.

After clearing it with Archway, Ellison Bakery collaborated with the ice cream company to develop a cookie that would hydrate with the ice cream without softening too much. That new customer returned to Ellison with more new product opportunities.

“That was one of our first forays into products outside of Archway and into the ice cream industry,” Mr. Wallin said. “And then we had the opportunity to grow and develop from there.” More food manufacturers came to Ellison looking for cookies for ice cream sandwiches, cookie crumbles for ice cream toppings and other ways cookies could be incorporated into a host of products.

To keep up with this burgeoning side business, Ellison Bakery expanded its facility in 2006. However, by 2008, Archway Cookies, which had been sold and its contract with Ellison renegotiated several times, was gone. By that time, Archway had already shrunk to 15% of Ellison’s volume. Ellison grew with its new marketplace’s needs and paved new paths for additional expansion.

“Over the years, we have evolved from only producing retail branded 10- to 11-oz overwrapped packaged cookies for grocery stores to having more than 100 S.K.U.s serving the retail private-label market, food service segments and other industrial manufacturers making ice cream, pies and confectionery products,” Mr. Wallin said.

With such a diverse product line, Ellison Bakery’s capabilities enable the business to be game to try anything — as long as it starts out as a cookie.

Product development

Product innovation has become a foundational pillar of Ellison’s business.

“One of the things that we do well, and have since we expanded our business in the 1980s, is we work with our customers and ask, ‘What do you want to bring to the marketplace, and how can we provide that?’ ” Mr. Wallin explained. “We start with a cookie-based product and find out how we can provide what they’re looking for from a cookie-based product.”

R.&D. runs the gamut at Ellison. Sometimes, a customer comes to the baking company with all the R.&D. completed. Other times, Ellison’s R.&D. team works with the customer to find the right solution. Then there are others who outsource their R.&D. to Ellison. The bakery’s R.&D. team can accommodate it all.

“Our R.&D. department is small, very skilled and able to create excellent opportunities for our customers to launch new innovative products on an extremely tight timeline,” Mr. Wallin said. “In many cases, our R.&D. group works with our customers to develop new products that create either a value add or improvement for them, or allow them to add a new product to their lineup.”

For existing customers, Ellison Bakery will also present new ideas to them, either potential new products or a way to improve the existing process. This is a benefit of the long-standing relationships Ellison has with many of its customers. “We’re not an in-and-out supplier,” Mr. Wallin said. “We really like to build relationships with our customers. We like to understand their businesses and what their needs are so we can fully support that.”

The turnaround time on a new concept can be anywhere from only a few months to two years, depending on the particular customer or the idea itself. For example, it took Ellison just three months to turn around a request from an ice cream sandwich maker wanting to release an existing product in a smaller size. “We have other customers for whom it’s a year-and-a-half to two-year development process, so we’ve got everything in between — the very short timelines to working on stuff now for 2018,” he said.

The flexibility Ellison Bakery offers its customers, long-standing and brand new, as well as its pursuit of quality and innovation, has driven the past few years of booming growth. At the end of 2014, the company found itself at 100% capacity, with equipment and personnel feeling the strain of that demand. It was time for a new production line to allow Ellison Bakery to continue growing. 

Investing in new technology

When looking to install a third production line, Ellison Bakery searched for an oven that could produce a better rotary moulded product more effectively with higher throughput than the existing lines similar cookies. The company started shopping around for the new oven in early 2015.

Mr. Wallin and Jon Ellis, plant manager, spent time at the Biscuit & Cracker Manufacturers’ Association’s Technical Conference that year discussing their equipment needs with various suppliers. When they returned from the conference, they enlisted the help of many in the company to “divide and conquer” supplier interviews and testing to determine which oven would be right for the new line. Then the team reconvened to review their findings. The group decided to go with Reading Bakery Systems’ indirect-fired tunnel oven for the new Line 3.

“One of the things we were positive about with the Reading system was the way air is handled in the oven; it really lends itself to rotary moulded products,” Mr. Wallin said. Since rotary moulded items were the intended use for Line 3, it was the right fit. He said the company might retrofit a wire-cut machine for Line 3, but all products made on that line will be used as ingredient components in ice cream, yogurt and confectionery products.

“If I do wire-cut on Line 3, I’m still going to grind those cookies up, and they’re going to be either an inclusion in an ice cream product, a yogurt product or a candy product, so the characteristics that I need from that product are totally different than a traditional wire-cut cookie,” he explained.

Initially, Ellison planned to add a new 90-ft oven with two burner zones, but Mr. Wallin said after working with Reading, the bakery decided that a 120-ft-long oven with three burner zones would be better suited to what it wanted to accomplish.

“Reading expanded the oven to give better control with the extra burners as well as higher throughput,” he said. The new oven can handle a 48-in. rotary moulder but currently uses a 39-in. moulder with plans to expand to its full capacity in the future.

Ellison Bakery also added an exhaust hood at the end of the oven to remove some of the heat and humidity out of the building. A transition conveyor linking the oven band to the cooling conveyor offers a clean transfer for cookies as they exit the oven.

Once the oven was chosen, most of the project planning was handled within Ellison Bakery’s staff, but contractors were hired when necessary. The plant remained in operation during installation, which required preparation beforehand and plenty of site preparation before the oven arrived.

“Planning is key to this process,” Mr. Wallin said. “Our team reviewed with contractors and equipment vendors the needs that we had in terms of what could and could not be done at certain times or in certain locations within the plant. This was something that we had to monitor constantly, and as customer needs changed, we had to adapt and alter our plan. Constant vigilance is required.”

With the addition of Line 3, Ellison Bakery went from approximately 85 employees to 120. With so many new people — most without food manufacturing experience — the company had its work cut out for itself. New employees were scheduled for training in flights to keep things manageable.

“Our existing staff was taxed, so bringing those guys in was a big relief to our personnel,” he said.

When all was said and done, the new oven was installed before the Christmas holiday, a goal the company had set to provide inspiration to have the project finished on time.

Operating with flexibility

Line 3 currently runs cookies that will become components for other food manufacturers’ products. With the new oven taking some strain off of the other two lines, the bakery is in the process of moving most of its retail and private-label business onto Line 2, leaving Line 1 mainly for food service products.

Line 1 has a Baker Perkins 48-in.-wide oven that’s 120 ft with two zones; Line 2 relies on a Baker Perkins three-zone, 39-in.-wide oven running 150 ft. Ovens 1 and 2 can produce both wire-cut and rotary cookies, and there is talk of retrofitting an older wire-cut machine to give Line 3 wire-cut capabilities to keep production as flexible as possible. Ellison Bakery has about two dozen rotary dies to create a wide variety of cookies.

Ellison’s ability to remain flexible has contributed to its growth, and the additions of the new line as well as a new wrapper on Line 2 have only increased overall capabilities. Production is scheduled based on historical sales and customer forecasts.

“We’ve done business with a lot of these folks for a very long time, so we have a pretty good idea of what we run week in and week out,” Mr. Wallin said.

With the master plan of orders in place, production is scheduled based on product mixes and allergen and sanitation requirements. The bakery has a built-in segregation system to allow employees to clean one line while the other two continue running.

Bulk ingredients are stored in Shick Solutions silos: one that holds 150,000 lbs of sugar and two 120,000-lb flour silos. High-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup and maltitol are all stored in 40,000-lb tanks. A computerized batching system measures out these ingredients while smaller-quantity ingredients like cocoa, salt and eggs are hand-scaled. Ingredients are added to one of three mixers, the newest being a Shaffer, a Bundy Baking Solution, mixer that turns out 2,400-lb batches. Dough is dumped into troughs for transfer to either wire-­cutters or rotary moulders at the beginning of each of the three ovens.

After baking, products on Line 1 move into a 66-foot forced-air cooler, Line 2 sends products to a spiral ­cooler, and Line 3 feeds its output via a short conveyor to a “crunch” room where items will be crumbled before packaging.

The packaging department features six lines with some built-in redundancy for added flexibility.

“If Line 1 is tied up, and I need retail product, then I can shift it to Line 2 because I have the same packaging capabilities on both lines,” Mr. Wallin said.

Mobile equipment and easily moved conveyors mean different lines can feed multiple packaging systems or even send products into the crunch room when necessary. Because of the complexity of the operation, the packaging department needs much more labor than the front of the lines. While mixing and oven operations require eight employees, the packaging department needs 20 to 40 people, depending on the products being packaged.

Three wrappers — one Doboy and two FMS systems — can go as fast as 180 to 450 pieces per minute and handle individually wrapped and twin-packed products. Two Formost Fuji horizontal wrappers provide retail packaging.

“We’ve designed equipment so we can lower one conveyor out of the way and bring in another that will feed a different packaging line,” Mr. Wallin said. “We can convey off of Line 1, we can run into the bagging system, run into the bulk system or run into the high-speed wrappers that will do individually wrapped or twin packs.”

The packaging department also features a Matrix Mercury vertical form/fill/seal machine. Each packaging line includes metal detection for food safety.

Food service products come in 20-lb cases, and cookies for ice cream sandwiches are boxed in 500-count cases. Ellison packages crumbled cookies in 20- to 40-lb bulk pack cartons.

After packaging, products are held in Ellison’s warehouse. The bakery doesn’t have its own distribution system, so it schedules freight for some customers while others provide their own shipping. Products for food service customers are turned over quickly, often being picked up a week after the order is placed. Commercial orders — cookies for ice cream sandwiches and cookie crumbles — are sent off to be microbiologically tested and won’t ship until the samples are cleared. For a small handful of customers who require frozen storage, Ellison Bakery contracts out.

Meeting the specifications

Ellison Bakery’s unique position as an ingredient supplier means that quality control takes on a whole new meaning. Ice cream, yogurt and confectionery customers want specific particle sizes, cookie roundness, thickness and/or consistency. While the end consumer only cares about taste, Ellison Bakery’s customers are looking for just the right size, shape, diameter and thickness for the components of its final product.

“When you’re an ice cream manufacturer and you’ve got to make ice cream sandwiches with those cookies through automated equipment, those things — the size, the shape, the diameter, the thickness — are pretty critical, so we have to measure all of those parameters,” Mr. Wallin said.

Ellison’s vision system quantifies the diameters and thickness of all cookies, and the data is entered into an SPC program. If anything is detected outside the set parameters, the system notifies Jeremy Ellis in real-time via email.

“We know ASAP if there is product coming out of the oven that is outside of acceptable specification limits,” Mr. Wallin said. “Those kinds of things have helped us dramatically be a top notch supplier to our customers.”

Controls on the front side of production also ensure that products coming out of the oven are within specification. Servo-driven technology ensures wire-cutters produce accurately shaped and sized dough pucks.

Ovens 1 and 2 feature custom control systems Ellison Bakery developed with a programming group to meet the bakery’s specific needs. Oven 3 uses its own system to control burner zones, air flows and velocities.

“Integration of computer controls, servo drives and upgraded electronics in all of our processing systems has improved our ability to control our processes much more precisely than in years prior,” Mr. Wallin said. “This has helped in the consistency and repeatability of our processes, which our customers expect.”

The computerized batching system is tied into the company’s ERP system through the mixers. These tie-ins ensure that as raw materials are used, the appropriate quantities are depleted from the ERP system’s records, keeping raw material inventories up-to-date in real-time. As the computerized batching system draws 1,000 lbs of flour for the Line 3 mixer, 1,000 lbs of flour is subtracted from Ellison’s inventory system.

Ellison Bakery has come a long way from the days when Archway’s name graced the building’s silo ­tower. Despite the disappearance of its once-largest client, Ellison endured by finding creative avenues for growth and playing to its strengths: cookie baking expertise and flexible production lines. With capacity aired out for future growth, Ellison Bakery expects to continue forging long-term customer relationships as a private-label, food service and ingredient supplier.

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