Partners: The Next Step

by Steve Berne
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Once again Partners, Kent, WA, needed more space, a scenario the cracker manufacturer knows well. In its 17-year history, the family-owned highend cracker and flatbread company has had one constant challenge — properly forecasting demand for its products. What began as a popular accompaniment in Marian Harris’ restaurants was quickly being produced for sale first to friends and family then to neighborhood shops and specialty stores, then through connections made at the National Association of Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) Fancy Foods Shows. In the first few years of business, production went from one case per day out of the family kitchen to hundreds of cases produced using a cooperative time-share baking facility, rented by the hour.

“We were pretty naive at that time because the restaurant business is so different than industrial food production,” said Mrs. Harris, president. “We just didn’t anticipate the positive reception and multiple reorders that came pouring in.” Within one year, Mrs. Harris and her son Greg Maestretti, company vice-president, had more than 400 customers and signed sales reps around the country.

“The crackers obviously filled a niche that was void in the marketplace,” Mr. Maestretti said. “What makes our products unique are the processes and attention to taste and quality.” While many companies claim these attributes, a few examples of Partners’ differentiation include in-house seasonal processing of Walla Walla sweet onions and weekly garlic processing. The company brings in the fresh produce, cleans, peels and processes for later use on crackers. “It is a bit labor intensive, but we have become very effi cient at it,” Mr. Maestretti added. “And using fresh is so much better than we could find already processed.”

The company moved in 1994 to a 6,000-sq-ft facility, added capacity and new products, and again in 2001 to a 12,000-sq-ft plant. “We kept looking at the new spaces and wondering how we would ever fill them,” Mrs. Harris recalled. Less than five years later, the company made another move. This time Partners relocated to a 45,000-sq-ft plant with suffi - cient room for multiple production lines and more effi cient process layout. Anticipated capacity was three times that of the existing operation.

The company invested in a new production line, oven system and packaging equipment for the new plant. “We couldn’t afford to shut the old plant down until the new plant was up and running smoothly,” said Cara Figgins, vice-president and Mrs. Harris’ daughter. “We were running 24/7 at the old plant, barely keeping up with orders. The new plant came on line in the fall of 2006, and we started with 3-day per week production, quickly ramping up to five and six days within six months.”

Inside of 12 months from startup, the old plant was closed and the new oven was extended to accommodate a 30% increase in throughput, which now exceeds 1.2 million crackers a day.

Its most recent expansion, completed in November, included acquiring an additional 45,000 sq ft of warehouse space across an outdoor dock loading area.

“Once we move all raw materials and finished goods to the warehouse, we have big plans for the opened space,” Mr. Maestretti added. “We still have linear space to extend the oven another 30% and room to add a complete second production line. We are determining our current and future packaging needs and also may expand the space used for our growing granola operations.”

EVOLVING MARKETS.

During the 1990s, the company introduced several new product lines including Wisecrackers. These lower-fat items won recognition at consecutive Fancy Foods shows in the late 1990s. “We are now taking a fresh look at this brand and may broaden its attributes to include a more health-and-wellness spin,” Ms. Figgins noted. Although reluctant to divulge details, she noted one variety will be called Everything & More, containing olive oil, a variety of seeds, whole grains, omega 3 and other healthy inclusions.

The company also produces its Blue Star Farms brand products, an organic line of stone-ground wheat, rye and flax, and multigrain crackers that fill a small but growing niche, according to Ms. Figgins. “What’s really obvious to us is the marketplace change that has occurred in the past 10 years, from retail and consumer interest for high-end crackers to store positioning and growing interest and marketing dollars being spent by the larger companies.”

She noted that not only are consumers willing to pay a bit more for good-tasting, artisan products, but retailers now consider them mainstream and place them in the cracker aisle vs. a specialty aisle. According to Partners, general cracker sales are expanding at 1 to 2% while all-natural, organic and specialty varieties are growing at nearly 15%.

Approximately 60% of Partners’ business is in grocery and deli outlets, 30% to mass merchandisers and an additional 10% to other retailers including Trader Joe’s, a relationship that dates back 14 years. Although domestic sales comprise a majority of Partners’ revenue, the company also ships products to the UK, Asia, Australia, Canada, Korea and Taiwan.

In 2010, the company will introduce a new version of its Get Movin’ brand, a product line Ms. Figgins described as filling a hole in mulitple snack channels. “We are introducing four varieties of these 1- to 2-oz single serve bags into the c-store and mass merchandise markets promoting the products as alternative snacks — great tasting, healthy, bitesize snack crackers instead of chips or high-fat sweet goods as a grab-and-go or lunch item,” she said. The new line will include crackers, cookie crisps and granola, each in four varieties.

With the concentration on natural ingredients, great taste and healthy alternatives, Partners crackers are noticeably different than others on the market. “We really do have a different texture and taste. Not only do we chop and roast our own garlic weekly and prepare our own onion topping, we also chop and dry bulk olives, never using powders or commercially dried toppings.”

CARBON DOWN.

Regardless of size or sophistication, Partners believes that any company producing allnatural and organic snacks needs to be in tune with environmental issues. “It gets down to core business philosophies,” Ms. Figgins said. “We have implemented high-efficiency lighting that yields 75% energy cost savings and recycling programs, and the company is part of the Green Power Initiatives with Puget Sound Energy Co.”

Through the initiative, Partners uses 100% green power for its electricity needs and it mandates its suppliers use green power to manufacture the paperboard and cartons for its Wisecrackers, Partners and Blue Star Farms products.

Food waste is segregated and goes to a local chicken feed producer, and 80% of other waste is recycled. “We’ve reduced total waste by nearly 70%, while tripling our production output since 2005,” Ms. Figgins noted. The company is looking at heat recovery from its oven to heat the building in addition to other initiatives.

UNMATCHED PROCESS.

Distinctive products are produced on equally unique production systems. “We really feel there is no one that can match our products, and quite a bit of the distinction is because of our process,” Mr. Maestretti said. From its in-house processing of onions, garlic and olives to the 12-zone, 100-ft-long oven system, it truly is a one-of-a-kind operation.

Although the plant operates only one cracker line at present, the line runs three shifts, 24 hours, five to six days per week. Dough is mixed in a Tromp 450-lb-capacity planetary mixer at up to 10 batches per hour. “We use approximately 10,000 lb of flour each day to produce almost 12,000 lb of crackers,” Mr. Maestretti added. “We have tripled output since starting at the new plant.”

Tromp supplied the processing and sheeting systems, however, Partners has needed to revert to some of their original processes to retain their unique quality. The Tromp system has six reducing stations, after which the sheet is wet and dry topped and then strip-cut. The continuous dough strips are separated and guillotined to the desired length.

The 100-ft tunnel oven is a customized set of 12 Doyon pizza ovens. “It is quite a unique application of technology, “Mr. Maestretti admitted. “When we started as a company, this design suited us very well, and we simply kept adding units. It may not be the most energy-efficient system but it yields us exactly the end results we want, with the cost, flexibility and control we need. And we are looking to reduce or recapture wasted energy.”

After cooling, products proceed to packaging, where flexibility is achieved by mobile conveyors that direct crackers to two vertical baggers — a Bosch Terra and Matrix Mercury, both topped with Yamato 14-head weighscales. The baggers produce single-serve pillow packs and larger bags for bag-in-box packaging. Product can also be diverted to a straight conveyor where employees manually pack trays that are flow wrapped using a Bosch system. Two Econocorp cartoners prepare the bag-in-box items.

With 45,000 sq ft of new space, Partners is gearing up for a new round of growth. “There is continued interest in health and wellness, and our products fit very well into a niche that has yet to meet its full potential,” Mrs. Harris said. And each time the company tries to predict its own potential, it is pleasantly surprised.

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