Power of the popped
The company’s popping technology is significantly different from a decade ago.
“Initially, we were producing a rice cake, but now with our newer technology, we’re delivering more of that chip-style experience,” Mr. Shultis explained. “If we’re going to get consumers to come over to our side of snacking, we should deliver the experience of a potato chip or crisp. Taste and texture are obviously paramount.”
That’s why it took so long to roll out its Protein Crisps.
“We could have introduced protein crisps almost two years ago if we were comfortable rushing a product to market that tasted okay,” Mr. Nardone said. “However, we believe it has to taste great and deliver on people’s expectations for flavor.”
Internally, the company refers to the latest technology as Popped 2.0.
“We dramatically changed the texture over the past two years to more crispy because we added a slight amount of oil to the process to give it more taste and the texture of a fried chip,” said Steven Van Poucke, vice-president of engineering, who was instrumental in developing the patented technology.
Initially, the basic formulas included a starch base, such as rice, plus one or two additional ingredients.
“With Popped 2.0, we’re blending five or six ingredients in a base,” Mr. Brinkman said. “Some finished products don’t even use the word ‘popped’ on their packaging.”
At its new innovation center located on the grounds of the Liberty plant, Ideal Snacks works side-by-side with customers to test formulas using the proprietary equipment.
“Often, they want products that are ready for market because they’re looking at the strike-fast-fail-fast model,” Mr. Brinkman said. “We’ll give them a bunch of product ideas, and they’ll take one or two of them to market. Sometimes they’re wildly successful, and sometimes they last only a short time.”
That speed to market can be seen at the Liberty co-manufacturing plant, which has 100,000 square feet of processing, 25,000 square feet of packaging and 175,000 square feet of warehouse space. The building has expanded multiple times over the years. Production today flows from popping and processing departments located at both ends of the facility to packaging in the center of the operation. About 300 employees work on four-day, 10-hour shifts or five-day, eight-hour shifts, depending on the ebb and flow of the contract manufacturing business.
The three-step process includes blending, popping and seasoning, but it’s anything but straightforward. In a blending room, 2,000-lb supersacks of starches and grains feed three bulk base loaders and three automatic blenders to create customized, 5,000-lb batches that may contain 3,000 lbs of corn and 2,000 lbs of rice, depending on the formula. That starchy, coagulated base forms the foundation of the snacks and binds the host of fruit, grain and vegetable inclusions. Additionally, a 4,000-lb ribbon blender provides customized, short-run batches. The operation also has three bulk oil tanks.
Overall, the hydrated base ingredients are pumped to the 17 production lines of popping machines located in several departments throughout the facility. Many of these popping machines also produce snacks from extruded pellets supplied by ingredient companies, Mr. Shultis said. Throughout the facility, a single production line may house a row of 20 to 37 popping machines that each turn out 7 to 20 lb of snacks per hour, depending on the product. Most of the production lines make 4,000 to 6,000 lbs per shift. That might not seem like a large amount, but consider the product’s light texture. Mr. Brinkman noted a loaded 18-foot semi-trailer that would typically transport 40,000 lbs of cookies only carries 6,000 lbs of popped snacks. At full capacity, the plant can crank out 75 million lbs of product annually.
During Baking & Snack’s visit, one processing department contained 150 poppers on 7 lines. Visitors heard relentless rhythmic popping followed by bursts of steam released every 10 seconds or so. The machines pump out only 10 to 14 chips at a time — a few seconds of intense pressure followed by high heat that moulds and bakes them inside a proprietary shaped cavity — to create a steady cascading stream of “cakes” falling delicately onto a 40- to 50-foot conveyor.
“In many ways, the process can be compared to popping popcorn kernels,” Mr. Shultis said. “The heat and pressure forces the ingredients to pop into a light, airy snack that is later seasoned.”
Finished cakes convey to the seasoning drums where they are oiled and seasoned. Upon exit from the drums, they flow into bucket conveyors, which take them to the packaging mezzanine. Here, Yamoto and Ishida scales meter them into the UVA or Hayssen vertical form/fill/seal baggers.