Even before Steve Fehr sold his namesake cookie company in 2010, he told the eventual new owners — Grupo Nutresa of Medellin, Colombia — that he had a vision.

“Every time we talked about possible growth for our company, Steve always mentioned the need to complement our cookie portfolio with crackers because he thought that would be the biggest potential for growth by having a more integrated portfolio,” recalled Patricia Canal, CEO of the Abilene, TX-based company, which was renamed AbiMar Foods last October. (See a slideshow of Abimar Foods)

Earlier this year, that vision became a reality as the operation began producing crackers — specifically saltines, snack and graham varieties — that are now sold under the Lil’ Dutch Maid and Tru-Blu brands. Currently, the 158,000-sq-ft bakery houses one line outfitted with an oven that’s designed to produce roughly 20,000 tons a year. However, the facility has plenty of space for further expansion as needed.

In addition to the cracker plant, the company operates two other cookie facilities: one in Abilene with five production lines and another in Marietta, OK, with two lines. AbiMar, whose name comes from the first three letters of those two cities, also operates a distribution center in Abilene, from which products are shipped across 48 states.

Unlike many companies today, AbiMar didn’t have definitive commitments from specific customers before building the new bakery, but it knew the demand existed. “When we called on companies, they said, ‘We need crackers to complement our cookies.’ They said it would be ideal if we could be a one-stop shop,” Ms. Canal recalled.

Extensive research of the US cookie and cracker categories conducted over the years by Grupo Nutresa — the largest producer of crackers and cookies with a 55.3% share of the market in Colombia — supported the anecdotal requests from customers. “When looking at trends in the country, crackers have been growing at a higher pace than cookies,” Ms. Canal noted. “We started to see a very strong demand for crackers in the market from different customers and in different channels that we were targeting.”

Adding crackers to its portfolio provided another benefit. “We started to see how having crackers would also be an opportunity to grow our cookie business because we can supplement what our customers — especially our new ones — buy from us,” Ms. Canal said.

In fact, AbiMar has seen its sales more than double over the past five years, and it has set the ambitious goal of doubling the business again by 2020. “This is an amazing market,” she observed. “It’s a market that provides a lot of opportunities for our company.”

Hitting a home run

In 2012, back in the early stages of the project, Miguel Moreno, former CEO of AbiMar, shared Mr. Fehr’s vision and became so excited about the potential for entering the cracker market that he used a baseball metaphor to codename the initiative, according to Brandon Heiser, director of operations. “In his words, ‘This project makes so much sense and will give the company so many growth opportunities that it is not a single, double or even a triple,’ ” he recalled. “ ‘This is going to be a Grand Slam.’ ”

However, the project almost never came to fruition because the initial plan to put it into the existing cookie plant or build a new one was too costly and complex. In April 2013, Grupo Nutresa decided to table the initiative. “We talked about it for a long time, but it was never given approval because it was such a massive project,” Mr. Heiser said.

Then the local Sam’s Club closed and the building — located about a half mile from the existing cookie facility — became available. “That was a game changer,” he added. “The new line would not fit into our existing plant. We were simply lucky the building became available for purchase.”

Additionally, the Development Corporation of Abilene offered to provide economic support — eventually about $5 million — for expanding the bakery, according to published reports in the local media.

On Halloween 2013, those two factors and others prompted the Grand Slam Project to take off again. It wouldn’t be easy. In all, it would take 500,000 man-hours, countless meetings and 20 months to renovate, expand and complete the brownfield initiative.

“Grand Slam was one of the largest single projects outside of acquisitions in the history of Grupo Nutresa,” Mr. Heiser noted. “The support and trust placed in the AbiMar team from Carlos Enrique Piedrahita, former president of Grupo Nutresa, was very significant in achieving the final approval from the board at Grupo Nutresa.”

Developing a grand plan

In Abilene, the internal project development and execution team consisted of Ms. Canal; Mr. Heiser; Luis Felipe Velasquez, AbiMar engineering manager; and Esteban Gomez, senior project engineer at Noel, Grupo Nutresa’s large biscuit division with nearly 100 years of experience in manufacturing cookies and crackers.

They reported monthly to a larger 10-person project committee that included, from Colombia: Alberto Hoyos, Grupo Nutresa cookie and cracker business president; Carlos Mario Montoya, Noel director of R&D; Gustavo Bentancur, Noel manager of engineering; and Pedro Alfonso Blanco, Noel director of operations.

From AbiMar, Mr. Moreno, former CEO, was joined by Gerardo Duarte, CFO; Mike Hobson, Marietta facility manager; and Mr. Fehr, who served on the board of directors at that time. Providing additional support were Dennis Loalbo, Biscuit & Cracker Manufacturers’ Association (B&CMA)’s technical advisor, and Brian Hartman, CEO and CFO of Advance Project Services, a Bogart, GA, firm that managed construction and innovation.

Although it seems like a lot of cooks in the kitchen, the two committees actually made sure no stone remained unturned. “I don’t think we could have done it without that many people,” Mr. Heiser said. “They made sure every question was asked.”

In addition to designing the project to ensure competitiveness to market, AbiMar’s top priorities involved coupling operational excellence with the highest food safety and quality standards. The company expects the bakery to be SQF-Level 2 certified in the near future.

When it came to return on investment (ROI), the company focused on the long run — or the total costs of the lifespan of the equipment when it came to operations. “Our goal was to create the most efficient — labor, energy, productivity, waste, ergonomic, product flow — cracker facility possible,” Mr. Heiser explained. “The facility had to be designed to be efficient yet flexible to allow AbiMar to service the market.

During Baking & Snack’s recent tour of the bakery, Mr. Heiser described how painstaking it was to transform a retail facility into a food-safe plant and expand it by more than 35,000 sq ft. They had to cut up and remove 20 to 30% of the concrete, including insulated concrete where the retail freezers were. In addition to installing an extensive floor drainage system, footers for all interior walls required concrete cutting and removal. A 2-ft curb was added to support the steel perimeter of the building. AbiMar upgraded fire protection, lighting, electrical and HVAC.

“The engineering and design stage is critical,” Mr. Heiser observed. “Focusing on the small details such as an electrical panel’s physical size and location can have huge paybacks later down the road. These minor details cannot be changed later, or at least, not at the same cost.”

With the help of Mr. Fehr, the project team selected and then scouted out equipment during the 2013 International Baking Industry Exposition. “The challenge was to design a line for something we never produced,” Mr. Heiser said.

AbiMar selected more than a dozen, mainly US-based suppliers that could provide maintenance or spare parts in an expedited manner. The local project team — with the support from Grupo Nutresa’s Noel division — collaborated with vendors on modifying equipment for production as well as for ergonomic and sanitary design. Moreover, the ability to provide training proved vital since most of the 65 new employees never worked in a cracker facility, according to Mr. Velasquez, who also serves as plant manager of the cracker operation.

Whenever possible, the team also conducted risk assessment on anything they could. “We learned not to assume or hope things would work,” Mr. Heiser noted. “We proved and tested everything possible.” AbiMar went as far as sending its engineers to the ¬≠packaging equipment supplier to test how to manually casepack cartons of crackers to avoid ergonomic issues.

Collaborating in Colombia

Perhaps the greatest conundrum involved resolving how to formulate the crackers, then figuring out how to tweak them while scaling up to full automation. “Crackers, compared with cookies, are hard to make,” Mr. Velasquez said.

Specifically, when it came to operations, the complexity of manufacturing time-sensitive, temperature-controlled, yeast-raised, sponge-and-dough saltines — instead of a much more straightforward dough production for cookies — resulted in entering a whole new world. “The process is totally different from mixing to fermentation to lamination and packaging,” Mr. Velasquez explained. “The process has to be almost perfect. When we start production at 7 a.m., we have more than half of our doughs already made and in the fermentation process. If there is an operational problem, the doughs are waiting to be processed. In a cookie plant, you can almost stop everything until things are fixed.”

Likewise, if there is an issue with the cracker dough at the start of the process, it may not be noticed until hours later. “If there is an error in mixing with cookies, it can be seen in a matter of minutes because cookies are baked 5 to 15 minutes after the dough is mixed,” Mr. Heiser said. “Cracker dough needs to ferment anywhere from 8 to 24 hours, depending on the product. Errors sometimes cannot be noticed until the product is baked. The precision of mixing is more critical.”

Initially, AbiMar planned on running tests in the US. However, when that fell through, the subsidiary turned to its parent company for assistance, and Grupo Nutresa delivered. Working with a full entourage of Noel R&D, engineering and operations personnel, the bakery ran tests for a full week on a dedicated, automated line in its Colombian bakery.

AbiMar invited its key suppliers as well as Mr. Loalbo, the B&CMA staff member, to consult during the confab. Mr. Velasquez, who previously worked for six years at Noel, provided a vital link between the two operations. Preparations began on Sunday, followed by five days of 4:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. testing and end-of-day meetings to recap the daily progress. “You can’t imagine how dedicated that group is,” Mr. Heiser said.

Much of the focus involved the front end of the process. “We spent a lot of time finding the right dough formula, the right temperature, the right pH, the right acidity of the dough,” he pointed out.

Despite the language differences — 99% of the meetings were in Spanish — communication wasn’t an issue when it came to talking shop. “There is no way we could have done what we did at somebody else’s facility because they wouldn’t have the resources that Noel had or the ability to exchange so much information,” Mr. Heiser said.

A slightly different cracker

Initially, AbiMar sought to replicate the classic American-style saltines, snack and graham crackers that consumers have purchased for years. However, working with its Colombian R&D experts, the US division couldn’t help but be influenced by their taste preferences. Colombia is one of the few countries in the world where consumption of crackers exceeds cookies. As Mr. Velasquez noted, “The crackers we make in Colombia have a little bit different flavor and texture than consumers are used to from the national brands here.”

As a result, AbiMar ended up with a final product that it initially didn’t expect, according to Mr. Heiser. “We did try to get the best of both,” he said. “We feel we’re in between the typical US saltine cracker and the more of a treat type of cracker from South America. We didn’t start out with that goal, but we ended up with a better cracker than we had hoped for.”

During the startup process, Grupo Nutresa sent in critical support. For three months, key personnel from Noel — including a 40-year veteran of the company who is an expert in mixing, fermentation and formation — worked with vendors in the Abilene bakery to fine-tune the process and provide training.

“We’re now producing really high-quality products,” Mr. Velasquez said. “We can do it because of all the knowledge, skills and expertise that we received from Colombia.”

Moreover, the equipment suppliers, he added, provided support that turned into an additional benefit. “I never worked on a project where the suppliers had such a good relationship,” Mr. Velasquez said. “They communicated with one another and would fix things even before we could point them out.”

A dozen hours for production

Overall, the facility allots 65,450 sq ft for production, 40,000 sq ft for packaging, 36,000 sq ft for warehousing and 17,000 sq ft for maintenance, sanitation, QA and other offices. Currently, production runs on staggered shifts for 40 hours, four days a week. Because of the long fermentation process, Mr. Velasquez said, total production — from mixing to packaging — can take up to 12 hours on some varieties with mixing beginning in the middle of the night.

The bakery uses a state-of-the-art, fully automated dry bulk ingredient storage and handling system from Shick Solutions. Minor and micro ingredients are prescaled into batches in a separate room from the mixers that was specifically designed to promote good manufacturing practices in food safety and sanitation and product quality.

Sponges and doughs are made in a temperature-controlled environment that is continuously monitored.   Additionally, the room was engineered to incorporate sanitary and ergonomic design to allow for a clean and extremely efficient continuous operation. Sponges made in a Shaffer mixer are transported in troughs to the fermentation room for varying periods of time, depending on the product.

To make doughs, flour and other ingredients are added to the sponge and processed using a Thomas L. Green vertical spindle mixer. After the second stage of mixing, the doughs receive additional fermentation time.

“Everything before lamination is key to a cracker production,” Mr. Heiser noted. “When the mixing and fermentation is working well, normally the lamination is working well.”

Troughs travel from the fermentation room to the makeup and lamination department, which is temperature-controlled. The dough travels on a Reading Bakery Systems makeup line through multiple rollers to create a sheet. A cut-sheet laminator slices the sheet into large squares. Afterward, the group of stacked sheets passes under a series of size reduction stations that gradually reduce the dough in stages to the proper thickness.

In a separate room, the dough sheet bakes on a steel mesh-weave band in a Reading Bakery Systems direct-fired oven. After baking, a break roller fractions them into organized lines.

After passing through a second break roller, crackers are organized into single lines to enter one of several packaging systems. The multiple arms allow AbiMar to package different sizes and formats simultaneously. Benchmark Automation provided a turnkey system that includes a partnership with Formost Fuji, Propack, Kliklok, Wexxar and Belcor.

Looking back on the project, Mr. Heiser learned a lot about documenting success, keeping an open mind to new concepts and developing a platform that will help the next project go even more smoothly. He also cannot help but think about Mr. Fehr, who with his wife, Vicki, passed away in a tragic accident in July. Although it provides only a little bit of solace, Mr. Heiser noted Mr. Fehr had attended the bakery’s grand opening in April and seemed genuinely pleased about what had been accomplished.

“Steve Fehr had an aggressive vision for the company,” he said. “And it came to fruition.”