Known for its expertise in granola bars, Leclerc Foods USA made an unusual decision when equipping its newest location. Management opted for narrow rather than wide in the choice of its bar line. The company also selected an oven line capable of making both cookies and crackers.

It’s all about flexibility at the new Kingsport, TN, facility because that manufacturing approach best serves the private-label customers of the Quebec-based family-owned-and-operated company. “For Kingsport, we wanted a line with high flexibility,” explained Denis Leclerc, president and c.e.o., for Leclerc Foods USA, Montgomery, PA, and c.e.o. of the parent company, Groupe Biscuits Leclerc, Inc., St. Augustin de Desmaures , QC. “We already had a high-output line at Hawksbury, ON.”

“Customers want unique products,” added Jean-Sébastien Leclerc, account director, Leclerc Foods USA, “so flexible lines are necessary to accommodate their needs.”

But when picking a location for the new facility, proximity to the market was just as important as flexibility in processing. “We developed a strategy 12 years ago to move production close to our growing markets,” Denis Leclerc said. “We recognized that transportation costs would only continue to rise.” He observed that for the better part of a half-century, one of the baking industry’s major trends has been to consolidate into larger and larger plants to achieve better production economy. “But I feel we may see the reverse happening because of distribution costs,” he explained.

Kingsport establishes the fifth production location for Leclerc Foods. “This plant is like two others that we have done recently,” Denis Leclerc said. “It is of a size that we are very comfortable running, and we are very pleased with the results.”

Two lines produce finished goods, and there is suffi - cient room to add a third production line in the future. For now, Leclerc Foods needed the capacity: Its Montgomery plant is quickly maxing out, according to Denis Leclerc.

AIMING HIGH. Leclerc Foods’ owners make no secret of their goal to be the No. 1 private-label snack bar producer in North America. “We have lots of plans,” Jean-Sébastien Leclerc said. “We are well established in Canada, and the US has huge potential for us.” In Canada, Leclerc’s national brands sell more than its private-label products, with about 10% as co-pack, approximately 30% in private label and the rest in branded products. In the US, it’s nearly the reverse, with private-label items accounting for more than 90% of the business.

“We’re the new kids on the block,” Jean-Sébastien Leclerc said. “We’re out knocking on doors. And we have had a pickup in sales because of the added capacity at Kingsport.”

As a business, however, these “new kids” have 105 years of experience in baking, and the family’s third, fourth and fifth generations are currently active in management. The company was founded in 1905 by François Leclerc, who was succeeded by his son Donat in 1938. In 1955, Jean-Robert Leclerc, Donat’s son, joined, and he became president in 1971. Denis, Jean-Robert’s son, moved into management of the company in 1998 and currently acts as president and c.e.o. of the US arm of the business, with Jean-Robert as chairman and responsible for Canadian operations.

Denis’ son Jean-Sébastien worked as a supervisor at Montgomery and assisted with startup of Kingsport. He is now account director managing sales to private-label customers, while another son Alex is employed in production at Montgomery and is still in school.

“Although being family-owned means I don’t have the same pressures as a c.e.o. of a publicly held company, I do need to please my father,” Denis Leclerc observed. “It’s a family business, and we’re spending the money and investing for the long term. My father, my grandfather, myself — we’re all like that.”

SITE SELECTION. “Finding the right location and the right building was essential,” said Francois Gingras, engineering director, Leclerc Foods, Montgomery, PA. After evaluating several sites, managers chose Kingsport. Because a number of other food producers make Tennessee their home, Denis Leclerc was assured that the new plant would have its choice of suppliers for ingredients and packaging.

The northeast Tennessee community welcomed its new neighbor with open arms. Jean-Marc Lemoine, executive vice-president, Leclerc Foods, Kingsport, cited the enthusiasm of the town’s mayor, Dennis Phillips, in helping the company locate a suitable existing building. Also, Food City, the region’s main retail grocer, based at nearby Abingdon, VA, began stocking Leclerc’s branded products, “so people in the community could know who we are,” Denis Leclerc noted.

The company also sited the new plant for efficient transportation to customers throughout the South, as far as Louisiana and Texas. One of its largest accounts has a distribution center in Georgia, only a few hours away. Interstate 81 runs close by the plant, “as it does at Montgomery, too,” Denis Leclerc observed.

In June 2008, Leclerc purchased an existing 88,500-sq-ft building and immediately expanded the structure to nearly twice its size by adding a high-rise warehouse and packaging room. The Kingsport plant represents a $30 million economic investment. The facility’s office area is physically separated from the production plant by a short, glass-walled walkway.

“The set-up here was different,” Jean-Sébastien Leclerc observed. “We modified the building to the equipment, rather than modifying the equipment to the building.”

To ready the building, engineers reworked its utilities, particularly electrical services and drainage. “We needed to have drainage access for CIP on as many pieces of equipment as possible,” Mr. Gingras said.

“Green” concerns figured into the renovation, too. Good examples are the facility’s state-of-the-art chillers and the on-demand lighting system throughout the whole building. The company also generates some savings through reuse of waste heat.

“We have one engineer at Quebec assigned full-time to ‘green’ issues,” Denis Leclerc said. “This is all part of expecting to be in business 30, 40 and 50 years from now.”

START-UP TIMETABLE. The first line into the plant was the granola line, both the cereal and bar sections, with bulk operations starting up in January 2009. The cookie/cracker line came in next, simultaneously with the automated warehouse, when the oven was delivered in June 2009. It went onstream in November. Packaging operations were brought up at the end of January. Production schedules vary, although the plant generally run two shifts on cookies or crackers and one on granola bars. The third shift affords time for sanitation and maintenance. When the second shift on granola bars gears up later this summer, plant staffing is expected to expand from its current 75 to a total of 100 to 120 individuals.

The installation and start-up schedule proceeded quickly. “That’s the Leclerc way,” Jean-Sébastien Leclerc said. “We have a fast, lean organization. When we look at projects, all the decision-makers are at the same table. This is a big advantage in engineering projects such as Kingsport. And it’s how we answer the requirements of the customer.”

Denis Leclerc observed that the company maintains longstanding relationships with its main vendors, citing Franz Haas, Sollich, ABF, Bosch and Swisslog in particular. “I was 17 years old when I bought my first piece of Haas equipment,” he said some 30 years later.

“We also have a relationship with a company in Quebec that refurbishes equipment,” Mr. Gingras explained. “A big part of the success on granola was because we physically installed the equipment in the rebuilder’s plant to test the line, then shipped in sections to Kingsport. This saved considerable time.”

STAFF READINESS. Nearly all local hires at Kingsport came without experience in food plant operations. The state of Tennessee provided grants to help with training. Mr. Gingras said that specialized training involved HACCP, quality assurance, good manufacturing procedures and the SAP business management software, as well as basic hygiene and sanitation related to work at a food factory. “For training specifically on the equipment, we had experienced operators from our other plants shadow, or mentor, the Kingsport staff,” he added.

“For the first two weeks, 10 granola line operators went to Montgomery to train with the operators there,” Jean-Sébastien Leclerc said. “This practice creates links between facilities, among the maintenance, engineering and operations staff, to exchange ideas, to solve problems,” Mr. Gingras added.

With five operations to manage, the company installed videoconferencing capability. “It’s a great way to get everyone together for meetings and brainstorming,” Jean-Sébastien Leclerc said.

AUTOMATED, FLEXIBLE. For the most part, Allen-Bradley PLCs equipped with PanelView terminals run the production, packaging and warehousing systems, which are also covered by a SAP system. The plant also uses many Loma and Safeline metal detection systems on all lines.

“What we try to achieve is a highly automated facility, so we have absolute control over quality,” Mr. Lemoine said. “We use our people not to work hard but to work smart. They don’t have to handle the product; they control the equipment instead.”

This level of automation is found throughout the Leclerc plants. “Denis bought our first robot in the late 1970s, and we were the first in North America to operate an automated warehouse,” Jean-Sébastien Leclerc observed.

Such automation helped recruit Mr. Gingras to Leclerc. “I previously worked in the high-tech field, and I had ‘heard’ things about bakeries,” he said. He was not sure he was ready for the food industry but changed his mind quickly when he interviewed at Leclerc eight years ago. “What I saw instead was a tremendous level of technology.”

The ingredient system installed at Kingsport includes a 110,000-lb flour silo, two liquid silos each capable of holding two loads of 90,000 lb of glucose and maltose. Other raw materials come in totes or small tanks and are pumped or pneumatically conveyed to usage points. Four interior silos contain granola cereal and puffed rice, two for each intermediate material. Automated Ingredient Systems Ltd. and Semco made the overhead ingredient supply hoppers above various mixers.

The plant has an on-site quality assurance lab, although the more complicated microbiology tests are sent to Quebec. “One centralized lab handles all the plants on such matters,” Denis Leclerc said. “All other tests are done locally.”

DESIGN TARGETS. Plant margins depend on running at optimum speeds with minimum waste. That need shaped the choice of technology for Kingsport. “As a company, we started with small-capacity granola lines,” Mr. Gingras explained. “Then we went to huge lines, 36-to 40-in. wide at other plants, but we learned that such a big line was really too big to switchover easily. It was tough to manage production schedules.

“The idea here was to go smaller but to run the line at a speed to do full shifts of production without changeovers,” he said. “In the future, we will continue to use the small, narrower lines and take advantage of their flexibility.”

The bar line at Kingsport outputs 450 pieces per minute. “This allows us to go for smaller contracts,” Jean-Sébastien Leclerc said. “Previously, 25,000 cases per year was our bottom limit, but we can accept smaller jobs now. The narrower lines can be more effective for more customers.”

GRANOLA BASIS AND PREP. The granola blend for production of bars consists basically of oats and syrup, mixed and tumbled to achieve an even coating. The mixture flows down into an Aeroglide dryer where a spreader lays down a thick bed that dries under heated conditions for several minutes. At output, the granola blend moves into super sacks and tote bins, some of which are sent to the Montgomery and Quebec plants, while others supply the internal silos on the bar line.

Popped or puffed rice is also made inplant. A dough of rice flour and water is fed into an APV Baker extruder, which cooks the mixture and forces it through a die. The reduction in pressure at the die plate puffs the rice, and a knife cuts it off into small pieces. The company makes several sizes of puffed rice, according to the needs of various customers. The rice cools as it is pneumatically transferred to storage.

Leclerc prepares its syrup in-house using two 5,000-lb mixing tanks and one 3,500-lb holding tank by the granola line. The syrup is generally made a day ahead to allow proper hydration.

“This is the most complicated granola line we run,” Jean-Sébastien Leclerc said. The line is capable of applying a layer of fruit leather on top of the bars, a process no other Leclerc plant has.

A prep station located on a mezzanine above the head of the line houses the cooking system for the leather. Ingredients are mixed, cooked, pasteurized and vacuumevaporated to achieve the proper Brix and texture.

In the meantime on the main floor, the granola ingredients come together in a horizontal mixer. The mass is dumped into a feed hopper that meters it onto a moving conveyor belt. The layer passes between two large-diameter rolls. If formulations call for chocolate chips, dispensers above the line meter chips onto the granola, and a section of stiff metal fingers work the chips into the sheet. Another set of gauging rollers compress the sheet so it holds together. A third roller station can be engaged to apply a layer of caramel, as required.

When formulations call for a layer of fruit, the cooked leather feeds automatically onto the top of a large-diameter chilled roll, which deposits the leather as a continuous layer over the bed of granola. The sheet is sprinkled with a small amount of granola.

CUT, COOLED, ACCUMULATED. A trip through a Sollich tempering tunnel cools the granola sheet to ready it for slicing. The cutting rolls separate the sheet into long, continuous strips that proceed to a spreader. Leclerc engineers redesigned the strip spreader to accommodate the extremely tacky product so that the strips’ long edges would not stick together.

Strips pass through another metal detector before they enter the ultrasonic guillotine cutter. This system vibrates a vertical blade at ultrasonic speeds, cleanly cutting the strips into individual bars. “It’s actually the vibrations that do the cutting, so there is no sticking to the blade,” Jean-Sébastien Leclerc explained.

Bars pass through an APV Baker enrober for a bottom coating, and a drizzle is applied on the top by a Woody Associates string icer. They enter another cooling tunnel to temper the chocolate or compound coating before packaging.

A common problem in bar manufacturing is the need to accumulate products during temporary stoppages. Not satisfied with the usual last-in, first-out “layered” system, Leclerc adopted a new approach, which Mr. Gingras described as a “trombone” design. A continuous belt is installed on parallel tracks with a 180° turn at the halfway point. The belt accepts bars and moves them from the tunnel to the infeed sections of the packaging lines. When products must be accumulated, the whole assembly (parallel tracks, belt and turn) automatically lengthens, thus retaining first-in, first-out sequencing.

“This method of accumulating helps maintain consistent product weight and simplifies traceability,” Mr. Gingras explained.

BAKE AND PACK. Seeking to optimize the Franz Haas tunnel oven installed at Kingsport for production of both cookies and crackers, the company opted for a combination dough makeup system from the same vendor. Accepting dough from a Peerless horizontal mixer, a Haas chunker feeds it in blocks to the cut-sheet laminator or the rotary cookie depositor. The makeup line incorporates a 3-station sheeting system and rotary moulders and cutters, which can be bypassed for cookie production.“This is a very flexible line,” Jean-Sébastien Leclerc observed. Formed dough pieces enter the tunnel oven, which is walled off from the rest of the production shop to isolate excess heat. After baking, the cookies or crackers encounter a short spiral cooling conveyor and then move onto another long conveyor for additional cooling and hardening, assisted by fans mounted above the belt carrying the products.

Packaging operations allow considerable flexibility to suit the variety of bagging, cartoning and casing styles required by customers. These include robotic systems such as the Bosch delta-style carton fillers and ABF case packers and Bosch Palomoa vision-guided cartoners, as well as Hayssen and TNA-Robag vertical form/fill/seal baggers and Bradman Lake horizontal f/f/s wrappers and carton erectors. Markem date coding systems mesh with Loma checkweighers to ensure accurate weights and codes. Filled cartons proceed through automatic closers and into cases. A Fanuc robot stacks the cases onto pallets for transport into the warehouse.

The Swisslog automated warehouse consists of three aisles, six racks high, supplied by three cranes. The shuttle carts can load and unload on both sides of the racking, and the warehouse accommodates incoming ingredient supplies, product-in-process and finished products. “We have automated storage at all our factories,” Jean-Sébastien Leclerc explained, noting that the Quebec plant’s system with its four cranes and 12 rack levels is three times larger than the Kingsport installation.

The plant includes a wash area for implements and mobile equipment. All totes are steam-cleaned before being returned to the vendors.

EAST AND/OR WEST. Leclerc Foods and its parent company Groupe Biscuits Leclerc sell products in more than 20 countries worldwide. “Our strategy is to take a territory approach, and we examine that on a yearly basis,” Denis Leclerc said. With Kingsport well launched, he is already thinking about where the next plant will be located. The United Kingdom is one option, but so is the West Coast.

Leclerc currently supplies the UK with GM-free products produced in Canada. The fruit-filled bars made at Kingsport have good potential for this market. “More Europeans visit North America than ever before, and they tend to view US products as trendy,” Denis Leclerc observed. “They are more ready to try different tastes, especially in the past five or six years. But I was also thinking that the Pacific Northwest has excellent opportunities for us.”

It’s been a good year for Leclerc Foods. “Our operations are doing well,” Denis Leclerc said. “We are on a good track.”