For co-chief executive officers William “Chip” Mann II and Steve Huggins, the building of Pretzels, Inc.’s new 45,000-square-foot snack facility in Plymouth, Ind., reflects a business philosophy that dates back to when their fathers — Bill Mann and Bill Huggins — founded the company in 1978.
“We have continually reinvested back in our plants with capital infusions,” Mr. Huggins noted. “Over time, that’s helped us be successful versus the smaller private label operators that have not made those key capital investments.”
This January, for instance, the company’s flagship facility in Bluffton, Ind., installed a new oven and upgraded an older system to bolster the line’s capacity by 3 million lbs.
Mr. Mann noted the company’s focus on expanding the business to meet customers’ needs is what makes Pretzels, Inc., destined to succeed.
“We’re adding capacity to better service the industry,” he said. “We’re one of the few, if not the only company, that continues to grow in the pretzel market and invest in its assets. We’re excited about that. We’re doing everything to make sure we’re on top.”
A world-class operation
When Baking & Snack toured Pretzel’s, Inc., last fall, the Plymouth plant operated with 35 people on two, 12-hour shifts four days a week. That’s changed significantly in a short period of time as the business has grown.
“We now have 60-plus working on two, 12-hour shifts from Monday through Thursday, and then two more shifts from Friday to Sunday,” Mr. Huggins observed.
Production starts with Shick Esteve bulk ingredient handling system that features a 103,000-lb flour silo.
“We selected Shick because we were familiar with them from SNAC International, and again, they could do it in the shortest amount of time,” said Paul Schaum, chief operating officer, Pretzel’s, Inc.
All allergens are stored separately from other ingredients. Oil, malt and peanut butter come in totes. On the GES peanut butter system in the separate temperature-controlled wet ingredient room, a lift carries the 1,700-lb sack peanut butter over the system. Here, an operator attaches an “elephant trunk” — it’s called that because the lanky tube looks like one — before releasing the flow of peanut butter into a vat below. One peanut butter tote feeds the clean-in-place system for about 1 hour, 40 minutes.
“When I did it the first time, we had 30 people watching with their phones in their hands waiting for me to be coated in peanut butter,” Mr. Schaum said. “Fortunately, it didn’t happen.”
Before entering the pretzel makeup and oven area, everyone must first wash their hands in a Meritec hand sanitizing system and step into a shoe sanitizer as part of the plant’s strict food safety protocol procedures. In the next room, a Shaffer 680-lb horizontal mixer creates 380-lb batches of dough. It’s a much smaller batch than the mixer’s rated size because of the stiffness of the low-moisture dough.
After mixing, a loaf maker portions the dough into 5-lb loaves that slide up to an elevated belt shuttle that feeds five extrusion machines to provide continuous production on the Reading Bakery Systems (RBS) makeup line.
Next, the dough enters a double extrusion system while a pressure pump injects the filling into a dough that’s sealed to create tubes, or what Mr. Schaum called “garden hoses.” In all, the 82-inch-wide belt carries 55 rows of peanut butter-filled tubes to a guillotine that chops them into nugget-sized pieces.
After receiving a steaming caustic bath to ultimately create the pretzel-textured skin, the pieces are salted on an independent belt, then loaded into an RBS104-foot, single-loop convection oven. A double herringbone-style belt transports the pieces through the three-zone oven for about eight minutes to set their color and shape. After baking, an 80-foot two-zone kiln located underneath the oven dries and sets the finished moisture of the nuggets.
To continuously clean the belt and prevent flashing, the oven features a burn-off section that incinerates everything from dough remnants to peanut butter residue, which are brushed off into a separate pan and safely removed on a regular basis.
To ensure product safety, Pretzels, Inc., relied on a Reading Thermal Scorpion system to monitor and set the oven temperature and document a kill step for the filled pretzels. Mr. Schaum noted that a kill step requires an internal temperature of 365˚F for three minutes during the bake.
After leaving the kiln, the nuggets travel up a Frazier & Son bucket conveyor to a ceiling conveyor that takes them 50 feet over to the 75˚F temperature-controlled packaging department. Here, circulated air cools the nuggets as they move along a Heat and Control FastBack horizontal conveyor. Pretzels, Inc., worked with about a dozen Austin consultants to ensure the nuggets, which leave the oven at 260˚F, enter the baggers at about 105˚F.
In the packaging room, Mettler Toledo and CEIA THS systems provide metal detection and quality control. The department also features Heat and Control vibratory conveyors and four Ishida scales. The various versatile packaging systems include Heat and Control vertical/form/fill/seal baggers and a PSG Lee ziplock system for the company’s popular resealable pouch bags. Typically, the systems crank out 44 bags per minute. The department also packages pretzels in plastic barrels and even plastic-lined cartons for bulk customers.
Operators manually load the bags into cases that are also sealed and palletized. Overall, the line produces about 25,000 lbs of filled pretzels every 12 hours, Mr. Schaum said.
Mr. Mann noted the company’s plans to build another dedicated packaging room when the plant installs the second line this summer. That will allow the Plymouth operation to produce two different varieties of pretzels without cross contamination of allergens and a greater number of packaging formats at the same time.
Running down a dream
Going forward, the company’s filled pretzels along with seasoned snacks and gluten-free or organic items are driving new product sales, Mr. Huggins said.
“We’re looking to support entrepreneurs who want to create their own pretzel brands,” he said. “That’s what we do, and we’re happy to look for new avenues for growth.”
For Mr. Schaum, a longtime veteran of the snack industry, the chance to orchestrate the rapid start-up of the Plymouth facility — and guide its soon-to-be future expansion — is something that all operations experts hope to experience in their careers.
“This is a dream plant,” Mr. Schaum said. “You only get the opportunity like this once in a lifetime.”