KINGSPORT, TENN. — Leclerc Food’s origins stretch all the way back to 1905 in Quebec City, Q.C., when Francois Leclerc started baking cookies — his wife’s recipe — in a back room of their home. Five generations later the family bakery has become a cookie and granola bar powerhouse.

It has endured world wars, a fire and food trends, and its longevity can largely be attributed to the Leclerc family’s ability to change with the times.

In the 1980s, Leclerc branched out beyond cookies into granola bars, and that’s when business began to boom. In the 2000s, the company showed its ability to adapt again when consumer attitudes about fat began to shift. Fat-free became a top priority for Leclerc’s formulators. With evolving consumer attitudes regarding just what constitutes “healthy,” Leclerc is ready, thanks to the Leclerc Laboratory of Health and Wellness. As the company has commercialized, adaptability and innovation have remained its heart.

“We’re able to turn new products around quickly and offer a high-quality product at a good price,” said Jean-Sebastien Leclerc, vice-president, co-manufacturing and manufacturing infrastructure, Leclerc.

When the bakery expanded into granola bars, Leclerc moved from downtown Quebec City to the suburbs, then opened a second facility in Quebec City to handle the growth that came with that new venture. Afterward, Leclerc added a facility in Hawkesbury, Ont., then moved into the United States when it purchased Buckeye Pretzel in Montgomery, Pa. It now has a facility in Phoenix and two in Kingsport, Tenn., one of which is the U.S. headquarters. An eighth plant opened in March in Cornwall, Ont.

Today, granola bars, cookies and crackers make up the core of Leclerc’s business. While it has its own brand in Canada that is worth about $140 million, that’s only a quarter of its business. The majority is private label, which is what drives Leclerc’s growth. Leclerc’s U.S. facilities anchor that growth.

Igniting growth through  investment

To support the growth Leclerc has seen in its U.S. private label business, the company has invested heavily in the Kingsport facility. In 2008, Leclerc purchased the old automotive facility and renovated it into a bakery with its signature fast-turnaround style.

“Within six months, we gutted it and converted it into a food manufacturing facility and started production within the same year,” said Jeremy Carroll, plant manager.

Since that initial renovation, Leclerc has expanded production capabilities for granola, baked and bulk bars, office space, and a fully automated warehouse. All told, Mr. Leclerc estimated the Kingsport facility has seen up to $50 million in investment in the past four years between new production lines and the nearby gluten-free facility that Leclerc purchased in 2017.

“We’ve invested heavily in Tennessee,” he said.

With two facilities a stone’s throw away from each other, Kingsport is the largest Leclerc location in the United States, making it a natural fit for the location of the business’ U.S. headquarters. With the 2008 facility peanut-free and the 2017 facility gluten-free, this location serves as the heart of the allergen-free U.S. business and a backup for the Canada allergen-free facilities as well.

“We can better serve the U.S. market, but we’re also a contingency plan if something goes wrong in a peanut-free or gluten-free facility in Canada; we can take over here,” said Lyne Normand, vice-president, quality, U.S. operations, Leclerc.

With so much investment in Tennessee, the 2008 facility’s priorities have shifted from toddler snacks to crackers to cookies and fruit bars. Today, with its latest bar line, the plant shifted once again to bulk granola bar production. A second line produces breakfast cookies.

All equipment Leclerc has invested in at Kingsport must meet rigorous demands for speed and efficiency but not at the cost of product quality, food safety and flexibility. It also helps if the equipment fits within a small footprint and is easy to operate.

“We need suppliers that are willing to work with us to make it work,” Mr. Leclerc explained. “It’s not always easy, but we like to partner with companies that don’t mind innovating, and if it doesn’t go as planned, they are there to support us.”

Production that keeps moving

The 225,000-square-foot Kingsport facility purchased in 2008 sits on 14 acres. With three production lines and one support line, the bakery produces $70 million a year for Leclerc Foods in chewy granola bars, cookies and cereals. The latest enables Leclerc to meet its customers’ demands for bulk-packaged bars.

The bakery preps all its own rice and oats by cooking everything before production. Three holding tanks automatically weigh the binder, rice and oats and pump them into the Peerless mixer. Save a few minors that are added manually, ingredients are automatically scaled and added by an A&B Process System. Flour and syrup are stored in silos while everything else arrives in supersacks.

To ensure the bar dough maintains its consistency, the mixing bowl is jacketed to keep the dough warm.

“In the mixer, the goal is to keep the dough warm enough so it can move through the equipment and not clump up,” Mr. Carroll said.

Once the dough is mixed, it travels through an extrusion system to create the bar slab, which will have a major impact on the final weight of the individual bars; the roller settings are key to getting this right. The gap between the roller and the belt, the temperature of the roller, and its speed will all determine the slab’s thickness, which will impact the slicing of the individual bars.

After the initial slab creation, an inclusion wheel mixes in chocolate chips as evenly as possible before a final compression roller brings the dough to its final thickness.

“We don’t want one bite to be a chunk of chocolate chips,” Mr. Carroll said. “We want a chocolate chip in every bite; that’s roughly 32 chips in every bar.”

Once the dough slab has reached its final thickness, an operator does the first quality check by taking three samples from the slab to test the weight and chip count. The operator inputs the weight into the HMI system so the guillotine will cut the bars to the proper length. The HMI stores all these settings: speed and temperature of the roller, gap between the roller and the line, and guillotine speed. The guillotine and extrusion system constantly communicate through the system to ensure the bars are cut properly so each one is the weight declared on the packaging.

However, bars cannot be cut warm. First, the finished dough must travel through a 60-foot cooling tunnel until it reaches 45 to 50°F. Once the bar slab is sufficiently cooled, slicer blades cut it into lanes, and the guillotine determines the length of the bars to meet the desired individual weight. To reduce waste, trim from this stage is recycled back into the mixer.

It’s also here that the operator does his or her second quality check when bars are weighed after the guillotine. If necessary, the HMI can adjust to meet specifications.

A bar aligner straightens the rows of finished bars in preparation for packaging before they enter the latest addition to this production line, a Cavanna Packaging buffer system and flowwrappers. The first-in-first-out buffer system creates space between production and packaging departments, allowing for inevitable packaging events without slowing down production. Bars enter the buffer system to be stored and are then retrieved by the flowwrappers as they are ready to receive product. With four decks, the buffer can store 8 minutes worth of product without taking too much floorspace.

Without the buffer in place, the plant would need a third backup wrapping lane and cartoner to prevent production interruptions. Costly downtime that could get passed to the customer isn’t a place Leclerc was willing to compromise, and the buffer system frees the company from having to make it.

“Starting and stopping production is a domino effect, so our goal is to keep production moving at all times, even if it’s at half speed, and the buffer enables this,” Mr. Carroll explained. “It’s a necessity. The quicker you can provide product, the better the profit margins are. Granola bars aren’t a product with big profit margins, so the volume of it helps us pad that bottom line.”

The buffer feeds two Cavanna flowwrappers that deliver product to a Cavanna cartoner. When designing the packaging department, Leclerc wanted a compact footprint that only needed one operator. The slim, high-speed wrapping system fits in half the space. Laid out in an L-shape, the entire system can be managed by one person.

The flowwrappers feature auto-tracking that ensures the film is perfectly aligned on the product. A scanner checks the bar code on the packaging against the HMI system’s record of what bar is coming off the line. This check prevents product from being wrapped in the wrong film. The wrappers can run at a nominal speed of 1,000 bars per minute or a recovery speed of 1,100 bars per minute.

After being individually wrapped, bars are inspected by a Thermo X-ray machine at a speed of 600 bars per minute. Because the film is metallized, metal detectors inspect the product as it enters the wrappers. Once bars are inspected, they head into the cartoner where two robots fill and seal cartons.

Pallets of finished product are stored in the automated warehouse, ready to be picked up by customers or shipped to customers or the Leclerc distribution hub in Pennsylvania.

Installed in 2010, the automated warehouse is another area Leclerc has found new technology to be a boon. After seeing how successful automated warehousing was in other Leclerc facilities, Kingsport made the leap, too. The 70,000-square-foot space houses finished product and ingredients. Automated cranes and forklifts hurry down the aisles to fetch and store ingredients or finished products that operators scan into the system. The flurry of robotic activity happens behind a metal cage to keep operators safe. The Swisslog automated warehouse system remains the original hardware Leclerc installed nine years ago, but the facility recently switched to Viador software to run the equipment.

While it may be a significant capital investment and seem high-tech, Leclerc has found the automation to return on its investment. Not only does the automated warehouse save on labor and energy — the department doesn’t have to be lit — it also minimizes product damage and eliminates an opportunity for human error in food safety, another compromise Leclerc isn’t willing to make.

“When you walk into the warehouse, you can easily see if you have all your allergens in the right place because they have dedicated places,” Ms. Normand said. “In the automated warehouse, the specialty milk can only go in the places for milk. It cannot be misplaced.”

When automation and equipment can help Leclerc deliver quality products quickly and at the right price while supporting its commitment to food safety, Leclerc invests. Every piece of this new bulk bar line and the automated warehouse guarantees either product quality, transparency or worker and food safety. This unwavering commitment to the things that matter in production equipment also permeates the company’s operational practices.

This article is an excerpt from the April 2019 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on LeClerc Foods, click here.