KINGSPORT, TENN. — When Leclerc Foods, St. Augustin de Desmaures, Que., does anything, it does so unabashedly. Whether that’s producing cookies and bars for its private label customers or installing a new production line, the family-owned company puts quality and safety at the top of its priority list and doesn’t back down on ensuring those things are met.

This commitment has informed every aspect of how Leclerc does business. The company thoroughly audits its ingredient suppliers and then still inspects ingredients before they enter the warehouse. All its facilities throughout Canada and the United States were awarded BRCAA+ two years ago, the first baking facilities in North America.

“I would say we put stricter standards on ourselves than what the industry requires, but I think our customers appreciate that, and it creates peace of mind for everyone,” said Jean-Sebastien Leclerc, vice-president, co-manufacturing and manufacturing infrastructure, Leclerc.

For its facilities, Leclerc has built in redundancies in quality control and food safety as well as backup production across plants. A company that doesn’t shy away from the latest and greatest in technology — its employees have fully embraced the iPad — doesn’t introduce new equipment or practices at the cost of safety, quality or flexibility.

“We have to be the most automated company on the market to be competitive, but those machines have to maintain our flexibility needs so we can meet our customers’ needs, specifically for private label,” Mr. Leclerc explained. “We’re not compromising on flexibility for automation, so everything we automate needs to also improve flexibility.”

This unwavering commitment to deliver on its customers’ needs has sustained Leclerc Foods throughout its 114-year history. The company now runs eight plants in Canada and the United States. To keep meeting its customers’ needs, Leclerc invests in its facilities without compromising on its values.

Everywhere you turn in Leclerc’s Kingsport facility, this commitment to safety and quality is evident. Whether it’s changeovers and sanitation, quality control, training, or flexible distribution, Kingsport is growing into its role as the U.S. base of operations and innovating to meet customers’ and operations’ needs.

A major change that’s been evolving at Kingsport is the plant’s role in the company’s U.S. distribution. While Montgomery has been the shipping hub for all of the U.S. operations, Kingsport lately has been taking on more product distribution due to its closer proximity to the Phoenix plant and new customers’ needs.

“That’s recently changed because we receive material from Arizona and redistribute it to the East coast from here,” said Jeremy Carroll, plant manager, Leclerc. “We used to only ship to a couple of Southern distribution centers for a major customer, and recently we started shipping to many of their distribution centers out West and North as well. We’re actually sending fewer trucks to Pennsylvania than we ever have before.”

Typically, unless there is a promotional push from a customer, production at Kingsport is handled on a just-in-time basis and tracked in a system that compares warehouse capacity with scheduled deliveries from Phoenix and customer orders. The warehouse doesn’t keep inventory very long before it is out the door.

Production runs 24 hours, five days a week. Changeovers occur between the third and first shifts. Sanitation is quick because most of the products being run contain the same allergens.

“Every morning we do a little bit to remove the excess chocolate chips,” Ms. Normand said. “We are in a chocolate chip world right now.”

When the allergens differ, Leclerc schedules production to prevent cross-contamination. Organic products start first thing on Monday morning, and more allergens are added throughout the week.

The deep clean along with maintenance is reserved for the weekend. The Kingsport team finds this schedule works best to meet sanitation standards and keep equipment working smoothly and production running during the week.

The plant’s quality control program is robust to keep up with customer demand and Leclerc’s commitment to food safety. While Leclerc has four dedicated facilities to allergens, however, the company continues to raise its own bar. Suppliers are visited and inspected.

“We challenge any vendor we have in here,” said Charles Bruce, quality manager, Leclerc. “We challenge them to make them better because then we’re better.”

Leclerc also stresses a strong internal audit program. The facility conducts a monthly facility audit in addition to a corporate audit.

“We’re auditing ourselves constantly,” Mr. Bruce said. “We don’t hide anything or hold anything back on those because that just pushes us to make ourselves better.”

On the day-to-day, production lines have multiple points where operators conduct quality checks as well as built-in equipment redundancy through multiple X-rays, metal detectors and vision systems. Quality control also comes by twice per shift and at the end of the production run to double-check operators’ reports.

“Each place on the line gets checked for something,” Mr. Bruce said. “You have your regular operator checks, and in addition to that, quality technicians come around and do their own to make sure the data matches what the operator is finding.”

“It’s a lot of checks,” Ms. Normand added.

In addition to redundancy and process tours, quality control takes ATP swabs and conducts environmental testing and microswabs that are sent to a Leclerc lab in Canada. And for products that don’t contain soy or milk, equipment is swabbed before production starts to guarantee that the equipment is free from those allergens.

To track all this data, the company uses SAP software, but internally at Kingsport, the I.T. department developed an application for the iPad to improve ease-of-use for quality control technicians. Through the application, technicians can scan product barcodes and enter all data. It’s updated in real time and reflected in SAP.

“Charles might be traveling, but he can see everything that’s being done in the plant as it’s done,” Ms. Normand said.

Leclerc Foods on a corporate scale has implemented the use of similar technology to improve training as new employees join the company. With such a strong commitment to food safety and quality ingrained in the company culture, a rigorous training plan, complete with new technology, is critical to everyone on board.

New employees are initiated through a one to two week training period that addresses multiple learning styles through a combination of instructor-led, hands-on training and a knowledge management platform called POKA, developed by Alexandre Leclerc, Jean-Sebastien’s brother. Each employee uses an iPad equipped with the POKA platform, which allows them to scan Q.R. codes on each piece of equipment to access troubleshooting guides, operation manuals and standard operating procedures. This not only helps new employees onboard, but it also assists current employees when problems arise on the plant floor.

As the bar category grows, so does Leclerc’s business. And as long as its customers demand safe, quality products at the right price, Leclerc will never stop innovating to meet those needs.

“We always try to improve and better ourselves,” Mr. Leclerc said. “We will continue to grow and maintain our flexibility and service level with our customers; we want to grow without compromising.”

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