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Until three years ago, Kemper Foods International, New Albany, Ind., generated all types of bite-sized products. That’s when it received a huge opportunity to produce nut-butter snacks, and the company never looked back.

“When we took on that project, it changed everything,” said Mike Kemper, founder and chief executive officer. “The volume that we do is off the charts, and it provided the potential for much more growth.”

While the switch to nut production forced it to set aside some of its non-allergen business, running the operation at full tilt provided the financial boost to get the company where it wanted to be.

“Kemper could make the greatest products, but we didn’t have the resources to package them all,” he said.

The nut butter project allowed the company to automate packaging and vertically wrap its bitty snacks into small packs and place them in 4-, 12- or 20-ct cartons for c-store, warehouse clubs and other retail customers.

“For many years, we were primarily in the foodservice market with bulk packaging — a bag-in-a-box operation,” Mr. Kemper recalled. “We were able to take our business to the next level once we began using our more automated packaging systems.”

Today, retail accounts for about 70% of the company’s business — almost the opposite of what it was with foodservice a few years ago. Mr. Kemper credited his direct-ownership partners, successful local businessmen Jack Koetter and Ken Huber, for supporting the transition.

“Our owning partners and management team had the vision, and they were not afraid to make the change,” he said. “We told everyone, ‘we’ll be back,’ and we’re keeping our word. We’re back.”

Today, Mr. Kemper added, the company rides faster than ever.

“We have the capacity, and we’re ready to take advantage of it,” he observed.

Production happens on three shifts, up to seven days a week. The facility has about 26,000 square feet of processing;12,000 square feet for packaging; 10,000 square feet of warehouse space; and 3,500 square feet for offices, and there’s room to grow. Food safety and quality assurance dictate production at the BRC AA rated operation, one of the highest involving the Global Food Safety Initiative.

Production of mini and handheld snacks requires a different train of thought from manufacturing bread and larger sized baked foods. Here, it’s best described as synchronized mass production where groups of equipment in each department work together to pump out high volumes of products rather than relying on a single, unified production line. Mr. Kemper said such a process offers maximum versatility while ensuring tight controls to make the delicate products.

During Baking & Snack’s visit, Kemper Foods produced 1-oz soft-dough snacks filled with nut butter and jelly. In the mixing department, two 350-lb Kemper spiral mixers alternated to turn out up to nine straight dough batches an hour. The company also has a 600-lb Sotttoriva mixer for larger runs.

On the Rheon systems, encrusted filled snacks typically travel single file until they reached a Rheon automatic panning system, where a retractable conveyer precisely places them on pans before they are manually racked. Each pan holds from 35 to 48 pieces, depending on the product’s size. Critically, the temperature in both rooms is set at about 40˚F to prevent the high-yeast dough from activating prematurely during the encrusting process.

The double racks are rolled into two LBC Bakery Equipment proofers, each holding 12 racks, for around 45 minutes. Afterward, the products bake from 5 to 6 minutes in a wall of LBC pass-through ovens that serve as the physical dividing line for food safety between the raw and post-baked finished departments on the other side.

Here’s where a little math reflects how the operation cranks out such a high volume of products, Mr. Kemper said. For a 1-oz snack, each double rack holds 1,400 pieces. Each of the eight ovens bake 10 racks an hour for a total of 112,000. For smaller items such as filled mini bagels, each rack holds 1,920 pieces, or 153,000 items an hour. Now multiply those numbers over three 8-hour shifts a day and even more a week, and the totals add up in a big way.

Kemper Foods also has an American Baking Systems’ 50-foot tunnel oven that it has used for making larger filled biscuits and filled pocket snacks. For bite-sized snacks with such a short bake time, Mr. Kemper noted, rack ovens allow for adjustments to the baking process and greater flexibility during any changeovers.

“With our tunnel oven, if I’m running a 1-oz product like I am today, the temperature zones are too hard to control, and you can only run one product at a time,” he explained. “For us, that’s old school. Today, it’s about speed and versatility, and with these double rack ovens, I can adjust heat and color quickly.”

After baking, samples are routinely tested, and their internal bake temperatures verified. Two operators manually dump the panned pieces on a conveyor leading to a Praxair nitrogen spiral blast freezer set at -95˚F for 15 minutes. In another adjacent room, the rock-hard frozen snacks tumble along a vibratory conveyor and into two hoppers. From below, each system’s bucket conveyors carry the pieces up to a mezzanine level, where two Viking Yamato scales and vertical form/fill/seal systems two-pack them. The company also has an Ohlson scale and VFFS line.

The packs travel into yet another room, where operators manually pack cartons that are then case packed and palletized. Here, Kemper Foods reduced labor and automated the process by installing Bradman Lake carton formers and sealers and Safeline metal detection.

Meanwhile, the new US Department of Agriculture-inspected plant is separately operated from the nut allergen facility but functions much in the same way. In addition to multiple mixers and Rheon systems, the plant houses proofing, baking, steaming and inline frying capabilities prior to nitrogen inline freezing and versatile packaging capability.

“Everything gets moved in and out,” Mr. Kemper said. “That room can change weekly depending on the opportunity.”

After a three-day hold for microbial and food safety testing, products are shipped to customers. Still, with its rapid growth, the business had to lease portable outdoor freezer storage, but it’s adding a 600-pallet freezer during the next two years. Kemper Foods also has room to accommodate ongoing expansion in another nearby building.

To support its growth, the company invests in its workforce and developing a community network. Mr. Kemper pointed out the company has grown from “a family of four” to almost 100 today. Many job referrals, he said, come from friends and family members of employees.

“I’m most proud of the team that we’ve built from top to bottom,” he said. “We have a team of leaders and passionate people who take pride in what they do. We spend a lot of time training, and we promote quite a bit of people from the rank and file, so word has gotten out that this is a good place to work.”

Looking toward the next five years, Mr. Kemper foresees the company as a national leader in handheld innovation manufacturing with processes and procedures that are “second to none.”

“We’re nowhere near the biggest, but I have a bunch of people who believe that we’re the best, and we’re the best because we’re not afraid to change,” he noted. “The future belongs to the risk-taker.”

That’s especially true when it comes to innovation.

This article is an excerpt from the March 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Kemper Foods, click here.