Mark Boyer is always astonished when people tell him they recently ate in a Tippin’s restaurant. That’s because there’s no such thing … anymore.
In the Kansas City metro area (on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri state line), Tippin’s has long been known — and loved — for its decadent pies. And although they were once served up in Tippin’s Restaurant and Pie Pantry locations throughout the Midwest and in Dallas, that hasn’t been the case for more than a decade.
“I will have people insist they ate at a Tippin’s ‘just the other day,’ ” said Mr. Boyer, president of the Kansas City, Kan.-based pie manufacturer. “We make a world-class pie, and there’s an emotional connection not just to the brand but also the restaurant where many people grew up eating them.”
Over the course of three decades, Tippin’s grew from a local eatery to a regional foodservice chain. Then it evolved into a wholesale operation supplying pies exclusively to an upscale Kansas City-area grocer. Now these blue-ribbon baked foods can be found in supermarkets as far east as the Carolinas, as far south as Houston and west all the way to Phoenix, not to mention up into Green Bay, Wisc.
Today, in a new facility that doubled the bakery’s square footage and will more than triple its capacity, Tippin’s is living a new stage in a journey that brings its signature comfort and tradition into a modern automated process.
Taking the leap
Sure, pies are decadent and indulgent. But the best ones provide something extra … comfort. That’s been a driving factor for the loyalty that follows Tippin’s products wherever they go, and it’s driven its growth, too.
So, it was no surprise that the bakery — whose operation still involved manually pouring pumpkin filling into shells on a carousel oven and pushing hand-decorated pies around on racks — needed more space that allowed the bakery to work smarter, not harder.
“We were making all the pies we could make,” Mr. Boyer said. “We literally ran out of space to make more pies and needed more capacity.”
Just down the street from the old bakery, Tippin’s moved into a 52,000-square-foot building.
“There was a significant investment made into the business,” said Jim Antrup, vice president of sales and marketing. “That investment and the new bakery are all about making premium, high-quality, world-class pies.”
Ultimately, the upgrade was less about the increased square footage and more about what modern technology would do for streamlining production and making life easier for the teammates.
A project like this brownfield location — which had previously operated as a cookie plant and, before that, a direct mail outfit — is a lot to take on, and with consulting from The Ensol Group, Mr. Boyer learned fast.
“I’d never done a building project before,” Mr. Boyer recalled. “In fact, no one here had. We had a trusted and valued partner with The Ensol Group and Jim Kline [president]. He helped us select the equipment and worked with us through the whole exercise. Jim’s fingerprint is all over this bakery.”
Amber Mangiaracino, director of operations, joined the company at an interesting spot between the start of construction and moving day. In addition to learning a new job, Ms. Mangiaracino found herself wearing a new “project manager” hat as well.
“I sort of stepped into an onsite project manager role and found myself making decisions based on discussions that took place before I had started with the company. I was coming in at the end and trying to play catch-up, and that was a little tough,” she said. “But I’m not easily intimidated.”
A new era of automation
Anything unknown is naturally a scary thing, and Tippin’s teammates didn’t know what to expect from the upgrades that also included a Colborne pie line, Topos Mondial dough handling equipment and a Unifiller depositing system that incorporated Apex robotics for finishing cream pies.
It’s not just the intimidation of learning something new, but it’s also the fear of what automation will do to a mostly manual workforce. However, Mr. Boyer’s plan to increase efficiency did not mean he wanted to shrink the number of teammates. He did, however, intend to make life easier for them.
“We did everything by hand,” he said. “If we were making cream shells, we loaded them by hand and took them out the same way. The decorators creamed the pies by hand, too. We wanted to take some of the hard work and heavy lifting away from the teammates. We want people to work hard, but we want them to go home feeling good about that hard day’s work.”
The automation streamlines the process, but it doesn’t limit the care that goes into it, starting with the dough.
“Our crust is one of the greatest things about Tippin’s pies,” Mr. Boyer attested. “That’s because of how we make it. We go to great pains to take care of our dough, and it pays off.”
The dough is made a day in advance in 600-lb batches with Peietro Berto diving-arm mixers. After it’s dumped into troughs, the dough is transported via lift into Topos chunkers on the pie line.
Tins are conveyed to the line, where the bottom crust is placed before a depositor head fills the fruit pies, which are then topped with crust and crimped.
Pies then head down a conveyor toward the oven and are aligned into lanes, the number of which depends on what’s going in. Crusts for custard-style pies such as pumpkin or pecan are filled right before the infeed, and the ones for cream pies are baked without filling.
They travel 15 across through the oven for about 40 to 45 minutes, again, depending on the pie.
The oven capacity is 2,400 at a time, another stark change from the old way of doing things.
After baking, the pies — or crusts for the cream pies — take a trip up the G&F spiral ambient cooler, dubbed the “window sill,” until they reach about 90°F. At that point, cream fills the empty shells, transforming them into classic varieties such as coconut or chocolate cream pies.
Finally, they all head through the G&F spiral blast freezer, set at -25°F with 35 mph wind, before reaching their final stages of production.
From ‘human’ to ‘humane’
Although the process involves significantly less human interaction than the old way of doing things, the same level of care goes into every step. And at times, now, it’s a little bit easier.
In the kettle room, for example, filling is made in one of three 400-gallon Heritage kettles. Piping is a marvel of engineering infrastructure that directs the appropriate filling to the correct point in the process, whether right before the oven infeed for custard fillings, at the makeup line for fruit fillings or to cooled shells for cream pies.
Everything’s made from scratch, and fruits that come in frozen are slacked out to the desired temperature in a climate-controlled adjacent room. Fillings are cooked and cooled quickly with steam above 300°F and then with ice water that’s pumped through the lines.
Set about 5 feet above the ground, the kettles are just high enough to make manually loading them a physical pain. To help the operators, Tippin’s installed Topos lifts to load the prepped filling ingredients via trough.
“Again, one of the things we were trying to do was take some of the hard work and heavy lifting from teammates,” Mr. Boyer said.
“The pies look like they’re handmade, and that was intentional. We invested in equipment that could do that."
- Mark Boyer, Tippin's Pies
Additionally, removing this burden opened up opportunities for teammates who did not have the physical prowess to lift the ingredients that high before. When automation eliminated the need for certain workers in other areas of the plant, it also naturally redirected that talent.
“Now people can often self-select for the kinds of jobs they want to do,” Mr. Boyer said.
In the room next door, French silk and meringue are mixed in a Sancassiano 300-quart planetary mixer.
Out on the line, meringue for pies such as coconut cream is toasted with a small impingement oven that can be slid inline when needed.
After pies are blast-frozen, they experience the last stage in the automation. Cream pies are topped at the Unifiller station with Apex robots, topping 20 pies a minute. Four robotic heads first cover the inside, and then the next one pipes the pie’s perimeter.
The piping isn’t perfect, but that’s by design. Tippin’s pies are a signature item, and the hand touch has always been a big feature of that.
“The pies look like they’re handmade, and that was intentional,” Mr. Boyer said. “We invested in equipment that could do that.”
Still, decorators will go in and fill in little gaps that sometimes occur.
“Whipped cream is very delicate by nature,” Mr. Boyer said. “When decorators pipe cream by hand there’s a technique called ‘burping the bag’ to get rid of the air pockets. Every now and then the robots will experience the same issue, and an air pocket occurs, and there’s a void, so the decorators will fill that in.”
Having a few decorators perform this task is quite different from the old days ... and this became a welcome change.
“In the old bakery, we had 12 decorators, and all they did was this all day,” Mr. Boyer said. “They’re really good at what they do. But they decorated with pastry bags for 10 hours a day. Automation took the stress off our team members who were creaming those pies by hand.”
Today, sounds of singing can be heard from the line, and it’s music to Mr. Boyer’s ears.
Glimpsing the future
Every Tippin’s pie heads in the same direction, and if they bypass the topping, they head through X-ray, are loaded onto a palletizer and then taken into the 8,000-square-foot storage freezer before being shipped out to customers.
Even at almost four times the size of the old freezer, Tippin’s will likely use outside storage when pie season hits its pinnacle. However, this year it’s hard to say what that pinnacle will look like because the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is changing everything, everywhere, from retail outlets to people’s homes to the plant floor. That said, while consumers are stockpiling the essentials, there’s still a place for pies. This isn’t a category where people seek out the next big thing.
“We work on innovation, but the key attribute for pie is that it’s something that brings people together,” Mr. Boyer explained. “If you looked back 10 years at the most popular Tippin’s pies, they would have been French silk, apple and pumpkin. If you look today, it’s French silk, apple and pumpkin. If you ask that question 10 years from now, I’m sure you can guess what the answer will be.”
In an era of uncertainty, Tippin’s forges ahead with the consistency of those mainstays, especially while Americans are eating at home for the foreseeable future.
“It’s exciting times moving into a new bakery, and it’s scary times with what’s going on in the world. But I’m an optimist, and I’m confident we’re all going to get through this,” Mr. Antrup said. “In times of uncertainty, people revert back to that thing that makes them feel good. Pies are comfort food, and in the days we’re experiencing, people will gravitate toward that.”
For now, there’s a lot to focus on.
“We still have a lot to learn with the equipment and what it can do,” Mr. Boyer said. In the new facility, the goal for the equipment was always to make the pies as good as or better than what they were before.
“We make the best pies on the planet, so I’m not sure how we can get any better,” he said. “But I’m really looking forward to seeing what ‘better’ looks like.”
When Mr. Ball looks at where Tippin’s has gone since that Friday on the courthouse steps, he couldn’t be happier.
“Our main goal was to drive top-line sales with a focus on food safety and quality so we could go out and attract customers with the same philosophy,” he said. “We will never compromise quality.”
And while the equipment upgrades deliver on that priority, it truly does start with the people.
“We always put the teammates first,” Mr. Ball said. “We have a saying in our company that the customers come second, and the teammates come first. When we put the teammates first, they take care of the customers … and we walk that walk.”
Editor’s note: This feature was fielded prior to COVID-19 social distancing mandates.
This article is an excerpt from the May 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Tippin's, click here.