Dave Rife stood inside White Castle’s bakery in Cincinnati watching the robotics dance around in the operation for about a minute in silence. Installed just a few years ago, the packaging line operated seamlessly with the custom-designed bagger overwrapping two clusters of frozen buns at a time before automatically case packaging them.

Asked what he was reminiscing about, the chief manufacturing officer for White Castle replied, “I was just thinking about how much easier it is today.”

Certainly, it is a far cry from when Mr. Rife struggled to master the previous bagger in a White Castle bakery during an episode of Undercover Boss in 2010. Back then, he struggled to finesse the operation and ruined about 4,800 buns.

In somewhat of a consolation conversation, the production supervisor pointed out that the buns wouldn’t go to waste because a local hog farmer would use them.

“You fed the pigs really well this week,” the supervisor deadpanned.

Today, about 75 people work on three shifts, nearly five days a week, at the 65,000-square-foot Cincinnati bakery, which allocates 20,000 square feet to processing; 30,000 square feet to packaging; 10,000 square feet for warehousing, and the remainder for offices, maintenance and support departments.

Cierra Fraser, plant manager, oversees the day-to-day operation along with Matthew Nelson, maintenance and reliability manager; Cathy Soto, quality assurance supervisor; Judy Tipton, administration services manager, and Larry Beckelhymer, operations supervisor.

Jarrett Cook serves as director of manufacturing operations for Columbus, Ohio-based White Castle.

Ms. Fraser pointed out that many employees have worked at the operation, also called the “Evendale Bakery” for the neighborhood where it’s located, for 25 to 30 years. Companywide, one in four of its employees has been with the chain for at least 10 years.

“When you talk about the tenure that we have here, that comes from genuine good relationships between sanitation, maintenance, production, and Jarrett and Dave supporting us,” noted Ms. Fraser, who joked she is a relative rookie with only four years at the bakery. “We have a really good, strong team all the way from the top.”

Mr. Cook added the single-line structure of the bun operation also contributes to its success.

“We can focus on one thing,” he said. “One bun. One pan. It’s pure simplicity. Our packaging doesn’t overcomplicate the operation. It just solves a lot of issues.”

The bakery relies on a Shick Esteve bulk ingredient handling system with three, 110,000-lb flour silos, new liquid metering controls, a minor ingredient setup and an updated recipe control system. Mr. Cook said the bakery still uses fresh crumbled yeast, but it may convert to a liquid yeast system if future volume warrants it.

Two AMF Bakery Systems, 1,600-lb horizontal mixers tumble out batches into a single trough that shuttles back and forth between them. That allows this system to pump dough onto an inclined belt conveyor. At the top, a reciprocal belt relies on sensors to feed dough to the hoppers of the side-by-side identical makeup lines.

Two AMF eight-pocket piston dividers operate at around 100 strokes a minute and portion out 2-oz dough pieces that roll through a bar rounder and flour duster. That’s about 8,000 dozen buns an hour, or significantly higher than the 4,800 dozen an hour prior to the facility’s upgrade.

“We can go up to 140 strokes a minute, but the oven and proofer don’t require us to run that fast,” Mr. Cook said. “We want to run the bakery at the optimal speed for reducing waste and getting the highest efficiency — not necessarily being the fastest but the most consistent.”

The dough balls then travel along a 25-foot belt conveyor to align and briefly relax them — eliminating the need for intermediate proofing — prior to flour removal and panning.

Mr. Cook noted each pan holds two, 48-count clusters of buns that slows down production speeds and boosts line capacity while reducing wear and tear on the line. About 20 pans a minute are conveyed into a separate department, then turn vertically to enter the AMF BakeTech continuous proofer and oven system.

“The bakery’s designed so that nobody has to work in this room, which helps especially during the summer months,” Mr. Cook said. “The buns move automatically from the proofer to the oven with remote monitoring of the operation.”

He pointed out the dough pieces receive about a 70-minute proof and 12.5-minute bake. This creates a slightly drier bun that’s perfect for White Castle’s steam-grilled process. Each one of these 48-count clusters is designed to sit perfectly atop the meat and onions with the griddle’s steam adding moisture and flavor to the buns during the cooking process.

“We actually overproof the buns and want them to have this airy structure that holds up to the steam-cooked Slider process,” Mr. Cook said. “We want the flavor of the steam process to permeate the buns while creating their soft texture.”

After baking, the clusters travel through a Capway vacuum depanner and up to an overhead conveyor to freezing. Meanwhile, the pans travel through a Henry Group pan cleaner to remove the debris before circling back to production. The bakery also uses an AMF pan stacker and unstacker on the line.

The buns then enter an Advanced Food Equipment spiral freezer at 20˚F for about 20 minutes, or just long enough to harden the buns’ crust to support the stacking of clusters during the unique packaging process. The restaurants receive sliced buns from the bakery while the retail manufacturing operations do their own slicing.

Next, the clusters ride side-by-side on SpanTech conveyors with sensors monitoring their alignment prior to entering a Motion Control stacker that simply pushes one cluster atop another. After passing through two metal detectors, the pair then enter one of two baggers from CV-Tek, a Middleby Packaging Solutions company. One of those baggers is currently redundant so to keep the line moving in case of changeover or downtime.

Here, the custom-built packaging system stacks the clusters again, then overwraps four of them with film as it vacuums out the air prior to heat sealing. Mr. Rife said the system is capable of modified-atmosphere packaging (MAP). White Castle wanted the MAP option in case it needed extended shelf life in the future.

The tall stack of packaged buns then travels to a Motion Control robotic case packing operation, with an automatic case erector and robotics that position it so that four cluster bun packages slide into the cases. After sealing, a robotic palletizer stacks the cases before shrink wrapping.

“Previously, we made a pallet every 10 minutes. Now we do it every 6 minutes,” Mr. Cook explained.

Barcoding the pallets allows the warehouse management system to control the two to three days of first-in, first-out inventory in the 12,000-square-foot Raymond storage freezer system. During this period, Mr. Cook said, the buns are frozen solid. A radio shuttle automatically picks and places the pallets and later takes them to the 50˚F docking area where about eight trucks a day are loaded through two bays.

In addition to boosting capacity, Mr. Cook observed, automating the Cincinnati bakery reduced or eliminated stacking, lifting and other repetitive or ergonomic concerns. Any labor savings, he added, were used to fill various other skilled positions throughout the plant. In fact, the bakery has added to its workforce to keep up with the higher capacity requests from its restaurant and retail manufacturing customers.

“Here, the focus is more about continuous improvement, reducing waste and getting more out of the equipment that we now have,” he said.

Under Ms. Fraser’s tutelage, the bakery has ramped up food safety practices. A quality assurance manager prior to joining the bakery, she added two QA technicians to assist with HACCP training and other food safety systems along with Safe Quality Food certification this year.

Mr. Rife pointed out such emphasis on sanitation all goes back to the beginning.

“My great-grandfather was all about cleanliness, quality, purity and people,” he said. “He had a saying that ‘Happy team members make for happy customers.’ ”

He added that White Castle is in the initial stages of its plans to upgrade the Rensselaer bakery, which is about the same age as the Cincinnati bakery when it was reengineered. Initially, Mr. Rife said, the manufacturing team considered revamping the Rensselaer bakery all at once, but now they are reconsidering.

“We may have to do a staggered project like we did here, so we don’t interrupt production any more than we have to,” he said.

That’s because conquering the Crave never ends. It doesn’t matter if White Castle’s Sliders are bought 10 to a sack or 30 to a case, the Crave always comes back even stronger for another day.

This article is an excerpt from the July 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on White Castle, click here.