Consumers are searching for specialty foods that are new but familiar, whether it’s an almond flour cracker or a vegan cheese one. Moreover, the demand for gluten-free items has surged as ingredient options have improved over the years.

That’s why Partners, A Tasteful Choice Company, is becoming more than a cracker producer, especially on the contract manufacturing side of its business. Previously, Partners baked cookies, and it currently makes a private label Brazilian cheese bread containing Parmesan cheese, eggs and milk.

With its 150,000-square-foot bakery in Des Moines, Wash., the company now has the opportunity to serve other markets without worrying about capacity concerns.

“This bakery allows us to do more fun projects without worrying about capacity,” said Cara Figgins, president of Partners. “The vision is to grow the business in the most efficient ways but also to entertain more unusual products that we haven’t done in the past like bars or cheese breads. There’s more freedom to explore.”

This foray into other food products is another reason why the full name for the business is Partners, A Tasteful Choice Company — not just Partners Crackers, which is a brand in its broader portfolio.

“We choose to create culinary products over mass-produced ones with an intentional focus on taste and quality,” Ms. Figgins noted.

Operationally, the company’s investment in the new bakery also provides greater opportunities for expanding its customer base.

“Automation allows us to be in places where we couldn’t have been before because we’re so much more cost effective than in the past,” Ms. Figgins said, “We can be so much more competitive particularly in the specialty food channel.”

She pointed out that the investment in technology transformed Partners from a small cracker producer to a mid-sized food business that can supply the major players in the industry at the right cost and volume.

“We’re in between big and small,” Ms. Figgins said. “There are mega companies, but very few medium companies and quite a lot of small companies. We’re in that medium zone.”

More than 90 people work on three 8-hour shifts, five days a week. Overseeing the daily operations along with Ms. Figgins is her brother, Greg Maestretti, chief operating officer, Ms. Figgins’ brother, who designed the state-of-the-art bakery that opened just a few years ago.

Additionally, Ted Slabaugh serves as the plant manager and works closely with AJ Rendon, quality assurance manager; Katy Borgen, R&D manager, and Margaret Stanberry in human resources.

The BRC AA-certified facility houses three bakery departments with a locker room, pan storage area, warehouse/shipping department and two floors of office space located near in the center of the facility.

At one end of the bakery, a semi-automated operation produces and packages a burgeoning array of gluten-free and other allergen-free crackers. Here, there is a dedicated, temperature-controlled spiral mixing room, sheeting equipment and a 100-foot tunnel oven from the Kent bakery.

In a second area toward the middle of the plant, a specialty baked goods department creates items like the Brazilian cheese bread. The bakery also has six double rack ovens to assist in production in these two departments.

Mr. Maestretti pointed out that this part of the plant is running at full throttle.

“Like many bakeries, if we could find more people, we could be producing a lot more products,” he said.

The other, larger side of the facility cranks out more conventional crackers on a 900-foot-long, highly automated line, and there’s plenty of room to add another production line as well as additional automation throughout this building.

“We invested in the new bakery because we needed the capacity and cost savings that only technology could bring us,” Mr. Maestretti said. “We knew that labor was at a premium back then and correctly predicted that it was only going to get more challenging.”

Currently, the bakery relies on a Kason super sack system to supply the 60,000 to 80,000 lbs of flour that the main production line uses weekly. The bakery has allotted space to install silos and further automate ingredient handling, but Mr. Maestretti initially focused on investing in other areas of production and packaging.

He added that the line’s mixing and makeup systems are also in an enclosed, temperature-controlled room, which not only ensures better product consistency but also separates raw products from baked ones for food safety reasons.

The room features a Mac Process (part of Schenck AccuRate) scale and hopper. A 2,000-lb tote in a separate refrigerated room supplies buttermilk, while dry minor and micro ingredients like oats are stored in dozens of labeled bins along the wall.

A 1,200-lb Shaffer horizontal mixer turns out three to nine batches of dough per hour, depending on whether the line is making individually wrapped hors d’oeuvres crackers or higher-volume snack crackers. Typically, one to two operators and a QA technician work in this department. For added efficiency, Mr. Maestretti said, the line produces no more than four varieties daily, although the packaging department handles up to 10 changeovers on a busy day.

After mixing, the trough is automatically elevated to the hopper on the new AMF Tromp makeup line. After the dough travels through a kibbler, it’s sheeted through multiple reduction stations and a cross roller before entering a proprietary natural process that includes no dough conditioners or enzymes.

“We need a cracker that has a specific snap or crunch when you bite into it,” Mr. Maestretti said. “When you add dough conditioners, you change the crunch.”

After additional reduction, cross rolling and trimming, the dough sheet enters a strip cutter that slices it into nine rows for larger flatbread-style crackers to 18 rows for bite-sized snack varieties. An end-cutter or guillotine then determines the length of the square or rectangular pieces.

The dough pieces then travel into a separate, larger room and enter a Reading Bakery Systems 212-foot, multi-zone tunnel oven that features a combination of direct-gas-fired and convection heat. Here, Partners relies on its signature “slow baked” process.

“Most big companies rely on a quick bake and then microwave dry to manage the moisture,” Ms. Figgins explained. “Ours are baked using a slower process. It gives them a toasted look and taste.”

After baking, crackers travel through an 800-foot spiral cooler and then loop back on Dorner conveyors to two Schubert robotic packaging systems. Here, 16 robotic end effectors deftly pick and place crackers on single-lane conveyors on both sides of the middle blue belt. The two- to five-count stacks of crackers then travel back in the opposite direction to a horizontal flowwrapper.

About 80, five-cracker packs are conveyed and drop to a case. Here, the bakery uses a Wexxar case erector and BEL tape closer to automate the process.

Mr. Maestretti said the versatile packaging lines can also create tray, bagged and cartoned items. For snack crackers, the department has three scale and bagging systems, including Yamato scales and Matrix vertical form/fill/seal baggers. Heat and Control Ishida checkweighers and various metal detectors ensure quality control, and there’s plenty of room to add more automation when needed.

The new bakery offers other benefits. The LEED-certified building relies on energy-saving LED lighting and motion detectors that shut off lights when a room isn’t in use, and the new technology throughout the plant is also significantly more efficient.

The company also uses 100% green power electricity through Puget Sound Energy’s Green Power program.

“We’re also using about half of the electricity, which is crazy when you think of the amount of equipment that we now have, and it’s the same with our use of natural gas,” Mr. Maestretti pointed out. “We’re just way more efficient.”

Moreover, investments in easy-to-clean equipment and other improvements slashed water usage by one-third compared to its old plant while food waste is sent to a chicken farm.

Ms. Figgins noted that this emphasis on sustainability dovetails nicely into Partners’ overall vision to create affordable crackers and clean label products much like their mother did when she founded the company. 

“Her whole premise was making homemade foods,” she said. “It’s that homemade mentality in that you made food from ingredients that you would find in your kitchen cabinet. It’s really been what’s driven the core of our product development. Her values were about making fresh, wholesome food.”

That’s how Partners stays one step ahead of the market. 

This article is an excerpt from the February 2022 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Partners, A Tasteful Choice Company, click here.