Chicago-based snack manufacturer Benestar Brands owns four facilities across the United States and one in Mexico: Chicago; Arlington, Texas; City of Industry; Portsmouth, Ohio; and Saltillo, Mexico. Across all of Benestar Brands plants, orders from the company’s largest customers come in through its EDI system and are automatically scheduled on a two-week basis. Smaller customers typically email orders that are input manually. Orders are automatically scheduled at the plant closest to the shipping location, but Dan Robin, chief supply chain officer, Benestar Brands, noted that in the event that a plant is at capacity for the 12-day production schedule, they can manually move production around to ease the burden. 

Benestar Brands has the benefit of being vertically integrated when it comes to two of the company’s main ingredients for pork rinds: pig skin pellets and oil. Pig skins are processed in 3,400 to 4,000-lb batches at Benestar’s Chicago facility into pellets. The two-hour rendering process yields two byproducts: steam and oil. The oil is filtered and then delivered by tote to each facility. The oil is pumped into one of two holding tanks on the production room floor in the City of Industry facility, one for the fryer and one for the sprayer above the fryer exit. The oil is filtered again before being added to the fryer for extra quality assurance.

The 64,000-square-foot facility in City of Industry has the capability to produce all of Evans Food Group’s products — pork rinds, tortilla chips and the new puffed wheat snacks — on five processing lines for pork rinds and one processing line for tortilla chips. The facility houses three fryers from TNA, Lawrence Equipment and IFS, and employs 120 people.   

Pellets vary in size and the part of the pig being used. On the new fryer line in the City of Industry facility, boxes of pellets are unloaded into a hopper by an automatic lift. A conveyor separates the pellets into batches that are then loaded into the TNA fryer. As this first conveyor runs, a TNA Roflo B vibratory conveyor catches pellets before they enter the fryer and vibrates to even out the batch of pellets for an even fry. 

Pellets travel the 20-foot fryer, and as they exit, they are sprayed again with oil to help seasoning cling to the finished pork rinds. Fried products that are too small are captured below the fryer exit and will be ground into crumbs for foodservice customers, which eliminates waste. Fried pork rinds are carried overhead on a drain conveyor to another vibrating conveyor to be evened out on their way to the packaging department. 

On the pork rind side of the facility, the packaging department consists of four TNA baggers and one bulk packaging line. The newest fryer feeds the bulk packaging line, which will case-pack product in 10-lb boxes to be sent to Hispanic and Asian grocery stores for customers to bag themselves or sell to consumers by weight. The maze of conveyors coming off the three fryers can be rearranged so any fryer can feed any of the packaging lines for different bag sizes and seasoning needs. 

The packaging department features two mezzanine areas where TNA VFFS systems scale finished product into individual bags. Each packaging line also features seasoning systems that offer tight control over seasoning application. On the bulk packaging line, finished pork rinds travel up to the mezzanine level before falling down a spiral chute into the cases where a scale measures out to the appropriate weight. A 3M-Matic case sealer closes the cases, which are then sent through metal detection before being palletized. The VFFS machines include metal detection as a feature, which Benestar tests each day by sending metallic balls through the system to see if the machine will detect it. 

Quality is tested on the floor and a Pak-Vac leak detector is on the floor to test the seal of the bags. Bags are submerged into pressurized water to check for any leaks. 

With the flexibility built into the conveyor system and packaging lines, the facility can produce all of Evans Food Groups’ products, more than 250 SKUs. The baggers specifically can bag anywhere from 1-oz to 18-oz bags for pork rinds and, on the tortilla chip side of the operation, up to 24-oz bags. 

Finished product is stored either in the onsite 30,000-square-foot warehouse or at the offsite warehouse space recently purchased to handle overflow. Most of the orders Benestar Brands delivers to customers’ distribution sites or stores, but some are picked up by the customers themselves. 

In addition to capital investments to improve employee and food safety and product quality, Benestar sees the value of operational practices to continually improve safety from the employee and product perspective as well as product quality. The company leaves nothing to chance. 

At the City of Industry plant, each shift performs bi-weekly safety walks where the team identifies opportunities to improve employee and food safety. Each opportunity for improved safety is assigned to a team member to take ownership of and address. A weekly food safey and quality meeting is held between Benestar Brands’ four facilities where opportunities and best practices can be shared. 

The facility in City of Industry is SQF level 3 as well as inspected by the US Department of Agriculture and Food & Drug Administration. The plant is in compliance with HACCP and the Food Safety Modernization Act. During the facility’s SQF audit, the plant was scored at 99. 

The sanitation team cleans the equipment every night, and if equipment isn’t used right away the next day, it is kept under wraps to prevent cross contamination. The facility works with two allergens — dairy and wheat — and either schedules production on a dedicated line for the entire day or runs non-allergen products first. The new wheat-based puff snack is a first for the company, and at City of Industry, the wheat snack is being run on one line throughout its entire production run. 

To help employees stay safe and practice food safety, Benestar Brands uses the Alchemy system to train on GMPs, allergen control and food defense. The video-based training tool not only onboards new employees, but every employee must take a refresher course on an annual basis.

This article is an excerpt from the March 2023 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Benestar Brands, click here.