Ellison Bakery relies on state-of-the-art equipment and efficient processes to produce an assortment of premium, soft cookies under its newly introducedEllison Bakery line.

By Marina Mayer

For nearly 50 years, Ellison Bakery has been producing Archway brand cookies (check out the article titled, “All in the Family” in this issue to learn more about the Archway/Ellison Bakery relationship). In fact, that was the only thing it knew.

Now, this $25-million, family-owned company is making its mark in the soft cookie aisle thanks to an upgraded facility, some advanced technology and the freedom to produce its own products.

For starters, just last year, the Fort Wayne, Ind.-based premium, soft cookie producer launched itsEllison Bakeryretail line, and now holds a prime position in the ice cream market, which accounts for close to 70% of the business. That’s why the newly remodeled 120,000-sq.-ft. facility pumps out 2.4 million cookies a day, says Todd Wallin, president.

“After our expansion in 2007, we set up our facility so we have a better flow as far as incoming ingredients, bulk storage is all piped in overhead, raw material makeup is done here, along with dough forming, baking, mixing and into the packaging area on the other side of the wall,” Wallin says.

At the time ofSnack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s visit, Ellison Bakery was baking chocolate chip cookies.   

Flour, sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweetener are pumped into the plant through tanks. There are three liquid tanks that are about 40,000 lb. each, two flour tanks that each hold up to 120,000 lb. of flour each and one 150,000-lb. tank of dry granulated sugar. Dry ingredients are automatically sifted and piped into the mixing area where a computerized batching system calculates the formulations into that day’s production system. The batcher then tells the operator when to draw flour and sugar, how much to draw, and more.

Operators then mix the dough at a couple thousand pounds at a time, scraping the insides of the mixing bowl with an oversized spoon, while adding chocolate chips, butter, margarine, shortening and other raw materials. When finished with the batch, they add the dough into the dough troughs that rise overhead and then feed down into the wire-cut machines and into the baking chambers.

Many of the rotary-molded products bake at 400°F for three minutes, while most of the wire-cut products bake at 300°F for up to eight minutes.

“We’ve added a lot of computer-controlled, touch-screen equipment over the last 10 years, including the batching systems, mixers, mix times, ovens, wire-cut machines, roll speeds, wire-cut speeds, fan speeds and oven temperatures,” Wallin says. “They’re all controlled by the menu for that particular item.”

During the baking process, cookies travel through either a 150-ft.-long oven or along a 120-ft.-long one. Both ovens contain doors that allow operators to view inside. The cookies are then cooled in a climate-controlled area for about 40 minutes before entering the packaging area.

“We want the products to cool as naturally as possible. We don’t want to force cool,” Wallin adds. “That tends to cause faster staling.”

Meanwhile, an operator pulls random samples and checks the diameter, size, thickness, shape and color of the cookies using a computerized vision system that takes 10-degree measurements of height and color. The cookies then travel through an icing machine where icing or coatings are added before entering the packaging area.

The line can run bag products anywhere from 2- to 20-oz. packages that come in horizontal flow wrap, vertical form, individually wrapped or bulk-packed options.

Hitting the Bull’s Eye
The facility runs three shifts, six to seven days a week, and conducts at least two mock recalls a year, in addition to its customer audits and nightly sanitation efforts.

“We do environmental swabs on a weekly basis, several times throughout the week to ensure that the SSOPs [Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures] are completed as it states,” says Jeremy Ellis, research and development and quality assurance manager. “As we do business with the ice cream industry, it is more regulated than what bakeries typically are. We’re also in the process of getting the SQF [Safe Quality Food] certification as part of the Global Food Safety Initiative. This will help us further our programs and dial those in to ensure to the industrial and retail customers that we have a solid foundation for food safety.”

Ellison Bakery also implemented new Alchemy training systems, where employees answer questions by a remote control. Each 20-minute session covers everything from allergens and food safety to plant safety and personnel matters.

In addition, all of its order-taking is now done through a Microsoft software application that provides visibility should they need to react to a recall, says Stuart Smith, service and logistics manager.

“When I first started this job, customers would call in their orders or send in faxes. Now everything is pretty much e-mail,” he adds. “I can take that e-mail and put it into the system and know whether I have that product on hand or if we need to run it on the floor. If a customer sends in a spreadsheet that has multiple orders, the system will automatically import that spreadsheet and process all those orders. [The system] allows us to plan our production, it gives us projections. It helps purchasing determine what we’re short on and what we need to order. If one of our customers or suppliers has a problem with one of the items, we can follow it all the way through the cycle, from the time that product entered the bakery to the time it ran into the dough formula, what finished good it created, how many cases of finished goods it produced and where those finished goods were distributed.”

The facility also houses two research and development areas where scientists conduct formula development, product testing, new product development and test baking.

It’s also home to a 32,000-sq.-ft. warehouse that temporarily stores 1,400 pallets of finished product, which turns out every 2.5 weeks.

No matter how it’s packaged, the folks at Ellison Bakery have all the right stuff to continue making their mark in the soft cookie and ice cream aisles.