The Little Pie Company that Could

by Martin Schultz
JTM Foods’ relentless pursuit of business has won this small Pennsylvania pie company a nice slice of the East Coast snack pie market. It’s definitely a case of…
So, what would JTM Foods do if Wal-Mart came back with an order to deliver to every one of its 3,437 U.S. stores?” With barely a pause to hear the whole question, Beverly Braley, general manager, jumps up, throws her arms in the air and exclaims: “Bring ’em on! Bring ’em on!”
If there’s one trait that sets JTM Foods apart from the crowd, it’s the company’s relentless pursuit of the next order. You see it in the general manager’s gung-ho readiness to spring into action when a customer demands an unexpected delivery. You see it, too, in how the quality assurance manager — an ex-marine — inspects the operational preparedness of every piece of equipment as though they’re on parade. And you note it in the sales department’s general mandate from management — accept every order, period. As Jeffrey McMillin, owner, president and CEO, declares: “We never say ‘no.’”
JTM Foods is not a big company by size or number of employees or even annual sales. Occupying a facility of 80,000 sq. ft., with a workforce of 120 and a sales volume last year of $18 million, Erie, Pa.-based JTM looks like any regional wholesale bakery. But its production volume gives it serious bragging rights. On an annual basis, JTM Foods produces 60.8 million pies, along with 16.6 million snack cakes, 46.8 million crispy rice bars and 33 million dessert shells.
To achieve this staggering volume, the company runs 24 hours a day, five days a week, operating the pie and dessert shell lines 17 hours a day, and the snack cake and crispy rice lines 8.5 hours daily. And moving this volume out before it literally chokes the facility is a major factor in JTM’s no-prisoners’ pursuit of a full order book.
“We are absolutely dedicated to serving our customers,” McMillin says. “This is how I have run the business since I started the company in 1986. And our service remains our strongest attribute.”
This no-nonsense philosophy is like so much else about the company — including the name “JTM,” which is derived from the owner’s initials.
This straightforwardness also explains JTM’s approach to defining its purpose. While many global enterprises use such terms as “strategic management initiative,” or “market-oriented resource prioritization,” to dramatize their purpose, for JTM, “focus” does the job.
“Everything we do is focused on getting and keeping satisfied customers,” Braley says. “For one thing, we have the flexibility to give the customer whatever he needs — product, packaging, and especially delivery. “If a customer calls in the morning and says he just ran an ad and needs product the next day, we’ll get a truck-load out to him,” Braley explains. “No ifs, ands or buts. We’ll commit to that delivery.”
That’s why, Braley maintains, direct communication with the customer is vital. So much so that JTM avoids all use of voicemail. “When you phone, you get a live voice every time,” Braley insists. “This could be critical when a customer needs a delivery decision that can’t wait for a callback.”
This formula — focusing the company’s production, sales and management resources on the needs of each customer — is no cliché, as proved by the results. JTM Foods supplies snack cakes, crispy rice bars, pies and dessert shells to some giant food operations on both the East and West Coasts. These include Kroger, Save-a-Lot, Aldi, Fleming, SuperValu, Associated Grocer and TastyKake, as well as a whole slew of C-stores and drug stores.
For JTM, it’s the pies that unquestionably command everyone’s attention. “Our JJ’s brand label is nationally recognized, so the pie really sells itself. The pie helps us get in the door,” says Brian Cancilla, sales manager.
JTM Foods’ JJ’s fried fruit pies come in five single flavors — apple, cherry, berry, chocolate and lemon — and two combos, apple/cherry and apple/berry. The 5.25-in. x 2.75-in. 4-oz. pies are microwavable and retail three or four for a $1.00. “We sell these to families, but mostly to moms for their kids,” Braley says. “They’ll put them into the kid’s lunchbox for school,” Cancilla adds.
In addition to its regular snack pie production, JTM Foods also makes a range of seasonal products, including three additional flavors of snack pies — pumpkin, peach and coconut. The company is also more than happy to sell customers on its club pack, which contains 12 4-oz. snack pies per pack and eight 12-packs per master case.
“The great thing about the 12-pack is that we now have the right size for the C-stores,” Cancilla says. “Our 48-pack was not convenient for that channel, so we were losing it to Hostess and Flowers.”
At a Glance
Company: JTM Foods, Inc.
Location: Erie, Pa.
Annual Sales: $18 million
Plant Size: 80,000 sq. ft.
Lines: 3 — Pie Line, Snack Cake Line and a Crispy Line
Products: Bobbles, Gold Fingers, Snack Pies, Crispy Rice Treats, dessert shells
Brands: JJ’s and Baker’s Pride
No. of Employees: 120
Key Personnel:
President & CEO: Jeffrey T. McMillin
General Manager: Beverly Braley
Plant Manager: Paul Jordan
Sales Manager: Brian Cancilla
Quality Assurance Manager:
Brian Swartzentruber
JTM Foods’ other product categories are its snack cakes, crispy rice bars and dessert shells. The 1.75-oz. white snack cakes come in five decorative themes — Halloween, Holiday, Patriot, Valentine’s, and Easter. Delivered in 12-count trays, they retail for between $2.59 and $2.99 per tray. A twin-pack Halloween and Valentine, Easter and Patriot Holiday-themed snack cake retails three for $1.00.
JTM Foods also produces its own variety of crispy rice bars, though these now have to swim in more competitive waters. “The crispy market is flat,” Cancilla admits. “This is because of the intense competition with all the other bars. And of course, Kellogg’s has made a big splash.” JTM’s response was to come out with its popular Halloween-themed Gator Bites bag. Containing 15 bars, it is designed specifically to appeal to trick-or-treating kids, where parents like their kids to give and receive wrapped products in a handy size from sealed bags.
“We’ll give almost anything a try,” McMillan says. “Flavors, flavor combinations, mix-and-match packs, bite-sized, club packs. And whatever we offer, it’ll come with the best quality we can offer, in an attractive carton or pack and at an aggressive price.”
JTM’s ability to price aggressively rests on keeping costs under tight control. “We try to maintain efficient production processes,” Braley says. “But mostly it comes down to the people and the systems working together to actively eliminate waste.” For example, as much product as possible gets recycled. This includes even the glazing. Product rejected for size or weight considerations may be recycled too.
Besides production efficiency, cost control also relies on quality assurance. Rejected product that doesn’t make it out on the delivery truck is recycled, though JTM Foods makes relentless efforts to minimize sub-standard product.
“Quality assurance is an integrated process,” explains Brian Swartzentruber, quality assurance manager. “We audit processes and job tasks to comply with HACCP standards, but what we really try to achieve here is a fail-safe system.”
“We have trained the production people to do their own auditing of their equipment as part of their routine checking — for example, the weight-checkers pull product as samples in compliance with the weight-control program,” Swartzentruber points out. “And packing crew members will carry out a food-safety audit every 15 minutes, which is four times better than the HACCP program mandates.”
Thus, as Swartzentruber points out, if failed product gets past the metal detector, the product that’s pulled off the line only has to go back as far as the end of the last 15-minute audit. “This limits our liability in terms of lost line time or suspect product,” Swartzentruber maintains. Ultimately, though, “quality assurance rests with the folks who do the work. Quality has to be pro-active. If you’re reacting, it’s too late.” The quality that goes out, of course, is based on the quality that goes in. And this comes down to production.
Total units produced per year: 124 million
Pie Line: (17-hour shift): 310 pies per minute,
60.8 million per year
Cake Line (8.5-hour shift): 280 Bobbles per minute,
16.6 million per year
Crisp Line (8.5-hour shift): 231 .78-oz. bars per minute,
46.8 million per year
Sample Raw Materials Usage Per Year
Flour 5.8 million lbs.
Crisp Rice 450,000 lbs.
Total Sugar (including liquid sugar) 8.3 million lbs.
Eggs 347,500 lbs.
Fruit 7.4 million lbs.
Cake Alert
Production starts at 7:15 a.m. with the prepping of the first snack-cake batch of the day. Over the course of an 8.5-hour shift, a total of 34 cake batches will be made, one roughly every 15 minutes.
Each batch produces approximately 5,200 snack cakes and contains 130 lb. of flour, 125 lb. of sugar, and 130 lb. of water. Along with scaled quantities of baking soda, salt, and eggs, the batch may also contain, depending on flavor, additional quantities of cocoa or other flavoring ingredients.
The batching of all these ingredients takes six to eight minutes in a vertical mixer, which then pumps the finished slurry into a stainless steel holding tank. The tank has a five-batch capacity.
When needed, a 450-lb. batch of cake mix is pumped into a continuous mixer that injects air into the slurry to maintain the correct specific gravity.
Meanwhile, a batch of cream filling — composed of 200 lbs. of #3 shortening, 100 lbs. of 6x sugar, and a BCW/salt mixture— is made up and agitated to keep it at a constant temperature of 60 to 80ÞF.
Before the batch reaches the depositor, the pans have to be greased with a depanning compound. The snack cakes fill a 48-cavity pan. Dessert shells require a 27-cavity pan and goldfingers need a 34-cavity pan.
Each full pan of unbaked snack cakes now enters a 110-ft. band oven on a continuous 240-ft. metal conveyor. The oven has the capacity to bake the entire batch of 5,200 snack cakes. Baking time runs 12 minutes at 360 to 380ÞF.
Exiting the oven, the baked cakes transfer to an overhead cooling conveyor system consisting of two 90Þ transfer conveyors, two 180Þ transfer conveyors and one 300-ft. straight conveyor. After exiting the oven, the cakes decline to an injection head to be injected with cream filling. Following cream injection, the cakes go through de-panning before proceeding to the icing area, where each different type of snack cake product receives the appropriate layer of icing. From here, the cakes pass into an 80-ft. cooling tunnel that brings down the cake temperature to 50ÞF.
Following cooling, the cakes pass beneath a metal detector to be hand-packed on cardstock. Single cakes fill an 80-count tray, twins a 96-count tray. Gold fingers fill either a 100-count double-tray or a 72-count single tray. Shells fill a 34-count tray. Film-wrapped and sealed, the trays are packed in cases for immediate shipment.
Pies for the Picking
The pie line runs for 17 hours, unlike the cake and crispy rice lines, both of which run for 8.5 hours each. Per day, 316,000 pies leave JTM Food’s facility for distribution locally and as far away as the West Coast.
The entire process, from batch-mixing to boxing, takes 2.5 hours to complete. It begins with mixing the filling while at the same time making a batch of dough. JTM makes its own fillings from scratch using two steam-jacketed cookers. JTM makes up 14 batches of five standard fillings — apple, cherry, chocolate, berry and lemon — per shift. For seasonal production, the company adds three holiday-themed fillings — pumpkin, coconut and peach.
Each batch weighs 700 to 1,200 lbs. and takes 20 to 30 minutes to cook at 210ÞF. The cooked fruit slurry then cools and via a funnel drops into a wheeled plastic trough kept lidded for hygiene purposes.
Meanwhile, the mixing of a batch of 454 lbs. of dough ingredients, including 70 lbs. of water, proceeds in two vertical mixers for eight minutes. All told, 75 batches will be mixed per 17-hour shift.
After depositing the mixture into an extruder, the 2-in. thick dough passes through a series of sheeter-rollers to reduce its thickness to 1/16-in. Meanwhile, the pie filling is pumped onto the raw dough while a circular knife cuts the dough into two oval sections. Two stainless plows guide the sections into alignment with each other. While the bottom section receives the filling, the top section folds over to cover the pie. Filled dough then passes through the crimper, which cuts and crimps the edges of the pie.
“Dealers” drop the pies directly onto the fryer conveyor belt at the rate of 310 units per minute. Entering the fryer, the pies cook in liquid shortening, sandwiched between an upper and lower belt, at 360 to 380ÞF for approximately 4.5 minutes. Leaving the fryer, the pies move beneath a waterfall glazing system and ascend two incline conveyors to the cooling towers. Cooling takes two hours.
Conveyed to the packing station, two automatic cartoners insert pies into cartons at the rate of 310 units per minute. At this stage a laser prints a code on the carton face indicating a sell-by date code, time and, depending on customer, price. Exiting the carton packers, the two separate lines merge in a center suite and pass under a metal detector whereupon a robot fills cases at the rate of 6.7 per minute. Each case contains 48 cartons.
Done to a Crisp
At 4:00 a.m., employees get started on preparing the marshmallow slurry — composed of sweeteners or sugar, margarine, corn syrup solids, emulsifiers, water, gelatin and flavorings — which takes 2.5 hours to cook and cool. The marshmallow cooker has a 7,000-lb. capacity and uses steam to cook and chilled water to cool the slurry. When cooled down, the slurry passes to a holding tank and then to an aerator to maintain specific gravity and make the marshmallow fluffy.
Meanwhile, a screw conveyor delivers rice to a granola mixer just after the marshmallow slurry reaches the mixer. At this point the two streams of ingredients combine and drop into a hopper with forming rollers that deposit the crispy mix onto a cooling belt.
A compression roller thins out the crispy mix sheet into a slab 36-in. wide, which then enters a 49-ft. long cooling tunnel. The crispy mix sheet spends from 15 to 30 minutes in the tunnel at a temperature of 59ÞF.
Exiting the cooling tunnel, the sheet passes through a 12-blade circular cutter. As the front edge of the sheet meets the blades, the slicer produces 12 continuous strips. An infeed transfers the strips from the bar-cutting machine to a guillotine which cuts the product to a pre-determined bar size based on weight. At this point a diverter spreads the individual bars apart. Then they transfer to a wide-belt conveyor where the bars are metered, transferred to a cross-feed conveyor and passed under a metal detector.
An accelerating conveyor enlarges the spacing between the bars, which move toward the wrapping station at a rate of 230 to 250 pieces per minute. The bars now pass onto an aligner-reject conveyor. The aligner belt, as its name implies, forces the product into a straight row for placement into the wrapping feeder.
The quiet efficiency of the production line contrasts dramatically with the boisterous enthusiasm of sales and marketing over each unexpected order that needs filling the day before. The difference can be explained in terms of a single unifying factor. JTM Foods thrives in crises that would drive most other regional producers nuts. The company can afford to drive itself like this because it knows how to turn its can-do machismo into efficient professionalism. After all, this is the Little Pie Company that Does.