Safe and Sound
by DAN MALOVANY
Some things are almost unheard of in the industry. Try going more than five years, or 3 million hours, without a lost-time incident, for one. That’s the record for Sara Lee’s bakery in Salt Lake City.
At the 135,000-sq.-ft. operation, more than 200 employees operate three production lines that crank out more than 1 million lbs. of sandwich bread, hearth bread, buns, rolls and pizza bread a week. With the exception of Friday night, when it’s down for preventive maintenance, the bakery is operating nearly non-stop, so going a half-decade without a lost-time accident is no easy task.
“Our goal is simply to have zero accidents for the year,” says Joe Robinson, plant manager at Salt Lake City.
Accomplishing that goal is no accident, so to speak. Although plenty of companies give lip service to improving their safety records, the management team at Sara Lee’s plant work incessantly to train and communicate the importance of safety, to involve employees and to create a culture of safety.
For instance, they hold semi-annual, one-on-one safety meetings with each employee. Those meetings, which can last up to four hours, provide a forum for employees to candidly discuss their jobs and make suggestions to the company to improve the quality and safety of the operation. The plant also schedules weekly “stand up” meetings where supervisors and employees discuss the various facets of safety. Additionally, there are active safety committee meets for both the daytime and nighttime shifts, the latter of which is especially important.
“We found out by looking back through our records that many of the accidents were occurring on the night shift,” Robinson says, “so we created a safety committee for specifically that purpose.”
The focus on safety is everywhere. Posters, designed by employees, don the walls throughout the bakery. Every Monday is “Safety Awareness Monday.” Employees wear a T-shirt with a safety theme that has been designed by a fellow team member. Management also holds T-shirt and poster design contests every quarter, when employees compete for a variety of incentives, such as a gift or time off, and to have their design put on a shirt that every employee receives.
Moreover, there is a regular focus on specific types of accidents. For instance, February has been designated as “Hand Safety Month.” Every employee signed a huge poster with dozens of hands, which indicates that employees are committed to the safety program. The various colored hands reflect the plant’s additional focus on diversity.
“When you look at our accidents, most of them involve hands,” Robinson says.
If that’s not enough, yet another poster logs a running count of the plant’s safety record without a loss-time accident and the number of days remaining in the fiscal year. The tracking system is not only a not-too-subtle reminder of the plant’s safety streak, but also a reminder of how many days before the employee annual incentive program — an open house with dinner for all employees and their families. There are also monthly and quarterly rewards, such as sub sandwich day or a steak cook-off.
Because so much is invested in creating a safe workplace, employees now look out for one another, Robinson says. Not surprisingly, workers’ compensation costs for the Salt Lake City operation have plummeted, and last year, the plant and its employees received the Best Safety Record award during the annual meeting of the company’s top 225 managers in St. Louis.
In addition to its safety record, the bakery has accomplished several other things that go beyond the norm for the industry. Take sanitation, for instance. In the past two unannounced audits by the American Institute of Baking (AIB) last year, the 25-year-old facility received scores of 980 and 950 out of 1,000 possible points for a “superior rating.” This fiscal year, which runs through June, the plant received a 950 rating from AIB.
“What we have been able to accomplish with our quality, safety and sanitation programs is to get employees to take ownership of their areas,” Robinson says.
Moreover, the Salt Lake City operation is also proud of its employee-retention rate. In fiscal 2004, it had no turnover. So far in fiscal 2005, the rate is 3.8%. Robinson attributes the high retention rates to constant communication, employee involvement, management’s commitment to creating a better workplace and an alternate work schedule.
“Those with seniority, [say] 25 years at the company, can get a three-day weekend off,” says Robinson, a 32-year veteran of the baking industry and the company’s U.S. Fresh DSD division’s 2004 People Manager of the Year.
On the sales side, which also earned safety awards last year, the bakery operates conventional retail and restaurant-and-institutional routes where route sales representatives (RSRs) deliver product five days a week, with Wednesdays and Sundays off.
However, for its biggest customers, such as warehouse clubs and mass merchandisers, the bakery has seven-day routes.
“Seven-day route operations are high-volume routes that equal up to three or four times a conventional route,” explains Alan Haertel, vice president of sales for the Utah zone. “They are shared by two RSRs. They split the workweek. The first route runs Sunday through Wednesday. The second overlaps Wednesday through Saturday, overlapping on Wednesday for communication purposes. They average five or six stops, all very high volume-based.”
Implementation of the seven-day route system started two years ago.
“There was a lot of skepticism at first. The route sales representatives were not sure how it was going to work,” Haertal recalls. “Now, they wouldn’t have it any other way.”
He adds that the all-week service has “really helped grow the Sara Lee brand on the market because we are out there seven days a week with fresh products meeting consumers needs. It also has helped Grandma Sycamore, which has a shorter shelf code.”
Baking in Quality
The Salt Lake City operation is a former Metz facility that became part of Earthgrains when the company purchased the Metz Baking company in 2000. Sara Lee acquired the plant when it bought Earthgrains a year later.
Annually, the plant produces more than 50 million lbs. of conventional bread, wide-pan bread, buns, rolls, hearth bread and pizza bread. The facility houses a conventional bread line, a bun and roll line and a hearth line that produces the signature Grandma Sycamore bread.
With the addition of Sara Lee products during the last two years, the conventional bread line is approaching capacity, while the bun line runs full throttle during the summer barbecue period. In 2003, SLBG spent $1.4 million to upgrade the bakery’s hearth line. A result of this investment is that production of Grandma Sycamore bread has more than doubled compared with when the product was made entirely by hand.
Four 110,000-lb. silos feed the three lines and its six mixers with flour, of which the bakery receives two truckloads daily. Liquid sugar is stored in an 85,000-lb. tank while bulk soy oil is in a 65,000-lb. system. Whole-wheat flour still comes in bags for now, even though the bakery is using increasing amounts, thanks mainly to the introduction of several Sara Lee whole-grain products.
On the bread line, which runs nearly non-stop seven days a week, the bakery uses a traditional sponge-and-dough process. Overall, the line cranks out 30 varieties of bread, of which 15 are for the Sara Lee brand.
Sponges are produced in a 1,600-lb. horizontal mixer. Bulk ingredients, such as flour and water, are added automatically while all other micro and minor ingredients are pre-scaled and added manually. Yeast is mixed with water in an ingrediator to produce a brew for the batches. After mixing, the sponge is dumped in a trough and wheeled in a 24-trough fermentation room.
Following fermentation, the sponges are dumped into one of two 2,000-lb. horizontal mixers, which kick out dough every 10 minutes. After weighing the batch, the trough is elevated to dump the dough into the j-divider hopper. The dough pieces travel though a conventional cone rounder, receive an intermediate proof, then through one of two cross-grain sheeter moulders before dropping into six-strap pans for traditional sandwich bread. The line produces conventional round-top loaves, lidded breads and wide-pan products.
After traveling in a dual-spiral proofer, the loaves pass under a water splitter and topper, then bake in a revolving tray oven. If necessary, the pans are delidded and the loaves depanned before heading to a ceiling cooler to reduce the internal loaf temperature to 100°F, which is ideal for slicing.
The bread line shares four slicer/baggers with the hearth bread line in a single packaging room. Following metal detection, the loaves pass through band slicers and are bagged. The packaging room also has double-loaf bagging for mass merchandisers and warehouse clubs.
“On Grandma Sycamore, preserving the flavor, aroma and quality is everything,” Robinson says. “Certainly, the uniqueness of this product is one of the reasons it’s so popular, but in the end, it’s the quality of the product that separates it from the rest.”
On the bun and roll line, the bakery also uses a sponge-and-dough system.
After mixing, the 900-lb. sponges ferment in a 16-trough room. Then, 1,600 lbs. of dough enters one of two, four-pocket piston dividers, travels along 5-ft. bar rounders, and then gets an intermediate proofing. Overall, the line produces upwards of 45 varieties of buns and rolls — everything from hamburger and hot dog buns to buns and rolls for a variety of foodservice accounts.
In the Utah operation, the focus over the next year will continue to be on further improving quality, identifying new efficiencies and, of course, keeping its safety record intact.
“We’re very goal-oriented and very focused on getting a lot of involvement from our employees,” Robinson says.
That’s how you play it safe and sound.
Plant at A Glance
Company: Sara Lee Bakery Group
Location: Salt Lake City
Size: 135,000 sq. ft.
No. of Employees: 206 plant, 201 sales.
No. of Lines: Three lines produce more than 1 million lbs. weekly.
Products: Sandwich bread, variety breads, hearth breads, buns, rolls, pizza bread.
Brands: Sara Lee, Grandma Sycamore, Old Home, Master.
Distribution: 96 routes, 22 depots, eight thrift stores.
Plant Mgr.: Joe Robinson
Plant Financial Mgr: Shawna Johansen
HR Mgr.: Joslyne Hanson
V.P. Sales: Alan Haertel
Operations Mgr.: Randee Muhlestein
Dist./Trans. Mgr.: Matt Jorgensen
Sanitation Mgr.: Joe Gentry
Fleet Mgr.: Rick Nielsen
Engineering Mgr.: Trevor Moser
Utah’s Dynamic Duo
When Sara Lee was introduced to the Utah market more than two years ago, she joined another famous lady in the bread aisle.
In Utah, which touts itself as the “Greatest Snow on Earth,” Grandma Sycamore is the matriarch among branded breads.
The heavy, soft all-natural bread is as unique to Utah as the Great Salt Lake, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Sundance Film Festival. Founded by a local bakery in Utah County near Provo seven years ago, the Grandma Sycamore white bread looks homemade with the crust removed from one side of the loaf because the bakery bakes two loaves together in one pan and rips them apart. In addition to the white, the breads come in wheat, sun grain and sourdough varieties.
Despite a number of knock-offs from competitors over the last few years, the regional brand commands a share upward of 20% of the market. So loyal are its consumers, the bakery has recently shipped orders to consumers as far away as South Carolina, California, Oregon and Texas.
“It’s a nice niche to Utah,” says Alan Haertel, vice president of sales for Sara Lee in Salt Lake City. “If you look nationally at what’s happening to traditional white bread as a whole, being in a downward trend, that has really not happened to Grandma Sycamore.”
Like basketball greats Malone and Stockton did for the Utah Jazz for years, Sara Lee and Grandma Sycamore make up a dynamic duo in the market.
Although Grandma Sycamore dominates the Utah market, Sara Lee bread, buns and bagels have helped the bakery expand its presence in the bread aisle with extra space and end displays as the company has rolled out additional stock-keeping units (SKUs), especially the whole-grain ones that perform well in this market.
“When we brought the Sara Lee brand into the marketplace, there was a lot of media support behind it — TV, radio, [free-standing inserts] drops, coupons, instant redeemable coupon, a big full-page color ad and ties to other Sara Lee products,” Haertel recalls.
The bakery has expanded its distribution outside of Utah. Overall, the Utah sales zone operates more than 90 routes, 20-plus depots and eight “very profitable” thrift stores. Haertel says. In Boise, a market it entered only a year ago, the company now has 12 routes distributing Sara Lee products to retailers.
Additionally, the Salt Lake operation produces Old Home and Master baked goods. Some 70% of its sales are retail, but it’s also the market leader in the restaurant-and-institution channel, Haertel notes.