Donaire With Flair
BY DAN MALOVANY
Rich’s Jon Donaire operation combines elegance and indulgence with its extensive line of upscale ice cream cakes, cheesecakes and other fully finished frozen desserts.
Healthy indulgence may be the hot trend, but it didn’t sell when Jon Donaire Desserts introduced its line of better-for-you frozen desserts a few years back. Maybe the company was a touch ahead of its time.
“We felt we were on the cutting edge,” recalls Mickey Del Duca, president of Jon Donaire. “We were going to do some granola crusts and use yogurt. We were coming out with these great yogurt cakes that are perceived as healthier. It fizzled.”
When a good idea fails, often the best thing to do is just the opposite. That’s exactly what Del Duca and the team at Jon Donaire did. They began creating indulgent ice cream cakes made in a smaller, former chili processing plant, and what’s been the result?
“We’ve been growing our business like crazy,” Del Duca says.
It’s been so crazy that Rich Products spent $9 million nearly three years ago on equipment and to upgrade a 65,000-sq.-ft. facility to create a full line of customized thaw-and-sell desserts. The hybrid plant is one of a few of its type in the nation. It’s a combined bakery, ice cream processor and cake decorating operation that serves a unique niche for some of the largest retail and foodservice customers in North America.
“If you look at the foodservice industry, they really do not want to make ice cream cakes in the back of the house,” Del Duca explains. “In-store bakeries and foodservice operators want uniformity. When a company is going to put an FSI [free-standing insert] in the Sunday newspaper, they want to make sure that all of their outlets are selling a cake that looks the same.”
These ice cream cakes come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are now one of a number of fast-growing products for Rich Products, which purchased Jon Donaire from Morningstar Foods in 1998. Previously, Presto Foods had owned it, and Del Duca has overseen the operation, more or less, since the 1970s.
Sensing that a shortage of skilled labor was becoming an issue for in-store bakeries and foodservice operators, Rich’s acquisition of Jon Donaire gave it a foothold in the pre-portioned, thaw-and-serve dessert market.
Originally, Jon Donaire was known for its signature California-style cheesecakes and premium mousse cakes. Today, under the Rich Products’ umbrella, the two plants in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. joined forces with the former Mother’s Kitchen operation in Burlington, N.J., to be a nationwide provider of premium frozen desserts.
In some ways, however, the Jon Donaire operation is unique within Rich’s organization. In addition to supplying Rich’s in-store bakery and foodservice customers, the dessert producer serves the retail freezer case. In fact, the Jon Donaire brand is well known throughout Southern California.
Additionally, the operation has a small sales and marketing staff and a seven-member quality assurance team. It also boasts a five-member product development team that creates the new desserts as well as its innovative packages.
Although Rich Products gives Jon Donaire a lot of autonomy, the business is functionally aligned with the Buffalo, N.Y., organization, which is also fueling sales of frozen desserts through its warehouse distribution system.
“As ‘One Rich’s,’ we’re able to take advantage of a much larger salesforce,” notes Del Duca. During the last couple of years, the Rich’s salesforce has integrated the dessert lines into its product portfolio and done a great job. We have a lot more people in the field selling cheesecakes and desserts today.”
He adds that Rich’s frozen dessert business is in every channel of distribution imaginable, including club stores, in-store bakeries, quick-serve restaurants, mass merchandisers, grocery stores, upscale restaurants, specialty food companies, convenience stores, independent chains, vending, fundraising and max pack in supermarkets.
Developing products for every one of those channels poses a unique challenge. In-store bakeries prefer a smaller 7-in. cake where a broad-line distributor may want a pre-sliced 10- or 11-in. variety. Packaging formats are another challenge. An increasing number of customers want single-serve or variety packs, which are very labor intensive to assemble. Likewise, packaging large, quarter-sheet cakes can be bulky and requires delicate handling to avoid damaging the product.
Bob Pim, vice president of desserts, provides overall coordination of sales, marketing and product development for Rich’s dessert portfolio.
“Specifically, we’re looking for greater growth in both in-store bakery and foodservice. Our product line matches up really well with both segments,” he says “We’re seeing more customers wanting fully-finished solutions — things that are already prepared and either ready to put out on a plate in a foodservice establishment or an item that can thaw and sell in the in-store bakery that is already labeled in a dome package.”
Del Duca adds that ice cream cakes have been well received by in-store bakery buyers because they pull in business that may have gone elsewhere.
Jon Donaire also offers limited-time-only varieties or seasonal items for its larger customers. The plant uses an assembly line of automated depositors and trained cake decorators to create distinctive custom-designed cakes for various accounts that may have balloons or clown figures on them.
“There is a lot of interest with ice cream cakes,” Del Duca adds. “You get more buyers’ attention when you walk into their offices with an ice cream cake than with a cheesecake. That’s probably because they’ve seen their share of cheesecakes before.”
Jon Donaire operates two facilities located just four blocks from each other. The startup of the ice cream cake plant on Busch Place allowed Rich’s Jon Donaire unit to consolidate a bakery in San Diego and a small ice cream plant in Santa Fe Springs. Its 110,000-sq.-ft. bakery on Ann Street produces cheesecake, mousse cakes and other frozen desserts.
“We needed to expand our bakery and our ice cream plant,” says Mike Ball, Busch Place plant manager. “We were simply running out of room.”
The Busch Place facility was retrofitted with equipment and has 6-in. of insulation to maintain the temperature of the ice cream and cake decorating areas at 55°F year-round. Because the plant processes dairy products, there are strict sanitation and food safety features. For instance, the quality assurance department conducts microbiological tests on incoming ingredients. Additionally, the American Institute of Baking, Silliker and the division’s major vendors regularly inspect the facility.
Even though its supplier pasteurizes the bulk ice cream mixture prior to delivery, the dairy-based mix goes through a second high-temperature short-time (HTST) pasteurization process at the plant before it is put into a holding tank. The clean-in-place system consists of a 6,000-gal. pasteurization tank that processes 1.5 days’ worth of ice cream mix. The mix, which is heated to 185°F and cooled via a heat exchanger to less than 40°F, is then stored in two 4,000-gal. holding tanks.
All employees and ingredient carts go through a foaming sanitizer bath to prevent bacteria from entering the production floor. The plant also uses touchless water faucets for washing hands to minimize any risk of contamination. For environmental reasons, all caustic cleaning solutions are wastewater treated to adjust the pH prior to entering the sewer system.
Overall, the plant’s 120 employees work on staggered shifts — because the company’s complex desserts are produced in stages. For many frozen desserts, production begins in the bakery, which bakes varieties of sheet and round cakes in an array of sizes. Throughout the process, the emphasis is on blending versatility with volume. To speed up changeovers, the bakery houses a series of small, 120-qt. spiral mixers that produce batter for everything from 4-in. cakes and individual desserts to quarter and half sheets. Among the most popular cakes are white, yellow and chocolate 7-, 8- and 10-in. round cakes. However, the bakery does produce everything from white chocolate brownies to German chocolate cakes. The bakery also has a grinder for crumbs that can be applied to the sides of a Tres Leches cake, for example, or be used to lay down the base of a dessert with a graham-cracker crust.
“The cakes that are being baked today are sliced this afternoon and used this evening. We do not build up on inventory,” Ball says. “If there are any cakes left over, they’re used up first thing in the morning.”
The bakery uses bagged mixes from its sister company, Rich’s J.W. Allen division in Wheeling, Ill. Soybean oil for the batter is stored in a 2,000-gal. system. After the batter is dumped in hoppers and deposited in pans, it’s baked in one of six rack ovens. After being cooled, the cakes are typically sliced in half, thus doubling the throughput of the oven.
“If we had a tunnel oven, we’d be able to produce just one type of cake. Here, with a series of rack ovens, we can produce three different cakes all at once,” Ball says.
The second stage involves assembling the base ice cream cake. Depending on the complexity of the dessert, the ice cream depositor line can produce 25 to 30 products a minute.
“We can custom-design a cake to what the customer wants,” Ball notes.
During SF&WB’s visit, 8-in. open-bottom round pans were manually added to the conveyor with sliced vanilla cakes placed sliced-side down on the bottom. The ice cream depositor system has four flavor vats that can produce endless varieties of ice cream.
During our tour, vanilla- and strawberry- flavored soft ice cream passed through an in-line metal detector prior to being deposited through a swirl depositor.
Afterward, a feeder deposited sliced strawberries on top of the ice cream. The feeder also can deposit cookie dough, candy or a number of inclusions.
Next, a drizzle of white chocolate icing was added manually. The plant plans to add an automatic drizzler in the coming months. A dollop depositor drops a ring of whipped icing decorations around the top edges of the dessert. Throughout the room, there are scales where employees can randomly test the product’s weight at various stages to ensure consistency. Most of the depositors are on wheels to give the line the greatest versatility possible.
In many ways, the Busch Place operation is like a hands-on retail bakery that mass-assembles products. There is no better place to see this than in the third stage, which is the cake decorating area.
The ice cream cakes enter the room after passing through a blast freezer. Here, the room houses two lines that decorate ice cream cakes and one other that decorates conventional cakes, such as the Tres Leches variety. The room also has three mixers for creating a rainbow of flavored icing and toppings.
One ice cream cake line produces party cakes with vanilla ice cream between two quarter sheets of chocolate cake as if it were an oversized ice cream sandwich. One applicator then applies white icing to the top. The cake rotates 180-degrees between two other applicators that slather icing on the sides. Depositors then plunk dollops of icing around the base of the cake. A decorator then smears the icing smoothly around the cake.
Switching from one cake size to another is simple.
“We can add 19 dollops and 11 in. of topping or, if a shorter, 10-in. cake is next, we can adjust the computer,” Ball notes.
Next, a series of decorators add icing balloons and other cake decorations using cake decorator bags. In a synchronized fashion, one adds a couple of blue dollops, a second applies yellow ones and a third creates pink balloons. A fourth decorator constantly mixes and supplies the line operators with icing to ensure a constant flow. If a decoration is skipped, cake decorators take the cake off the line, add the missing decoration and place it back on the conveyor. Overall, the line can do up to 10 party sheet cakes a minute.
“It’s almost like a pit crew in an Indy race,” he adds. “There’s a tremendous amount of coordination, anticipation and timing that must go on to make sure that the line runs smoothly.”
After decorating, the cakes pass through metal detection and are manually packaged in Jon Donaire-branded or store-branded boxes before palletizing and refrigerating prior to being stored in a freezer that holds 575 pallets. Many of the products are shipped offsite to one of Rich’s AmeriCold cold storage and distribution centers in nearby Ontario, Calif.
At the same time, the second cake decorating line produces round 10-in. chocolate turtle cakes for a foodservice client. The line again contains a variety of applicators and depositors that assemble the frozen dessert, which is pre-portioned with a knife slicer. A cardboard collar is wrapped around the cake prior to packaging to give it support. Meanwhile, employees produce Tres Leches desserts on the conventional cake decorating line.
Overall, only one plant manager and supervisor oversee production. “The line leaders are in control of the operation,” Ball notes. “They have a tool [repair] kit on each line so that they can make minor adjustments without waiting for maintenance all of the time. That’s how we keep everything flowing.”
Just four blocks away, 200 employees work at the Ann Street bakery, which houses two lines that produce Jon Donaire’s signature cheesecakes and one line that creates mousse cakes.
Currently, Jon Donaire is centralizing its mixers in one room. Both cheesecake lines produce 7-, 9-, and 10-in. products. One line uses three centrifuge mixers to blend cream cheese and sour cream for the company’s lighter, California-style cheesecakes. From the mixers, the mixture is pumped into holding tanks before being deposited in pans with a butter-baked graham cracker or cake crust. Here, the cheesecakes bake in six rack ovens for about an hour, then are frozen overnight before slicing and packaging.
The second cheesecake line undergoes a similar process, except that the bakery uses four revolving tray ovens.
The mousse line produces upward of 15 pieces per minute. Crumbs or cake are shipped from the Busch Place bakery. After adding crumbs to mousse or pudding, the product is topped with fruit and decorated. The bakery has a central slicing and packaging room to produce products for multiple distribution channels. Automatic cutters there can pre-portion 34 to 36 cakes per minute, compared with 16 to 22 per minute manually. The automatic systems can do anywhere from six to 18 per product.
Employees slide pre-portioned cake slices into a black plastic base with a clear plastic lid on top.
The bakery has one 700- and a 400-pallet holding freezer, but only about 15% of its business goes off the dock. Most products are shipped to the AmeriCold offsite storage system.
Over the next 12 months, Rich Products plans to invest further in the bakery to streamline production while maintaining its versatility.
“We started as Jon Donaire Cheesecakes and became Jon Donaire Pastries and then Jon Donaire Desserts,” Del Duca recalls. “We are now a fully finished dessert company that is an important part of the Rich Products portfolio. Our customers do not need to do anything but lay it out or sell it through a drive-thru window. There’s no labor. Most of our customers are under a skilled labor crunch. Fully-finished products are really a godsend to them.”
Plant at a Glance
Company: Rich Products Corp.
Division: Jon Donaire Desserts, Santa Fe Springs, Calif.
Plants: Busch Place facility, 65,000 sq. ft. with 120 employees; Ann Street bakery, 110,000 sq. ft. with 200 employees.
Products: Cheesecake, mousse cakes, ice cream cakes and other premium frozen desserts.
Jon Donaire Key Personnel
Div. President: Mickey Del Duca
Div. Controller: Carney Hogan
Dir. of Operations: Mark Nardiello
Busch Pl. Plant Mgr.: Mike Ball
Ann St. Plant Mgr.: Scott Cochran
Dir. of Product, Pkg. Development: Cheryl Brown
H.R. Mgr.: Joe Navarro
Marketing Mgr.: Sara McCarthy
Busch Pl. QA Mgr.: Denise Boesch
Ann St. QA Mgr.: Nate Quiveros