Nettie’s Kitchen sees room to grow with automation

Nettie’s Kitchen sees room to grow with automation

Step into Nettie’s Kitchen, the manufacturing arm of Jimmy! Functional Snacks, Chicago, and the first thing you notice is the comforting aroma of peanuts and chocolate. With such an emphasis on protein, fat and health, nut butters and chocolate permeate the entire facility. Production runs in two shifts Monday to Friday with Saturdays for sanitation, maintenance and any overflow production.

Ingredients and packaging delivered from the warehouse are stored on one side of the building while production takes place on the opposite side. Ingredients are manually weighed and scaled into batches and placed on shelves with liquids and driers separated. Two 80-quart Hobart mixers produce 45-lb batches of bar dough in three minutes. The dough is transferred by hand from the mixing bowls into the roll line’s bowl. Two rollers smooth the dough and create the slab of bar dough. The first part of the sheet is cut off and added back to the bowl as rework and then a cutter automatically cuts the dough sheet into the appropriate size bars according to weight.

Bars are then placed on pans and racked for cooling. Removing the bars and placing them on the pan is one of the most difficult tasks on the production room floor. Not only will the cooling tunnel relieve a person to do more valuable work, but it will also reduce the cooling time on the bars from one day to 7 to 10 minutes.

During Baking & Snack’s visit, the space was filled with racks and pans, eliminating valuable production space and generating a lot of laundry for employees. Annette Del Prete, president of Nettie’s Kitchen, described this as a major production bottleneck.

“Automating this production line will be life- and company-changing for us,” she said. “The way we run the plant will be different. What employees do will be different.”

Once the bars are set — none of the bars are baked, so “chilling” is more of a set-up process — two employees decorate the bars with their toppings, either chocolate drizzle or crumble. Nettie’s Kitchen invested in an automatic drainer from MK Machinery to keep track of throughput once the cooling tunnel was installed. Mrs. Del Prete admitted that, despite the need for the automated drainer to streamline and keep up with production, she will miss the variety that manual rain offers.

“It was important to me that we made our bars beautiful, because we eat first with our eyes,” said Ms. Del Prete said. “If you’re eating a cookies and cream bar, you want to see it.”

When the top layer has solidified, bars are manually fed into two Barrington flow enclosures. Metal detectors scan each bar for any food safety issues, and then it is sent by conveyor belt to packaging.

“Our most important critical control point is our metal detector,” explains Kevin DeLozier, SQF practitioner and supply chain manager. “We don’t need a kill step because all our raw materials already had one, so there’s no baking. It’s all done at ambient, and all our ingredients are shelf stable.”

The plant is SQF Level 2 certified with GMPs in place, and bars are tested weekly for listeria, mold, lead and water activity. Mr. DeLozier, Kyle Lasser, production manager, and Ms. Del Prete was also trained at HAACP. Mr. DeLozier also implemented standard operating procedures for both production and sanitation.

“We track everything from start to finish, and lot numbers go one step forward to the consumer and one step back to our supplier, so if there’s a recall in front of us, we can find every product that’s affected and get it back to us, ” he explained.

Employees build and pack boxes that are then automatically labeled and sealed. Once the front of the line is automated, there are plans to expand the packaging line and feed the flow packs with a conveyor belt.

Even without the automation, the team at Nettie’s Kitchen was able to improve production from 60 to 120 batches per day. The team estimated that with the automation installed, the rate would triple.

Finished products are then distributed to one of three locations depending on the customer. Some bars are shipped to customer warehouses for storage and fulfillment, while other customers’ products are stored at one of the company’s offsite warehouses and typically picked up by the customer.

With all the challenges that Nettie’s Kitchen has faced on the manufacturing side, Ms. Del Prete and her team are confident in the lessons they have learned and the investments they have made. Whether it’s learning a new piece of equipment or developing a new product, Jimmy! Functional snacks aren’t afraid to try, even if it means getting a little beat up.

“I don’t even call it a failure because you have to keep throwing things at the wall to see if it sticks,” she said. “And it makes us better at what we do.”

This article is excerpted from the December 2022 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Jimmy! Functional snacks, click here.

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