Canadian company starts up highly-automated new plant to roast, grind, blend and package private-label coffee products at an annual capacity of 20 million lbs.

It wasn't until the early '90s that Mother Parkers Tea & Coffee, Inc., Canada's top private brand coffee supplier, "decided to look at the U.S. market," says Paul Higgins, Jr., co-CEO with brother Michael of the third-generation family-owned firm. Once they looked, they decided to take the leap. "So we started to develop our private label foodservice and retail business in the U.S."

The result has been spectacular growth south of the border during the past decade. To keep pace with its growing U.S. markets, Mother Parkers in February, 2000, acquired a coffee-roasting plant from Tetley Tea Co. at Palisades Park, N.J., then last June started up a $25-million, 100,000-sq.-ft. greenfield plant at Fort Worth, Texas.

The highly-automated new plant has initial capacity to roast, grind, blend and package private-label coffees at a rate of 20 million lbs. per year, expandable in two stages to 80 million lbs. per year, and currently manufactures more than 600 SKUs.

In addition to two plants in the Toronto area "we now have two roasting facilities in the U.S.," Higgins observes. "We supply one of the largest U.S. foodservice distributors, and also sell to about 40 U.S. grocery chains, including eight of the top 10."

90-year heritage

Founded in 1912 by the Higgins' grandfather Stafford as the wholesale grocery company Higgins & Burke, the company originally supplied grocery products to stores in the Toronto area as well as to mining and logging camps in Northern Ontario. During the 1920s, Stafford Higgins identified tea - one item he sold - as a product which could be branded. Inspired to a feminine name by a friend who owned the Laura Secord and Fanny Farmer candy companies, he invented the Mother Parkers brand, started-up a tea business and later a coffee business. Paul Sr., father of Paul Jr. and Michael, joined the business in 1929, became "the catalyst for brand growth" and managed the company into the early '90s, Paul Jr. adds.

By the 1950s, Michael Higgins continues, Mother Parkers was the No.1 coffee brand in the Toronto area. When the IGA grocery chain entered the Ontario market in 1955, his father conceived of supplying coffee and tea to IGA grocers under the IGA brand. "That was the beginning of our private-label business," says Michael, and led to supplying private-label coffee and tea to other Canadian food retailers as well.

As the company's private-label business expanded during the '60s and '70s, it encountered growing competition from international and corporate coffee brands. In the late '70s, however, the George Weston Co. -- which operates the Loblaw supermarket chain - started developing its successful line of President's Choice products "and we were there to help develop their coffee and tea launch," says Michael. More Canadian retailers signed-on for private-label products, and today Mother Parkers is Canada's leading coffee supplier with major shares of the retail coffee and tea markets.

Meanwhile, from the 1950s forward, Mother Parkers started supplying foodservice operators with private-label products as chains like McDonald's expanded in Canada and hockey great Tim Horton founded his successful chain of doughnut shops (acquired by Wendy's about five years ago). Today "we're the largest provider of coffee and tea to the Canadian foodservice industry," Michael Higgins observes. In addition to private labels, the company continues to market its own traditional Higgins & Burke and Mother Parkers brands of coffee and tea.

DFW 'hub'

Mother Parkers recognized about five years ago that its main plant in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, built in 1960 and expanded five times over the years, would soon reach capacity and lacked room for further expansion. The company first considered purchasing a U.S. facility but concluded that nothing available at that time fit Mother Parkers' quality and technology standards. "So we realized we would have to build a new plant," Paul Higgins recalls.

To better serve the U.S. market and reduce delivery times, he continues, "we wanted to locate somewhere west of the Mississippi, thinking we could serve the Eastern U.S. from Mississauga and the West from a new location. Those were the initial criteria."

New Plant of the Year:

Mother Parkers then selected The Austin Co. to conduct a site analysis. Further criteria, said Higgins, included a distribution point easily accessible to coffee-bean ports, for shipping finished products to customers, and from company headquarters in Toronto; availability of a highly-motivated, well-educated workforce; a site large enough for future expansion; a hospitable area "willing to help us along the learning curve of building and developing."

Austin initially evaluated 15 states in the Central and Western U.S., starting with a "favorable area analysis" which estimated and compared variable annual costs such as freight, labor, utilities and taxes, said Frank A. Spano, Austin's associate director of planning and facilities location. This narrowed the search to the Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston and Phoenix areas. A "comparative community analysis" of 16 locations within these areas refined cost estimates and evaluated additional factors such as workforce quality and skills and the local business environment.

These analyses zeroed in on a 20-acre site in Fort Worth's Carter Industrial Park, which "met all of our selection criteria," says Paul Higgins. Dallas/Fort Worth with its excellent road and air access "is a major transportation hub" equidistant from Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, he points out. Trucks can access most of the continental U.S. within two days. Although green coffee beans can be sourced from many tropical nations around the world, most of Mother Parkers' beans come from Mexico, Central and South America through the ports of Houston, Laredo and New Orleans -- all within close range of Fort Worth.

Fast-track project

Mother Parkers also selected The Austin Co. as single-source manager to design and build the new plant, and contracted with Probat-Werke of Emmerich, Germany, to supply the coffee roasting, grinding, blending and handling equipment. Probat, which specializes in coffee-manufacturing technology, had earlier equipped the Mother Parkers plant at Mississauga.

To execute the project, Mother Parkers formed a joint team headed by Vice-President/Manufacturing Kenneth K. Uyede and Austin Process Division Manager Mahesh M. Jotwani as project managers. Key Mother Parkers members included Vice-President/Operations Dennis D. Paynter as construction-site manager and plant manager (including startup); Engineering Manager Manny Costa for packaging design; and Maintenance/Operations Engineer Andre Jansen (a former Probat engineer) as Probat liaison. Probat was represented on the team by Manfred Wolff for mechanical engineering and Klaus van Genabith for electrical and controls engineering. In addition to functioning as project manager for Austin, Jotwani assumed responsibility for mechanical engineering, and for the construction group headed by Austin's Ron Smith as site manager.

The team executed a fast-track design/build project, whereby construction gets under way as detailed engineering drawings are developed. Austin submitted preliminary design documents (prior to construction commitment) in May 1999; defined project scope, schedule, costs and proceeded with detailed engineering in June; broke ground and secured construction permits in August.

Construction challenges

From groundbreaking to startup on June 1, 2000, the project was executed on time and under budget in only nine months despite heavy rainstorms, an aggressive schedule and several construction challenges.

For instance, the site is located on expansive soil, typical of the area, which swells when wet and would heave a conventional concrete floor slab. To allow for this expansion, a structural floor system consisting of a reinforced concrete slab supported on concrete caissons was laid above the subgrade with a minimum six-inch void created by cardboard forms beneath the slab. The clay thus expands upward into the void, Jotwani explains, without damaging the floor.

Tight scheduling was required to coordinate 55 subcontractor construction packages, with as many as five different crews simultaneously erecting structural steel, building interior block walls and assembling process equipment.

Design features

The 100,000 sq.-ft. building -- Phase I of the construction plan -- includes a 12,000-sq.-ft. two-story office in front and a 40,000-sq.-ft. warehouse. Design allows future expansion with minimal disruption to operations. Removable exterior metal wall panels on two sides of the building allow expansion in two phases to the north and west on the 20-acre site. Phase II will extend building size to 150,000 square feet and double annual plant capacity, and a second Probat roaster will be added later this year to achieve that capacity, with a warehouse extension to follow. Phase III will expand the building to 250,000 square feet and again double plant capacity when justified by future growth.

Unique design features include an 80-ft. tower enclosing green-bean storage silos; a single-story, 43-ft.-high manufacturing area with mezzanine supported by structural steel; and a two-story glass wall on the front of the office building. The first-floor office area includes a two-story lobby with plasma screen for projection of welcome messages and PowerPoint graphics; the Heritage Room, a richly-decorated parlor depicting the company's history; a "cupping room" where quality-assurance technicians taste-test coffee; and a training room equipped with an audio/visual system and PCs. A boardroom, executive offices and an open-office layout occupy the second floor.

Recruiting & training

To recruit multi-skilled control-room operators and quality-assurance technicians who could "hit the ground running," Mother Parkers offered attractive wage rates, advertised in Dallas/Fort Worth newspapers, held job fairs and sought assistance from the Texas Workforce Commission. Result: "We received about 3,500 resumes for 60 positions," Vice-President/Operations and Plant Manager Dennis Paynter reports. Several experienced people were recruited from other well-automated food manufacturers. "We looked for people accustomed to making decisions and to a productive work environment," he adds.

Training for the first seven new employees included orientation into the coffee process at Mississauga, then working with Probat engineers during startup. "These people then became the training leaders" for the next round of recruits, says Paynter. Further training included coffee-specific training at Mother Parkers for new people, and vendor training for all conducted on-site by many of the suppliers whose equipment is installed in the plant.

At startup last June the new plant employed about 20 people, then "ramped-up from one to two shifts in 30 days," says Paynter. "Within 45 days we were up to 45 employees, then to 60 in 90 days." The plant currently employs 65 people, with 50 production employees working three process shifts and two packaging and warehousing shifts five days per week.

'Tour-ready' plant

Design supports an efficient production flow from green-bean receiving through cleaning, blending, roasting, grinding, packaging, warehousing and shipping. Totally enclosed pneumatic and vacuum handling, silo and bin systems incorporate a complicated series of PLC-controlled rotary pipe distributors, air locks, diverters, slide gates and weigh scales to move beans, ground coffee and blends from receiving through to packaging. Bins and process equipment throughout the plant are color-coded to indicate process stage: green for green-bean coffee, burgundy red for roasted bean coffee, burnt orange for ground coffee. Samples of each can be withdrawn at manually-operated stations.

Total enclosure maintains a dust-free environment. "The plant must always be 'tour-ready' for visits by customers and prospective customers," says Paynter. "In fact, we enjoy and encourage tours at all of our facilities."

Automated process control, at-line quality control

The entire process from receiving to packaging is governed from a central control room featuring a wraparound widow allowing a full view of processing operations and dominated by a wide, multimedia wall screen depicting rear-projected Wonderware graphics and animation. Visible from the process floor, the wide screen can show an overview of the entire process, allowing an operator at the console or on the floor to quickly diagnose problems in response to alarms. The operator can zero in on a specific process or specific equipment on one of three PCs or by mouse-clicking a PIP (Picture-in-Picture) feature for the wide screen. Computer ports allow video input for remote monitoring of an operation via PIP.

Process control integrates Allen-Bradley and Probat PLCs with Wonderware InTouch HMI/SCADA, and is evolving toward Wonderware's InTrack MES (Manufacturing Execution System). Processes can be controlled either remotely from the control room or locally at Allen-Bradley PanelView stations on the plant floor.

The entire roasting, grinding, blending and sampling process can be operated by only two people. Operators, in fact, spend more time conducting at-line QC tests than operating the process. At-line tests are conducted at a bench just outside of the control room, where operators can see the wide screen and react quickly to alarms. "We build quality into the operator's responsibility," says Paynter. At-line tests include:

  • Color, using a benchtop Agtron analyzer which evaluates degree of roast as it relates to flavor;
  • Moisture, measured with near-infrared Spectra-Quad analyzers;
  • Particle size, important for consistent taste in a specific coffee, measured with a Ro-Tap sieve;
  • Residual oxygen from degassing, using a Mocon Analyzer;
  • Bulk density.
Additionally, packaging-line operators test nitrogen-flushed pouches for residual oxygen, seal integrity and correct weight. An AIB-audited HACCP plan and documentation are in place.

Process profile

Receiving: Green coffee beans are received at any of three docks in 40-ft. seagoing containers or trailers, each packed with about 40,000 lbs. of beans in burlap bags weighing about 140 lbs. each. Before a shipment is accepted, beans are sampled from bags stretching from the front to the rear of the trailer to represent a cross-section of the load, says Quality Assurance Manager Alan E. French. The sample beans are then roasted and ground on the QC bench at-line and taken to the cupping room where the coffee is brewed and poured into cups on a rotating table equipped with three dental-type sinks. Three technicians then taste each cup and grade each sample according to its standard flavor profile. These experts can detect slight deviations in taste caused, for example, by a fermented bean or varying phenolics. No silo can be filled with green beans until QA releases it.

When a shipment is cleared for receipt, bags are slit and slapped into one of two mobile "cart dumpers," which vacuum beans at rates of up to 20,000 lbs. per hour through an enclosed cleaning system incorporating a sieve, magnetic metal detector and weigh-scale, and into one of 40 silos mounted on load cells with trailer capacity of 40,000 lbs.

Decaffienated beans (decaffienated by suppliers before receipt) are segregated in separate silos to prevent "cross-contamination" with regular beans.

Blending: Beans can be blended before or after roasting to achieve varying taste profiles with various types of beans and roasts, adding process flexibility. Two blending systems, one each for green beans (coded green) and roasted beans (red), consist of bins mounted on load cells and supplied from silos or bins through a maze of multiple pneumatic chutes to achieve varying blends. Process-control software includes a batching system with recipe capability up to 999 different blends, and which assures first-in/first-out use of beans for blending.

Roasting: Green beans are pneumatically conveyed to the Probat Radial Turbo Roaster, where a batch weighing several hundred lbs. is automatically roasted in a few minutes. Hot air blows through the beans as they spin around in a perforated bowl. Roasted beans are air-cooled and water-quenched when they reach desired color and temperature. During roasting, beans lose 12 to 22 percent of their weight, expand 35 percent in size and darken in color. Roasting can be controlled to achieve dark, medium and light roasts used to vary ground-coffee blends. Roasted beans are therefore automatically weighed for formula accuracy before blending. Exhaust air from the roaster is thermally precleaned and recycled as makeup air to the gas-fired oven where air is heated for roasting, saving energy and reducing emissions (which are well within local limits). Roasted whole beans are then bucket and belt-conveyed to multiple roasted-coffee bins for controlled degassing of CO2 (a natural byproduct of the roasting process), and staged storage before packaging.

Grinding: Three water-cooled Probat grinders together grind several thousand lbs. of roasted beans per hour. Each unit consists of a feeder with slide gates, self-cleaning magnets, a primary crusher roll, fine-grinding rolls, a turbo mixer and PanelView touchscreen controls. Water-cooled rolls minimize aroma flash-off. Grinding increases the surface area of coffee, allowing more efficient extraction of flavors and aromas during brewing. Finer grinds develop stronger flavor. The system produces three main types of grind:

  • Urn, used in large commercial coffee brewers;
  • Fine, used in the 12-cup brewers found in many restaurants;
  • Extra fine, used primarily for in-room hotel and vending applications.
Ground coffee is vacuum-conveyed to one of 15 5,000-lb. capacity vibrating storage bins for time-controlled degassing and staging for packaging.

Packaging operations include eight PLC-controlled vertical form/fill/seal bagging machines and one canning line, with floor space for more packaging lines. The vertical f/f/s machines nitrogen-flush bags and pouches during fill. Operators acknowledge via PanelView when a line is ready to receive a specific blend and grind from a bin.

Two Key-Pak vertical f/f/s machines, one fed from an All-Fill auger filler and the other modified by Automation Supply & Engineering to include a servo-driven auger filler, make pouch--in- pouch packages of extra-fine ground coffee for hotel in-room coffee machines. These systems form, fill and seal filter pouches, then drop one to four filter pouches into an outer pouch for a wide range of fractional ounce sizes. The systems incorporate ink-jet printing for filter pouches.

Three Triangle f/f/s machines supplied by All-Fill volumetric fillers incorporating Eriez in-line metal detectors produce metalized-nylon and polyester pouches of ground coffee in fractional ounce sizes. Two of these operate in tandem to double packaging speeds on one cartoning line.

Three Triangle f/f/s machines, one fed by a Triangle combination weigher, produce packages of ground urn coffee or whole roasted beans ranging from 4.5 ozs. to 5 lbs. These systems are capable of producing either pillow-pouch or flat-bottomed gusseted bags with one-way purge valves.

Depending on bag or pouch size, operators either manually fill cartons or guide cartons beneath belt conveyors for automated filling; check carton weights on Mettler-Toledo scales; print out bar-code labels on Zebra printers integrated with a database on the plant's server; push cartons on roller conveyors through Intertape sealing machines; and manually palletize cartons. Filled pallets are pallet-jacked to an Orion stretch wrapper, where bar-coded pallet labels are added and the pallets fork-lifted into the warehouse.

Ground coffees are canned on a line consisting of a can depalletizer; a custom-built, four-chute can inverter and air cleaner; a servo-driven AMS rotary filler engineered for quick changeover to either 1-lb. or 3-lb. can sizes; a Continental Can seamer re-engineered by ABC Lid Machine Co. with servo-controlled clincher for quick lid-size changeover; a Garvey accumulation table; Domino code dater; Mateer-Burt labeling machine; and Donahower plastic overlidder. Cans are cartoned or tray-packed in a Wepackit case packer and bar-code labeled with a Lord printer.

Warehousing and distribution: The warehouse contains 3,000 bar-coded pallet addresses in racks six to seven bays high fabricated by United Steel Products and serviced by four different types of material-handling equipment: four Raymond Dockstocker fork lifts; a Raymond Reach Truck; a Raymond Order Picker; and a Crown fork lift. Each is equipped with a laser that can scan pallet addresses from 40 ft. away, and a computer terminal which communicates with the plant's shipping office via Telzon radio-frequency system. The plant's IBM AS/400 mainframe communicates customer orders to the shipping office, and the shipping office transmits pick orders via RF to the fork lifts. The paperless system improves inventory, order-picking and lot-tracking accuracy, helping ensure that products are shipped on a first-in/first-out (FIFO) basis. Picked and palletized orders are then fork-lifted aboard trailers through any of four doors on the shipping dock for shipment directly to customer warehouses.

Packaging materials, including a vast array of rollstock films and corrugated cartons imprinted with many private labels, are also stored in the warehouse.

Because of the many bean, roast, grind, blend, package and label varieties currently totaling more than 600 SKUs; varying order sizes and order patterns driving quick and multiple changeovers; products with relatively short shelf life; and production to order rather than to inventory, "complexity management" is the strength of Mother Parkers new Fort Worth plant, Paynter observes. "The key to this facility," he adds, "is to execute complexity with few people and short lead times."