Dandies Marshmallows (a product of Chicago Vegan Foods) got its start when its cofounder, President and Resident Engineer Ryan Howard, wanted his son to try a marshmallow for the first time. But his son, who was a vegan since birth, was not to consume traditional marshmallows, which contain gelatin, an animal-based ingredient. So it was time for Howard, being a food process engineer, to come up with an alternative, truly vegan marshmallow—which he did in his test kitchen in April of 2008. He called the marshmallows Dandies.

By February 2009, the first batch of Dandies was run and in March 2009 Dandies launched at Expo West and won the VegBest-in-Show Award. In January 2010, a new Dandies facility came on line in the Chicago area. With several successes in the U.S. and Canadian distribution, the new company grew quickly, launching new varieties, snacks and treats. In March 2015, upgrades to the Dandies/Chicago Vegan Foods facility enabled the Dandies brand to be larger and have improved consistency.

Dandies Marshmallows are made with all-natural ingredients and no gelatin. They are free from the most common allergens (peanut, tree nuts, milk, egg, wheat, fish, shellfish and corn) and gluten, which place strict allergen demands on a facility. In fact, Dandies are made in a dedicated vegan facility. The Dandies product, however, became so popular that the existing plant experienced growing pains.

There comes a time when the “old facility” can no longer keep up with the business—especially when it’s also used for making Chicago Vegan Foods’ Teese Vegan Cheese, Temptation Vegan Soft Serve and Frozen Dessert products. So, to ramp up production and make room for innovation, Howard decided to relocate the operation to a new, dedicated Chicagoland facility that was up to the task of moving Dandies forward, along with space for Chicago Vegan Foods’ other products.

With improved process efficiency and customized, state-of-the-art equipment, the new 25,000-sq.-ft., SQF-certified facility has increased the company’s capacity by three times and automated production. Consolidating all manufacturing, warehousing and offices under one roof, the new plant houses production of all of Chicago Vegan Foods’ product offerings for retail, foodservice and industrial customers in the U.S. and internationally, including Dandies Vegan Marshmallows.

Moving is never an easy chore—whether it’s across the street, the town or country. Due diligence is an important part of every move, and Howard and his team evaluated the company’s process completely as they prepared for the move. Fortunately, the team had the luxury of designing and building its new facility while still running operations at the existing facility. This gave them adequate time to make smart decisions regarding automation and improving efficiency.

Automation: Key to expansion

Being an engineer, Howard knew what he wanted in terms of automation at the new plant. Most noteworthy is the new processing technology for Dandies Marshmallows, a custom system developed entirely in house to improve product quality, consistency and increase shelf life by more than 20 percent.

Using top-of-the-line sensors—such as Coriolis flow meters, distance laser sensors and radar devices—the PLC-controlled system mixes, pumps, cooks and extrudes Dandies Marshmallows. Many manual and repetitive human operations were eliminated, and the system was automated so one operator could run it comfortably with ample time to evaluate product quality and properly size the marshmallows.

On the packaging side, Chicago Vegan Foods implemented a 14-head Yamato combination scale that averages less than half a gram of give-away. Beneath the scale is a Matrix Mercury bagger. A Flexlink Universal Robot Palletizer automatically places finished cases onto a pallet according to a programmed layout. This saves packaging operators from having to lift thousands of cases per shift, protecting them from possible back injuries.

With the new plant and its automation, Chicago Vegan Foods is manufacturing more than 15 tons, or 10 million marshmallows per day—equivalent to producing more than 100 miles worth of marshmallows placed end to end.

As resident engineer, Howard finds it a lot easier to meet production schedules and deliveries with the new automated facility. “With large, new orders from conventional retailers coming in, we had exhausted the capacity of our previous plant and saw significant improvements that should be made to our systems and procedures. We needed to accomplish more in less time and with the same [number] of people.

“So we dove in headfirst to build a new manufacturing facility from the ground up that would help us with our mission to make Dandies Vegan Marshmallows a household name and take our foodservice and industrial business to the next level,” adds Howard. “With increased efficiencies and top-notch equipment in place, we couldn’t be more excited for our future of delivering cruelty-free and allergy-safe food products to customers worldwide.”