KLN Family Brands wasn’t looking for just another plant when it partnered with CRB for a new facility.
The company, which operates Tuffy’s Pet Foods and now Tuffy’s Treat Company, set out to complete this project in a way that felt right for employees, for the community, and for the co-manufacturing partners and distributors who count on them. The result is a flagship project for one of the most progressive and most trusted companies in the pet treat industry. KLN products include candy, salty snacks and pet food.
Three generations of Nelsons have operated the company, starting with Darrell “Tuffy” Nelson, who established Tuffy’s Pet Foods in 1964. He operated as a feed store and hatchery primarily centered on poultry. The focus then moved from livestock to pets. Between the 1970s and 1990s, the company added salty snacks and confections to their product line and rebranded as KLN Family Brands with Tuffy’s son Kenny Nelson (who started at the business at a very young age, graduated from college and returned) as CEO.
Darryl sold the pet side of the business in the ’70s, as he was retiring. It created a drive in his son to start a candy and confectionery division, and Kenny’s Candy & Confections still thrives today. In 2001, KLN purchased Tuffy’s Pet Foods to bring it back within the family, and today, Charlie Nelson, Darryl’s grandson, occupies the CEO’s chair.
“The company is very flexible, very aggressive but also very much a small-town family owned company that is really the roots of the company and wants to maintain the small town feel—the people are the most important,” says Brian Garlick, general manager of Tuffy’s.
Tuffy’s Pet Food Company manufactures dry pet food under names including NutriSource, PureVita, Supreme and Natural Planet. The company decided it was time to grow the treat side of the business and brought in design and construction firm CRB. The new Delano plant manufactures semi-moist treats, co-extruded treats, long-lasting chews, grill-marked treats and dental treats.
The new facility features two entrances, one in the foreground of this photo and another at the far end, to ensure that personnel never cross between the pre- and post-kill segregation zones.
Chapter 1: Room to grow
The mainstay on the Tuffy’s side has been its dry food business, which has seen tremendous growth over the years, particularly its NutriSource brand and the co-manufacturing and co-packing for others.
“From the treat side, we really didn’t have the real estate within our Perham facility to continue to grow that business, so it’s been pretty flat year over year. And we didn’t go seek new business nor have the capacity to grow our own brand within our existing plant,” says Garlick.
He adds that the company needed to be able to grow that business and grow with their partners. If Tuffy’s was planning on keeping it to dry food only, they couldn’t help their manufacturing partners who wanted to grow the other parts of their business.
Building near the existing plant would be convenient, but employment in Perham was at an all-time high. “It was important that our growth pattern would not create additional stress on our community. It was a major consideration—yes, we want to grow and help our community grow, but there’s a point where we’re only causing more stress because of our need or push to grow as rapidly as our ownership and company wants to,” says Garlick.
He says that if they were to continue to try to grow that business with future expansions in Perham, they were going to push against those labor challenges that are out there.
And just as Kenny had once balked at closing the legacy plant, Charlie couldn’t see himself recruiting personnel away from small local businesses in Perham that depended on qualiﬁed staff.
So they looked for a community similar to Perham that needed a large, new employer, “where we just really like the people, we like the feel, and we gain a new labor market for us to tap into,” says Garlick.
So Tuffy’s found what they were looking for three hours down the road, in the town of Delano. It’s close enough to Perham to gain support from a staff resource, as the two companies are still in each other’s backyards to help each other out. It added the ability to get moving on the treat business that they hadn’t been able to do in the past. The new facility allows nearly 500% more treat capacity than the Perham facility.
Chapter 2: A greenfield build
Garlick says that the Tuffy’s team looked at a lot of different avenues—whether it was an acquisition, a brownfield project or a greenfield project—and they tried to weigh the pros and cons of each. It boiled down to who the company is and who it’s been. “If we just modify a building to make it work for our process, it doesn’t leave us the best route to grow. Because we’re going to grow—the build isn’t the end of it; it’s just the start,” he says. Also, the Tuffy’s team wanted to build the building around the process and not the process around a building. That opened up a lot of conversation with CRB.
It’s not terribly difficult to find somebody to build a building. The challenge was that the pet food world is pretty specialized, and food and beverage is specialized in itself with all the regulations and flexibilities that have to come with the co-manufacturing world. But the biggest part of the two companies’ early courting centered on the engineering that was tied to the construction—it was basically a one-stop-shop.
“So it made sense from a partnership perspective to say, well KLN as a whole is growing and we prefer partnerships to anything and that’s the most important part, to build that relationship,” Sailer says. “And it usually will pay for itself tenfold and that’s how we landed where we did with CRB and the construction and engineering solution.”
The integration of workers into the overall plan was a big part of Tuffy’s greenfield build.
At the onset of the project, the Tuffy’s team asked themselves: What does this plant need to do and what capabilities do we need to have? The answer to these questions helped set the course for the project and the finer details were shook out through the design and construction process. Sailer said the team worked closely to design a facility that would meet their goals and deliver the capabilities they needed, while allowing for flexibility and expansion into the future.
“If you want to be innovative you have to be modular, you need to have space to bring in some ancillary equipment to support the process and if you try to fit the footprint that’s there, you’re not going to be able to make decisions to support that productivity, flexibility that we want in our operations. So we built space around the areas where we know we will need space moving forward,” says Garlick.
“Knowing the Tuffy’s team and their desire for flexibility, we built the building in a way that it can be expanded in almost all the directions that make sense to expand it,” says CRB’s Tom Rychlewski, design manager on the project. Non-load-bearing wall panels can be removed and the building can be expanded without creating a lot of additional costs.
“Flexibility was something we put significant time into thinking about, and also designing for the cleanliness standards that Tuffy’s has at their other sites—precast walls, epoxy-coated, etc.,” says Rychlewski. “Finding this type of fit and finish in an existing facility would have been a lot harder, not to mention an existing facility with the same community involvement and same feel.”
Chapter 3: Build challenges
Garlick says there were growing pains of two different parties, Tuffy’s and CRB, getting to know each other. “There’s always sometimes the strain and stress of learning how each company works. But we were open to having the tough conversations when the tough conversations had to happen. And then, get over it and move on to the next challenge, because there is always a next challenge.”
“Every project has its challenges, but what was really helpful was the commitment to the relationship and never trying to point blame but rather talking about areas to improve and then working together to improve it,” says Rychlewski. “From my perspective, Tuffy’s is a very fun client to work for and they’re on the bleeding edge of what is happening in the pet food world.”
The biggest challenge seemed to be the weather, as the build project began on the cusp of a Minnesota winter. What came after? The COVID-19 pandemic, leading to questions of how they were going to keep people safe on the job site.
Operators use digital interfaces to control how and when precise volumes of liquid move from storage into the manufacturing process. For an added layer of safety and quality control, light stacks above the interface communicate operational status to personnel nearby.
“The Minnesota fall was a big challenge with the near-constant rainfall that hurt the beginning of the project, and then we entered winter and then the pandemic,” says Garlick. They found themselves in one full month of rain out of the four-month ground-breaking to shell timeframe. A lot of challenges occurred over the course of the project and yet they finished on schedule and on budget.
“Despite challenges posed by the weather, the main critical path of the schedule ran through the ordering equipment and getting it onsite,” explains Gary Funke, project director, CRB. “By pushing through challenging weather conditions, we were able to hit our dry-in date, which allowed us to continue construction with temporary heat in the building.”
“We recognized the commissioning and startup of all the equipment could be a challenge. Some equipment components were custom made,” said Funke. Close coordination allowed both teams to stick to the timeline through that process. The teams met twice per day: Once in the morning to plan the day and again in the afternoon to assess progress.
One of the custom-made components was key to the main exterior production lines, a tooling machine. The lead time was six to eight weeks and the teams manufactured it in three weeks. They also created a new head removal for the cantilever arm as they didn’t like the way it was being supported. A new custom swing-away assembly now attaches to the wall, which gets it out of the way without cleaning issues of legs, etc. This added to the flexibility of the line too.
Rychlewski said that the Tuffy’s team was in there and getting their hands dirty and “owning that process. They took the stance that it’s their plant and they needed to figure it out. That helped move it along quickly during startup.”
Chapter 4: Innovation pipeline
To support as many innovation-driven client solutions as possible, the project team focused on integrating scalable technology and on duplicating and extending certain equipment installations for maximum mix-and-match flexibility.
“There are some new technologies that are not necessarily unique to us that we’re utilizing. I think it’s a combination of different technologies that we’ve pulled together to make us more flexible and unique,” says Sailer.
The team found the right balance of automation versus manual. Automation brings a lot of nice innovation and can drive down costs through labor reduction. But some manual processes are still needed, as not everything can fit and run through an automated machine and still be flexible enough to meet customer needs.
“We have a nice balance of that throughout the facility so we can still do some unique things, but we have the option to push a lot of product through the line quickly in an automated way,” Garlick explains.
Three automated multi-head combination weighers operate in the facility, with room to add three more.
Rychlewski, talking to Sailer, says “One thing that you did that’s different is the thought process of being able to do smaller size packaging than a lot of Tuffy’s competitors, so you could do sample runs for clients, and then smaller batch sizes for those smaller customers who can’t necessarily put in as large of an order as others.”
Sailer says that’s part of the company’s model going back to its snack foods, as Tuffy’s has had a lot of success helping small and startup customers, people just getting going in the operation.
“We carried much of that in this design, and you don’t have to do 12,000 pounds at a time to make some production runs. So we can do smaller runs with the right partners—people who we think can grow their business, they have a good strategy and just need some help getting started,” he says.
With Tuffy’s in-house meat processing capabilities, the team has greater control over the quality and consistency of their products. The system features an inclined belt that carries frozen meat into the grinder above. The automated mixers are designed to add up to eight liquids to the meat slurry without manual intervention.
On the packaging side, high-volume packaging equipment and automated case packers are perfect for large-scale clients, but cleaning and changeover can take hours. For smaller runs, this is a problem.
To solve this problem and meet the needs of an underserved niche market, Tuffy’s designed six packaging positions into the new facility—including three speciﬁcally engineered for rapid turnover between small, fast product runs (including packages as small as three ounces). In less than 10 minutes, operators can pivot from one product to another, maximizing the cost efficiency of the whole system and providing a home for clients who’ve been priced out of other CMOs.
Currently, the plant is operating three of those packaging positions, with a fourth coming online this spring and two more joining the process later in the year.
The packaging area is designed for maximum flexibility, integrating both automated case packing and manual processes as needed. An automated checkweigher system validates packaging volumes before products are released for distribution.
Chapter 5: Safety, sanitation and segregation
Food safety is extremely important to Tuffy’s. “To be at our standard or greater of what our future standards are growing toward, it would be very difficult to do that in a brownfield without it becoming cost prohibitive where you’re just throwing good money at bad problems,” says Garlick.
“And from the sanitation side, many areas completely wash down—epoxy, slip-resistant floors, curb walls, stainless steel used throughout the facility, especially in the processing area. Even where the drain locations are—floor sloping, platform draining so when you wash down you’re not leaving water behind, convenient hose and plumbing station locations, proper ventilation in the sanitation areas. All of that’s there at the onset and not an afterthought later that you’re trying to put into a building where it really wasn’t designed for it in the first place,” he adds.
Tuffy’s quality control lab uses the latest monitoring systems to continuously analyze and improve the integrity of products and manufacturing processes.
By designing and constructing this project from the ground up, Tuffy’s was able to maximize the new facility’s safety and ﬂexibility features.
Full conﬁgurability. With CRB, the Tuffy’s team engineered a novel structure that relies largely on horizontal beams to support the roof, thereby removing load-bearing columns and walls from the heart of their plant. This affords the team a rare degree of freedom to reconﬁgure their plant’s layout as clients’ needs change and as new technologies come online.
A focus on safety and transparency. Approaching this as a greenﬁeld project gave the team an opportunity to design safety into their building in novel and unprecedented ways (see sidebar). The new plant’s structure also allowed for an elevated touring corridor, giving clients and supervisors a view of the process without the risk of contamination.
A unique opportunity to future-proof pet treat manufacturing. The project team has ensured that this facility is primed for continuous improvement and expansion in two ways. First, they designed 12,000 sq. ft. of spare capacity into their layout. Second, they consulted with co-manufacturers to understand their innovation pipelines and ready the facility to meet those future needs. As a result, plans are already underway to add a custom oven/kiln unit, unique to the pet food industry.
It’s easy to build segregation into a facility. What’s hard is doing it in a way that streamlines production, rather than hinders it.
“Regarding the segregation zones, safety from a plant design perspective was one of the biggest drivers. And in the pet food world right now, it’s more and more important and strict, from a regulatory perspective,” says Garlick.
3. In-house, tech-enabled meat processing for better quality control
The Tuffy’s team took a different approach than other pet food production companies by building their own meat processing operation into the new facility. This way, they’re able to monitor the quality and reliability of their ingredients, rather than outsourcing this step to a third party. This also supports improved supply chain security and cost control, and ensures that the pet treat manufacturer can deliver premium products.
“On the treat side it’s unique; it allows us to use multiple proteins. The system is flexible and built for small and large runs. With a lot of ingredients, we process our own proteins from frozen,” says Sailer.
Chapter 6: Sustainability as a service
Tuffy’s sustainability agenda has several key features. They include: Scraped surface heat exchangers for efficient heat transfer; an HVAC system with higher motor efficiency; insulation in the roof that goes further than the code requires, ensuring a more efficient building envelope; waste that is pretreated before it goes to the municipality, and much of it recovered and repurposed; and a sensor-controlled lighting system, where lights turns on/off automatically as people move through the facility.
One of the main objectives in designing an ultra-safe, state-of-the-art plant was to deepen relationships between Tuffy’s and its co-manufacturing partners.
But safety and process innovation are only part of that equation; true partners share one another’s values, and they invest in initiatives and actions that align with those values. For Tuffy’s, and for the companies who trust Tuffy’s with their products, this means prioritizing environmental sustainability.
Tuffy’s air cooling system saves energy by eliminating refrigeration of air for cooling, extends product shelf life and prevents off-tastes by enabling near-ambient packaging, and reduces freezer maintenance and cooling costs by removing excess heat before freezing.
Tuffy’s chose the Green Globes science-based building certiﬁcation program as their sustainability benchmark, which lays out a 1,000-point rating system for assessing new construction projects. The manufacturer has a variety of features for its employees as well, such as a carpool service. By demonstrating world-class leadership in resource efficiency, reducing environmental impacts and improving occupant health, the new plant earned a Green Globe for sustainability.
Chapter 7: Planning for future growth
Currently, the Perham plant is dedicated to dry food, daily diet and the new Delano plant is suited for pet food treats with a future expansion coming. Tuffy’s decided on proactively building some additional space to support future growth, without knowing what that growth will be.
The build was really about the immediate needs as well as the future. There is a 12,000 ft. capacity that’s held as a spare for future growth, Garlick says.
The new facility increases Tuffy’s semi-moist pet treat production by 500%.
The additional space has utility hookups in place and extra warehousing set aside to handle increased throughput. This spare capacity is strategically located where it’s likely to be needed; for example, there’s square footage available to duplicate an exact second system in the slurry room.
“Knowing who we are, we knew we needed more space to grow into. Since building the plant, we have moved forward with a cannery, so we are in the process now of sourcing equipment and all of the engineering design behind putting a cannery in our treats facility,” says Garlick. “It will be within the four same walls we have today but we bought additional land to the west of our facility for even more expansion when that time comes—20 additional acres.”
The first production run out of the new Delano plant occurred in December 2020. To date, Tuffy’s is already expecting to add wet pet food manufacturing in August or September.
For more information:
KLN Family Brands / Tuffy’s Treat Company, https://www.klnfamilybrands.com/