October 07 Businessexcellence 53 As a world food, potatoes are second in human consumption only to rice. Cut into thin slices, fl avored and fried, they are America’s favorite snack food. Everyone loves potato chips. But unless you are a certain age, you might think that the kettle cooked variety is a relatively new development. Not so, says Bob Shearer, CEO of award winning Brewster, Ohio-based Shearer’s Foods. “It’s how potato chips were fi rst made.” The advent of continuous fryers put kettle chips on what might be called the back burner for a while, but the last ten years have seen an astronomical increase in their popularity. Shearer’s, founded in 1974, fi rst made kettle chips in 1980. Its product range also includes regular potato chips, tortilla chips, pretzels, cheese curls/puffs, peanuts, popcorn, corn chips and other snacks, but the kettle cooked chip is the one that excites Shearer the most. “It’s our biggest growth product now,” he says. “We’ve had double digit growth in them for the last ten years.” That’s an impressive statistic, given that consumer awareness of healthy eating has made us all more conscious of the amount of fat and salt in our diets. Snack manufacturers have had to respond to this. “All Shearer’s products use zero trans-fat oils,” says Shearer, (mainly peanut oil and cottonseed oil for the kettle chips), “and with the warnings about salt and high blood pressure we have reduced our salt levels dramatically over the last 20 years.” Even so, he explains, as people have become better educated about what they eat, they have tended to cut down on their snacking. “When they do snack,” he says, “they want to have the best.” We all know kettle chips are the best, of course. They’re crisper, tastier and more satisfying than the run-of-the-mill chip, but they’re made from the same variety of potatoes, so what makes them better? “It’s the batch cooking process versus the continuous fl ow line,” says Shearer. “They’re cooked in smaller batches and that gives them a harder bite and a crispier texture, and people enjoy that. You get more of the potato fl avor.” Specifi cally, he explains, smaller batches allow better temperature control. “There are different temperature swings within the cooking process. It’s not a constant temperature like on a continuous fi re where they go through the whole fryer at the same temperature.” The cooking process has to be very precise to produce the perfect kettle chip, so what scope is there in this business for lean manufacturing and continuous improvement? Plenty, says Shearer. “You can’t hurry the cooking process, but there are always effi ciency improvements that you can make. We have seen the biggest change in packaging. We now have high speed packing machines and case packers that put the bags in boxes.” Steve Surmay, senior vice president, operations, tells me more about the company’s approach to improvement. “We do have a continuous improvement program,” he says. “We’ve always been a company that thrives on how to improve the process and we continue to drive that through a lean manufacturing environment. We have brought in a couple of experts on lean manufacturing who have worked in other industries.” The initiative that has made the most impact, he says, has been the introduction of on-machine seasoning equipment for the kettle cooked product. The previous unifi ed seasoning process meant that production was limited to one fl avor at a time through the packaging cells. “It’s given Shearer’sFoods “All Shearer’s products use zero trans-fat oils, and with warnings about salt and high blood pressure we have reduced our salt levels dramatically over the last 20 years”
54 Businessexcellence October 07 us flexibility,” says Surmay, “because people want a multitude of flavors with the kettle chip. It’s not like a continuous line where you have your staple product and your sour cream and your barbecue. With the kettle chip, people want more variety, so we have gone with on-machine seasoning over the top of our packaging cells. The seasoning accuracy is also improved and the fall off has been reduced.” Previously, he explains, product from six kettles went through a seasoning tumbler, and by the time it had reached the end of the conveyor system, a lot of the seasoning had fallen off. “Now, with on-machine seasoning, we have the ability to run different seasonings at the same time and we are seasoning right over the top of the scale.” The next initiative, Surmay continues, is oil turnover and conservation. Batch frying in a hand kettle is heavier on oil than continuous frying, so the challenge is to get more lifespan out of the oil while retaining the quality of the end product. The company is currently trialing a filtration system with a firm in Wisconsin to improve the screening of solids (fines) out of the oil. In my research for this article, I had come across a reference to another new piece of machinery, described as a raw potato destoner. Having never found a stone in a potato myself, despite my lack of such a machine, I have to find out what it is. The machine is actually a Versa Peeler, explains Surmay, which employs a combination of hydraulic and mechanical processes to remove the skins from potatoes at a phenomenal rate. Part of the process involves the potatoes being agitated against abrasive grit. The destoning element is the use of brushes to remove any embedded grit, to prevent them damaging the slicer blades.