Dairies have been making juices and drinks for years, sharing line time with fluid milk and other more lucrative products. And Super Store Industries’ Sunnyside Farms Dairy in Turlock, Calif., is above all else a food plant, and what food plant these days isn’t coming up with new ways to maximize its manufacturing resources? SSI has been packaging juice in Turlock since 1994, six years after the plant was built as an ice cream and cultured facility.
SSI is the product of a partnership between three major competing grocery chains in northern California – Save Mart, Raley’s and Bel Air – and has two manufacturing sites for dairy, an 800,000-square-foot distribution center for frozen foods and dry grocery, and an ice plant that produces more than 200 tons of various retail pack ice on a daily basis. Jay Simon, president and chief executive officer of Stockton, Calif.-based SSI, says sales are “well in excess of a billion dollars a year” overall, including dairy, grocery and frozen foods.
SSI manufactures fluid milk, ice cream, cultured products, juices and drinks under private labels, including Sunnyside Farms, Bay View Farms, Cowabunga and Denali – more than 500 SKUs in all for partner stores as well as regional and national customers. About 30 percent of production is for the Sunnyside Farms brand, with the rest for a growing but selective roster of contract manufacturing clients.
And while dairy products are a majority of SSI’s output, about 40 percent is juice products, with production dominated by the company’s contract to package Minute Maid beverages for West Coast markets. That business grew recently with the addition of a line of enhanced juices with claims such as antioxidants to help the immune system, plant sterols to reduce cholesterol and omega-3/DHA to benefit brain function.
Ron Harris, vice president of dairy operations, says juice sales have taken off in the past year after an extended flat period. “Consumers are looking for more and more enhanced juice,” he says.
Sweet nectar
Juices and other non-dairy beverages have become a reliable money-maker for SSI’s Dairy Division. In February, it inaugurated production on its 59-ounce line of Minute Maid enhanced juices, bringing the total to 46 Minute Maid SKUs packaged by SSI.
“We think it’s really going to grow,” Jeff Woodsmall, operations manager of the Turlock Dairy Division, says of this addition to the brand owned by The Coca-Cola Co. “They’re promoting it on a regular basis.”
Harris adds: “People are going to higher-end orange juice. Coke has done a great job with Simply Orange. I think the premium orange juices are growing rapidly.”
Sharing the lines with Minute Maid are products like Pom Wonderful, the pomegranate juice beverage that SSI has manufactured for several years. SSI bottles some 10,000 cases of Pom weekly for distribution in the United States as well as the United Kingdom. More recently, SSI began manufacturing for Florida-based Juice Works, which markets the Sun Shower line of nectarine-based beverages. With distribution on the West Coast, Florida and some Midwestern markets, Juice Works is looking to take the product national through a major club store chain, Woodsmall says.
Meanwhile, SSI has enhanced its partners’ private labels with a pomegranate lemonade, a cherry limeade and three fruit nectars. “They compete very well at retail, at a lower price,” Simon says. Further, SSI packages orange juice for Trader Joe’s stores on the West Coast.
Making Maid
At the plant about two hours east of San Francisco, up to 20 loads of orange juice arrive every week, along with daily deliveries of milk, cream and condensed milk. Chief among SSI’s non-dairy clients is Minute Maid. Minute Maid supplies the recipes, ingredients and packaging, purchased on national contracts, for the product lines packaged by SSI, explains Jeff Woodsmall, operations manager of SSI’s Turlock Dairy Division.
Fed from a descrambler upstairs, plastic bottles hit the line already labeled, and take a sanitizing bath in a vertical rotary bottle washer before filling. Two large, enclosed accumulators accommodate a rush of bottles as they wait for their turn on the filler, which operates at up to 140 bottles per minute.
Filled bottles move forward into a two-lane caser that boxes them six per case. Sealed cases head up a spiral conveyor on their way to the cooler to await shipment.
Another recent addition at Turlock is the small bottle line, which fills containers ranging from 8 to 32 ounces at a rate of 120 to 230 bottles per minute, depending on size and type of product. Juices, drinkable yogurt and flavored milk are handled on this line, including Lala smoothies, Juice Works nectarine beverages and SSI’s own Sunnyside Farms Cowabunga single-serve milks.
Bottle caps are sanitized before they’re applied by a 10-head rotary capper; a detector weeds out bottles with low fills or ones that managed to get through without caps. Finished product is bundled. “We put a sleeving operation on the small bottle line, which expanded our abilities,” Woodsmall says.
Among the products sharing line time at Turlock is the pomegranate beverage Pom Wonderful, a business for SSI that has grown from 4,000 cases to 10,000 per run in the past three years. Initially packaged in a glass bottle, Pom recently switched to a plastic container that mimics the look of the original unique bottle.
“Pom is a challenging bottle to work with,” Woodsmall says. “Once we overcame the static – the charging effect of the plastic – it went smoothly.”
Turlock’s chilled juice operation also packages 96- and 128-ounce plastic bottles and 64-ounce gable-top cartons. Supplied bottles are moved through a depalletizer that sweeps them into rows and onto a belt on their way to the fillers. A 30-valve rotary filler handles 125 jugs per minute; a gable-top filler does 140 cartons a minute. Extended shelf life (ESL)-style fillers allow for more efficient, higher-capacity product handling; strategically placed accumulation units allow the fillers to run full time.
All orange juice arrives at the plant pulp free. Pulp, calcium and other fortifications are added as needed. The plant also handles bulk and tote packaging of juices and drinks for its partners and co-pack clients. The plant fills juice four days a week for West Coast customers, with operations sometimes running up to six days for nationally distributed products.
Still dedicated to dairy
SSI’s Turlock plant is one of the few dairies in the San Joaquin Valley with a totally enclosed receiving bay (many California dairies sport open-air offloading areas) that can unload two trucks simultaneously.
All the milk comes from Dairy Farmers of America member farms within a 90-mile radius. Once it passes quality control checks, it’s pumped into one of two 60,000-gallon raw silos. The plant also features two 20,000-gallon whey silos and a 20,000-gallon water storage tank for treated water. Used for blending juice products, water is treated at an onsite plant after being pulled from the local city well system. Treated water is pulled through several filters and a chiller before use. BI
Jim Dudlicek is editor of Dairy Field Reports, part of Dairy Foods magazine. To read more dairy plant features, visit dairyfoods.com.