A Modern Take On Tradition
By JENNIFER ZEGLER
A broad product mix requires a tight schedule at Polar Beverages’ plants
Out of the many industrial buildings along the highway in Worcester, Mass., Polar Beverages’ plant stands out with its cylindrical silos resembling cans of Polar Ginger Ale and Orange Dry soft drinks, as well as an inflatable polar bear called Orson on the roof. The silos are a constant reminder of Polar’s traditional New England offerings, but the mascot might not always be on his perch atop the plant, as local fraternities often steal Orson as a prank. The Crowley brothers, Ralph Jr., president and chief executive officer, and Chris, executive vice president and treasurer, mention that with smiles on their faces.
It’s another sign of the community’s fondness for the company.
Situated next to its headquarters in the company’s hometown, Polar’s Worcester plant is just under 500,000 square feet. It produces Polar’s multiple partner brands as well as its proprietary and private label products on its six lines, which include cans, PET, bag-in-box and a spring water line. The plant also has two warehouses for private label stock and direct store delivery product storage.
An additional six lines are housed at its 600,000-square-foot facility in Scotia, N.Y. Acquired as part of its purchase of Adirondack Beverages in 1996, the New York plant provides extra production, distribution and warehouse space. It also helps Polar expand its capacity to more than 400,000 cases a day between the two facilities.
Chris Crowley says Polar runs more than 2,000 SKUs; and with so many cases of so many products, the plant must be versatile and efficient.
“I think there’s a lot more complexity to our process because we have so many more SKUs,” Chris explains. “The difference you see with us is much, much quicker changeovers. We’ve made it as simple, consistent and quick as we can.”
Chris explains that with numerous products and packaging options, the Worcester plant runs between 40 and 50 products a day. Often operating seven days a week, the plant runs products on a color schedule that begins with clear beverages and ends with dark varieties. The strict schedule dictates when products will run. For example, Polar Orange Dry usually runs on Wednesdays, though it is open to on-demand production.
For quick requests, the facility keeps product labels on hand, “We can respond very, very quickly to customers’ needs because we always have the labels on hand and we have the empty bottles and can attach the two very quickly,” Chris says.
Though the company bottles many national brands, its proprietary brands use century-old formulas to achieve that New England taste Polar is known for. Chris boils down one of Polar’s keys to success, saying “It’s all about high-quality ingredients, and a lot of them.”
The company bottles its spring water as a stand-alone product as well as a base ingredient. Chris explains there is almost a constant line of spring water vehicles coming into the plant. During production peaks, the Worcester plant receives up to 22 truckloads of spring water a day.
Polar also places much emphasis on the extracts used to make its proprietary products. “The formula for our flagship Ginger Ale has been the same for more than a century,” Chris says. “It’s the exact same formula. In fact, it’s kind of neat. I have all the old formula books and a lot of cool memorabilia with all these hand-written formulas.”
For more than 100 years, the company made its own extracts in house using grain alcohol to ferment the roots and oils. Polar now outsources its extracts, which are still made according to the traditional recipe. For example, its Ginger Ale is “a lot more gingery and a lot less sweet,” compared to national brands, Chris describes.
Some of the company’s most popular products also require chilled raw material storage for the juices included in the products. Polar’s Orange Dry is made with orange juice, Cape Cod Dry Soda uses Ocean Spray cranberry juice and the Raspberry Lime flavor includes apple juice for “a better mouthfeel,” he says.
One of its can-mimicking silos formerly housed PET for the company’s bottles, but Polar, which once manufactured its own bottles, has since outsourced its bottle-making. The bottles, including proprietary designs for Polar brand 1-liters and polycarbonate 20-liter rectangular spring water bottles, are now manufactured by a packaging company that built a plant equal distance between Polar’s Worcester and Scotia facilities.
“We had pretty antiquated equipment when we got out of [manufacturing bottles],” Chris says. “There was a revolutionary change in PET, blowmolding and processing. In the ‘70s, we used the same preform. We didn’t reheat; we actually blew it all warm. Now you reheat and blow it and you can distribute the material better. It’s all about lightweighting the container. Our containers couldn’t get less than 58 grams for 2-liter and now we’re running 48 grams.”
With such a diverse portfolio and workload in the plant, the company’s weekly schedule is one of many tools that keep it running smoothly. Heather Muroney, manager of operations’ planning and inventory, maintains a strict schedule. Weekly expectation and performance reports are posted outside the break room so employees, many of whom have been with Polar for decades, are kept informed. Chris credits the plant’s staff as one of its keys to success.
Another operational key is equipment standardization. The company uses individual companies to supply all its adhesive systems, packers, palletizers, cappers, fillers, stretchwrappers, trays and lift trucks. Standardization helps with uptime, Chris says, which helps the company stick to its schedule. Another benefit is that the plant uses all electric lift trucks for a cleaner work environment.
Inside the Worcester plant, five lines are often busy running Cadbury Schweppes’ 7 UP, Sunkist, A&W, RC and Diet Rite colas; Coca-Cola’s Seagram’s brand ginger ale; products for numerous private label accounts; and the company’s own Polar brand of flavors, seltzers and mixers. More complexity is added as each of these brands has various packaging sizes, including cans and multiple PET bottle sizes. Chris estimates the plant runs 17 SKUs of PET bottles from 8-ounce to 3-liter sizes.
The Worcester plant has one line dedicated to 2-liter bottles; another dedicated to 1-liter; and an additional line that accommodates all sizes of PET packaging. Polar’s Ginger Ale and mixers are available in proprietary 1-liter bottles that are slightly slimmer than most on the market. Depending on the product, the PET lines run 220 to 230 bottles per minute, Chris says. There also is one dedicated can line as well as a line for bag-in-box.
For Polar Spring Water, the majority of which is sold in bulk, there is one dedicated filling line. The line fills its proprietary rectangular 20-liter polycarbonate water bottles with pure spring water. The unique shape uses a custom palletizer for delivery to club stores and large businesses. Instead of the standard round 6-gallon containers, these custom packages are stacked five high, allowing the company to completely load out a truck. The palletizer also places a layer of plastic between layers to prevent stacks from being knocked over at club stores.
Between product runs, the company has clean-in-place systems that use “a lot of hot water” to sanitize its lines, Chris says.
“It’s doing it every day – setting up that discipline,” he says of the quality control system that allows the plant to juggle so many diverse products. “It’s setting up that critical control plant analysis throughout the plant and making it an integral part of what you do every day. You don’t take any shortcuts.”
Adjacent to the manufacturing side of the Worcester plant, Polar has two warehouses for product storage. One is dedicated to storing private label products and another is a dedicated picking warehouse for proprietary brands and products the company distributes, but does not produce, such as Monster Energy drinks. Combined, there is space for 800,000 cases.
The picking warehouse stores six-packs and 12-packs of cans; cases of 16.9-ounce and 20-ounce PET bottles; and 1- and 2-liters of its proprietary and partner brands. The aisles are coded for easier picking because, as Chris explains, there are multiple packaging sizes for each brand. Therefore, pickers use letter and number codes to select the cases of Polar products, partner CSDs and New Age brands.
From here, the picked orders are loaded onto Polar’s own trucks for DSD distribution. Between its Worcester and Scotia facilities, the company runs close to 300 trucks for distribution. “The number of trucks utilized changes daily,” Chris says, “Many of our products are distributed through freight carriers or back haulers.”
Operating at nearly 400,000 cases per day, Polar’s two plants maintain a tight schedule to accommodate a diversified portfolio of beverages.