With operations ramping up at Daily's new bacon plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, Plant Manager Wes Cowins (left) and Kelly Hattan are already making plans for more growth. 

During the first private media tour of Daily’s Premium Meats’ bacon plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, Wes Cowins is clearly proud of what has been accomplished so far. But the plant manager is downright giddy about the future. “This is my favorite part,” he says, just before opening a door to a wide open field, where two-thirds of the 16-acre property is still undeveloped, sitting idle under a thin blanket of December snow.

Back inside, is the result of a project that broke ground in May 2015 and just over a year later was operational. The $54 million, 114,500-sq.-ft. bacon-processing plant boasts a linear production line design with plenty of room for expansion. The company’s third bacon plant, this one is decidedly different, starts with the fact that the bellies it receives are sourced literally from across the street where Triumph Foods LLC’s massive pork slaughtering plant is located. In 2014, Triumph Foods invested $74 million for a 50 percent ownership share of Daily’s from its then-parent company, Seaboard Foods, based in Merriam, Kansas. It wasn’t long after the ink on the deal was dry when the decision was made to construct a plant in the Midwest. The goal was to expand the Daily’s brand to retail and foodservice markets east of Denver and supplement supplies of smoked bellies to its current plants in Missoula, Montana and Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Within the past two years, both (of those) plants are at capacity, which obviously allowed us to build this facility,” says Kelly Hattan, Daily’s president. And now that the ribbon has been cut in St. Joseph, “We’ll be feeding Salt Lake 23 million lbs. annually,” he adds.

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The ribbon cutting ceremony at the new 114,500-sq.-ft. bacon plant opens the door for Daily's to extend its reach to customers in the Southeast and Northeast.

The plant has opened the door to grow Daily’s Southeast territory and serve customers in the Northeast, which has added 20 new markets to the Daily’s system. For 2017, the St. Joseph plant’s goals are modest but then become exponentially more aggressive. During its first year, officials expect the new facility to increase the company’s sliced bacon production by about 4 million lbs., but more significant growth is expected in years two through five, as the plant is designed to produce 1.25 million lbs. of product per week.

Hattan says once the eastern expansion of the brand began to explode, it didn’t make sense to just dip a toe in the water. With Acosta Foodservice as the broker for Daily’s products, once the parts were in place to take the products into the Southeast, Acosta officials confirmed there was no advantage to delaying expansion into the Northeast market, a challenge that was accepted by Hattan’s team and is well ahead of schedule.

The new plant initially hired 140 workers with a target of eventually adding about 80 more as capacity ramps up. Currently, two processing shifts and a sanitation shift are part of each day’s operation. The construction process was led by the same design-build firm that Triumph and Seaboard had worked with before, Chicago-based Epstein. In the name of efficiency, the plant was designed with the goal of creating a linear-based processing line, and that expandable, straight-line approach was achieved.

“They (Epstein) were instrumental in design and they were instrumental in babysitting each step of the build process and construction,” Hattan says. But once the construction process was complete and the focus was on start-up, it was Cowins and his team that spearheaded the heavy lifting.

“We moved into the office on May 27th,” Cowins recalls. The 15,000-sq.-ft. office portion of the plant includes a reception area, cubicles, private offices, conference rooms, a client demonstration kitchen as well as an employee welfare area comprised of locker rooms, restrooms and a lunch room.

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The bellies are lined up for pressing at the new St. Joseph facility.

In designing the processing area of the new plant, one of the first considerations was to accommodate the enormity of three smokehouses. Manufactured by Riverside, Missouri-based Marlen International, the smokehouses, and the adjacently positioned Marlen blast cells, were at the heart of the plant design.

“Literally the building was built around the height of the smokehouses,” Hattan says.

The building was also built around growing volume. Cowins and Hattan acknowledge the new plant’s three receiving doors and five shipping docks are a source of envy among managers of Daily’s other plants where received shipments are carefully orchestrated through a single door. As for the freshness of raw bellies received at the plant from just across the street, “sometimes we are waiting and they are cut that day,” Cowins says. And they don’t sit idle long as Daily’s strategy is making products fresh to order vs. stockpiling product in expansive freezers until they are needed.

Typical processing time for bellies is four days, from receiving to shipping. With approximately 22,000 sq. ft. of total refrigerated storage space, coolers in the receiving area are able to hold up to eight truckloads of bellies, which is near the plant’s processing capacity for an average day.

The injected bellies are hung on a three-tiered rock and moved into one of three smokehouses.

Makin'’ Bacon

In the pump department, a variety of cures and brines are formulated prior to injecting it into the bellies. This department is an upgrade from the company’s other two plants. “We have the ability to make up to three different cures and hold them until they’re needed by the injector.”

After the bellies are pumped, using two Gunther injectors currently, 1,000 lbs. of bellies are equipped with individual combs for hanging. Those are loaded onto a three-tiered tree system before being moved using a Tecsal split-rail system that leads to one of three Marlen smokers. In a given day, the facility smokes between 250,000 lbs. and 270,000 lbs. The goal is to produce batches that will keep the three smokehouse full (about 28,000 lbs. each) where the dwell time is six-and-a-half hours per cycle to reach an internal temperature of 125? F before pushing the trees into the blast chillers, where belly temperatures are brought down to about 22? F, usually within 24 hours. This cycle typically occurs three times per day.

After exiting the blast cells, the bellies are weighed before going to the hanging cooler for approximately 24 hours to complete the tempering process and are then uniformly pressed by two Hoegger presses. Ready for slicing, the pressed bellies are either conveyed to the on-site slicing area or palletized for shipment in refrigerated trucks bound for the Salt Lake City facility for slicing.

Some of the processing refinements realized at the new facility include attention to details such as ensuring bellies in the massive smokers are situated so they are facing the door vs. facing the walls to ensure optimum air flow and smoke infusion. From a design standpoint, details including a chipped, granite floor and LED lighting, which added expense, but are details the owners believe are worthwhile investments in the future.

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Production and storage is designed to accommodate processing and slicing to order and delivering fresh, not frozen products.

While the initial thought was that the slicing room was oversized for the company’s initial needs to accommodate growth, Cowins and Hattan agree that the space will be quickly gobbled up. Slicing operations just started in September, but the expansive room is designed for seven slicing and packaging lines. In mid-December, the equipment and operations in that portion of the plant were limited to two Cashin slicers and three Multivac packaging machines while employees were being trained and equipment was being fine-tuned. On this limited scale, the plant slices approximately 140,000 lbs. of bacon per week for customers in the new markets.

When it came to the decision for the slicing equipment “it came down to quality and consistency as well as speed,” Cowins says, and other slicing technologies may be part of the future. When it comes to the space: “I didn’t make it wide enough,” he says, adding that an additional smokehouse would have been beneficial too, given the forecasted growth. Fortunately, the space is more than adequate for the near future and the next expansion at the plant will be mandated by the volume of products needed.

But through it all, the Daily’s hallmark quality standards must be maintained.

Hattan says, “We use fresh bellies, we don’t use frozen bellies and we use a dimensionally trimmed belly so it’s the heart of the belly instead of a commodity cut.” He adds that natural hardwood smoke is part of the equation consistent cycles ensure optimum color and flavor. “And then it comes down to being able to slice to order,” a Daily’s tradition, he says.

Missoula currently handles much of the retail slicing and packaging that will eventually be transitioned to St. Joseph.

As of mid-December, “everything we slice, we package and box here,” according to Cowins, and products are shipped directly to customers. Precooked bacon items that are manufactured in Salt Lake City are sent to St. Joseph as part of some other shipments to the new customers being served.

Expansion at the new plant is already being planned. Hattan and Cowins anticipate the next growth plan will be designed with a goal of not necessarily accommodating more volume of product, but to diversify the product mix in an effort to “try to be a little more flexible with what we produce,” which could include precooked bacon and other non-bacon products.

Learning Curve

Looking back at the fast-and-furious construction and opening of the new facility, Cowins has taken the challenges in stride. “It has been fun,” Cowins says with a chuckle.

“You definitely learn a lot when you open up a new facility,” he says, “from the standpoint of plant operations and you learn a lot about your people and a lot about the company.”

While start-ups always have their hiccups, Cowins says the recruiting and hiring side of the process has been more seamless.

“Finding enough talented folks to come in here and fit in with what we’re trying to do,” Cowins says, “that’s been one of the easier aspects of getting this going; finding the right people, getting the right people in place.”

While the employees are mostly local residents and some have experience working in further processing plants, none of them have backgrounds in bacon processing. To provide support for training workers and to provide IT expertise, personnel from Daily’s other two plants came to St. Joseph throughout the building process. Those that did assist with the opening of the facility were as impressed as they were envious, according to Hattan. “Everybody has been blown away. The way this plant is designed is truly all about efficiencies. We built this to produce bacon whereas our Salt Lake facility was a sausage manufacturing company and we turned it into bacon (processing).”

He adds that likewise, the company’s Missoula location was formerly a slaughtering facility and in Daily’s early days it was producing multiple products there until the 80s when the company became laser focused on bacon. “So we’re not real efficient at either of the other two plants,” he says, and employees who come from those legacy plants marvel at Daily’s shiny new toy.

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Daily's bacon is processed and shipped to order and bellies are never frozen as Kelly Hattan (left) and Wes Cowins will attest.


ERP Adoption

Hattan says, in addition to opening a start-up facility, St. Joseph is also the proving ground for a new ERP system (known as M-3) that will ultimately be adopted throughout Daily’s, Seaboard and Triumph plants.

Previously, the ERP system utilized by the companies was the AS 400. “We are one of the few companies of our size to still be utilizing that as our platform,” and the upgrade was overdue, he says.

The transition to the new system was not taken lightly and has been in the planning stages for the past several years. Implementing a new ERP system has been somewhat challenging on top of the typical training challenges that are inherent at a new-plant start-up.

“What we’re trying to do is iron out the bugs here,” Hattan says, and then roll it out at the Missoula plant in February and in about 60 more days implement it at the Salt Lake City facility, around April or May. Next, the mammoth Sioux City, Iowa-based STF (Seaboard Triumph Foods) plant, which is currently being built, will adopt the new ERP by blending the old system with the new one.

“If it weren’t for the dedication of our employees, we wouldn’t be as successful as we are today,” Hattan says.

“We’re also looking at an expansion in our Salt Lake plant,” by expanding the smokehouse capacity there. “It will allow us to keep all of that manufacturing within the facility.” This will also free up some smoking capacity for the St. Joseph plant as the Northeast and Southeast capacities develop.

Daily’s non-bacon products are co-packed currently. When working with customers, “If you have a little more in your arsenal to sell, you’re a little bit more important,” he says, “at least to the distributor as well as the operator customer.”

Looking forward, expanding the company’s portfolio of products is part of the reason the parent ownership team has gone on record about the possibility of growing through acquisition. “Having ham and sausage to complement the bacon, it helps with our overall shipments,” Hattan says.

Once a third slaughtering plant comes online, with the addition of the STF plant later this year, Hattan says it will serve as a signal for Daily’s to diversify. “It’s opening our eyes that we need to get more involved in further processing,” he says, “because we are too highly leveraged on raw materials.”

Hattan concludes: “We have to ensure we take care of the customer, product and our team members, which will assure our continued success– this is what makes Daily’s great.”