Paul Kafer
As M+P's Operations Executive of the Year Smithfield's Paul Kafer has spent his career learning and teaching.

It’s understandable that Paul Kafer might be somewhat of a coffee snob. An accomplished and respected engineer in the meat processing industry, he began earning his manufacturing and operational chops about 40 years ago, working with an iconic coffee manufacturer in the Northeast. There, he spent years learning the science behind roasting coffee beans and implemented a process for streamlining the process for General Foods’ Maxwell House Coffee brand.

Kafer, vice president of engineering for Smithfield Foods, has traveled a winding career path working in various roles in food and beverage industries throughout the country and across the globe. His diverse background as a big-picture thinker has served him well years later as he almost unconsciously is on the lookout for what can be optimized, supplemented and improved. After delving into the meat industry as a plant manager at North Side Foods Corp. in 1997 and working for Smithfield since 1998, the lessons he learned from his previous jobs still serve him well.

Engineering career plans

“I was always fascinated with chemistry,” recalls Kafer, thinking back to his childhood where he grew up north of New York City, in Westchester County. Just before graduating from high school and after he scored a 100 on the state Regents test, Kafer’s guidance counselor said: “You probably should look at chemical engineering,” which was sage advice.

He applied to and was admitted to Clarkson College of Technology in far upstate New York. Committing to the college, now known as Clarkson Univ., without the benefit of even a visit to the campus was a leap of faith.

“I wanted to get into manufacturing,” he says, and took some business-related courses that included accounting and economics. “I also had a passion for food,” he says and when he wasn’t enrolled in school he spent many hours working in a variety of restaurants as a cook back in his hometown.

Growing up near the headquarters of General Foods, Kafer took a flyer and sent a resume to the company’s nearby R&D center in Tarrytown, New York, where engineers for some of its plants were being hired. Kafer got an interview during his senior year and received a job offer at the company’s giant coffee-roasting facility in Hoboken, New Jersey, in the shadows of the steaming Maxwell House Coffee sign that marked the skyline there for decades. After graduating from Clarkson with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, Kafer eagerly started his first job there. Working as a process engineer, beginning in the late 1970s, Kafer learned plenty in those first few years.

“It was probably one of the toughest plants to work in; it was an old plant; it was the high-cost plant in the division; it was right on the Hudson across from New York City,” he says.

He remembers well his first assignment as a wet-behind-the-ears engineering graduate: figure out the pollution control system on the plant’s roasters, which came during an era when the Environmental Protection Agency was rolling out a steady stream of new air-quality regulations. With a recently purchased air scrubbing unit not solving the pollution problem as hoped, Kafer was challenged to control the smoky exhaust generated by roasting coffee beans, ideally to use it as combustion air for the old plant’s boilers without allowing it to back up into the plant, making it impractical for workers to perform their duties. The heavily unionized plant now was faced with devising an amicable solution for a problem that had divided workers in the plant’s roasting operations vs. those in the boiler operations.

“So here I am, a 22-year-old engineer with these guys who’d been working in the plant for 40 years,” Kafer says, “With the boiler guys on one side of a table and the roaster guys on the other side. They’re looking at me going ‘what are you possibly going to tell us?’” he says. His only commitment to them was, “I promise you we’ll figure it out; I can’t tell you anything other than that,” he nervously assured the skeptical group.

And with that, Kafer frantically monitored and measured everything he could in all parts of the plant. He immersed himself in learning about the intricacies of boiler operations, interviewing the boiler operators about their challenges and daily duties as well as spending months on the processing floor with the roaster operators. He was there when the system worked perfectly and he was there when the choking smoke backed up in the plant. He took countless readings to measure air-flow, static pressures, installed strategically placed dampers until he finally determined there was a correlation between steam needed and the presence of combustion air. He created a chart to balance the level of steam with the amount of roasters utilized and at what point more steam would be created and need to be released into the atmosphere, which would result in an energy penalty for the plant, a concession that would be the decision of the plant manager.

Meeting that first challenge taught Kafer a lesson he still remembers and practices today: “You really have to invest yourself if you want to solve a problem, which means getting the right data; get all the facts; take all the measurements. Yes, it takes time but that’s how you achieve success.”

This successful solution lit the next fuse for Kafer as he recognized an opportunity to automate the roasting process at the plant by assessing the thermodynamics of beans as they roasted. Kafer realized that at a certain point during the roasting process, coffee beans give off (exothermic) heat, which explained why each roaster at the plant produced different results in color, yield and flavor because they were operated like a temperature-based oven.

“I figured out that we were probably over roasting; probably wasting energy; probably losing yield,” says Kafer who utilized a Texas Instruments-based control system for heating the beans to a certain temperature and letting the beans self-roast once they became exothermic. His theory created plenty of skepticism among many coffee industry veterans. “I took reams and reams and reams of data,” evaluating and recording cycle times, yields, moisture analysis, flavor profile assessments and more. “It took months,” Kafer says, “but we proved that we would shorten cycle time and improve yield. Eventually, they (the roaster operators) saw the benefits of it.”

Another valuable lesson was learned from this exercise, Kafer says, one that still applies today: “If you want to introduce new technology, you have to learn it and be willing to teach it. I had to show them, ‘I know how this works and I am going to teach you how it works and show you what the benefits are.’”

While still working at General Foods, Kafer went back to school to hone his operations skills by enrolling at Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. in a two-and-a-half year MBA program specializing in industrial management. After earning his Master’s, Kafer’s career focus shifted to operations, and while still at General Foods he advanced in management roles in that capacity.

After about eight years, Kafer left Maxwell House and went to work at a small privately owned coffee company in Secaucus, New Jersey, as a vice president of operations for about one year and then was recruited by a snack company, also in New Jersey, as a director of operations of two plants where trail mix and nuts and seeds were made. After eight years working in all facets of the snack food company, Kafer had established himself as a well-rounded food industry operations and engineering professional.