A lot has changed at Columbus Foods in the past seven years, both publicly and behind the scenes. After the company was purchased by Endeavour Capital, a private-equity firm, in 2006, the company’s south San Francisco-based slicing plant was destroyed by a fire in 2009. In 2010, Timothy Fallon took over leadership as the president and CEO, after Ralph Denisco announced his retirement as CEO. Meanwhile, another, bigger-and-better plant was built in Hayward, Calif., and opened in 2011, followed by another investment company, Arbor Investments, stepping in to become the next ownership group.

Click the image to view a slideshow of Columbus Foods' operations.

Through it all, Ken Neishi, vice president of operations, has been a critical part of cleaning up the ashes of the old plant; drawing up plans for a new one, juggling production between the other Columbus facility in South San Francisco and working out agreements with four other co-packers to ensure customer demand is met.

Neishi and his team will readily admit that building a new, process-focused plant to replace an outdated and retrofitted one is, on one hand, an operations dream-come-true. On the other hand, incorporating the latest technology and making it an integrated operation inside a building designed for a specific task carries its own set of logistical and training challenges, not to mention the millions it costs to build and equip what Neishi calls, “the best-designed slicing plant in the US today.”

After the devastating fire in 2009, for which a cause was never determined, the company’s ownership group didn’t exactly give Neishi’s team a blank check to build a processing Mecca. “While insurance paid for most of the new plant construction, one-third was funded by Columbus,” he says, referencing Endeavor Capital’s investment in the $30 million project. The old plant in South San Francisco was 40,000 sq. ft. and the new plant is 60,000 sq. ft. with plenty of room to grow. He admits the start-up at the plant was and continues to be a work in progress, with a dizzying array of moving parts, exhaustive planning, non-stop training and an unprecedented level of communication and flexibility among workers and management.

A few months after the fire and about a year before opening the new plant, the 2010 IFFA trade show in Frankfurt, Germany, was held. Neishi and his team were anxious to attend the global trade show in order to shop for the latest innovations to install in the new slicing plant that was being developed. The Columbus team attended with an equipment wish-list that was focused on automation and eyes wide opened for European-inspired design ideas.

Food safety focused

The No.-1 priority when planning and building the new plant was food safety. “The old facility had a significant amount of food-safety challenges,” Neishi says, due in large part to the fact it was an older building and was never designed to be a slicing facility. There was plenty of opportunity for improvement, considering the old building was chopped up into five separate rooms; the refrigeration system was inefficient; and there were ample environmental risks. “Luckily, we didn’t have any food-safety production issues,” says Paul Wolfert, food safety and quality director, although there were “some periodic environmental issues that would come up.” The new building incorporates sanitary design features from floor to ceiling, and operations are clearly segmented and include two “clean rooms” where finished products are sliced and packaged with minimal handling by humans. These efforts, combined with equipment that is designed with sanitation as a priority, have proven to make a measureable difference in food safety.

Wolfert points out that since opening the new plant on May 5, 2011, samples of all food-contact and non-food contact surfaces have been swabbed every week as part of the food-safety protocol. As of mid-July, this constituted more than 6,000 swabbings, none of which has resulted in a positive finding for pathogens.

“This has exceeded our expectations,” Wolfert says. “Our goal was to significantly improve.” He and Neishi agree the food-safety success is due, in part, to the building and equipment designs, but it also is a testament to the people working in the plant and the commitment to training by the managers and supervisors, including Mike Camarena, plant manager, and Maria Alfaro, production supervisor. “Our manufacturing leaders spend a lot of time training our operators,” Neishi says.

The company has also learned the food-safety advantages of going to plastic pallets throughout the plant with the exception of the shipping area, where a handful of wooden pallets are used.

Even the maintenance crew realizes its role in food safety. “Dave not only leads our mechanics, but he also helps maintain the clean environment; even maintenance is accountable,” says Neishi of Dave Gregori, maintenance manager. Engineers working on the equipment in the new plant are required to have a skill set and understanding of technology that is a far cry from older slicing facilities.

“You’re working on super computers,” Gregori says. “When you open the cabinet, it kind of takes your breath away,” he says, admitting the prospect is equally exciting. To meet the challenge, the company invests in on- and off-site maintenance training for its workers on the high-tech machinery. All seven of his maintenance workers have achieved advanced electronic troubleshooting on the Weber slicing equipment and Multivac packaging machinery at the plant and the learning continues even today.

Perhaps nowhere is the level of technology more advanced than on Line 2, where automation is a key part of the salami-production process. “We never had a full robotics line. This was new to us,” says Alfaro, who has worked at Columbus for 17 years.

Additionally, “the Webers [slicers and robotic pickers] and Multivacs [packaging machines] are significantly more technical than what we had before,” Neishi adds, and it took some time to get operators and maintenance workers up to speed on this technology.

There are two lines that run at least five days a week, two shifts per day. As mentioned, Line 2 is the highly automated, Euro-salami line, which currently only runs 35 percent to 40 percent of the time and incorporates robotic pickers engineered by Weber. This line is an area of opportunity and is the fastest-growing packaging segment for Columbus, Neishi says.

High on HPP

High-pressure pasteurization was another technology Columbus Foods was anxious to incorporate, knowing that adopting it also meant learning and adapting its operations to accommodate it. Neishi and his team are big believers in the system, provided by Hiperbaric, and the benefits it offers Columbus customers. HPP products from Columbus are sought after for the shelf-life it affords customers, including Costco and Safeway.

“We went from a 50-day shelf-life with non-HPP products [guaranteeing the customer 30 days of shelf-life] to 90-days, guaranteeing the customer 50 days,” Neishi says. The technology also allows Columbus to offer large- format deli meats with a cleaner label, and the claim of “no added nitrites or antimicrobials,” which is being offered to retailers nationally. “We could not make that product if we didn’t HPP it,” Neishi says. “It allows us to be able to take the antimicrobials and the nitrites out and then sell it with a label that says ‘No nitrites added.’”

While plant operators worked to incorporate HPP at the new plant, Columbus outsourced its HPP-treated products to Cooper Farms. Columbus brought the process in-house for some of its products in April of 2012, but still relies on Cooper for the bulk of these products. HPP-treated product is now run at the new plant one shift per day, five days per week. More customers are requiring their deli meats be HPP treated, which is done at the Columbus plant, where it treats both 1-lb. and 2-lb. sizes. Cooper Farms and Columbus split packaging sizes between the small- and large-package formats, which helps to maximize the throughput at the Hayward plant. Cooper Farms has four slicing lines and one HPP machine. Neishi says the HPP process includes processing the product within 72 hours. “Currently this is only deli meat; none of our salami goes through the HPP machine,” he adds.

Cooper Farms’ plant in Van Wert, Ohio, also runs approximately 1 million lbs. of bulk product for Columbus, which is non-sliced, in addition to 11 million lbs. of sliced products, all for deli products. Cooper operates four lines, which include Multivac packaging equipment, Weber slicers and HPP machines.

“They are really a great partner,” says Neishi of Cooper Farms, dating back to even before the Columbus plant was destroyed by the infamous fire. “They saved us after the fire. They took most of the deli production in from the burned down plant.” The co-packing relationship with Cooper actually began in 2006, and since then, Cooper added two slicing lines, in large part based on the expected growth of Columbus’ business.

Pushing production

Besides improved food safety, the plant was also built for more robust productivity. Going from the 40,000-sq.-ft., “cookie-cutter” design of the old plant to a more linear, 60,000-sq.-ft. configuration has allowed for a three-line, integrated operation with some storage space that can easily be converted to two additional production lines and clean rooms in the future.

As it was when the plant reopened in 2011, Columbus currently runs two shifts per day followed by a sanitation shift. Working on weekends is rare, Neishi says. “It’s a flex day to catch up on production if needed,” he says. While the capacity at the plant is approximately 18 million lbs. per year- not including HPP-treated products – Neishi says current yearly production demand is about 16 million lbs. total for Deli, Salami and HPP- treated products.

The company’s deli line slices turkey products, including herbed and pepper flavor, as well as roast beef, pastrami and corned beef. Turkey and pastrami products constitute the highest product volume for Columbus. Investing in high-end processing equipment from companies including Weber and Multivac, had to be offset with the promise of more production and less labor costs. But ramping up productivity wasn’t as easy as flipping a switch. After about two years of operating at the new facility, “we are just seeing now in 2013 what we expected of this plant,” in terms of productivity, he says. “We had a lot of problems getting our throughput up to our expectations.”

Operational obstacles

One of the hurdles to reaching production goals was getting the plant’s rooms cleaned and sanitized properly before production shifts were scheduled to start.

“Late start-ups were the No. 1 problem,” Neishi says. Keeping any water out of the plant during production made the sanitation process challenging because of the inherent need for using water to clean and sanitize the facility each night. Eliminating that water in time for start-up, especially in the clean rooms, was a sticking point for many months. Finally, with some tweaking of the air-handling system, the problem was resolved this past year.

Another efficiency hiccup was related to the plant’s labeling process. For about the first six months, Neishi says labeling was an operational sore spot. “Part of it was the label and part of it was the machine,” he says. Eventually, operators discovered the solution involved moving the labeling operation out of the areas of the plant that were subject to washdown.

Until recently, paper labels were used for non-HPP products, but the Hayward plant has transitioned to pre-printed (print-pack) film for all of the higher-volume products. “We are moving companywide to all print pack,” Neishi says, due not only to the cost advantage but also because of the superior resealable features it offers consumers.

Approximately 85 employees work at the plant. There would be about 20 fewer if it weren’t for the high level of automation at the facility.

Columbus also has a plant in South San Francisco, referred to as the Forbes plant in addition to its Bay Front facility near the new slicing plant in Hayward.

While getting the production smoothed out and dialing up throughput has taken some time at the new plant, managers have seen almost immediate yield improvements. Much of this is attributable to easier-to-maintain cooler space. Production supervisor Alfaro says, “This makes a difference not only on the quality of the meat, but also in the appearance – we want the products to look appealing and they must be consistent.”