Graeter’s Ice Cream Production Facility Takes Diverging Path
This article in Food Engineering Magazine was secured by Team RMD
The staff here at Food Engineering Magazine thinks that there are a lot of ways a food plant can be fabulous. Last year we extended the traditional definition of “food plant” slightly by including a vertical farm. Our selection this year reflects more of what one would expect by the term “food plant,” but we still think that some of the qualities we consider to make a food plant fabulous might surprise a few of you.
Traditionally, the facilities we’ve covered as Fabulous Food Plants have been new and equipped with technology to set them up for the future. But this next facility is one that’s addressing the future by sticking to the past. Graeter’s Ice Cream in Cincinnati isn’t as new as Green Jay, but it’s not exactly old, either. The facility was built 13 years ago, but what makes this facility fabulous is its decided lack of automation.
A driving force behind Graeter’s business model is anticipation. The company’s been able to cultivate a dedicated customer base by limiting not only the number of flavors it produces, but by limiting the quantity of those flavors. And seemingly thrown in for fun are even more limited runs of limited-edition flavors.
This model of driving demand through scarcity wouldn’t work if the product itself wasn’t of the highest quality. But the speed with which some flavors sell out and the dedication people have to their favorites proves that the model is working. In fact, Graeter’s isn’t looking for aggressive expansion for the sake of profit. That’s not to say the company isn’t looking to make more money, it just means that it’s only going to pursue new possible ventures if it can be absolutely certain that the level of quality won’t drop. So what makes how this ice cream is produced so special? The answer is that it’s handmade.
To ensure that its ice cream has the same flavor and texture that made it a hit with consumers when it first debuted in 1870, Graeter’s uses the same freezing process. While there are some machines to help the process along, the steps taken are the same that were used more than a century ago—in the case of the vanilla flavor, right down to the same source of the vanilla beans.
Instead of actual machines, the staff are in sync and act like a well-oiled machine. They conduct their tasks around the tightly spaced floor with a rhythm that’s often done with the accompaniment of music, either from the radio or from the workers themselves singing. While making Graeter’s Chocolate Chip ice cream, for example, giant blocks of chocolate are melted in a vat, transferred to buckets and then poured into the custom-made French pots full of vanilla ice cream that’s been hand stirred. As the chocolate chills in the pot, it’s spun around and the centrifugal force combined with the rapid cooling breaks the chocolate up into uneven, bite-sized chunks.
It’s at this point the term “handcrafted” really comes into play. The ice cream is transferred from the pot to a packing station, where an employee scoops the relatively soft ice cream out with a trowel and into a pint—yes, by hand. The facility is capable of producing anywhere from 30,000 to 70,000 pints per day. The number of units produced depends on where the company is in the process of that flavor. For example, they’ll try to ramp up the number of units that are sent out the door when they first start on a flavor. After that, they fall into a “groove” with a slightly less frenetic pace.
Employees are all cross trained for various parts of the production process. The idea is to prevent burnout from doing some of the more repetitive, less mentally engaging tasks. The company says that the constant rotating of duties helps both with employee retention as well giving employees a sense of ownership and understanding of the process.
Graeter’s plan sees its product hitting the ice cream section in around 4,000 grocery locations, mostly in the Midwest via Kroger. The company also has its own retail shops throughout Ohio and in neighboring states, totaling 55. Peach is the most difficult to produce, and Black Raspberry Chip is the company’s best seller.