October 17, 2005

Fremont, Ohio: A Visit to the Heart of Heinz

By Teresa F. Lindeman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Oct. 16--FREMONT, Ohio -- In Hershey, Pa., money smells like chocolate. In the northern Ohio community of Fremont, the profitable aroma wafting about is a sweet blend of cooked spices, essential oils and tomato paste.

Here, the H.J. Heinz Co. of Pittsburgh operates what it says is the world's largest ketchup plant, churning out the equivalent of 4.1 million 14-ounce bottles every single day.

The scarlet condiment is the company's signature product, sold in 140 countries and representing the largest stream of the $3.2 billion in revenue generated annually by Heinz's ketchup, condiments and sauces sales. And the Fremont plant, opened in 1937, is a big cog in the planet-wide network of those factories that continually replenish the supply of red gold.

As streams of tomato-based liquid flow through pipes from cookers to bottles, this particular plant illustrates both the aging infrastructure of the modern food giant and the maneuvers prescribed by Heinz executives in recent years to reach fighting trim.

A decade ago, when Plant Manager Jerry Kozicki came from a job running a Peter Pan peanut butter operation for ConAgra Foods, the Fremont factory had an efficiency rating of 58 percent -- meaning a line that could handle 300 bottles per minute was producing 174 bottles per minute on average. Now the plant perennially exceeds a 90 percent rating.

The push to drive up the plant's efficiency is representative of what is going on at Heinz. An ambitious corporate restructuring has focused on pruning slower-growth and low-margin businesses, many of which were added during former chairman Anthony J.F. O'Reilly's tenure, and shoring up its mainstay businesses such as ketchup and Ore-Ida french fries by improving operations and extending their reach on supermarket shelves and family dinner tables.

In recent years, for example, Heinz has sold green and purple versions of ketchup, added upside-down bottles, signed new restaurant accounts and supported scientific discussions of the product's health benefits. The Fremont plant is prepping for yet another new bottle now in the development phase, a larger-sized version that aims to be easier to handle and store in the refrigerator.

The factory, about 30 miles southeast of Toledo, also has been adding work from other Heinz plants. In 1997, Heinz shut down a smaller ketchup plant in Tracy, Calif., and shifted the output to Fremont, which also had been under review for closure. Two years later, the production of tiny, single-serve ketchup packets from the North Side was moved to Fremont, where machines steadily stamp out shiny sheets of the condiments. Fully 80 percent of the Heinz ketchup made in the United States comes from this factory.

Yet despite its production, the Fremont plant remains a work in progress, a ketchup wonderland where the new co-exists with the old.

For one thing, the manufacturing processes do not necessarily follow a logical flow. But using structures built more than 60 years ago, and that have been expanded and remodeled a few times since, requires a willingness to put things where they fit.

As tour guide, Mr. Kozicki hurries up and down flights of stairs, through huge rooms fitted with high, old-fashioned frosted factory windows and sections with no natural light at all. Some walls are done in flat paints while others are layered in the beige tiles of a 1950s science lab. The predominant color is not red but the silver of sterile stainless steel factory equipment.

Plenty of rich, mushy -- and bright red -- tomato paste can be found at the beginning of the whole ketchup-making process, at least this factory's role in it. Rows of massive, square, wooden cases that each hold 2,700 pounds of tomato paste are lined up on the floor awaiting a ride in a two-story-tall machine strong enough to flip the containers over and dump out the contents.

Years ago tomatoes came from fields nearby. Today, tomatoes for the 400 or so cases of paste cooked daily are shipped in from California's more temperate San Joaquin Valley.

Tucked away upstairs, visitors enter a room lined with tall, stainless steel cookers. Each stews 8,000 pounds of ingredients every seven or eight minutes, adding a secret mix of spices and oils to the tomato paste. It smells rather like a pumpkin pie baked with ketchup.

A valve opens at the bottom of the cooker, dumps the results into waiting pipes and prepares for the next batch. Workers behind a glass window monitor computer screens to make sure the process runs smoothly.

Back downstairs, a conveyor line packed with clear plastic bottles zips along at a rate of 300 to 330 bottles a minute. The bottles are held on by suction until the ketchup squirted inside adds enough weight to keep them in place.

"We're trying to get those bottle speeds up but it becomes very difficult," said Mr. Kozicki. The plastic is so light that bottles going too fast just fly right off. The factory still runs one line of glass bottles, though most have been phased out.

Fresh ketchup goes into the glass bottles at 200 degrees and the plastic ones at 90 degrees, cooling further as the containers are capped, sealed and organized into cardboard boxes.

Amidst prototypical factory hissing and clanking loud enough to require ear plugs, the tour crosses a metal catwalk above the conveyor belts and long, fast-moving rows of ketchup bottles. Mr. Kozicki pauses to watch avidly. "This area's my favorite viewpoint in the whole plant," he said. "From up here, I can see all my bottling lines."

On one conveyor belt 14-ounce bottles made with less expensive plastic for the huge dollar store market fly by. Other lines are handling a 36-ounce version made for traditional supermarkets and processing 14-ounce red plastic bottles used by some food service customers. A squat, soldierly parade of 20-ounce upside-down bottles reveal that they are filled right-side up.

If this is Mr. Kozicki's favorite spot, his favorite piece of equipment has to be something he calls the Octopus. The eight-armed device, which he claims is also found in Budweiser plants, carefully picks up 24 bottles at a time and gently places them in a box. A less expensive packing device on the next line seems to bangs around its bottles and drops a few so that workers have to come by and clean up after it.

"One Octopus could probably do the job of two of them," the plant manager comments with parental pride.

Heinz has been pinching and squeezing wherever possible to add efficiency and get costs out of its entire operation, and it shows at the Fremont plant. A distribution center nearby was turned over to a third-party operator last year. A machine handling bags of ketchup for dispensers used in sports stadiums was modified to move faster.

Earlier this year, robots nicknamed Tom and Jerry arrived to help produce oodles of tiny, 2.5-ounce ketchup bottles used for room service in hotels. The robots eliminated the need for about four positions per shift, although Mr. Kozicki said the affected employees were moved into other assignments at the plant.

Only humans can handle some jobs at the factory, which employs about 500. At a table near the single-serve production line, three women carefully sort through piles of single-serve packets pulled out at random. If the workers find too many that leak, the whole batch must be pulled and checked.

The mix of old techniques and new, traditional tools and modern equipment seems likely to endure as long as Heinz does.

Near the end of the factory line, Mr. Kozicki's tour wends its way through a room stacked high with cases of ketchup waiting to be put through sophisticated -- and gigantic -- equipment that will organize the boxes into pallets and then use mechanical arms to wrap plastic around stacks that may stand six boxes tall.

Yet, in the midst of this impressive, oversized display of ketchup power, a worker rides by on a vehicle that sure looks an awful lot like an old-fashioned bicycle.


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