Two years ago, Aaron Merrell, CEO and operating partner of Plato Pet Treats, faced a dilemma. Overthinking led Merrell to the hard truth that if they didn’t improve the production efficiency of Plato’s top-selling dog treats, Thinkers, the company would be better off not offering that product line. 

“We started producing our meat sticks using a collagen casing system, and it was an awesome product,” Merrell says. “It became one of our best-selling lines, and it also happened to be the most difficult to produce. It was slow, labor intensive and casings were a big expense. We realized that if we couldn’t innovate in this area, we were better off not producing this line because even though it was a good product at a good price, we just couldn’t keep up.”

No easy answers
From the beginning, Merrell and his partners knew it would be challenging to figure out how to bind a mostly meat-based treat product that dogs would really love. “We were trying to target a jerky-type product. We wanted something that was a little bit moist, soft and easy to chew, and not crumbly or hard like a biscuit or a bone,” Merrell says. “It’s a real sweet spot we were trying to target, and we have found when you have an ingredient as variable as meat, it can be especially challenging. There was a long learning curve to be able to get that done reliably.” 

With a product made primarily of meat, the source of that ingredient is critical. Plato sources organic chicken from Northern California, duck out of the Northeast and salmon from the Pacific Northwest. Each source has different properties, and to produce a consistent product that holds together and is palatable, Plato had to create specs around what works for its unique process. “That tends to create challenges on the sourcing side because now we’re restricting what we receive,” Merrell says. “We have to have a certain spec so the product we produce matches our nutrition label. On top of that, we’ve made it extra hard on ourselves by having a very limited ingredient deck so there are only so many knobs we can turn to adjust for ingredient variances.”

Plato Pet Treats CEO Aaron Merrell in the plantPlato currently produces nearly 50 SKUs for the pet specialty market with two production lines in a 60,000-sq.-ft. facility. It offers dehydrated salmon, chicken and duck in small bites, strips and sticks. Plato’s strips line includes options with added vegetables, and turkey strips with pumpkin, sweet potatoes or cranberries. The company recently started selling Thinker meat sticks individually packaged and sold more last year in dollar value of the single-serve configuration than it sold in any other configuration. 

Plato’s goal for each product is to offer a healthy treat made with an easy-to-understand, short list of ingredients that dogs go crazy for. In addition to the small bites, strips and sticks made in its Fresno facility, Plato has added three product lines from outside processors. A single-ingredient, dehydrated, fish-skin treat made of Icelandic cod is produced in Iceland and packaged by Plato. A wild Alaskan salmon oil is produced in Alaska, and the company’s new small-batch, lamb, beef and pork, bone broth is produced in Fresno at a human-grade bottling facility.

Plato’s original processing line produces the small bites and strip products. “It’s pretty simple,” Merrell says. “We started off with some equipment that was off the shelf, and we adapted that equipment to meet our needs. Then we ended up replacing that with our own design, and that’s worked out well for us.”

The second production line is the reason Merrell invited Pet Food Processing to visit Plato’s Fresno facility. This is the meat sticks line that faced extinction. As Merrell puts it, Plato needed to make a quantum leap, and Merrell needed an equipment supplier that could help him find a solution for Plato’s unique product. After much trial and error, Merrell found a supplier willing to jump in with both feet and help him increase capacity and solve the efficiency issues that threatened the future of the meat sticks line. Merrell recognizes that a lot of equipment manufacturers work primarily with large companies where a fraction of a percent of improvement in efficiency can equate to a lot simply because of the scale. That wasn’t the case for a company the size of Plato with annual sales around $15 million. Plato needed to realize substantial improvement for the benefits to outweigh the cost of new equipment. 

Innovate or die trying
Finding innovative solutions is nothing new for Merrell. From day one there have been very few out-of-the box solutions that worked for the company’s unique products and processing parameters. For the meat sticks line, Plato found an equipment supplier willing to share the risk of innovation. “I contacted different equipment manufacturers and started picking their brains. Eventually, I found the Handtmann ConPro alginate casing system that ultimately solved our problem,” Merrell says.  

Nobody handed Merrell the answer, but Handtmann Inc., Lake Forest, Illinois, was instrumental in helping Merrell find the solution. “Handtmann was such a big step for us because they were more collaborative than anybody that I’ve ever worked with in the past,” Merrell explains. “They actually hadn’t done what we were doing, so a lot of Handtmann’s ideas were theoretical. They had used that technology in other applications, but they weren’t sure if it was going to work for what we were trying to accomplish. They were very upfront, very realistic. They walked me through the process and helped me test the system along the way to determine if it would work for us. I believe that’s the reason it was successful.”

Plato now produces its meat sticks on a standard Handtmann ConPro system using Plato’s existing Handtmann VF 616 to fill product and a new Handtmann VF 608 for the alginate solution. In alginate casing systems, the product is co-extruded through a cascade of calcium chloride into a hygienic-plastic flume with a flowing bath of the calcium chloride solution and is set for handling by the time the product reaches the end of the short flume. Alginate casings let the processor run continuously without interruption and the alginate gel can be adjusted as needed for flavor, color, bite and texture. “It took us a couple years to figure it out, and I was really pleased to see that Handtmann was entrepreneurial enough to work with us through that process,” Merrell says. “When I finally knew the system would work, it was a huge relief.” 

Plato Pet Treat small bites after dehydratorOn down the line
Custom solutions are clearly the norm for Plato. Once Plato treats are formed, the treats go into three large dehydrators that run 24/7 but, again, not without some modification. Plato’s small bites, strips and sticks go on trays and the trays are stacked 10-ft. high on carts and are loaded into the dehydrators. Proper air flow and control of both temperature and humidity gives Plato treats the texture and palatability pets love. Custom-designed controls added needed functionality, enabling operators to monitor and independently adjust the temperature, humidity and air flow within the dehydrators. This custom solution allows the operator to retain moisture in the products until a certain temperature is reached that eliminates bacterial growth. Plato’s dehydration process retains the products’ palatability and nutrients. “We’ve been on our own from day one in developing a protocol that works for us,” Merrell says. “We’ve had to make modifications and we’ve automated some things to help make that happen and that’s what has really allowed it to work for us.”  

Dehydrating the treats on trays is an integral part of the process, and those trays need to be cleaned to the highest standards. A Mafo industrial washing system is a simple but efficient way Plato keeps the trays sanitary. The system, designed specifically for the dehydration trays, uses steam for a final rinse at 185˚F, and that water is then recycled and used for the initial rinse on the next batch of trays before being discarded.

To minimize changeover, the company schedules long runs of the same product, which also allows operators to use raw material as it arrives once it passes stringent quality control. Plato’s quality control team works around the clock. Plato has invested heavily in equipment to test its ingredients. If the ingredient isn’t right, the treat isn’t right.

Merrell says the company works hard to stay ahead of the curve on quality control, sanitation and food safety. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has helped to focus Plato’s efforts, but it has not radically changed Plato’s processes much because the company was already working toward Safe Quality Food (SQF) Certification for Quality Code (formerly Level 3). FSMA, he says, has just provided an added incentive for the company to attain that certification. 

Plato proudly displays certification banners – currently European Union (EU), USDA Organic and NSF audit certifications – on a large wall in the entrance of the facility, visible to both visitors and employees. Merrell’s goal is to fill the wall with certifications much like a General earns medals for his uniform. “Certifications are one way we’re working to stay ahead. As a small company, that third party influence helps keep us on the right path as we grow and expand our product lines,” Merrell says.

Plato’s process includes multiple checks and balances for not only the ingredients coming in, but  also for the finished products. As part of many quality checks including a third-party validation prior to packaging, finished product passes through Eriez magnetic metal detectors both before and after packaging along with checkweighers as a final precaution prior to cartoning. These steps and many others give Plato validation at critical control points. 

Following Plato’s process from raw material to sealed cartons ready to ship, it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into maximizing every step. When Plato switched to a Multivac vacuum pouch machine to individually package its meat sticks, Merrell says the equipment paid for itself in the first nine months by reducing both labor and product giveaway. Another boost to efficiency was an Ishida  combination scale and an MFG pouch packaging system. Merrell says this focus on improving efficiency during the past two years has been a targeted effort to shore up the company’s foundation and prepare it for growth. 

Entrepreneurial spirit
From the custom-built control system on Plato’s dehydrators to new product launches, Merrell works to support and foster an entrepreneurial spirit within Plato. It’s a team effort. Nichole Nonini, Plato’s marketing specialist, first introduced Merrell to the concept of bone broth for animals, and Hanna Bemer, food scientist, created a proprietary natural preservative, antimicrobial agent in her first year with the company. “We have to be the ones to innovate,” Merrell says. “From my vantage point it seems like the smaller companies are the ones that are innovating and taking more risks, and to do that we need to be open and positive because you never know where the next idea will come from.” Merrell says by finding custom solutions and streamlining processes, Plato now has the capacity to meet its growth targets. He estimates the company is currently running at 50% of its capacity and expects that within two years he will be in the market to expand capacity and plant size for the third time in 10 years. 

Poised for aggressive growth with a full pipeline of new products in the works, Merrell says cats may finally get the Plato treats they deserve. A complete and balanced dog food formula isn’t out of the question either. “That is something that is difficult to do well,” Merrell says. “I think there is an opportunity there, but it needs to be something that we have an advantage at that ties in to our ethos. Whether that’s through responsible sourcing or a very specific ingredient deck, there are a lot of different pieces to that puzzle. It’s a big bet.”

Today’s pet owners want to feel good about what they give their pets and a treat, in particular, is an important way humans show love for their pets. “Our products add value to that interaction, and I think that’s why we’re growing,” Merrell says. “Pet owners will see a different reaction to our treats than with other products.”

Plato distributes its pet treats primarily through pet specialty stores. Merrell says the challenge for Plato is getting the initial trial for people to see the response they get from their pets. “Our philosophy of responsible sourcing, clean label and a short ingredient deck is a value system that we have as a company but it’s also something that resonates with a consumer who already supports these values,” Merrell explains. “We’re not inventing this mindset. We’re not convincing them to care. We’re speaking to what they already care about. I don’t think we have impacted anybody’s perception as far as that goes but we are responding to that.”

Merrell is excited about the road ahead. He says, “The value pet owners are placing on quality nutrition and the role technology is playing in the food processing world gives me hope for a bright future for Plato and this industry.”

See more images from the Plato Pet Treats plant tour in the March 2018 issue of Pet Food Processing.

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