Take a look inside super-premium kibble processor C.J. Foods' Bern, Kansas, production facility.
For more than 30 years, co-manufacturer and private brand producer C.J. Foods has been the secret partner helping brands satisfy the pet owners’ need to feed super-premium and ultra-premium dry, extruded pet foods and treats to the pets they love.
Chuck and Joyce Kuenzi established C.J. Foods in 1985. The facility was expended in 1995, then again in 1999. In 2002, the company purchased an existing pet food plant in Bern, Kansas, where the co-manufacturer is headquartered today. They have since expanded to six processing plants, four of which are dedicated to pet food processing.
C.J. Foods was initially a human food processing plant but became the first organic certified pet food processor in the US after agreeing to produce 100% organic certified caged bird food for a customer in 1992.
Pictured here is C.J. Foods’ management team in November 2018. Back row from left: Brian Lundquist, chief operating officer, Tim Friesel, plant site director, Jacob Strahm, corporate sales manager. Front row from left: Bill Brock, vice president of operations, Tracy Seitz, director of human resources, Tami Mars, customer support manager, John Krehbiel, vice president of corporate sales, Heather Govea, vice president of private brands. Not pictured: Elliot Haverlack, president, and Brad Berenston, chief financial officer.
C.J. Foods currently produces dry kibble for 35 of the top U.S. super-premium and ultra-premium brands. To meet the needs of its customers, C.J. Foods employs nearly 500 team members at its six processing plants — two in Pawnee City, Nebraska, two in Bern, Kansas, one in Baxter Springs, Kansas, and one in Brownwood, Texas — for a combined total of 620,000 sq. ft. of plant space from which the company produces more than 400 million lbs. per year of extruded pet foods and treats.
On average, C.J. Foods packages more than 2,000 SKUs per month across all locations. For one customer, a single kibble recipe is combined with different inclusions into 15 package variations.
Packaging capacity determines the plant capacity. Just-in-time delivery of packaging materials, a wide variety of diets and an immense number of separate SKUs requiring multiple changeovers means packaging is often a bottleneck. C.J. Foods uses an interactive plant floor productivity efficiency system called Redzone to maximize capacity and accurately identify bottlenecks. Digital reports can be accessed on each packaging line and through company-issued iPads.
A larger, 135,000-sq.-ft. Pawnee City, Kansas facility the company refers to as BP30 was built by C.J. Foods in 2011 and designed specifically around preventing microbial cross contamination by having three distinct areas of separation — raw material and meat handling, extrusion and packaging. The other locations, which were existing plants, have two areas of separation, processing is separate from packaging and finished goods storage.
Suppliers for the dry pre-mix ingredients provide just-in-time delivery. Those raw, dry materials are conveyed into the raw materials area which is a separate room from the extruder. In all locations, C.J. Foods has a unique system for managing air flow throughout the plant. “The air comes into the cleanest part of the plant which is your finished-product warehouse and flows through to the other end of the plant where your raw materials are coming in,” Krehbiel says.
The meat room, which is a separate room with its own separate air flow system, processes frozen meat blocks into custom slurries that, depending on the diet, can include multiple protein sources as well as fruits and vegetables. Raw meat slurries are pumped into the raw materials room and into the preconditioner along with the dry, pre-mix ingredients and liquid oils and fats. The extruder sits in a separate room one level below the preconditioner. Extrusion operators have no exposure to ingredients in their raw state.
C.J. Foods has five fully automated extrusion cooking systems that combine to produce in excess of 400 million lbs. of extruded pet food, treats and high-end caged avian diets annually. Across the company’s four facilities dedicated to pet food processing, the extruder systems include a Wenger X-165 single screw, two Wenger X-185 single screws, a Wenger C2TX twin screw and an Extru-Tech E750 single screw. Five dryers, two from Extru-Tech, a Wenger Series VI and two Wenger Series VII plus five Extru-Tech vertical coolers that cool the products before material handling systems from HorizonPSI, Air-Lanco and MPE Chicago deliver them to the Wenger and Extru-Tech enrobing systems and on to one of 13 packaging lines: four from Thiele, three from Parsons, two from JEM, a Roberts C1500 SUP rollstock line and a PSG-LEE SUP pre-made line.
The HorizonPSI pick-up hood system used to pneumatically convey the kibble off the end of the extruder does not pull in air from the floor of the extruder room. It pulls in clean air that goes through both a HEPA filter and a burner as a microbial kill step before it comes in and picks up the kibble and takes it to the dryer.
Kibble travels from the dryer through a dense phase conveyance system to the coating room while it’s still hot to receive external coatings. The coated kibble travels back into the dryer room through a dense phase conveyance system and passes through a vertical cooler that reduces the temperature of the kibble down to the ambient temperature of the room. QA tests at this point measure the density, the actual size, the moisture content, the water activity and the temperature of the kibble.
Finished kibble as well as pasteurized, bulk freeze-dried ingredients are held in storage bins and can be custom blended prior to packaging.
Although C.J. Foods has strong partnerships with other pre-mix providers, well over 50% of the dry ingredients the company requires for processing is provided by Lortscher. “It’s much more than purchasing ingredients that we need,” Krehbiel says. “Lortscher, along with several other pre-mix providers, sources the ingredients, stores them, blends them according to each unique recipe, grinds them, loads them onto a pneumatic tanker and delivers what we need when we need it to whichever facility we request. We felt that we needed to make sure that this source and supply was protected because it’s so vital to our business.”
The growth of super-premium and ultra-premium pet foods has exceeded expectations for at least the past 10 years growing in the US at a rate of nearly 6% CAGR year-over-year between 2011 and 2017 according to market research company Euromonitor International. But C.J. Foods believes that, at some point, the growth in the super-premium category will level off. This prompted the manufacturer to start a private brands division in 2016.
“If we, as a company, want to continue to grow, we must ask, ‘what else we can do with the assets, knowledge, understanding, experience and reputation that we have?’” Krehbiel says. “The most obvious is private brands, so we elected to move in that direction. An opportunity presented itself with one account and one situation. We dove in and learned together through the process.”
The private brands division of C.J. Foods provides services beyond the kibble to include product launches, positioning, production, in-store education and marketing support from initial concept to the shelf to the consumer. Heather Govea, vice president of private brands for C.J. Foods, says, “Private brands provide retailers a sense of control over their footsteps and helps drive loyalty with their customers.”
“At the end of the day no matter how innovative we can be, if it doesn’t resonate with the consumer and sell then it doesn’t matter how good it is, how innovative it is, what’s in it or what’s not in it. C.J. Foods can’t answer that question because we don’t market and sell pet food,” Krehbiel said. “Our job and our business is about taking our customers’ ideas and aspirations and figuring out a way to produce, and package, that product. That’s our world. And we rely on our customers being right about what the consumer will purchase.”