GOURMET GOODNESS is only one ingredient in The Christie Cookie Company’s recipe for success. Equally important is how the Nashville, TN-based manufacturer continually finds ways to increase capacity and improve efficiencies. The company can now easily shift from shipping its usual 250 mail order boxes a day to as many as 7,500 boxes during the holiday season, while also maintaining regular, year-round shipments of 30 pallets a week to wholesale customers.
Christie Cookie has come a long way since 1983, when founder Christie Hauck started making gourmet cookies in his home kitchen and taste-testing them among friends. The company sold an estimated $10 million worth of cookies and frozen dough in 2002, and is projecting 13% growth for 2003. About half of the firm’s revenue comes from mail order sales to corporate accounts and individuals. The other half comes from food service, the wholesale side of the business, which sells ready-for-the-oven cookie dough to hotels, restaurants, hospitals, and schools. The lion’s share of the company’s growth this year is expected on the food service side because of growth in the Doubletree Hotels chain, a customer since 1995, and a tripling of Christie Cookie’s distribution through U.S. Foodservice, one of the largest food distributors in North America.
Over the last three years, Christie Cookie has notably increased its capacity by consolidating three facilities into one; buying a cooler three times the size of the old one so it could order raw materials in larger quantities; adopting a faster method of freezing dough as it moves along the production line; and revamping the mail order assembly line to achieve near-perfect flow.
“Our main efficiencies in manufacturing have come from the design of this warehouse,” says Bob Turner, executive vice president and CFO. “They’re in the way we designed the flow from coming in at the receiving dock, moving through our raw materials, into production, back into the freezer, and out the shipping doors.” Dry goods, for example, travel directly from receiving to dry goods storage and then into the production area. Butter, eggs, chocolates, and other perishables have a direct path from receiving into the cooler, then out the back of the cooler into the production area.
Limiting product offerings to the three most popular flavors on the mail order side and half a dozen on the food service side also helps keep things efficient. Christie Cookie mixes up dough in 300-lb. batches and runs about 50 to 80 batches a day. As much as possible, it tries to run the same flavor for an entire day. After mixing, the dough goes through a production line, where it’s shaped, cut, and frozen, and then boxed, palletized by flavor, and put in the freezer. Food service orders are pulled from the freezer on pallets, staged in the cooler, and shipped out with common carriers FFE or Charlie Baucom.
Mail order cookies are baked from the same frozen inventory that supplies food service, then sent down an assembly line. Tins are bulk-picked and pick tickets are generated the night before a day’s production. The computer sorts by tin size and color, enabling all orders in six-inch gold tins to run together, then all orders in six-inch white tins, and so on.
“When the line begins, we put a tin bottom and a correct lid for that item into a tray with the pick ticket,” says Turner. “It goes down, people put the liner bag in the tin, the cookies go in the liner bag, the liner bag is sealed, [biodegradable] peanuts are put inside the tin, the lid is put on, it goes through an L-sealer with film, and then a heat tunnel to shrink the film around the tin. The tin comes out of the back of the heat tunnel, where it is married up with the box, and the box is sealed. A label from the picking ticket is put on the box. It’s scanned at the end of the line, that produces a shipping label that goes on the box, the box goes on a pallet and out the door.”
Turner adds that the facility has established time frames for every function. “We know how long it takes our cookie-putters to put the cookies in the tin, so we can monitor the pace at which the line runs to ensure we’re running at that speed. We have very few bottlenecks now.”
Mail orders in standard Christie Cookie tins are usually turned around in two to three days. Custom tin orders go to a local silk-screener first and require a couple of extra days to process. Most orders are shipped by Airborne Express’s standard ground service.
This is, of course, only how it works 11 months out of the year. “On the mail order side, we do probably as much business from Thanksgiving to New Year’s as we do the rest of the year,” says Turner. “That’s a big increase. It’s not exactly double, but it’s pretty close.”
Christie Cookie prepares for the holiday rush by working extra shifts in October and November to build the inventory of frozen dough. In December, food service sells from that inventory while employees mix fresh dough and bake for mail order. The company runs three assembly lines instead of one; mail orders require an extra two days turnaround; and Airborne picks up six to 10 times a day instead of once or just leaves the truck for Christie Cookie to fill.
Dana Dubbs is a freelance writer who can be reached at email@example.com.
Forklifts: Crown, (800) 961-TRAN; Yale, (800) 233-YALE
Conveyor belts: Intralox, (800) 535-8848
Scanners and label printers: Marsh, (800) 822-9001
Boxes, loose fill, red foam, and other packaging materials: Wurzburg, 901-525-1441
Tins and cookie liner bags: Pacific Packaging, (408) 934-9790
All of Christie Cookie’s operations and administrative offices reside under one roof. Sales channels include phone, fax, mail, Web store, and sales reps. The 13 full-time warehouse workers rotate among jobs ranging from mixing dough to assembling mail orders to shipping and receiving. During the holiday boom, the warehouse workforce swells to 150.
Christie Cookie normally bakes about 4,500 cookies a day for mail order fulfillment. “We bake and ship on the same day,” says Fleming Wilt, president. “That’s one of the great advantages of our company — the freshness of our product and getting it to the customer as timely as possible, even during Christmas season. We take pride in that, and we think that’s what separates us from other companies.”
CHRISTIE COOKIE CO.
Headquarters: Nashville, TN
Sales: Estimated $10 million in 2002
Total employees: 37
Web site: www.christiecookies.com
Facility size: 40,000 sq. ft., including 31,000 sq. ft. for operations and 9,000 sq. ft. for administrative offices
Number of warehouse employees: 13
SKUs: 1,500 on mail order side; 18 on food service side
Shipments: About 250 mail order boxes daily; as many as 7,500 boxes daily during peak season; 30 pallets a week for food service year-round
Mail orders picked/hour: 250 per hour normally; 900 per hour during peak season
Picking method: All pick tickets generated the day before a day’s production, sorted by tin size and color; tins filled, built, and packaged on an assembly line