Apple slices newest addition to Henderson’s Best Apples

When Allan Henderson began his entry into the world of fresh-cut apples slices in 2006, he found it a secretive place in which information was closely guarded and potential spies lurked everywhere. It wasn’t much like farming, where information flows fast and freely.

Unable to obtain good information and advice, he traveled to Europe, saw what he was able to see, bought what he needed to buy, copied what he could and set up the Smile Factory in Hendersonville, N.C.

Two years later, he’s like the other apple slice makers – secretive and suspicious that visitors might be spies from rival companies. But he grins while he admits to the charges. Like many others in the business, he gives tours where operations can be viewed through windows and from a distance, and no photographs are allowed.

Like most processing lines, apple slice lines look pretty much alike and turn out similar products. If there truly are secrets, they are subtle ones involving sanitizers, preservatives, water temperatures, weighing and packaging. The target is the same: Sliced products that don’t mold or turn brown after three weeks or more in plastic bags, enduring through less than perfect cold chains.

The reward, of course, is access to a booming market in packaged apple slices and chunks for the new generation of kids who think a natural apple comes in the wrong package. School lunch programs report that whole apples end up in the trash but that kids eat the slices. Besides selling to institutional feeding programs, the Smile Factory sells to Wal-Mart, is the sole supplier to Ruby Tuesday’s 900 restaurants and is making a new 6-ounce package to be sold through vending machines and convenience stores. Package sizes run from individual 2.2-ounce packages for school children to 20-pound commercial-size containers for the food service industry.

Like many other fresh-cut processors, Henderson’s facility is an add-on to an established business. Moreover, it’s an add-on that’s been added onto before.

The name Henderson fits well into Hendersonville, which is in Henderson County, the heart of North Carolina’s apple industry. The C.L. Henderson Produce Co. originated when Nun Henderson, in 1926, decided to sell produce from his farm, delivering it with six mules pulling a buckboard wagon.

Today, the company, owned by Allan’s mother, Elizabeth Henderson, with Allan as manager and CEO, grows nearly 1,000 acres of apples, cucumbers, eggplants and bell peppers. It runs a fleet of 12 tractor-trailer trucks taking produce to grocers along the East Coast. It runs a packinghouse that specializes in overwrapped trays of corn, beans, cucumbers – 30 items in all. The company grows some things but buys more and packs for other growers. It operates another packing line for apples. It operates controlled atmosphere storages and treats apples with 1-MCP. And now it operates the fresh-cut facility.

Henderson opened his facilities – at least a crack to give a peek – to growers touring North Carolina orchards in June with the International Fruit Tree Association.

While the overall operation has a sprawling look from years of growth, the equipment and packing and sorting lines are state-of-the-art and a source of pride to Henderson. He spent time touring plants in Europe and Japan before building the Smile Factory.

“Europe is 10 years ahead of us at least,” he said. “European food safety standards are higher than ours. Our experience in the apple slice business has made us better farmers. We are much more concerned now about sanitation and food safety.”

The fresh-cut facility takes off naturally from the storage, grading and packaging system that has been in place for some time. Apples are presorted and sized going into storage.

“Sorting out the culls and small apples and taking them to juice immediately saves on storage costs,” he said.

Apples going into controlled atmosphere storage are treated with 1-MCP (SmartFresh) in a special area Henderson built to take apples into 200 bins at a time. The bins are surrounded with drop-down plastic curtains for treatment, and then moved into one of several 50,000-bushel CA storages equipped with nitrogen generators and carbon dioxide scrubbers for storage up to nine months.

Apples packed on the line may become Henderson’s Best Apples for sale in bags or trays through wholesale channels, or they may become candidates for the Smile Factory.

In either case, a heavy emphasis is placed on getting apples clean and keeping them that way. Before apples enter the optical color sorter, they are washed with 140-degree water that melts away the natural wax and bacteria that may be lurking in it. This “cleaner apple” is re-waxed with a carnauba- and alcohol-based wax.

The optical sorter takes four pictures of each apple, 800 apples a minute, and determines where each apple will drop – 32 choices – on its way to semi-automatic, robotic tray and bag fillers. A fan blows the bag open and the computers select the apples that best fill a 3-pound bag without giving much away. There are not many human fingerprints on the apples.

Employees get three days’ training about sanitation, Henderson said, and they become part of a team that must both meet and enforce sanitation rules. The 132 Hispanic workers join teams based on family ties, and the families enforce discipline, he said.

Apples that go to the $4.5 million slicing facility run through a computerized machine that tests for the presence of bacteria before they head for scrubbing and washing that includes a chlorine spray.

Apples can be peeled, or not, before they reach the machine that cores and cuts them into chunks or slices. From there, they are treated with a solution containing vitamin C to control browning.

The slices go to an analytical scale that will dole out 2.2 ounces to within a gram – or 1/28th ounce. The bagger fills 120 bags a minute and runs at a speed of 10,000 pounds per hour.

Employees work in cold surroundings, and they get 20 minutes off every two hours to warm themselves up. But they dress pretty warmly – for cleanliness more than warmth.

Employees enter the work area through a gowning room where they wash up and don gowns, hairnets and boots. A camera keeps its eye open as they wash from the elbows down, standing in a solution that simultaneously washes their boots. An “informed sensor” opens the door so they need not touch it, and a blast of air greets them as they enter the outward-pressurized room.

An in-house laboratory runs test after test of product and ingredients like antioxidant solutions. Product samples are taken hourly and stored for 35 days. The Smile Factory guarantees a shelf life of 21 days.

Henderson said the factory “slices everything but Red Delicious.” While the fresh-cut business is pretty sophisticated, marketing has reached to the variety level. Apples are sold sweet or tart, and sweet usually means red and tart means green. Gala and Rome are sweet, Granny Smith is tart, and Pink Lady can go either way.

The evolution of C.L. Henderson Produce has been from farmer to packer to processor, Henderson said. While they have a large growing operation, the crop failure of 2007 didn’t slow down the fresh-cut facility.

“We buy apples from wherever,” he said. “We hope for a good local crop, but a poor crop doesn’t slow us down.”

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