Northwest processor upgrades plant to extend shelf life and improve quality

Tree Top Inc., the first fruit-processing cooperative, was established nearly 50 years ago in central Washington in the middle of the state’s apple country. The cooperative is owned by more than 1,100 grower-members from Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The company started as an apple juice processor but has grown into a processor of juice, concentrates and dried products, and as a foodservice processor for fresh-cut apple slices.

The company is divided into two different sales divisions separating their consumer goods from their ingredients and foodservice products.

“We’re primarily geared toward foodservice. That’s been our whole bent since we started in the fresh-cut market,” said Ned Rawn, national account manager for foodservice.

“Apples are becoming a big part of the foodservice arena and (fresh-cut) seems to have gained some traction.”

Tree Top entered the fresh-cut market in 2000, supplying fast food restaurants in the Pacific Northwest with high-quality apple slices. In 2006, a new fresh-cut facility was completed in Selah, Wash., with the latest processing equipment for the growing foodservice market. The 26,000 square foot plant is fully automated and completely sterile. But just three years later, Tree Top spent considerable capital updating the fresh-cut operation to improve quality and extend shelf life.

Because quality is so important to national foodservice chains, Tree Top was continually looking for ways to maintain quality.

“It’s constant learning,” Rawn said. “We’re always striving to put out the best quality we can.”

So just a few years after constructing a new building, Tree Top ripped the front of it off and rebuilt it with a redesigned front end system. The new process uses a flume system to move apples through the facility, limiting hard contacts that could bruise the apples. The new line also helped to improve efficiency. Different pack sizes can now be run at the same time. The flumes are independent of each other, which also means that the company can run organics and conventional apples side by side.

Having the flumes separate also helps to prevent cross-contamination, increases traceability and provides better sanitation. Because each lot runs on its own line, Rawn said the company now has the flexibility to flush individual flumes which keeps the plant functional at all times on the other flumes.

“Tree Top is so proactive in the food safety area and with traceability and all that goes with it, that we encourage customers to come in and see how we’re doing it,” Rawn said.

The processor is audited six to eight times a year – on top of the annual American Institute of Baking audits, Rawn said. The various second- and third-party audits are required by customers and take up quite a bit of time, but they give Tree Top the opportunity to show customers how good the food safety and traceability programs are.

“It just makes us do our job better,” Rawn said.

Tree Top works with national accounts to develop signature products for their stores. The company does individual packages for fast food chains as well as a larger 3-pound bag for restaurants or other establishments, Rawn said. Custom packaging and custom cuts provide value to its customers, and the goal is to create products that enhance the customers’ businesses with products tailored to their needs.

Tree Top was able to update the building without experiencing a lag in final product. The work was mostly done by changing the work schedules to four-days on, three days off, which kept the upgrades from interfering with production and provided the contractors ample time to work without interruption.

“It was quite the engineering feat,” said Sharon Miracle, corporate communications manager for Tree Top.

The update to the line was a no-brainer when Tree Top managers saw that more product could be run through with little downtime for switchover. And by reducing damage to apples before cutting, the overall quality could be maintained over a longer period of time. The extended shelf life will help Tree Top expand its current distribution, as the demand for fresh-cut apples grows, Miracle said.

Also new at Tree Top is the reorganization of the foodservice operations, under a new vice president position held by Dan Wenker. The fresh-cut plant was built at the same site as Tree Top’s dried ingredients facility, so that waste from the cutting operation can go to the drying plant to use all of the raw apple product. And in October of last year, Tree Top acquired the Medford, Ore.–based Sabroso Co., a manufacturer of fruit purees. All foodservice operations were realigned recently to provide a more coordinated approach to sales, so customers don’t receive calls from multiple salespersons from various parts of the company, Rawn said.

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