1962 ice cream plant is enjoying fat times

Sweet tooth: Unlike many traditional manufacturing plants, a Laurel ice cream factory is expanding and expects to hire more people.

September 06, 2001|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Even when the temperature is high and the humidity is thick, there's a cold spot in Laurel that's 20 degrees below zero.

The Ice Cream Partners USA LLC plant on Whiskey Bottom Road in Howard County keeps the East Coast cool with its Nestle Drumstick ice cream cones, Dole Fruit 'n Juice bars and several novelty ice pops that are mixed, poured, chilled and wrapped each day.

With 5.5 million cases of cool treats leaving the premises each year, the Laurel plant is the second-largest ice cream maker in the state, and certainly the ice cream capital of Howard County.

But the plant is something of a relic in a county that has expanded its manufacturing base with high-tech industries such as fiber-optic network component makers.

The clustered growth of fiber-optic companies such as Corvis Corp., Codeon Corp. and Ciena Corp. have left traditional manufacturers in the cold.

"Much of our manufacturing is in the computer field," said Richard W. Story, executive director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority. "A lot of the traditional manufacturers are here because they have plants and such, but the growth is on the tech side."

According to the state Department of Labor and Licensing, Howard County added nearly 1,150 manufacturing jobs between 1998 and 2000. In the past five years, the manufacturing sector has maintained its 7 percent share of the Howard County economy, though the numbers of jobs in the county has increased overall.

But traditional manufacturing has been shrinking, Story said, because companies have stopped growing, or cut back jobs while the high-tech companies have thrived.

Only a few traditional manufacturers, such as the ice cream maker in Laurel, have continued to add to the county's job base.

The Ice Cream Partners plant is a subsidiary of Nestle USA and Pillsbury Co., which owns the Haagen-Dazs ice cream line. The plant has increased its work force by 45 percent since 1996, when Nestle purchased the building.

In those five years, the company has refitted almost the entire plant with new machinery, including batch tanks that allow it to make ice cream from scratch instead of from an ice cream mix.

By January, the company is due to complete a 7,500-square-foot expansion that will add more mixers, new loading docks, a cafeteria and a truckers' lounge. The expansion also includes more office space and locker rooms for the 225 employees, who work 10 months a year. The plant shuts down in November and December for maintenance.

After construction is completed, the company plans to hire at least 20 more workers for a third shift. This will allow the plant to run almost 24 hours a day from January through October as it pumps out 45 varieties of novelty ice creams, fruit bars and ice pops.

"We start making [ice cream] in January for the summer, and the buildup of the people starts then, too," said Peter Jaggy, factory manager. "March through July is the height of production. We're just handing them out as fast as it can go."

Delicious smell

The production room in the 39-year-old plant smells deliciously sweet and is appreciably colder than the outdoors.

In one area, giant machines move in syncopated rhythm, oozing out ice cream bars, inserting wooden sticks, dipping them in chocolate and then freezing them before wrapping.

On another side of the room, Drumstick cones are sprayed inside with chocolate, filled with a soft ice cream, mechanically patted on the head, and hurried into a freezer to harden. The ice cream is then flipped and dipped in chocolate and nuts in the last stage.

Across the room, a super-sweet, slushy mixture of orange-flavored ice water and gummy bug-shaped candies chug through a clear plastic tube overhead, before being shot into molds and plunged with sticks to make Bug Pops.

Unlike a high-tech plant, the technology here is a freezer that turns flavored water into ice-pop slush in less than 9 minutes. And the chill in the air is not to save computers from overheating, but to preserve frozen bars until they are boxed, sealed and lifted to a minus-20-degree storage room.

"You've got to like the production line to work on it," said Charles Rager, who retired in August after 37 years in the plant. "It's steady work, and you've got to keep going all day long."

Mainly East Coast market

The products are shipped throughout the East Coast, Jaggy said, but some items, such as the Itzakadoozie bar, are shipped nationally.

Last year the plant turned out 7.6 million gallons of frozen treats, including ice cream. That's a pittance compared with the 1.4 billion gallons of ice cream alone produced nationally last year, according to the International Dairy Foods Association.

This year, the plant is scheduled to churn out the same amount, which accounts for about 30 percent of Nestle's ice cream products nationally.

And as long as the summer is hot, it will keep churning, freezing, boxing and shipping.

"You end up with more products every year," Jaggy said. "We have more products than [production] lines."

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