Factory freezes out recession

Laurel ice cream plant ignores chilly economy

March 01, 2009|By Lisa Tom | Lisa Tom,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Metal machines gleam as workers wearing earplugs, goggles and uniforms bustle here and there inside a factory in Laurel. Some don white lab coats and check their work with graduated cylinders and precision scales.

By all appearances, they could be making spaceships or airplanes. But the sweet smell of warm chocolate offers a hint at the product being made in this factory. They're making ice cream.

And at Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, they are making more ice cream than ever at the 705,000-square-foot facility on Whiskey Bottom Road.

As the recession forces reductions in industries across the economic spectrum, the Laurel factory, which produces Nestle, Haagen-Dazs, Edy's, and Dreyer's frozen desserts, is expanding. Last month, the company added a new production line, and it will add two more by year's end.

The growth comes on the heels of a $200 million expansion in 2005 that made the plant the largest Dreyer's facility in the country. Production manager Ted Shields says that Dreyer's has added nearly 600 employees in the past five years, bringing the total to about 800.

"Nobody's recession-proof. But you just don't eat ice cream for the calories," said plant manager Mark McLenithan. "You eat it for the emotional well-being and fond memories."

The industry has not been immune to economic forces. The past couple of years, production in the core category - ice cream in standard-size containers - has been down, said Bob Yonkers, vice president at the International Dairy Foods Association.

At this point, it is hard to determine to what extent the recession has been responsible, he said. A clearer picture will emerge after the summer peak season.

But ice cream is better suited to weather the downturn, experts say.

"People may not be able to afford other luxuries. They may not be able to go out to an ice cream parlor, but they can buy it for home," said Roxanne Lefkoff, a business professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in consumer behavior. "Even though it's a recession, ice cream is probably one of the safer industries to be in right now as long as it's reasonably priced."

The segment of the industry that has experienced growth and been the focus of expansion is novelty products, Yonkers said. Dreyer's new line to produce ice cream in individual servings is an example of that, he said. So are Dibs, nuggets of ice cream covered in crunchy chocolate.

The company has added a couple of dozen workers since the beginning of the year and says it plans to hire more. The brisk business at the plant brings a sense of relief to workers, especially among longtime employees.

"I feel very secure. I'm going to keep working," said Margaret "Cookie" Watts, 50. "Lots of people are out there without jobs. It's a blessing to even have a job."

The Millersville resident has worked at the Laurel Operations Center for 30 years. She started out as a packer at age 19 before becoming a dipper and then a lead operator.

"This is my only job I ever had," said Watts, whose favorite flavor is butter pecan. "It paid my bills. It's a good job."

A visit to the plant conjures up images of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. The milk stored in soaring white towers could fill 10 Olympic-size swimming pools and is used to produce 60 million gallons of ice cream annually, resulting in sales of $650 million.

Donning a glove, McLenithan reaches onto a conveyor belt and grabs a handful of Dibs. The process of making them begins when ropes of ice cream pass through a chamber that chills them so they are hard enough to cut, McLenithan said.

"Smoke" pours out the bottom of the next frosted chamber, but there isn't any fire - it's liquid nitrogen that keeps the chamber at minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit and freezes the nuggets before dipping.

McLenithan pulls a chain hanging overhead, and a large sliding door opens into a refrigerated warehouse. Fifty-foot shelves hold $10 million worth of ice cream that will go to stores up and down the East Coast and as far west as Chicago. Next year, the plant will export to Canada.

Fingers go numb almost instantly in the coldest room, where fans blast air onto pints passing by on a spiral conveyor belt. A flashing orange light warns occupants to leave after just a few minutes. Otherwise, the refrigeration shuts down as a safety measure.

A factory is the only place where it is possible to taste ice cream in the various stages of its creation, which can range from 20 minutes to three hours.

"We encourage the workers to eat during the day," McLenithan said. "We require them to taste it every 20 minutes."

An alarm sounds. McLenithan climbs some metal stairs and pulls an ice cream bar out of its mold.

"The stick wasn't exactly in the center, so the extractor wouldn't pick it up," he said, taking a bite before tossing the rest into the trash.

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