There are trend watchers, and there are trendsetters. Then there are the game changers. After more than 80 years in business, Wyandot Snacks has honed its skill sat all three.
Who would have guessed that a family-owned company in rural Marion, OH, was once one of the largest exporters of raw popcorn? That was, at one point in history, the distinction that Wyandot Snacks hung its hat on. But for this company — and the Brown family, which founded and still owns Wyandot — success does not end with a crowning achievement. It’s only the beginning. Evolving from raw exporter to cooked popcorn producer to snack manufacturer requires something special. It takes the grit, determination and entrepreneurial spirit inherent in a family business’ DNA.
Then what comes next?
That was the task for Rob Sarlls when he took his post as president and CEO of Wyandot Snacks in late 2015.
“Wyandot had all the elements of a fantastic business,” said Mr. Sarlls, a plant-based snack industry veteran whose experience spans decades in the food industry. “It’s always had a reputation of being the smart people in the snack food space. They’re the brainpower, and the focus on technical expertise has always been well-known and respected.”
The other quality Wyandot’s known for is its “can-do attitude,” as Mr. Sarlls described it. “It was always, ‘Go to the ends of the earth to make the customer happy, get the job done and get it done right,’ ” he recalled.
That ethos led Wyandot on a path to developing packaged goods and corn-based chips, and it didn’t stop there.
“Like every multi-generational family business, [the Brown family] was very opportunistic. Someone would knock on their door and ask, ‘Can you make this?’ and the answer would always be yes,” Mr. Sarlls said. “They built a beautiful business this way.”
But as Wyandot’s business grew, so did the snack industry. And they’ve both evolved, too. When Mr. Sarlls joined the company, he spearheaded a four-month strategic initiative that resulted in the decision to focus mainly on co-manufacturing better-for-you — also known as BFY — snacks. “We really narrowed it down perfectly,” he said. “We had all the capabilities in-house, but this crystallized and turbocharged it.”
Based on its innovation expertise and technological capabilities, Wyandot’s new emphasis now drives most every aspect of the company. “At one point, private label production was the supermajority of our production, but working with brands is very rewarding on every level,” Mr. Sarlls said. “It’s now the supermajority.”
The innovators’ innovator
Mr. Sarlls was drawn to Wyandot for several reasons, not the least of which was the company’s propensity to fearlessly go after new opportunities that led its transformation so far. To him, that was lightning in a bottle. All it needed was a bit of focus.
With contract manufacturing better-for-you snacks comprising the supermajority of the business, that focus is now laser-sharp, thanks to Wyandot’s product development expertise. “The brands are the ones typically doing most of the innovation,” Mr. Sarlls observed. With his marketing background, he was quick to point out that brands have the resources to tap into social media and word-of-mouth campaigns to engage social influencers. “Those early adopters are looking for exciting brands with an essence that resonates with them,” he said. “That’s why the groundbreaking innovators are typically the brands, and that’s who we’ve been working with more. They’re the ones changing the landscape and the whole feel of what snacking is all about.”
Wyandot operates on the formula of food consumption growing at population growth, and snack consumption expands at 2- to 4-times food consumption, with better-for-you snacking growing 2- to 4-times snack volume. “Based on this rule of thumb, we wanted to focus on the people bringing the best new ideas to market,” Mr. Sarlls said.
And that’s another differentiator: Wyandot’s alignment with emerging brands. With the innovation expertise that comes with a team of nearly a dozen food scientists and R&D experts, paired with its highly developed extrusion technology, Wyandot has the chops working with innovators, entrepreneurs and startups along with the big brands.
“We have become the first call,” Mr. Sarlls said. “We’re not one of many; we are the first.”
For every current or potential customer knocking on the door, Wyandot has one strict requirement: The value proposition must be authentic. “It has to ring true to the brand essence they’re trying to deliver, and it has to be a product that tastes good,” Mr. Sarlls insisted. “We make good things taste great. That’s easier said than done, and what I’m really proud of is that our team can make snacks that contain fun, unique ingredients and great nutritional attributes.”
Shifting the paradigm
In Marion — and the surrounding Wyandot County — Wyandot Snacks is a pillar, not only with its reputation as an employer of choice but also for its commitment to the community through 40 different charities and various sustainability initiatives.
But Wyandot is known for its products, too. And for many people in Marion, old habits die hard. Mr. Sarlls recalled a time when he had attended a community golf event wearing a ball cap from a nut company where he had previously worked. “Someone asked me, ‘Why is the president of Popped Right (that’s one of our older corporate names) wearing a Fisher Nut hat?’ ” he recalled. “Fisher doesn’t compete with Wyandot, but our community still often thinks of us as Wyandot Popcorn.”
The truth is, Wyandot still makes popcorn, but it’s now only a small portion of the business. “We’ve now become primarily an expert extrusion company,” Mr. Sarlls said. “I’m very proud of our private label business, but when I hear people refer to us as a private label manufacturer, I remind them that we are a contract manufacturer that also does some private label.”
Strategic business decisions are rarely the easy ones, but Wyandot has learned that these are the choices that drive a business forward; they’re the game changers.
One example Mr. Sarlls recalled was a private label cheese crunchy that Wyandot used to produce. “We didn’t make very much of it, so the line sat unutilized much of the time; we may have run a couple shifts a week,” he said.
But in accordance with the strategic plan, everything coming through the door needs a better-for-you angle to it. “That makes our decisions easier in terms of what new business to bring in and let go, and what equipment to buy or retire. We’ve done a lot of shifting of our capabilities to focus on the best opportunities,” Mr. Sarlls said. Eventually, the company replaced its cheese crunchy line with a Clextral twin-screw extruder to produce toddler and organic pulse snacks. “Now that line is busy 80 to 90% of the time,” he said.
Wyandot’s strategy streamlines the business and maintains efficiency; it also impacts how the operation handles its ingredients and raw materials. “There are so many different variations we’re running that it doesn’t really allow us to go to a bulk system,” Mr. Sarlls said. “When we did a lot of private label, we had one formula that we could say, ‘Take it or leave it.’ When you’re in contract manufacturing, each customer has its own preferred ingredients.”
Properly managing these customer complexities is one key to success, which is why it was so important that Wyandot narrow down the customer list to fit a specific profile. “Having a limited number of customers means we can pay attention to them all, and we can give each of them as much focused attention as possible,” he noted.
Art of the process
In its 250,000-sq-ft facility that rose from the devastation of a fire in 1996 that essentially melted the production floor, Wyandot now houses 10 processing lines and what seems like a never-ending row of 40 packaging lines.
In this space, Wyandot’s can-do attitude is seen in rapid motion. “I’m always amazed at how we can make things and then live-load a truck,” Mr. Sarlls said. “I love that. It’s coming off the line, and then like 6 hours later, it’s leaving us. That’s huge.”
But in snack food manufacturing, attitude isn’t enough. To get products down the line and out the door, Wyandot must streamline the process and equipment to focus on the end result. The company partnered with Clextral to install a total of three twin-screw extrusion lines in various areas of the plant, with another set for installation this spring. “When you get really good at a certain type of equipment, when you develop a good relationship with the OEM, you want more of it,” Mr. Sarlls said. “When it works, you want to multiply it.”
One of the first Clextral installations is still going strong producing toddler snacks, a key piece of business for Wyandot. To accommodate the line, the blending station was relocated in accordance with the customer’s food safety requirements. “The customer said, ‘Get the blending out of production so we can reduce possibilities for foreign materials,’ ” said Mike Wells, senior vicepresident, operations. Now, ingredients are brought in and blended in the room next door, and supersacks are transported via forklift to all extrusion lines.
For every product, all ingredients are barcodescanned upon entering the facility. “It doesn’t hit our warehouse without printing a ticket,” Mr. Wells said.
After the sacks are unloaded into a loss-in-weight feeder, the ingredients are run through the twinscrew extrusion. “That’s when all the mixing happens,” Mr. Wells observed. Once the meal is formed, it’s run through a die — Wyandot has a full library of die shapes for extruded products — and is cooked after being cut. Once dried, the snacks receive a seasoning, either wateror oil-based, depending on the product.
Flexibility is key for Wyandot’s extruded products as well as its other traditional snacks like tortilla and corn chips that are produced with Casa Herrera ovens and Heat and Control fryers and seasoning drums. The company has seemingly innumerable roller dies to create any shape of chip imaginable, and the same can be said on the extruded lines. “We can make just about any shape a customer wants,” Mr. Wells said. From dime-size tortilla chips to whale-shaped snacks, the possibilities are endless.
While co-manufacturing is the supermajority, Wyandot still has some private label business, and popcorn — the legacy product — is still on the menu. To get this many different products out the door, packaging automation is a key factor. And flexibility is the battle cry.
In any food manufacturing facility with a limited footprint, when the rows of packaging machines have stretched as far as they can, operators will typically look upward. At Wyandot, a mezzanine level houses Heat and Control FastBack systems that convey, portion and weigh products such as corn and tortilla chips before they are packaged into bags on Kliklok-Woodman or TNA packaging lines.
After being placed in bags, chips are automatically placed in one of two BluePrint Automation (BPA) case packers, the most recent entry into the company’s extensive packaging operation having been added in 2017.
With just one production facility, Wyandot’s strategic packaging equipment purchases, such as with the case packers, help the company remain mindful of its space constraints. “Technology has advanced even from just a year ago,” Mr. Wells said.
“The footprint continues to shrink on equipment, which is good for companies like Wyandot, where space is a little tight. The technology is getting to where we’ll be able to automate more than what we do today.”
The BPA equipment was Wyandot’s first foray into automating this area of the operation, but the company’s propensity to work with incubator snack producers lends itself well to the prospect of new automation technologies that allow Wyandot to increase its volume without having to expand its footprint … at least for now. As part of the next phase of the company’s strategic plan, Wyandot is looking at some point to open a second plant on the West Coast.
Food safety is a pillar for Wyandot, and that shines through in its recent appointment of SQF Level 3 certification. But the standards don’t stop there; with a culture of continuous improvement, Wyandot is always upping its game. “It used to be that Level 2 was such a high bar, but now, Level 2 is often the minimum level required by brandholders and retailers,” Mr. Sarlls said.
Level 3 certification is a defining quality for the type of better-for-you snack production Wyandot wants to be known for. “It builds trust and affirms our commitment to customers and consumers alike,” Mr. Wells said. “It also reflects engagement at all levels of the company, from the board to the manufacturing floor. Our entire food safety and quality system — from formulation to material ordering through processing, packaging and shipping — is covered in the scope of the SQF audit process.”
A co-manufacturer often sets the baseline for food safety and quality protocols on the standards of its most stringent customer. For example, Wyandot’s toddler snacks customer is the gold standard for food safety and requirements, which are so rigorous that they will usually ensure full compliance with any other standards or audits.
For instance, X-ray and metal detection are both used on this line, whereas in other areas of food production, it’s often an either-or scenario. For toddler snacks, a Mettler Toledo X-ray machine helps detect clumps for quality control while the Safeline metal detector will identify foreign materials, which adds a layer of foodsafety assurance.
In fact, any workers entering the toddler snack production area from another part of production must first use a lint-roller on their clothing to reduce the risk of foreign materials hitching a ride.
Sometimes, though, certain standards might actually be too high for a customer not interested in the betterfor- you market. “Maybe they don’t need to be that high, but we can’t run our organization by saying, ‘We can be at a high level today and medium or low tomorrow.’ The whole house has to be at the highest level,” Mr. Sarlls said, noting that Wyandot has at times lost or turned down business because of it. “It’s not a level of quality that everyone wants, and that’s fine. People make those decisions every day.”
Whether on the extruders or any other production line in the facility, allergen control is always top-of-mind for Wyandot. “All of our ingredients are stored onsite in our warehouse, and they’re all stacked differently depending on the allergens,” Mr. Sarlls explained. “You don’t want ‘allergen A’ falling in with ‘allergen B,’ so we barcode everything.”
Changing the landscape
Wyandot’s success has always come from its work ethic and ability to identify and adapt to emerging market trends. Today, the company uses that foresight to empower the industry.
With a heavy emphasis on better-for-you snacks, Wyandot is poised to educate the industry through its involvement with SNAC International, for which Mr. Sarlls is second vice-chairman.
“Over the past several years, we’ve played the part of torch bearer, the rally-crier to say, ‘BFY is here. It’s real, and consumers demand it.’ As an industry, we need to address it. We all need this. We’re not just making corn chips or potato chips and going to sleep. The world is changing, and we’ve got to change with it.”