Kyle Smith runs a manufacturing company in a business where it isn’t always important who makes what. Contract operators do the actual production of billions of tons of foods and beverages for the brand owners, but the CEO of Casper’s Ice Cream believes it’s crucial for the growth of his company to make the stuff itself.
That’s in large part because variety is the spice—or, in its case, the cream—of life for Richmond, Utah-based Casper’s, a $100-million maker of ice cream and novelties that is depending on proprietary manufacturing for the lineup expansion and quality control to help expand beyond its regional strength in the Pacific Northwest to the entire country.
“We needed to expand, so we upgraded our main facility with new automation,” Smith told Chief Executive. “We just needed to keep up with consumer demand, and some processes we wanted to enhance and make better. If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”
Casper’s employs about 320 people to make its products at three plants close to Richmond, including the largest, a 95,000-square-foot facility that it built in 2014 and whose capacity it quickly doubled by 2016. In its latest improvements, for instance, Casper installed equipment in the largest factory that doubled its production of bars to 450 a minute versus 110 previously.
“We used to have employees manually putting six sticks in a box, then a cartoner,” Smith explained. “Then employees were encasing it. Now, that’s all done automatically.”
At a time of tremendous flux and even confusion in the ice-cream category, Casper’s is trying to be all things to all people, and is using its own brands, extensions and new products to do so as well as acquiring some of those. So, Casper’s fields full-dairy products like Fat Boy ice-cream sandwiches at the same time it’s demonstrating increasing sensitivity to allergy-plagued consumers with more SKUs that are dairy-free, gluten-free or both.
Also, Smith is pursuing an unusual path in its strategy of providing product variety for plant-based consumers: giving them cones, toppings and other “inclusions” in Casper’s brands that also step around their allergies to nuts and other substances, lending a kind of indulgence and experience factor to eating that many better-for-you ice creams don’t produce.
Casper’s has been in business for nearly 100 years and produces about 10 times its revenues of just a decade ago. Its ever-increasing product variety is helping the company push for more national distribution “through deeper penetration with certain retailers,” Smith said.
Key to its growing success in this endeavor, Smith said, is that “repeat buyers love our products. Even with plant-based stuff, quality and great-tasting products are core to what we do. Consumers don’t have to compromise.”
Casper’s approach to manufacturing has keyed its ability to grow. Here are some principles Smith has applied along the way:
• Humane production. It starts with safety. “At the end of the day, it’s all about safety for employees, and quality food, and investing in training,” Smith said. “Those are the key things we need to stay at the forefront of the business. So that employees can go home and see their families. We let employees see that they are in the forefront.”
Smith has taken a similar approach to automating Casper’s largest plant with what Ken Harris, a food-industry consultant, has called “state-of-the-art automation.”
“We have more output, but it’s also better for employees from an ergonomic standpoint,” Smith said. “These also are higher-paying jobs now, because robotics can now do the manual labor, and we can invest in our employees for additional training to become machine operators and higher-skilled workers that continue to add value to the business. It also gives them a sense that we’re investing in them.”
• Company pride. Smith knows how crucial employee satisfaction is, and he promotes that by essentially telling workers there’s a sort of privilege in what they do. To support that notion, Casper’s shares with its employees social-media posts it gathers of customers enjoying Casper’s products, often in some kind of family celebration.
“So employees see and understand they’re actually making a difference in someone’s life,” Smith said. “Ice cream gives comfort to people, and joy and happiness, and we share some sense of that.
“And when you walk the floor, you get a sense of that: People enjoy their jobs and are happy and proud of what they do. They’re not just ‘making ice cream.’ What they’re doing is important.”
Casper’s also encourages employees to provide community service, collectively or individually. “We’re very active in the community, getting employees out of the factory, planting trees, volunteering at a local food bank putting Thanksgiving baskets together, and so on,” Smith said. “There’s a sense of pride in giving back to the community.”
• Family-like culture. “Work-life balance is really important to us and our culture,” Smith said. “We want to work hard five days a week, 40 hours a week, and then spend time with our families.” To attain that kind of balance, he said, Smith promotes a “servant-leadership mentality. Everyone chips in and does whatever they have to do.”
And being in the business it is, Casper’s can use its very products to promote that culture. “We have employees whose kids have celiac allergies and were never able to eat an ice-cream sandwich before” Casper’s acquired and began making gluten-free novelties, Smith said.
Now, these Casper’s employees can bring happiness home with them.