Applesauce Packaging Equipment

Quebec apple grower achieves niche market success with its wholesome applesauce and high-speed robotic packaging technologies

June 16, 2016 - For apple growers Leahy Orchards Inc., a family-run business headquartered in Franklin, Quebec, coming up with a new retail product turned out to be a real smash.

Back in 1980, James R. Leahy sought an avenue for apples deemed unfit for retail sale due to market standards, and came up with the idea to further process those apples into a high-quality applesauce.

Thought to have been ‘discovered’ in the mid-1700s, applesauce is a purée made of apples—either peeled or unpeeled—with some spices added, such as cinnamon or allspice, as well a sweetener.

Used as a condiment and even as a dessert, applesauce is produced by the cooking down of apples with a liquid such as water or apple cider to create a purée.

For Leahy Orchards, finding an alternative use for these secondary apples was a way for the company to carve out a niche market, producing private label brands for global grocery chains and also its own Applesnax applesauce brand for the retail Canadian and U.S. markets.

At the same time, it diversified its product portfolio to also include a range of tasty mixed fruit purées, fruit and vegetable purées for newborns, and a wide variety of gooey goodness for bakery products sold in various sizes from as small as 90g containers to 1,000 kilogram tote tanks—however, 85 percent of all product produced at Leahy Orchards is applesauce.

Nowadays, Leahy Orchards and its 282 employees process an average of 225,000 kilograms of fruits and vegetables daily on its nine production lines operating three shifts, including one just for facility sanitization.

“The further processing aspect of Leahy Orchards Business is pretty busy, with us processing approximately 120 million pounds of apples annually,” Leahy Orchards president and chief executive officer Mike Leahy told Canadian Packaging magazine during a recent interview.

“Revenue-wise, we’re over Cdn $100 million, and consider ourselves to be a good Canadian market leader with a growing presence in the U.S. market,” says Leahy.

He says that when it came time to find something to do with the fruit that wasn’t fit for supermarket shelves because of undersizing, misshaped or even under-colored, all of those apples were categorized as wasted.

“Wasting food is not a good thing, so we began using that same category to make our high-quality products,” explains Leahy. “In fact, processed apples do come with a value-added benefit, as they are shelf stable for a longer period than fresh commodity products.”

Not just limited to the Canadian market, Leahy says that Leahy Orchards is indeed a global entity within the niche further apple processing segment, establishing and maintaining a satisfying ability to work with customers and consumers with their ever-changing requirements.

“Because we are a family business, we can make rapid decisions other business need more time to analyze,” notes Leahy, “so our business values are akin to our own family values.”

The core business values of Leahy Orchard revolve around ensuring the customer is always satisfied—something that affects how the processor makes business decisions.

“We’ve been at the same location here in Franklin, since the beginning, though we continue to expand our facilities and our business,” says Leahy adding that the company is within 10 kilometers to a U.S. crossing, one hour to Montreal, five hours to Toronto. “Plus it is on our home farm, so along with the nostalgia, we are also within close proximity to our apple supply.”

He did note, however, that along with Quebec, the majority of its conventional apple supply also comes from Ontario and New York.

“With the organic market segment for our apple products growing the way it has,” offers Leahy, “we have looked to other sources for supply to compliment our current organic apple crop, including Washington State.”

Leahy Orchards has been providing its co-packing expertise for major brands for over 30 years, attaining a well-earned reputation for high-quality applesauce products and on-time production and delivery.

While the company’s own Applesnax is quite successful, Leahy notes that the majority of the products it produces—approximately 60 percent—are for private label.

“We can work from a customer’s recipe, or we can provide recipe formulation development—whatever the customer needs, as we have a great research and development team with both experience and food industry knowledge,” notes Leahy.

Primary products processed at Leahy Orchards includes: applesauce; fresh apple slices/dices; as well as apple turnover and pie filling.

“We also have a line dedicated to producing baby food which includes a wide range of fruits and vegetables,” mentions Leahy.

Leahy Orchards produces over 450 SKUs (stockkeeping units), with the main packaging formats include PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) plastic jars, 100 ounce cans, four ounce cups, and 90 gram pouches.

“We have an aseptic line that can handle multiple formats giving our products a shelf life of two years in ambient temperatures,” Leahy says. “Our aseptic package formats include 20 liter bag-in-box, 220 liter bag-in-metal-drum, and a 1,200 liter bag in a plastic or corrugated tote.”

Leahy Orchards produces and distributes its products to further manufacturers, bakeries, foodservice segments, and retailers.

“Our applesauce products can be found in hospitals, correctional centers, schools, public and private organizations,“ notes Leahy, adding that for the retail market it prefers not to muddy the competitive waters and instead does private brands and co-packing for its customers.

Leahy says the company does respect its environment, and of course, its employees, but even though there is family at its core, Leahy Orchards encourages common sense while daring to innovate and regularly access how the business and markets are performing “We certainly aren’t the type of company that sits back and then reacts to the marketplace,” says Leahy. “We’re actually a very proactive company, and we are always looking for ways to improve our business in the near-term, as well as the long term.”

Leahy Orchards operates one production facility and three warehouses in and around the Franklin area for a combined 380,000 square feet of operation.

Along with administration, the headquarters also houses the company’s processing plant and shipping area; the other three warehouses store finished products ready for the U.S. market, with two of those facilities feature temperature- and atmosphere-controlled storage capable of holding up to 25,000 bins of fruit, plus an additional 15,000 bins in a true cold section.

Leahy Orchards has effective product quality controls in place to ensure its brands and those of its customers provide nothing but sweet applesauce goodness, noting that when it comes to food quality and food safety, the applesauce manufacturer is certified to the nines, possessing:

  • the OCCP (Organic Crop Producers Processors) certification for its line of organic products;
  • HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) certification from the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) in 2004—now an international standard for food safety and quality;
  • SQF Level 3 food safety and quality management system certification from SAI Global Certification Services;
  • Organic certification from Ecocert;
  • Certified Products Accreditation from Aliments du Quebec;
  • PEP certification from the Canada Border Service Agency ensuring protection of legitimate trade, and;
  • C-TPAT certification providing U.S. customs and border protection

“The autumn is our busiest time, with ‘back-to-school’ and harvest time occurring,” Leahy mentions.

He continues: “In the past, we have added shifts or updated equipment—and we still will—but we are looking at more integrated planning through data analysis on our ERP (enterprise resource planning) system that we developed internally partnered with EVsoft.”

Most of the Leahy Orchard production facility is automated, with nine lines producing: jar; cup; baby-food; pulp; pie-filling; aseptic; two pouch lines and a multipac line for specialty orders like display-ready pallets for promotions.

While its jar line produces the 24- and 48-ounce PET jars for the retail market and 100 oz tins for the food service industry, the new pouch line at Leahy Orchards is being used to produce just one size, though it can be expanded per customer or market requirements.

“The pouch line is currently geared for the retail market, and was introduced because of demands from our customers,” says Leahy...