Canadian Packaging

Just Like Mom’s

George Guidoni   

Stand-up pouch-line automation overhaul hits all the right productivity and performance sweet spots for fast-growing Ontario cookie maker

One of the sweetest underrated perks of being the boss of your own company is the complete freedom to give yourself whatever job title you like, no questions asked.

And for Robert Cappola, the affable owner of the Mississauga, Ont.-based cookie maker Mom’s Best Gourmet Foods, his self-styled, tongue-in-cheek professional designation as Biscotti Aficionado is a perfect reflection of his intense passion and devotion to the art of making the famed Italian almond biscuits originated in the Tuscan city of Prato during the 19th Century.

Having spent a good part of his working life helping his family run a highly successful meat-processing business in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) region, Cappola decided to carve his own path to success in the Canadian food business about five years ago by purchasing Mom’s Best from its original co-founders, two ladies of Italian heritage who literally started the company out of their home kitchens back in 1995.

While Cappola says the company’s biscottis are still made using traditional authentic Italian baking techniques and recipes, the sheer volume of biscottis produced at the 26,000-square-foot commercial bakery—located a half-hour drive west of Toronto—has grown exponentially, along with the product’s popularity in mainstream markets across North America.

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According to Cappola, the 30-employee company nowadays produces about 8,000 pounds of finished baked goods per day, with its product portfolio also comprising various flavors of bite-sized “cookie chips,” which are today the company’s best-selling product line, and ring-shaped taralli biscuits, another crunchy Italian snack specialty originated in southern Italy.

“They are essentially Italian crunch bread rings with a soft texture on the inside,” Cappola explains, extoling the taste profile, quality and the clean ingredient deck of all products made at the Mississauga bakery, which boasts the coveted international SQF Level 1 certification for food safety and quality.

“We achieved a 96 per cent score during our last SQF audit last year,” Coppola relates, “and we intend to improve on that going forward.”

While hard-baked treats like biscotti and taralli have been a daily staples among Italian-Canadian families for generations, Cappola says they are quickly becoming a popular items among all other mainstream demographics, enjoying brisk sales at coffee shops and other quick-service eateries across the country.

For Mom’s Best, which Cappola estimate to command a 60 per cent share of the Canadian biscotti market, this growing popularity is a welcome gift that just keeps on giving.

“It is a very wholesome product made without any artificial ingredients or preservatives,” says Cappola, citing the plant’s Kosher certification and complete absence of saturated fats.

“We only use four primary ingredients—flour, butter, sugar and oil—which we all source from local Canadian suppliers,” he says.

“Moreover, we still use the traditional batch process to make our products to ensure superior product quality and taste,” he says, “and the market has really responded to our products’ authenticity and craftsmanship.”

According to Cappola, about 60 per cent of the plant’s output is dedicated to producing the company’s signature Mom’s Best retail brand, with the private-label and co-packing accounting for the rest.

“You can find us at all the major grocery chains and major independent stores right across Canada,” he says, “and we also ship our products right across North America, as far as California.

“Being a premium-quality product, it is primarily sold right at the bakery sections of the grocery stores,” Cappola points out.

“We do have a couple of SKUs (stock-keeping units) designated for cookie aisle shelves,” he says, “but the vast majority of our retail sales take place at the bakery counters.”

As Cappola relates, the Mississauga bakery primarily operates on a one-shift, Monday-to-Friday schedule, but it often switches over to two-shift production schedule to keep up with seasonal demand spikes, which typically begin in July and last right up through the festive Christmas season.

Says Cappola: “There was a time when products like biscotti were geared for sale to the local Italian communities, but that’s just not the case anymore.

“The popularity of coffee shops and other specialty beverage outlets has had a major positive impact on our business,” says Cappola, adding the hard-crunch, double-baked treats are perfect for dipping into coffee, tea and even wine, which is a popular lasting Italian tradition.

While the Mom’s Best plant still uses time-tested manual techniques to prepare the dough for processing and cooking, the operation has made considerable investments in both processing and packaging side of the business in recent years to boost its output to commercial-scale levels.

Housing six production lines and three packaging lines, the plant operates a hybrid semi-automated production process combining manual processing techniques with modern automated mass production methods.

“We still use the traditional way of measuring out the ingredients by hand to prepare the batches,”Cappola points out.

“The batches then go into a big bowl to get mixed, after which the blended mixture goes into a hopper and then inside the extruder, which forms the mixture into the selected product shapes,” Cappola explains.

“After that, the shaped product is dropped onto the baking trays, which are automatically loaded onto tray racks and moved inside the oven to be cooked.

“Once done, the product is transferred over to its proper packaging line to be pouched or placed into clamshells.”

While the two clamshell packaging lines are still something of a work-in-progress, Cappola says he is extremely happy with high level of packaging automation achieved on the plant’s stand-up pouch line over the last year or so through close collaboration and partnership with the nearby packaging automation specialists PLAN IT Packaging Systems.

Also based in Mississauga, the company specializes in providing custom-tailored automated packaging solutions for customers across a broad range of CPG (consumer packaged goods) industries.

Having evolved into a highly respected packaging machinery OEM (original-equipment manufacturer) and distributor over the last decade, PLAN IT Packaging enjoys ready access to a comprehensive assortment of high-performance packaging equipment covering all aspects of packaging line operations: from filling and bagging to conveying, flow-wrapping and end-of-line packaging and inspection.

But rather than operating as a mere machinery distributor and OEM, the company’s main strength lies in its formidable skill set as a full-service systems integrator and customized solutions provider, offering a full slate of start-to-finish services comprising:

  • Free onsite consultation;
  • Needs assessment;
  • Strategy development;
  • System installation and implementation;
  • Custom training;
  • Support service;
  • Equipment servicing.

With hundred of successful installations under its belt, the company also operates a U.S.-based subsidiary in Costa Mesa, Ca., and is currently in the process of starting up another 35,000-square-foot facility in Tampa, Fla., this summer to provide full coast-to-coast service capabilities right across North America.

As Cappola relates, he first became aware of PLAN IT Packaging’s capabilities at the annual PACKEX national packaging exhibition in Toronto in Nov. 2021.

“They came to our booth looking for a solution to automate the weighing and bagging of their fragile cookies going into pre-made stand-up pouch bags,” recalls Mark Evangelista, director of sales for PLAN IT Packaging Systems.

“While that was the main focal point of their needs at the time, they also wanted something that was flexible and easy to changeover,” Evangelista relates, “while also improving their productivity by boosting their throughput from 20 to 40 bags per minute.

“They also wanted high accuracy to prevent product waste,” he continues, “along with gentle operation to prevent the product from breaking, which was an issue with their manual packaging operation at the time.

“It would also have to be easy to clean, be robust enough for 24/7 operation, be expandable to accommodate future needs, and feature non-proprietary components that could be sourced from anywhere in North America,” Evangelista adds.

After taking stock of the Mom’s Best plant’s existing process and facility layout, PLAN IT Packaging proposed the installation of an eight-section simplex RotoBagger machine—a pre-made pouch rotary fill-seal bagger designed for filling stand-up pouches with various dry, powdered or solid products.

Designed for reliable continuous operation, the pre-made pouch rotary RotoBagger can operate on multiple types of pre-made zipper and press-to-close-type pouches at speeds of up to 50 bags per minute.

Completely designed, engineered and assembled in Canada, the RotoBagger is one of PLAN IT Packaging’s most technologically advanced and leading-edge packaging machines.

As Evangelista explains, “The RotoBagger comes standard with servo changeover on the grippers, which allows users to change the bag width through the touch of the screen and servo change on the bag magazine, which opens and closes the guides automatically when doing a changeover.

“This bagger is great if you have multiple bag width sizes, as changeover only takes about two to five minutes, whereas linear type baggers with mechanical knobs and switches can takes about 30-to-40 minutes or more to perform a changeover,” Evangelista points out.

Equipped with an Omron PLC (programmable logic controller) and HMI (human-machine interface) terminal, the CSA– and UL-certified machine incorporates electronic components that can be easily sourced through PLAN IT Packaging or virtually any other automation provider in North America, Evangelista adds, while its 316 stainless-steel full-washdown construction greatly simplifies the required cleaning and sanitation procedures.

As for future expandability, Evangelista explains: “With our innovative new FR (film to rotary) module, the RotoBagger is fully expandable, whereby you can as make it work as an HFFS (horizontal from-fill-seal) machine that will form that bags and apply the zipper.”

For all that, commissioning the simplex RotoBagger machine was just a first step in automating the bakery’s stand-up pouch line, which was completed in 2022 with the arrival and integration of the automatic 14-head ELITEWEIGH weigher—used to weigh and dispense precise quantities of product into the RotoBagger—and a high-sensitivity metal detector-checkweigher to perform the final quality assurance test on finished packages.

The addition of these systems has completely transformed the notion of what productivity and quality control are all about at Mom’s Best, according to Cappola.

“Before purchasing the new equipment from PLAN IT Packaging, we would have 10 people on the stand-up pouch line bagging the product by hand,” he recalls.

“Today, we have three operators running the whole line, which is now running 30 per cent faster, at an average speed of 31 bags per minute.

“It’s a phenomenal improvement any way you look at it,” he adds, adding the automated line has also greatly reduced product waste and breakage.

Evangelista agrees, adding that PLAN IT Packaging’s technical experts pulled all the stops to ensure gentle product handling at all stages of the packaging process.

“We had to take in consideration that this type of product is very easy to break,” he says, “and there are many fragile weighers in the market today that only have a stopper on the discharge chute,” he explains.

“In order to reduce the breakage, our engineering came up with a solution that slides the products from the center of the weigher to the feed buckets, and then sliding it over to the weighing buckets.

“This has significantly reduced the drop impact to help lower the incidence of breakage,” Evangelista says, while lauding the ELITEWEIGH weigher’s accuracy.

“With the target weigh of 170 grams, we were able to hit spot-on every single fill, thanks to the German-made load cells we use on our weighers,” he states.

While Cappola says he’s highly impressed with all the productivity and performance improvements that the stand-up pouch line automation project has yielded, he is also just as thrilled that the new equipment is fully compatible with the new, fully-recyclable stand-up pouches supplied to the bakery by Bradford, Ont.-based flexible packaging producer Vins Plastics.

“We have a mandate from all our major retail chain customers that all our packaging has to be sustainable by Jan. 1, 2025,” he states, “and I am delighted that our company is ahead of the curve on this hugely important switch.

“We still have some work to do in this respect with our clamshell packaging,” he acknowledges, “but I am confident we will be able to find the right solution in time.”

“We take packaging very seriously around here,” Cappola asserts, “and so do our customers.

“If we are going to send stand-up pouches to our big retail clients, we better make sure that those pouches actually stand up on the shelf like they should, lest they get rejected and end up in the landfill somewhere, with us bearing all the cost associated with that waste.

“Moreover, sustainability is a big thing with the younger Millennials and Gen Z demographics that we want to attract to our products,” Cappola points out, “so everything we do to minimize our packaging’s carbon footprint is all part of keeping up with the times and market trends.

“Working with companies like PLAN IT Packaging Systems, who are always on top of their game, is a win-win proposition that helps us drive continuous innovation in our market segment,” Cappola concludes, “along with our long-term success in the baked-goods industry.”

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