Canadian Packaging

Safety First

By Andrew Snook   

Natural-cereals producer raising its food-safety credentials and reputation to the next level, with high-performance X-ray product-inspection technology

When Steve “Stephano” Frank and Annette Blaeske founded the Stephano Group in 1978, it stemmed from an entrepreneurial instinct to create a living for their new family, having had arrived to in Canada with next to nothing in their pockets.

Identifying an opportunity in the market for high-end granola products, the couple started up their company in a former bank building in the small town of Killaloe, Ont., in the Ottawa Valley region, and began introducing innovative products to the marketplace soon after.

“They really showed what it is to build a company just through pure grit and relentless hard work, and that’s what we witnessed as kids growing up,” recalls Sean Frank, who currently oversees the second-generation family business alongside his brother, Noah Frank.

“The survival of putting food on the table and working incredibly hard—that struggle was the motivation to make it to the next level.”


By the late 1990s, the Stephano Group had expanded into contract manufacturing for the Canadian manufacturing and retail sectors.

In the early 2000s, Sean and Noah joined their parents’ business and began learning the ins and outs of the operation.

With an eye to expand further into larger markets where they could take on private label and contract manufacturing for the company’s high-quality granola products, Stephano Group relocated to Toronto in 2009, with Sean taking on the role of chief executive officer and Noah taking on the title of president.

By 2017, the company was operating out of its current headquarters in Toronto’s west-end suburb of Etobicoke.

“Originally, the concept was to provide fresh natural breakfast and snack products, which were delivered directly to local markets,” explains Noah.

“The business has grown to be a mid-size producer of breakfast and snack products with private label and co-manufacturing partners across North America.”

While granola remains the company’s most popular product, Stephano Group also produces several other products like hot cereal mixes, oatmeal, nutrition bars and various snacks.

“Granola has been our main thing over the years and it still holds the largest percentage of production,” relates Sean, “but we have added several types of bar lines, oatmeal packets, compression forming and, most recently, traditional cereals similar to Cheerios and Rice Krispies.

“We also run a full complement of packaging machines supporting all major retail formats.”

The company currently operates two production facilities in Etobicoke and Mississauga, Ont., with a total of 80,000 square feet of manufacturing space.

The two plants house a total of 18 production lines, including granola, cereal, bars, oatmeal, compression forming and extrusion, with end-to-end processing that includes blending, batching, baking and packaging.

In total, Stephano Group employs approximately 190 people.

The main plant operates on a six-day weekly schedule with five double shifts and a cleaning day, while the secondary plant runs a five-day schedule, with four single shifts and a cleaning day.

Since secondary plant is also dedicated to producing school-safe products, the whole operation is free from that five major food allergens consisting of peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, dairy and gluten.

As every successful company active in the food manufacturing space knows well, food safety must always be a top priority.

And with the company making its living in a highly competitive and crowded market, Sean knows that product quality and safety are vital for the company to remain to remain successful.

“We’re “AA”-BRCGS certified,” he points out. “Quality is Number One in everything we do, it’s our focus — that and having the highest safety standards.

“We stand behind everything we produce,” Sean says, “because it is a competitive market.

“The RFQ (request for quote) process means we’re bidding against another producers, so there’s definitely always competition on contracts.”

As Sean relates, Stephano Group’s facilities have also obtained all-important organic, gluten-free, non-GMO project and Kosher certifications, and the company is periodically audited by authoritative certification groups like SGS International, NGP, and Ecocert Canada.

Not surprisingly, investment in research and development is a key part of how Stephano Group stays competitive.

“We’ve been really strong on R&D,” Sean proclaims. “We put a lot into creating amazing products to have an edge with the quality, taste and texture.

“We make sure that the overall food safety and product quality is followed through to the last step so that the product meets the needs for the customer.”

The company also regularly invests in learning about the latest processing and packaging technologies that can help it optimize various aspects of its operations.

Stephano Group’s most recent investment was an Eagle Pack 320 PRO X-ray machine, supplied by prominent line integration services provider PLAN Automation out of its head office in Bolton, Ont.

As Sean recalls, Stephano Group’s relationship with PLAN Automation started about 10 years ago when the company was looking to purchase metal detectors for its production lines.

“I have a pretty long history with PLAN Automation,” Sean says. “I’ve known them for 10 years, and I’ve really had a good experience with that relationship.

“They stand behind their products,” he sates. “Working with them is just a really good experience overall.”

While metal detectors do a good job enhancing safety on Stephano Group’s production lines, X-ray detection recently became a safety requirement for one of the company’s biggest clients.

“Costco is now requiring it, so I compared diligently what X-ray machines were in the market,” Sean says.

“Given my good history of working with PLAN Automation, I felt that their machine was more robust than their competitors,” he says. “They also sold me on the idea of a stronger local support, so I awarded them the business.”

While Costco is the first of Stephano Group’s clients to make X-ray technology a safety requirement, Sean says it’s a trend that is expected to grow in the food production industry.

“While this was related to being able to do business with Costco, it has come up with a couple other customer requests,” he says. “Our food-safety critical control point is fine with metal detection when dealing with our ingredients, but it came up as a requirement to add an extra layer of food safety to catch items like a stone, or other foreign objects that a metal detector can’t detect.”

While the initial purchase price of an Eagle brand X-ray machine might be higher than some of the competing brands, the overall cost of ownership over next 15 years is more important, notes Mat Bédard, vice-president and chief operating officer of PLAN Automation.

“The Eagle X-ray systems have been designed to have the lowest cost of ownership of any brand of X-ray machine,” Bédard says.

“For example, the generator on the X ray is designed to last over 60,000 hours, which is massive,” he points out. “With a lot of the competition is more like 10,000 to 15,000 hours, and then you’ve got to change the generator.

“So, it’s designed to last six-to-eight times longer than any other competitors out there.”

Manufactured by Eagle Product Inspection in Tampa, Fla., the Pack 320 PRO is a high-performance X-ray system designed for precise inspection of small-to-mid-sized packaged products on high-throughput packaging lines, including packaged goods in cartons, pouches, cups, tubs, trays and other packaging up to 215 mm in height.

It can handle throughput speeds ranging from 17 to 119 metres per minute, depending on package type and dimensions.

The unit offers a variety of detection modes including contaminant, missing item, clip, void and premium, plus modes for mass/weight, shape/position, fill level and filler feedback.

The Pack 320 PRO can also perform multi-lane inspections with a wide variety of rejects and due diligence monitoring packages.

This includes the Eagle Repository, supplied as standard, which provides a simple way of storing, viewing and transferring production information such as statistics, event logs, manually saved images and reject images to other devices for storage.

For its part, the Eagle Remote Access enables product setup, machine diagnostics, and remote correction by PLAN Automation or Eagle technical support to maximize machine up-time.

Another advantage of purchasing an Eagle X-ray system from PLAN Automation is the service and parts support that the company provides.

“We’ve got a team of 12 factory-trained X-ray technicians as part of my team,” Bédard says. “We have $500,000 in spare parts in our locations in B.C., Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. And we have over $2 million in X-ray equipment available in stock at all times.

“We provide a support guarantee of 12-to-24 hours from a phone call,“ Bédard adss. “We will fix your machine within 12-to-24 hours, or we will give you a rental machine at no charge.

“That’s a massive advantage.”

In addition to selling inspection equipment, PLAN Automation also offers various ownership options—including short-to-long-term rentals and lease-to-own financing—along with emergency rework and recovery services.

When planning for the future, Sean says innovation in the company’s products and the latest technologies will be key to continuing to build on the success of Stephano Group.

“Our vision is to be a market leader for natural cereals and snacking products in North America,” Sean states.

Over the years, Sean and Noah have worked every job within the production facilities, so the two brothers have full respect and understanding for the importance of investing in reliable staff to build towards a bright future.

“When we started it was just us side-by-side making the product, packing it, and loading it onto the truck,” Sean recalls.

“A few years ago, we became too busy in the office to be on the production lines much, but we’ve done all the jobs that everyone is doing out there,” he says.

“It’s important to create an equitable and comfortable work environment by treating everyone with respect and making it a really enjoyable place to work,” Sean says.

“You walk our floor, and everyone is smiling and feeling good about being there.

“As much as we want to build a successful company,” he concludes, “we want to do that through being fair with our employees and creating a good work environment for them.”


Stories continue below

Print this page

Related Stories

Category Captains 2024