Going Nuts Over Innovation

If you walk down the streets of New York City, chances are you will pass carts selling an assortment of roasted nuts. For entrepreneurs Michael Mellace and Mike Ruggens, these small carts were the inspiration for a new business on the West Coast. With just one small roaster in tow, Mellace and Ruggens began selling roasted peanuts at small festivals in the San Diego area.

If you walk down the streets of New York City, chances are you will pass carts selling an assortment of roasted nuts. For entrepreneurs Michael Mellace and Mike Ruggens, these small carts were the inspiration for a new business on the West Coast.

With just one small roaster in tow, Mellace and Ruggens began selling roasted peanuts at small festivals in the San Diego area. The duo was later approached by a leading retailer to take their products nationwide in a “road show program.” The program allowed Mellace and Ruggens to travel to various locations and offer samples of their products to consumers in the stores. Not long after, Mellace and Ruggens purchased their own facility – a 1,200-sqaure foot former candy shop.

Mama Mellace products can now be found in major national retail chains including Costco, Wal-Mart and Staples. Mama Mellace’s Old World Treats are available in several package options including 8 oz, 1 lb and 2 lb jars, gable boxes, gift sets, tins and in bulk containers. Mama Mellace’s also manufactures select products for the private label sector.

One of the keys to the company’s success is its proprietary water-roasting process. All nuts are hand roasted and made using a copper kettle process with no oil, butter or preservatives.

Exponential growth

Since opening its doors just over eight years ago, Mama Mellace’s has experienced exponential growth. Sales have risen nearly 200 percent annually and the company has outgrown its facility no fewer than four times. The booming business landed Mama Mellace’s on Inc. magazine’s 2007 list of 500 Fastest Growing Companies.

With its most recent expansion in 2006, the company doubled the size its facility. For Mellace, upgrading the facility was a proactive — rather than reactive — step, intended to better position the company for future growth.

“Moving into our new facility offered us an opportunity to re-evaluate our production line and identify those areas where operations could be improved,” says Mellace. “Bagging and case packaging were two priorities for us. We wanted greater efficiency, seamless changeover and, most importantly, the flexibility to accommodate additional volume in the years ahead.”

Prepared to invest over $4 million in new capital purchases — with a large percentage earmarked for packaging operations — Mellace identified PACK EXPO as a cost-effective opportunity to source the latest packaging technologies. Its Las Vegas location also made it a convenient trip from his West Coast home base.

Maximizing the show experience

With a detailed plan in hand, Mellace spent three days meeting with several of the show’s 1,200+ exhibitors. On Mellace’s short list was ROVEMA (Lawrenceville, GA), a supplier he had worked with in the past. PACK EXPO presented the chance for Mellace to view the company’s latest technology firsthand – and without needing to travel across the country. After evaluating several alternative bagging systems Mellace purchased ROVEMA’s VPI Intermittent Motion Vertical Bagger.

The VPI offers diverse bag sizes and formats including pillow bags, gusseted pillow, flat bottom bags and flat bottom bags with stabilo® seal, each designed to accommodate a unique product. This versatility gives Mellace the opportunity to extend his product family and packaging options in the future with little hassle.

The equipment’s modular design also allow for future upgrades or conversions. And with quick and easy size changeovers and Allen Bradley Control Logix controls with operator-friendly touch screen the VPI offered a total solution for Mellace’s needs.

The equipment’s modular design also enables the addition zipper reclosures, tear notch, hole punch, and/or carry handle for end-user convenience.

“Versatility, flexibility and reliability were the differentiating benefits of the VPI,” states Mellace. “The equipment seamlessly integrated into our production line and is capable of handling growing production needs — just the solution we were looking for.”

For Mellace, innovation did not stop with the VPI. During the course of the three-day show he also met with Combi Packaging Systems (Canton, OH), manufacturers of custom end-of-line packaging equipment. Mellace ultimately purchased the company’s popular Ergopack® Handpacking system.

The efficient and durable system combines a case erector, hand pack station and sealer into a compact and cost-effective workcell, freeing operators from erecting and sealing cases by hand. Available in one-, two- or three-operator configurations for ultimate flexibility, the system erects and indexes a case to the operator who fills the case, activates a finger sensor and the case indexes to a top and bottom taper. The Ergopack® features a variable speed product infeed conveyor, and a unique case indexing conveyor which retains control of the unsealed case through the pack process.

The system also offers ergonomic benefits. Its patented hands-free indexing system positions cases and product for optimal operator comfort, minimizing repetitive wrist and arm motions.

“Before purchasing the equipment, at least two employees were needed to package 3-4 cartons per minute. With the Ergopack, we’re erecting 8-10 packages a minute with only 2 employees.” The result is an increase in speed and efficiency of almost 25 percent..

With few adjustments needed to integrate the two machines, Mellace was able to keep operations moving smoothly. Additionally, with the help of engineers from both companies, Mama Mellace staff was thoroughly trained to use and maintain the equipment. Mellace began seeing a return on investment shortly after installation, with operational speeds up nearly 30 percent.

Growing, growing, gone

With steady business growth forecasted, Mellace will return to PACK EXPO this October seeking new automated technologies to further boost output and efficiencies.

“We consider ourselves conservative as a company, but not when it comes to growing our business,” says Mellace. “We understand that innovation is the key to success. With PACK EXPO, we get to see innovation firsthand, allowing us to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to running our operations effectively and efficiently.”

To register for PACK EXPO or obtain more information, visit www.packexpo.com or contact PMMI’s Show Department at 703.243.8555 or expo@pmmi.org.

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