MIAMI — Tree Top Inc. is two years into its journey of producing fruit products in plastic pouches. It definitely has been a journey with plenty of lessons learned, says Andrew Juarez, director of engineering.
And while the Selah, Wash.-based agricultural cooperative owned by apple and pear growers has learned a lot in recent years, there's still more to learn.
Juarez's message: making and filling pouches is not for the ill-prepared.
“Steep learning curve. Be patient and just find partners that will work with you. You have a lot of options on machines, suppliers of film and caps,” Juarez said at the recent Global Pouch Forum in Miami.
“All three of those guys got to be working for you and busting their butts for you to be successful. If they are not, you need to find somebody else that will,” he said.
Juarez, himself, said he had to be convinced about the power of pouches.
“I wasn't a believer at first. I thought what a rip-off. You don't get nearly as much product for the price you pay,” he said, compared with cups.
“I was dead wrong about that,” he said. “My kids love pouches — tear top, twist-off cap and spout — you give it to them, it's so easy, and what a great thing.”
Dan Mathison, director of contract manufacturing at Tree Top, said the company's move into pouches came after employees in two different areas of the business saw the need.
The company is known for its Tree Top and Seneca brands, but consumer packaged goods only represent a third of the business. The other two-thirds come from ingredient and foodservice sales.
People in both the consumer goods and foodservice areas realized around the same time that pouches were a package that Tree Top needed.
“Those two departments, led by their own groups, came together when the pouch world was taking off,” he said.
Form-fill-seal machines allow companies to produce and fill pouches on a single line from rolls of film. But that approach is more difficult to master.
Pre-formed pouches, on the other hand, are easier for consumer packaged goods companies to manage and fill, but they also are more expensive on a cost-per-unit basis.
Tree Top, despite the challenges, decided to go with the form-fill-seal approach to making its applesauce and other product pouches.
“The most important thing we learned along the way is just film is very important,” Juarez told the pouch crowd. “Film is really the most important thing. There's so many variables. Process automation is about eliminating the variables and focus on the things you can control.”
That means making sure the film being used to create the pouches performs as promised. If not, there are going to be problems.
“We didn't know this stuff going in. We had to learn the hard way. I'll tell you right now, this is not easy to do form, fill and seal. But, again, we felt like we can do it. We still feel like we can do it. We've learned so much. We've had a lot of help along the way,” Juarez said.
“Two years into this we've know so much more than we did two years ago. We know so much more even today than we did a year ago,” Juarez said. “Two years into this, we've learned a ton.”