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Tuesday marked the completion of organic food manufacturer Amy's Kitchen's new Medford digs
WHITE CITY — It takes a lot of hands to produce an Amy's Kitchen pizza, from mixing the dough to packaging the frozen product.
On Tuesday, nearly everyone who had a hand in bringing the Santa Rosa, Calif., organic frozen food manufacturer to the Rogue Valley was present as Gov. Ted Kulongoski flipped a ceremonial switch, recognizing Amy's arrival.
It was an emotional time for owners Rachel and Andy Berliner, a proud moment for the plant's architects and builders and a new chapter for many Amy's Kitchen veterans.
It was also an exhilarating moment for Mark Trythall, who handles Northwest regional sales for the company that routinely posts 25 to 30 percent growth every year. "I can fulfill orders now," he said.
Running at full capacity, the plant can produce 4.5 million cases of pizza annually, said engineering director Bert Pires.
The sheer magnitude of the 176,000-square-foot operation amazes Rachel Berliner, who founded the company with her husband in 1987.
"I never thought we'd fill our Santa Rosa facility and now it's too crowded," she said. "I know we will grow into this one and it will expand."
Just one of four pizza lines is up and running, giving a Dutch crew from the line's maker, Rademaker of Culemborg, Netherlands, the opportunity to iron out operational kinks in a first-of-its-kind food processing machine.
"The hard part is getting the manual labor and the machinery working together," said Marcel Dafhuis of Rademaker, who spent seven weeks doing preparatory work this summer and then returned to continue the project two weeks ago.
All of the pizza lines are expected to be up in mid-December with the entrée line on the east side of the building slated for operation in January.
The first pizzas deemed commercially ready zipped through the line and into the freezer on Friday. They were shipped to U.S. Cold Storage in Tracy, Calif., one of three distribution points used by the company, said Jim Hofstrand, logistics operations manager.
From the time the splat of dough begins to be shaped on the production until the frozen disk is boxed takes an hour, plant engineer Robert Gates said. Amy's produces nine pizza varieties.
There are roughly 15 steps on the production line, although the dough is mixed and ingredients cooked in other departments. The dough is pressed out into 9?1/2-inch pies, sauced, sprinkled with cheese, baked, toppings applied, and then frozen.
"We have one pizza where the toppings go first, but the majority don't," said Gates, who has been with Amy's for 3?1/2 years. "Our ovens are hot — up to 600 degrees, but the pizzas aren't fully cooked because the end user does that."
When part of the production line breaks down, he said, the rest of the line responds.
"Our goal is not to change the process, because we didn't want to change the quality," Gates said. "We automated where we could, but where we felt it would change the quality, we stayed with hand-work."
Warehouse supervisor Keith Cadwallader said the plant stores 2,700 unique items, ranging from shipping materials to fresh organic ingredients that are tested when they enter the plant and repeatedly throughout the process. Hofstrand said if the plant finds itself low on ingredients, a shuttle truck runs to Santa Rosa and back to fill the gap.
"We can get two or three pallets of raw materials we need the next day," he said.
Internally, a variety of elements are moved on carts, lift trucks and pipes. And speaking of pipes, there are enough overhead to stock a cathedral organ in the cavernous West Antelope Road structure, carrying everything from water to natural gas.
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