PENN YAN — In the two and a half years since KanPak purchased the former Emmi plant in the Horizon Business Park, it has grown to become one of the largest employers in Yates County.

KanPak now employs 203 people and runs three shifts at its plant, where yogurt is produced and packaged and where the company also produces and aseptically packages coffee, dairy and specialty beverages and desserts for the food service industry. The aseptic process marries sterile products with sterile packaging, which greatly enhances a product’s shelf life.

KanPak is headquartered in Arkansas City, Kansas, and since opening its Penn Yan plant has not only been adding employees but upgrading its facility. The company — itself owned by Golden State Foods of California — also has plants in Mexico and China; the Penn Yan plant is its second one on U.S. soil after the main plant in Arkansas City.

Bryan Bartee, the Penn Yan plant’s general manager, said when KanPak took over after the Emmi sale there were 70 employees. Now, at 203 employees, the work force has nearly tripled. Bartee said many employees come not only from the Penn Yan area, but also from Canandaigua, Geneva and Bath. KanPak has hired several people who worked at the Kraft-Heinz cheese plant in Campbell, Steuben County, that closed earlier this year.

“Their loss is our gain,” he said, adding that the company is still hiring. The plant’s positions include operators, quality control personnel, maintenance, inventory control, warehousing positions, production and engineering.

Earlier this week, a tour of the 48,000-square-foot facility (which will expand to 52,000 square feet once an expansion is completed by the end of the year) provided a glimpse of the company’s 24/7 production process.

About half of the work there is devoted to making siggi’s Icelandic-style skyr yogurt products (http://siggisdairy.com), while the other half is devoted to the aseptic product lines — which on that day featured the production of mocha ice coffee for 7-Eleven stores and ice cappuccino concentrate for Tim Horton’s. Chik-fil-A is another major customer.

KanPak produces thousands of cases of siggi’s yogurt per shift (with 12 yogurt cups to a case). It also produces drinkable yogurt, as well as regular yogurt in larger 24-ounce containers.

The plant’s cooler is filled with pallets of yogurt. Between 24 to 36 hours after the yogurt is produced it’s loaded onto a truck and shipped to siggi’s warehouse in Illinois. KanPak also has its own warehouse in Dundee where packaging and other materials are stored.

In the plant’s silo room, the milk is pumped in and forwarded to the processing room where it is pasteurized in large tanks and cultures are added to make the yogurt. After the liquid is separated out, the remaining whey is taken to Lawnhurst Farms in Stanley, where it is treated in a digester and used as a crop fertilizer, Bartee explained.

KanPak sources its milk from regional farms, and Bartee praised its quality.

“We have a very good relationship with our dairy providers,” he said. “Coming from Kansas, New York has got some really good milk.”

The aseptic side of the plant features separate lines where products are either inserted into plastic pouches or into bags that are then packed into boxes.

In the piece of equipment simply referred to as “the bag in a box” machine, a bag is commercially sterilized, loaded into the machine and the bag’s spout part is sucked up into a sterilization tunnel as the liquid enters the pouch. This machine can run up to 10 bags per minute and on this day was processing mocha iced coffee for 7-Eleven stores.

Nearby — in the “pouch filler” machine — long sheets of film pulled vertically by pulleys first entered a peroxide bath then were formed into a specific bag size, filled with ice cappuccino concentrate for Tim Horton’s, then sealed and spit out.

Bartee said aseptic technology creates shelf-stable products without the use of preservatives.

“This particular product will taste just as good today as it will in a year and that’s why we do the aseptic process,” Bartee said, noting it’s not an easy process because of the continuos monitoring and control involved to maintain commercial sterility.

The plant features state-certified labs where raw and finished products are tested.

Other facility upgrades since the takeover include new locker rooms for both male and female employees, plus a uniform room, break room and several new staff offices. Bartee said KanPak also has undertaken utility upgrades to make sure it has adequate support for its growth and partnered with Vance Metal Fabricators of Geneva on the construction of several new storage tanks.

Earlier this week, construction crews were working on the installation of new wash-down walls and ceilings in the processing room. And two new 50,000-gallon milk silos also are being installed to nearly double KanPak’s milk storage capacity to 200,000 gallons. The new silos will give the company more variety when it comes to storage, allowing it to house skim, 2 percent, whole milk and cream, Bartee said.

Steve Griffin, CEO of the Finger Lakes Economic Development Center, said KanPak is certainly the largest manufacturer in Yates County and “is leading the charge” in that sector of economic growth. He noted Yates has seen a 23 percent increase in manufacturing jobs since 2000 while the rest of the region has experienced a 34 percent decrease.

KanPak has brought new technology and investment to Penn Yan and has a great management team, Griffin added.

“It’s been fun to watch them grow,” he said. “It’s really exciting to see what’s going on.”

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