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Cartoning gets saucy at Corky's BBQ

Barbecue lovers in Tennessee unite. Corky's World Famous BBQ restaurants, which first opened in Memphis in 1984 to the delight of barbecued rib lovers, is a growing food business that now has 25 restaurant locations across the U.S. and an impressive food packaging plant. Offering fully cooked barbecued pork ribs, pulled pork, pork and chicken dinners and other saucy items as well as its own blend of barbecue sauce, Corky's has its own 25,000-sq-ft production facility in Memphis, where barbecue is like Elvis: King.

Automatic cartoning system erects and seals SBS folding cartons in four configurations serving at least six products.

Corky's has grown tremendously since its restaurant beginnings. More and more consumers are licking their lips from the tasty, sauce-slathered hickory-smoked ribs Corky's says are asked for worldwide by celebrities, gourmets and others hungry for its special barbeque flavor.

The company ships the products frozen by Federal Express direct to consumers and distributes them to supermarkets and through the QVC cable shopping channel.

Plant operations manager Joel Storck says this year, Corky's business has grown at least 20 percent. "We've experienced strong growth since 1995 when we really took off in the supermarket arena. We've had years where business has expanded by about fifty percent, so we realized we had to get more packaging equipment."

All the more reason to upgrade with additional cartoning equipment from Econocorp, he says. The plant purchased an Econosealw E-System 2000 horizontal cartoner from Econocorp several years ago, and keeps it busy churning out up to 25 cartons/min. To handle the increased demand, Corky's decided in January to install a fully automatic Econocorp Spartan cartoning system.

Both of the machines carton vacuum-packed BBQ pork ribs in single and double slabs (1.5- and 3-lb quantities), as well as 1-lb packs of Bar-B-Q Pulled Pork Shoulder, 1-lb packs of sliced Bar-B-Q Beef Brisket and tray-packed, film-lidded 13- and 14-oz Bar-B-Q chicken and pork dinners in glossy, appetizingly printed folding cartons. The products are priced in supermarkets from $7.99 to $11.99, but are also available by mail order. Packages, such as the Memphis Sampler–a variety pack shipped with a slab of ribs, 1-lb of Bar-B-Q pork, a bottle of Corky's famous barbecue sauce and a bottle of dry seasoning mix, sell for about $59.99, Storck says.

'Supermarket upswing'
The fully cooked barbecued products are now available in more than 1,000 supermarkets across the South, including those in Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and even in Missouri. "This part of our business keeps growing every year," says Joel Storck. "The increase in our supermarket business is why we had to add a cartoner."

Says co-owner Barry Pelts, thanks to the Spartan machine, the plant is more efficient and accurate, with less labor and downtime. "We love the equipment. It has allowed us to save on labor and be a lot more efficient with our time and production schedule."

The ribs and other meats are vacuum-packed in clear polyethylene film pouches supplied by Packagemasters that are run through a Koch Ultravacw vacuum-chamber machine and frozen. Operators fill the dinners into crystallized polyethylene terephthalate trays from GreenTek and then send them through a heat sealer (no longer made) that seals them with a DuPont lidding film, also from GreenTek.

Once the products are packed in their primary containers, the Econoseal E-System 2000 and Spartan horizontal cartoners allow operators to gently slide the packs of barbecued products into the cartons.

"There's a feeding option available on this new system that we currently don't have but can add in the future," Storck points out. "We feed the products by hand because ribs aren't uniform in size or shape."

Chosen for its economies, reliability, low maintenance and higher throughput, the intermittent-motion Spartan cartoner is outfitted for hot-melt application and is equipped with a Norwood debossing coder that gently handles the vacuum-packs and trays with ease, Corky's says.

10-minute changeovers
Designed to reach speeds up to 2,400 cartons/hr or 40/min, depending on carton style and other factors, Corky's Spartan cartoner features a sanitary construction and was customized to handle cartons up to 18 in. deep. The machine is equipped with an Allen-Bradley MicroLogic 1000 programmable logic controller, a stainless-steel frame, casters, a remote-control panel, an overhead product loader and perimeter and interlocked gull-wing guarding. The cartoner can accommodate either paperboard or corrugated cartons, applying cold glue, hot melt, hot air, tuck closures or pressure-sensitive tape (Corky's applies hot melt adhesive). Accepting carton sizes from 2 x 1 x 5 in. to 10 x 4 x 12 in. as standard, the machine can also handle more sizes upon request.

In the packaging room, an operator tends to an automatic horizontal cartoner, which joins a semi-automatic cartoner in packaging frozen ribs, pulled pork and other barbecued items.

"It has the capacity and the flexibility we needed," says Storck. "The customer support on Econocorp equipment is second to none. The equipment is economical, and we've been able to increase throughput and productivity by about fifty percent with this machine because it has the speed capabilities we needed."

Minimal changeover time is important, Storck says. "We can change the Spartan over between carton sizes in about ten minutes, whereas other machines can take an hour. We change products over about twice a day, depending on demand."

Changeovers from one carton size to another require nothing more than a couple of hand-wheel crank shaft adjustments, a few mechanical adjustments, and some tweaking of the folding cylinders and carton magazine, Storck says. "The machine is very versatile in accepting different carton sizes."

Cartoning, casing
In this case, Corky's system accepts four different folding carton configurations that accommodate the six different products. The microwavable .024 SBS glued-end cartons from the Sternberger Co. are sheet-fed offset-printed in four-color process plus a matched color followed by a glossy, aqueous coating that provides moisture-resistance and durability at freezer temperatures of -10 deg F.

The plant cooks the products seven days a week and packages them in one eight-hour shift a day, five days a week. The fully cooked ribs, beef, chicken and pork are taken to a separate packaging room where they're dunked in barbecue sauce. The dinners and pulled pork products are then portioned into the trays that are then heat-sealed, while the ribs are sent through the Ultravac machine before the finished packs are sent through a blast freezer to be frozen overnight.

Cartoning takes place the following day. The trays-packs and vacuum-packed pouches are wheeled to the cartoning room in a stainless-steel basket. There, one operator feeds the packs into the Spartan and E-System 2000 cartoners while one loads the finished packs into shipping cases. The Spartan first grabs a single carton blank using a vacuum arm and grips a single carton blank from a stack in the infeed magazine that Corky's typically loads with about 150 carton blanks at a time. The machine opens and squares each carton in a face-up position and indexes it into the product-loading section as the overhead product loader begins accepting the vacuum packs.

"If there's no product to be inserted into a carton, the machine's sensor won't release a carton," Storck says. The carton's top flap is folded over and prepared for gluing before the individual carton moves to the next station. Guides along the machine keep the flaps in place. A Norwood debossing coder applies a lot and date code to the now-filled carton before the flaps of each carton are automatically glued with hot-melt adhesive via the machine's glue finger/dauber system. Both ends of the carton are glued closed as the flaps are compressed in the compression section. The sealed cartons discharge from the machine, ready for manual case packing into shipping cases provided locally by Dieco, Inc.

Storck says the company has realized a return on its equipment investment through productivity. "We're prepared to expand product offerings, if the need arises."

More information is available:

Cartoners: Econocorp, 781/986-7500. Circle No. 211.

Cartons: Sternberger Co., 901/252-0939. Circle No. 212.

Coder: Norwood Marking Systems, 630/968-0646. Circle No. 213.

Vacuum packaging machine: Koch Equipment, 800/777-5624. Circle No. 214.

Shippers: Dieco, Inc., 901/324-4218. Circle No. 215.

Trays, lidding: GreenTek, 800/747-6440. Circle No. 216.

Lidding film: DuPont, 302/992-6678. Circle No. 217.

Pouches: Packagemasters, Inc., 800/938-7511. Circle No. 218.

PLC: Allen-Bradley Co., 414/382-2000. Circle No. 219.

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