Named after a local century-old New Brunswick landmark crossing the Saint John River between the town of Hartland and the local service district of Somerville, the Covered Bridge Potato Chip Company is a testament to local ingenuity, passion and positivity timelessly captured in the covered 1,282-foot timber overpass built in 1901.
Credited with revitalizing the local economy by dramatically reducing the time-to-market for countless local farmers serving the local and regional urban centers, the Hartland Covered Bridge remains a popular destination today— drawing 100,000 visitors each year to admire the craftsmanship, skill and design brilliance that earned the structure a National Architectural Significance designation as an enduring symbol of local history and heritage.
That history and heritage are vividly played up on a daily basis at the nearby Covered Bridge Potato Chip Company snack-food production facility, which conducts tours of the 25,000-squarefoot manufacturing plant running a busy 24/7 production schedule to churn out millions of bags of the company’s flagship Covered Bridge brand of potato chips and other snack treats like popcorn and chickpea chips.
Click the play button to watch the video testimonial and see the Covered Bridge Potato Chip Company's snack packaging line in action.
Installed at the Hartland plant’s mezzanine level, the high-precision Ishida 14-head weigher weighs the freshly seasoned potato chips into the individual bucket it pre-measured portions that are transferred down to the vertical bagging machines below on the plant floor.
The integrated cameras on the Ishida weighscales are linked to the Ishida Inspira bagmaker’s touchscreen panel to keep operators informed about what’s happening on the mezzanine level without having to go up there physically.
Close-up shots of the compact multifunctional Ishida ACP-701 case-packer filling the corrugated shipping carriers with bags of potato chips, which are then securely taped inside the machine before exiting the casepacker on conveyor rollers to make their ways towards the palletizing stations.
Close-up shots of the freshly cooked and seasoned potato chips being placed inside the polyfoil bags on the Ishida Inspira bagging machine, where they are also flushed with nitrogen to retain longer freshness and shelf-life, in precisely measured quantities in smooth and continuous product flow.
Owned and operated by fourth-generation potato farmers Matt and Ryan Albright, the company began production in 2009 after three years of meticulous market research and investment activity to construct and equip the new processing plant.
"It took three years of market study, building the building, installing the equipment, and product development before we launched the company three years later,” chief executive officer Ryan Albright recalls.
Since completing its first sale of a batch of sea salt-flavored chips to a Halifax., N.S.-based gift-shop chain Goody Baskets at the end of 2008, the new plant quickly became the prime destination for the high-quality dark russet potatoes grown on the 500 acres of Albright family-owned farmland nearby—laying groundwork for a an efficient, vertically-integrated food manufacturing enterprise that has grown from strength to strength in the next 15 years.
Currently employing about 200 people, the lively facility operates four large-capacity kettle fryers, Albright relates, with two more scheduled to arrive soon to make kettle popcorn, chickpeas and caramel corn.
“We are really the only 100-percent true dark russet potato chip manufacturer in North America,” Albright states.
“We use the same type varieties of russets that they use for French fries at the fast food chains,” he points out.
“We are very specific on what varieties we use and at what time of year to achieve that unique russet flavor, crunch and golden to dark color,” says Albright, describing the plant’s meticulous production process geared to produce premium quality kettle chips with a hearty crunch and a diverse range of delicious and satisfying flavors.
“The potatoes are washed and graded at the farm and unloaded into one of two large receiving tanks, after which they go through a destoner and then an aggressive scrub-brush washing system,” Albright relates.
“An operator then trims any defects on the potatoes and also cuts in half any potatoes that are too long, a common feature with russets potatoes, before they go through our Urschel slicers.
“The potatoes are then sliced directly into the kettles with the skins still on,” Albright continues. “After the chips are cooked, they go into an oil centrifuge, which removes any excess oil.
“The chips then go into a hopper and then through the automated sorting machine to remove any defective chips before they proceed to the packaging stages.
With bag sizes ranging from 60-gram single-serve portions to 567-gram family sizes, the SQF (Safe Quality Food) Level 9.1-certified facility produces between 35 and 40 different flavor varieties of potato chips, popcorn, caramel corn and chickpea chips under the Covered Bridge label, Albright relates, along with some private-label offerings.
With flavors ranging from traditional mainstays like Plain & Simple and Sea Salt & Vinegar to the more offbeat Avocado Oil, Atlantic Lobster and Sweet Potato & Sea Salt, the company’s extensive product portfolio is capably rounded off with the Lela’s brand of chickpea chips—so named after great grandmother Lela Albright—and the Pop It brand of popcorn, available in five flavors.
Each of the product and flavour varieties is packaged in a polyfoil bag bearing unique graphics and colors that offer the best visual presentation of the product inside, according to Albright, giving each flavor its own distinct look and personality.
“We changed our design a few years ago since our original packaging when we started,” Albright says.
“It has led to much better consumer awareness by making it easier to see and read product information on the bags more clearly,” says Albright, noting the importance of effectively communicating the natural wholesomeness of Covered Bridge products to the consumer in an instant.
“Our potato chips have a 100-percent natural clean ingredient deck, with no artificial colors or flavors, and we are also certified as gluten-free and kosher, with no transfats,” Albright points out.
“It’s the same for our ‘Pop It’ kettle popcorn, our ‘Lela’s’ chickpea chips and our caramel corn,” he states.
“Our kettle popcorn are kettle-cooked in coconut oil, use pink Himalayan salt, real cheese for the cheese items, raw cane sugar for the sweet and salty, and real clarified butter that we spray on for the movie butter,” he reveals, “while our new rich and decadent caramel is made with a raw cane sugar, real clarified butter, and pink Himalayan salt.”
With packaging being such a strong product differentiator for Covered Bridge, the company has shown commendable commitment to continuously investing in high-quality packaging equipment to improve its efficiencies and boost its production output, with considerable success.
Last year, in fact, the Hartland plant carried out an installation of a totally integrated packaging line solution comprising top-of-the-line Ishida equipment— delivered and installed by Heat and Control Canada, Inc.
Headquartered in Guelph, Ont., the company is a Canadian subsidiary of Hayward, Ca.-based Heat and Control, Inc., a major global manufacturer of food processing and packaging machinery for a broad range of snack-food, candy and confectionery, baked goods, cereals, meat and cheese, and other major food industry segments.
Installed under the direction of Heat and Control Canada’s general manager Chris Jenkins, the integrated Ishida packaging line solution delivered to Covered Bridge consists of:
Ishida high-speed snack food weigher model RV-214W-1S/30-SS-ITP2
Designed to speed up the packaging process, cut labor costs and reduce product giveaway, Ishida’s RV range of multihead weighers offers the benefits of precise feeder control for higher speed and accuracy, along with a robust design to withstand harsh environments and maximize uptime, whereby the main body, components and seals have been redesigned for exceptional resistance to the elements and reduced clean-up time.
Said to be up to 20-percent more energy-efficient than previous multihead weigher models, the new RV range offers optimal control and monitoring performance with enhanced graphics, optional USB camera, rapid auto set-up, master pre-sets for fast changeover, and wireless access for remote control and monitoring.
Ishida Inspira snack food bagmaker model INSPIRA-B-RS33- SB20-LWR-ACA
The Ishida Inspira bagmaker, offered in a twin and single jaw configuration, has the capability of the highest speeds for snack food with high efficiency and low bag waste, while providing automatic adjustments of bag air volume, positioning of the printer, nitrogen gas setting and film roll centering, along with low energy consumption and lownoise operation.
Ishida bag thickness and seal checker model TSC-RVS-120-R
Designed for accurate leak detection, gentle bag handling, and user-friendly operation, the state-of-the-art machine delivers superior quality control on highspeed packaging lines at speeds of up to 150 bags per minute, precisely checking the quality of bags up to 115-mm-thick and up to 330-mm-wide.
Ishida’s proprietary feedback control system ensures that the servo-operated inspection head applies optimum pressure on the bag for precise seal checking— maximizing performance and preventing product damage.
Ishida automatic case-packer model ACP-701R-R1398-TT
Designed as an all-in-one machine, the ACP-701 case-packer is a fully automated system that combines case-packing, case alignment, bag packing, sorting, closing and sealing in one compact machine that can handle a wide range of bag sizes, case sizes and pack patterns.
“The initial equipment was installed in July of 2022,” Albright says, “and more has been ordered and installed since then.
“We chose to work with Heat and Control for various reasons,” Albright explains, singling out the supplier’s extensive expertise and vast experience in the snack-food industry.
“We were also attracted by very compact case-packers that can fit into our small space,’ he says, “as well as the superior up-to-date technology, stainless- steel construction, and fast and consistent bagger speed, among other things.”
Expertly installed and integrated by Heat and Control Canada technicians, the Ishida integrated solution enabled a highly efficient and smooth packaging process with very little waste, according to Albright.
“The chips go to the mezzanine, where they are seasoned on one of the lines, and then weighed and dropped into the bags below,” Albright relates.
“As the chips fall into the bag we blast the bag with nitrogen before the it is sealed—to keep the chips at maximum freshness for a longer period of time.
“The finished bag goes through a seal checker and then into the automated case-packer, where the bags automatically get packed into the boxes,” Albright continues.
“Each box is taped inside prior to coming out,” he notes, “and the information label is placed on the side of the box.
“The boxes go down a rolling conveyor and then placed on a pallet,” Albright expands. “Once pallet is full it is shrinkwrapped and loaded onto a trailer.
“The trailer goes to one of our two finished good warehouses, totalling 100,000 square feet of storage space, or shipped directly to the customer,” he states.
“During this entire process, our quality control staff monitor the product and conduct tests it a different stages of the process to meet our specifications,” says Albright, adding the Ishida equipment has performed as good as promised since commissioning.
For his part, Heat and Control’s Jenkins is convinced that the new Ishida solution will serve the plant well for many years to come.
Says Jenkins: “My relationship with Ryan goes back several years when I would drop in to say hello when visiting other customers in New Brunswick.
“I was always impressed with the Covered Bridge products and marketing approach,” he says, “and as Ryan made plans to replace old packaging equipment with more automation, I’m grateful he remembered Heat and Control.”
As Jenkins asserts, "The Heat and Control/Ishida partnership offers the best solutions for most global snack food manufacturers.
“In my opinion, the combined ‘horsepower’ available from our subject matter experts and application engineers, high-quality manufacturing, and superior pre-sale and post-sale support result in customers like Covered Bridge knowing they have made the right decision to improve their business efficiency now and well into the future.”
Albright agrees: “Moving into the future with automation from Heat and Control and other suppliers will be key for our business, as everyone is facing the same challenges of not being able to find enough employees to fill all the required jobs.
“We will be investing into it more and more moving forward,” he adds.
“The operators like working with the Ishida equipment,” Albright notes, “with its large touchscreens pointing out where the issue might be for the most part.
“There are also integrated cameras on the scales linked up to the bagger screen,” he points out, “so that the operator can see what is going on in this area without going up to the mezzanine.”
As Albright explains, “We have been automating more and more the last six years, including automated sorting machine for the chips, a higher-capacity kettle corn line that does more with less people, case-packers, automated labelers for the cases, and all kinds of other smaller things so we can do more with less people and higher output.
“We also plan to add robotics over the next 18 months as well,” says Albright, calling automation an essential core competence for all snack-food producers trying to grow their business.
Says Albright: “Snack food is one of the most competitive product categories, as it is driven by extremely large companies that have made many acquisitions over the years to broaden their footprint and product offerings.
“That being said, we know there is opportunity for a family start-up company like ours, which offers unique high-quality delicious products, along with quick-to-market innovation.”
Albright estimates that the Covered Bridge Potato Chips plant attracts about 50,000 visitors a year to see the company’s chips being produced right before their eyes.
“We have large signage on our plant facing both east and west—targeting tourists to come see the factory and how the chips are made,” Albright says.
“They learn about the history of the longest covered bridge in the world in Hartland, the potatoes, the varieties we use, the history of farming in New Brunswick, how we grew potatoes back in the 1950s and today, and the history of potato chips, while seeing the production process from behind the glass.
“Upon finishing their tour, they get a bag of plain unsalted chips fresh from the line, which they can take with them to our gift ship to experiment with nearly 40 unique flavor seasonings packed inside branded spice shakers.
“We are one of the top tourist attractions in New Brunswick,” says Albright, citing the company’s focus on high product quality and continuous product innovation as key contributors to its rapid growth and portfolio diversification.
“We always launch high-quality innovative items that give the whole product category a lift,” he says, “rather than cannibalize one bag for another.
“It’s all about engaging people that may not purchase regularly in our retail space by providing unique, great-tasting products that appeal to them.
“We have a great social media presence on all our platforms,” he concludes, “and our marketing team does a great job to show how fun and exciting our products are, along with our company.”
Credits: Canadian Packaging
By George Guidoni, Editor
Photos by Ben Cummings