November 24, 2011

From Dillons warehouse to your house

Today is largely a day of rest at the enormous Dillons perishable foods warehouse in Hutchinson.

Today is largely a day of rest at the enormous Dillons perishable foods warehouse in Hutchinson.

But Wednesday and the days before that were positively frantic. The last few days before Thanksgiving are traditionally the busiest of the year at the 236,000-square-foot warehouse.

Thickly dressed workers sped pallet jacks here and there rushing to fill orders in time for the holiday. The crew unloaded turkeys, potatoes, rolls and a thousand other items from suppliers’ trucks and loaded them on trucks bound for 92 grocery stores and 18 Kwik Shops in three states.

If you shopped at Dillons for Thanksgiving, as nearly half of Wichitans do, much of today’s feast was sitting on a shelf in the warehouse a few days ago.

Transportation manager Barry Cooprider estimated that the amount of food shipped immediately before Thanksgiving rises about 20 percent over a normal day. Last Sunday, the warehouse shipped 2.4 million pounds of product.

Canned pumpkin, boxed stuffing mix and similar items go through Dillons’ non-perishable food warehouse on the west side of Goddard.

Between the two warehouses, the company shipped 3.5 million pounds on Sunday.

Endless winter

The perishable foods warehouse in Hutch resembles a grocery store for frost giants.

It is divided into sections cooled to different temperatures to accommodate different foods.

The food, almost always boxed, sits on 34-foot-tall shelves in numbered spots. About half the warehouse handles fresh produce, meats and dairy and is cooled to about 34 degrees.

Most of the rest of the space is a freezer chilled to zero for frozen food, from pizza to pies. But it’s the workers who wrangle the ice cream who truly work in a winter Kansans rarely experience – 15 below zero.

In the freezer, the air crackles with dryness and everything, including workers’ mustaches, is tinged with frost. Every breath launches a plume of ice crystals.

The workers know exactly how to dress for the work. They wear long underwear, heavy sweatshirts, ski pants, earmuffs, heavy jackets, caps and gloves. They move constantly.

The work pays well and might prompt envious looks in the summer. Still, there’s no getting around it: It’s really, really cold.

“I sometimes get a little stiff working in the cold,” said Steve Hoefer, a 29-year warehouse veteran. “But you get used to it.”

Smarter, not harder

In the last 10 years, technology has only made the warehouse more efficient, managers say.

The warehouse has gone paperless. Invoices and manifests are a thing of the past. Inventory now gets tracked in real time.

As soon as a pallet is removed from an inbound truck, it gets a bar code, which allows the inventory system to start tracking it immediately.

The big benefit, said warehouse manager Dennis Lang, is that workers can stick an item on an outbound truck immediately, if the warehouse was lacking the item for the order. That saves a day in lag time.

The workers use voice-activated “Talkman” units to interact with the inventory system, cutting out steps and allowing them to use both hands.

On the trucking side, the outbound trucks now have multiple compartments cooled to different temperatures. This means fewer less-than-full trucks.

The result, managers said, is the warehouse still has about 200 employees, but it ships more goods. In one instance, the warehouse now ships flowers to the stores.

“It’s really a process of continuous improvement,” said Tom Twigg, Dillons Supply Chain Manager.

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