“Bear, buffalo, camel, cat, elephant, donkey, lion, tiger ...”
It’s a feat to name all 13 animal cracker shapes from York’s D.F. Stauffer Biscuit Co. — even for decades-long employees who’ve watched them slide across conveyor belts day in and day out.
They’re more eager to muse on other things while regaling a visitor about the 150-year-old company’s recent history. Like the time when they had to work with a twist-tie machine, or when the shapes were cut out of the dough by stamps instead of a rotary cutter, or when they had to operate a foot pedal to flow crackers into bear-shaped jugs that someone would hold still.
“You would sometimes be in cookies up to your knees,” says Lisa Scott, a 28-year veteran of Stauffer’s.
“People manually put the lids on,” chimes in packaging line worker Mary Yoe, another 28-year employee. “Oh, your hands would hurt.”
Lots of mechanical advances have been made at Stauffer’s since 1871 — especially since the 1990s, when Japanese snack-maker and manufacturer Meiji bought a stake in the family-owned company. (Meiji became the sole owner in 2005.) Its portfolio has grown, too. Stauffer’s bakes up iced animal cookies, gingerbread cookies, shortbread, dark chocolate stars, baked cheese crackers, ginger snaps, and variations thereof: lemon, pumpkin, apple pie.
But one product still reigns supreme at the factory; its sugary aroma scents the air outside the plant 24 hours a day, five days a week.
“The animal cracker is our No. 1 item,” says Jeff Patzer, vice president of engineering. “We do millions — I’m going to say 10 to 15 million — of these a day here in York.” (Patzer knows his shapes, by the way: “So we go elephant, then bear, buffalo, camel, cow, cat, donkey, goat, hippo, lion, horse, rhino, tiger.” The elephant comes first because it’s his favorite. “It’s great for dipping.”)
Stauffer’s animal crackers begin as dough mixed in 2,500-pound batches. Workers load pre-weighed ingredients into an industrial mixer, scanning them in as they add them — flour, sugar, vegetable oil, high-fructose corn syrup, salt, baking soda — so as not to diverge from the long-standing recipe. A giant blade blends them together and brings the dough to 100 to 102 degrees, making it soft and pliable for the journey ahead.
Once mixed, the dough is dumped and scraped, half a batch at a time, into a wheeled tub that carries it to the production line. The tub is locked into an elevator and lifted, then turned on its side so the dough can slip into a machine that will laminate it — folding into layers — then roll it into successively thinner sheets before the dough meets the rotary cutter that whirls it into its trademark shapes.
The lamination, Patzer says, makes an animal cracker different from a cookie — that and its lower amount of sugar. “Our crackers don’t really have leavening agents in them. It’s that natural laminating, folding over, that creates that density or that thickness of that cookie, that crunch and airiness to it. And that then allows us, as we bake it, to get that snap in the cracker. You take a cookie, you don’t necessarily get that snap.”
The rotary cutter swiftly slices up sheets of dough millimeters thick. Excess dough, called the web, is mechanically lifted and piped back up to the beginning, to be recycled. What’s left are lines of animals, 26 across, marching down a braided metal conveyor belt.
Before 1987, Stauffer’s used a 13-shape-long stamp that would travel back and forth on the dough, cutting out shapes as it moved along. Before the stamp — in the 1920s or ’30s, Patzer guesses — the cookies were cut by hand, much like Christmas cookies. In those days, they were also baked on trays in an oven not dissimilar from a home oven.
Today, the crackers travel seamlessly from the cutter to a 300-foot-long continuous baking oven. “We can basically put the product on the line, it bakes and goes all the way through to packaging without anyone having to handle the product,” Patzer says.
The crackers bake in about 10 minutes, and while no one is hovering over them, an employee monitors the oven’s five zones. The first controls the leavening and blasts the cookie with heat — but not too much, cautions 40-year Stauffer’s employee Val Hibner. Too much “bakes the outside, but not the inside.” Zones two and three primarily remove moisture, while lower-heat zones four and five give the crackers some color. Hibner and other oven techs keep a handwritten log of every bake, tracking on-the-fly changes. (Between its own portfolio and contract baking for clients, Stauffer’s makes a couple hundred products.)
Once they’re baked, there’s plenty of conveyor belt left for the crackers to cool on before they get to packaging. They make a brief detour through quality control, where a handful at a time are tested for moisture content, weight, and taste. (Yes, someone gets paid to eat animal crackers.) Then they zip through various lines in the 200,000-square-foot factory floor, working their way to the second story, where a sort of animal-cracker waterfall funnels them into bags and bear jugs.
Towering above a carousel of empty jugs, a machine shakes crackers into a dozen different lanes. They spill over the edge, into a chute that weighs the accumulating crackers. Suddenly, the bottom drops out, and the crackers fall away into an unseen space. Eventually, they turn up in a precisely filled bear jug that’s mechanically sealed and lidded. The loader can churn out 60 jugs per minute; only a coating of cookie crumbs on the floor betrays the machinery’s inefficiencies. Employees pack them away into boxes.
Between Hibner, Scott, and Yoe, there aren’t many complaints about automation at Stauffer’s. Hibner remembers hand-packing trays of cookies and having to reach for product in the middle of a belt. “It killed your back,” she says. They commiserate over the quirks of other bygone machinery and packaging — twist ties, zippers — even if they remember those times fondly in retrospect. But ultimately, “you see the benefits [of automation], those that have been here longer,” Scott says.
“We can’t get enough people,” reports plant manager Rob Iosue. “We need people everywhere. It’s not a matter of folks losing jobs, it’s being able to do something else, run another line, make more product.”
Stauffer’s saw a surge in animal-cracker demand when the pandemic hit last year, which meant the round-the-clock factory ramped up production from five days to six or seven per week. “We had trouble keeping the shelves full in the stores,” Iosue says.
When it’s safe, Stauffer’s hopes to celebrate its 150th anniversary by inviting employees’ families into the plant, to see what their loved ones do every day. It’s something they did at the 125th anniversary, too — and something few family members had seen before.
“They ran a few lines. It was really cool. Of course, that day was a little bit slower, so [they said], ‘Oh, it must be easy!’ ” Scott remembers to everyone’s laughter. She corrected them: “No, it’s a little slower just to show you what happens. It’s not the full capacity running.”
In truth, “It does get crazy some days,” Scott says. “But I actually tell a lot of the new hires: ... Keep that relaxed frame of mind and don’t let yourself panic. It’ll be fine. You learn from seasoned people, keep yourself calm. It’s a cookie, and we’ll get there.”