Wrapped in Whimsy and Ingenuity, Stuffed Puffs Factory Opens in Lehigh Valley’s Hot Industrial Market
By Nicole Radzievich Mertz on June 17, 2021
Just north of Route 22 in Lehigh Valley, along a mile stretch that includes medical equipment, plastic bottle and pet food manufacturers, a new factory for a company called Stuffed Puffs looms with a smiling marshmallow painted across the otherwise innocuous façade.
The mural is a bit of whimsy that belies the super-secret technology within the building: machines that put the chocolate inside the marshmallow.
Founder Michael Tierney has been pioneering the proprietary process for a decade. He moved to Lehigh Valley to build the business with an investment from Factory and Richard Thompson. He chose the region to open his second manufacturing plant to supply Walmart and other retailers across the country.
The $65 million facility, which is Phase I, houses highly customized lines that can produce up to $500 million a year in marshmallow products and promotes a collaborative culture among a workforce of 150 machine operators, engineers, quality inspectors and other team members. Team members write meeting notes on the glass office walls and white board partitions between desks. They chat over free healthy snacks at the two company cafes or a game of ping pong.
“If you do a good job in empowering people to take ownership, you find that you get the best ideas from the people that do the work each and every day,” Tierney said. “I think that’s lost in so many manufacturing facilities.”
The 165,000-square-foot Stuffed Puffs facility opened in January at the site of the former Guardian Life offices in Hanover Township, Northampton County. The building at Lehigh Valley Flex Center, owned and built by J.G. Petrucci Co., was among the 5.2 million square feet of industrial space delivered so far this year in Lehigh and Northampton counties. Lehigh Valley was among the busiest industrial markets in the nation during the pandemic.
The project reflects Lehigh Valley’s continuing growth in food and beverage manufacturing, including Bowery Farming, the largest vertical farm in the nation, is expanding into Bethlehem.
The high concentration of food and beverage companies in Lehigh Valley has helped propel the region to the nation’s 52nd largest manufacturing economy.
“Stuffed Puffs is part of a long tradition in the Lehigh Valley of innovation and the production of brand name products,” Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Don Cunningham said. “Michael’s entrepreneurship combined with Richard Thompson and Factory’s innovation center for food and beverage has created the latest Lehigh Valley-made product to land on the nation’s supermarket shelves.”
The idea for the company started about a dozen years ago while Tierney was sitting around a campfire with friends on summer break. Tierney, then a 19-year-old college student, bantered with friends about why s’mores never looked like they do in commercials – his problem was that the chocolate stayed hard but the marshmallow turned gooey.
Tierney, who is trained in the culinary arts, went on to work in the elite kitchens of the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Eleven Madison Park in New York City, still chewing on the idea of how to make the perfect s’more. He experimented with the process in his mother’s Long Island basement and later canvassed the world for investors.
He said he was laughed out of the meetings and told to get a real job. He started another business Mikey’s – gluten-
free, frozen food – to subsidize his marshmallow passion. About five years ago, he attended an expo where he met Thompson, the retired Freshpet CEO who would soon launch the Factory in south Bethlehem. It’s a business accelerator for food, beverage and pet companies looking to scale up. Mikey’s and Stuffed Puffs brands were among the Factory’s early investments.
His plan was to take an idea everyone in the industry said was impossible, develop the intellectual property, and then launch the business nationally “right out of the gate,” discouraging competition by “fast followers.”
Tierney acknowledged his idea was crazy.
But Thompson said he likes crazy ideas. As Freshpet’s CEO, he tapped into the twin trends of healthier food for the family and the humanization of pets as he led a company which produced the first refrigerated pet foods. From manufacturing operations to distribution systems, Freshpet had to create the process through trial and error, and Thompson decided to help Tierney do the same.
Stuffed Puffs netted a distribution deal with Walmart and started production in Wisconsin at their R&D facility. It was at capacity in six months. Tierney said building the second facility in Lehigh Valley was a no brainer – it is in the heart of the Northeast market where Thompson and himself have built a strong network of resources.
“We wanted a footprint where we would be able to leverage our supply chain and also be in an environment where we can get really good people to be on our team, people who understand manufacturing, engineering and food processing,” he said. “The Lehigh Valley is rich with those things.”
Ground was broken in the last quarter of 2019 on the eve of a worldwide pandemic that created labor challenges, locked down countries and disrupted supply chains. Suppliers of highly customized equipment had trouble getting into the country, sending Tierney into a deep dive of immigration procedures while trying to build and run a young business during a historic economic downturn.
“We built and staffed this whole thing during the pandemic. When you think about it, that’s awesome,” Thompson said. “We didn’t go away. We didn’t hide. We took all the precautions. Nobody got COVID here that we know about, and we built this 165,000-square-foot facility.”
Peter Polt, Executive Vice President at Petrucci, said the pandemic created challenges as the team worked through the uncertainty as to what qualified as an essential business (food processing ultimately was) and social distancing protocols. But, on top of that, he said, the project itself was ground-breaking.
“This was not a standard project,” Polt said. “It was the first facility of this kind because of this very new [manufacturing] process.”
Designed around patented machinery and collaborative space, the project team also had to account for safety protocols such as no touch doors, digital thermometers and nursing station at the front entrance. Those design revisions make the Stuffed Puffs building among the first class of pandemic-era industrial facilities.
Stuffed Puffs is now fully operational and engineering is underway for the second production line.
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