Rollin' in Dough

Ted Castle and company know dough. Rhino Foods creates 55,000 pounds of cookie dough every day along with cheesecakes, chocolate chips and more

by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

Photos: Jeff Clarke

If the air in Burlington's South End smells a little sweeter today, it could be because Rhino Foods is baking cookies -- 70,000 of them, to be precise. Driving past the vanilla-scented factory on Industrial Parkway, it's hard to believe Rhino began as a humble ice cream stand that Ted Castle, 47, and his wife started 18 years ago as a sideline.

Even if you have never eaten one of Rhino's flagship ice cream sandwiches, the luxurious Chesster, you've more than likely sampled something from the factory. Since 1990, Rhino has made the cookie dough for Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream.

Ted Castle

Former hockey coach Ted Castle traded ice rinks for ice cream when he became a businessman. The owner of Rhino Foods in South Burlington says, "Many of the things I'd learned in sports were relevant to business."

The company also makes ice cream sandwiches, cheesecakes and add-ins such as chocolate chips and brownies for other national brands, including Nestl? USA, Friendly's and Weight Watchers.

Castle, born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., seemed set to follow a sporting destiny. He was captain of the University of Vermont's hockey team and an All-American before graduating in 1974. "I thought I'd like to settle in Vermont, but I felt I should see more of the world first. So I went to Europe for two years to play professional hockey," Castle relates. "A friend told me that hockey was on the rise in Italy so I spent a season there. Then I went to Sweden."

Returning to the States, Castle took a job as assistant hockey coach at the University of Maine, "but I'd made up my mind that I wanted to settle in Vermont," he says. He moved back to Burlington, where he worked as assistant hockey coach at UVM for eight years. During that time, Castle, together with his Middlebury-born wife, Anne, set up Chessters Frozen Custard, a small stand in Winooski's Champlain Mill.

"That was in 1981," says Castle. "A friend of ours owned the Waterfront Restaurant, and he'd let us use his mixer. We'd buy our ingredients at the IGA across the street." In 1986, Castle decided to concentrate on Chessters full-time. "We started moving into wholesale around that time," he remembers.

Two years later, the young company, now called Rhino Foods, moved to bigger premises in Fort Ethan Allen. "At that point we took over making Vermont Velvet Cheesecake from the Cheese Outlet in Burlington," Castle explains.

In 1990 Rhino started making cookie dough for Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., "and that was when things really took off," he says. "A year later, one out of every four pints of ice cream Ben & Jerry's sold was Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough." That gave Rhino the impetus for its final move to Burlington's South End.

The 30,000-square-foot factory, which the company has occupied since 1993, is a hive of almost non-stop activity. "This year we expanded the work force to 130, and now we work three shifts a day," explains Castle. "Every day there's a two-hour set-up period, 16 hours of production and six hours of sanitization, cleaning everything up before production begins again."

As Castle explains how the highly automated production line works, ice cream sandwiches are being put together. The cookies, whose baking perfumed the South End air a few hours earlier, are being covered with vanilla ice cream -- "it's actually frozen custard," Castle points out, containing more egg yolks and staying softer -- and run through a nitrogen freezer. At 82 degrees below zero Farenheit, the sandwiches are frozen in eight minutes.

The line makes up to 75 sandwiches a minute. Rock music pulses above the noise of the machines. People are packing boxes of sandwiches and scooping chocolate chips out of hoppers, while sacks of brownie pieces await shipping.

An array of huge mixers stands along one wall. "Each of those can mix 700 pounds of cookie dough," says Castle. "I was talking to the captain of the Charlotte ferry one day," Castle remembers, "and he asked me how much cookie dough we made. I asked him how much the ferry weighed. He told me, and I worked out that every three weeks we produce the weight of the Charlotte ferry in cookie dough." In less nautical terms, that's about 55,000 pounds of dough every day.

Castle is always looking to improve his company's product. "We aim to delight our customers," he states. "Innovation is key. We have a strong emphasis on research and development, not just to develop new products, but to improve existing ones," he says. Arnold Carbone, group leader of Ben & Jerry's flavor department, says, "If Rhino has something they've been working on, something innovative, they'll come and see us. That happens at least once a year."

Factory floor

Rhino worked with Ben & Jerry's to devise a way to keep cookie dough chewy in ice cream. "It was something of a technological breakthrough," Ted Castle says of the process, which was inspired by a humble hockey puck.

Innovation is something of a Rhino hallmark. "When Ben & Jerry's wanted to put cookie dough into ice cream, we had to come up with a way to do it," remembers Castle. "It wasn't as easy as saying 'Oh, let's just put in some cookie dough.' A lot of people had worked out how to add things like hard strawberries, but not how to add something gooey and chewy and have it stay that way."

Peter Lind, Ben & Jerry's primal ice cream therapist at the time, recalls that "I had been trying to engineer the dough to make it more resilient. Most of the results were pretty disgusting. Then someone suggested I talk to Ted," he continues. "We'd both played hockey for rival colleges, and somehow the talk went from a hockey puck on ice to a cookie dough puck on ice."

That was the key to the winning process: "little puck-shaped pieces of dough that stayed chewy as long as they were iced," Lind explains.

"It was something of a technological breakthrough," Castle says proudly. "I think we were a year ahead of everyone else." As befits someone whose specialty could be described as giving foods contrast in texture and flavor, Castle believes that "food is a total experience. I love to eat, to taste."

As Castle walks around the production line, he's clearly on first-name terms with much of his work force. Rhino Foods has a reputation as an enlightened employer. Castle and his company have been collecting awards since 1992, when he was chosen Vermont Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Association. The same year, Inc. Magazine chose Rhino as one of the best companies to work for.

Since then, among other accolades, Rhino won the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Blue Chip Enterprise Award for 1994, and the "optimas" award for vision in the workplace in 1996. Today, Castle is the proud and happy owner of an expanding company, but as he explains, that wasn't how things started.

"For the first three years after I left UVM I wasn't really enjoying myself," he admits. "I was just working for no real reason. Finally, someone I was working with told me I should either quit or find a way to enjoy myself."

Castle recalls thinking "How could I be good at this? I was successful, but not personally successful." Then it clicked. "I realized that when I'd left UVM I hadn't brought my coaching experience with me."

He started thinking like a coach again. "A good coach helps people work as a team," Castle says. "I saw that many of the things I'd learned in sports were relevant to business."

The Rhino management style has reflected this ever since. "We set goals, hold people accountable. We practice open-book accounting, so everyone knows what's going on." Thinking about his own approach to business made Castle ask: "Why do people want to own their own business? How can we give some of that to other people?"

According to Renita Rodriguez, director of technical services at Rhino, "Ted's great to work for. He's visionary, progressive, full of new ideas and concepts. He lets you balance your work with your private life."

Staff

From left: Ed Zura, Renita Rodriguez, Jayne Magnant and John McCarthy.

"He's a great cheerleader for people," says Jayne Magnant, Rhino's director of finance and administration. "He respects you as an individual."

As the company expands, the challenge for Castle grows. "We've just made a quantum leap in size from 80 employees working two shifts to 130 working three shifts," he says. "Trust is vital. It's difficult when you bring in new people. It takes time, but it will happen.

"The big thing now is how to retain people," he continues. "We try to create a community within Rhino. Pay is important, but there are other things, too, like challenging people, making them feel their work makes a difference, that they are listened to, respected, given opportunities to learn."

Magnant agrees. "We try for consensus," she says. "We're very open -- we don't try to hide anything." Magnant, who has been with the company for 10 years, says Castle "has always been open to what I've had to say. I've been able to grow with the company."

Lind, who still "does some chocolate work with Ted," thinks Castle's strength lies in "getting the people who work for him to figure things out for themselves. He trusts the people he works with," says Lind, "and can garner their creativity."

Castle believes that "as president, my job is to look out for the future of the company. I create the environment, then it's everyone's job to keep it flourishing, to monitor it, care for it. Now we have a critical mass of employees," he continues, "we're seeing that these things exist on their own -- they're self-perpetuating."

Ultimately, Castle is clear about his personal goals. "Since Anne and I married and we had kids, the family has come first," he insists. The couple have two boys, Ned, 15; and Rooney, 12. "I grew up sailing," says Castle, and the family spends many summer hours on Lake Champlain, sailing and water-skiing. "Location is very, very important to me," he says. "I'm never going to relocate Rhino to, say, South Carolina. The quality of life in Vermont is too good."

Castle, who is still as trim and energetic as any hockey coach, obviously sets great store by such things. "I live in Charlotte, and I ride my bike to work. It's a 45-minute ride." Sports run in the family: Ned plays on the CVU High School soccer team that recently defeated Colchester to become the 1999 state champion.

Everything about Rhino Foods, from its bright, attention-grabbing packaging to its progressive management, reflects the vision of its owner. The most important question nearly went unasked. What made a hockey coach go into the frozen dessert business? Castle grins almost sheepishly, as if a great secret has been unmasked. "I just really, really liked ice cream," he says.

Pip Vaughan-Hughes is a free-lance writer recently arrived in Vermont from London.