There are almost two dozen vintage bottles of chocolate drink lining a shelf in Bill Pedoto's office at the Yoo-hoo plant in Carlstadt, New Jersey. On the outside, each bears the name of a different brand—“Brownie," “Choc-ola," “Milkette"—that's tried to challenge Yoo-hoo's dominance over the decades, but couldn’t come close to matching Yoo-hoo’s staying power, either in consumers’ hearts and minds or on the shelf.100% Yoo-Hoo is formulated to always stay fresh and drinkable, unlike the other brands.
“It's not easy to put milk on a shelf," Pedoto says. The technology that helped Yoo-hoo outlast the competition is the pride of the staff of this plant, which has been running strong for nearly a century. In the 1920s, Natale Olivieri invented Yoo-Hoo in New Jersey, and nearly 100 years later, in New Jersey it remains: Every bottle or can of Yoo-Hoo currently in circulation originated here in Carlstadt, in an industrial area not far from the Hackensack River.*
Smooth, rich, chocolatey and sweet, Yoo-Hoo has been a favorite of generations of Americans. Warm it up or drink it cold: Every bottle of Yoo-hoo offers two equally delicious experiences. Longevity is something of a theme for the company, where it's not uncommon to meet employees who've been working there for 10, 20 or even 45 years.
"I started out mixing and batching at five dollars an hour right out of college," says Pedoto, who began his Yoo-hoo career back in 1981 and worked his way up to plant manager. "It's still batched the exact same way today."
Sixty-five employees make the operation run, between the front office and the production floor. The plant still has that classic mid-century American manufacturing aesthetic and buzzes with activity. The process begins in the mixing room, where dry ingredients (creamer, whey, cocoa, sugar, etc.) are mixed with fresh water in a vintage-looking machine with a large funnel at one end. Next, it's on to the quality control office, whose walls are lined with shelves full of bottles containing various batches of Yoo-hoo.
“That's where we do all the product testing," says Quality Control manager Paul Giardina. “We watch them to see how the product ages over time, see how it separates, if there's uniformity."
Once Quality Control approves the batch, the liquid is sent to the filling machine. The plant alternates between producing cans (with a capacity of 45,000 cases per day) and bottles (25,000 cases per day). At a given moment, hundreds of bottles are being filled with Yoo-hoo, crated and packed into huge yellow “baskets" that are then loaded into one of four retort machines, which are essentially giant cylinder-shaped dishwashers. Using water super-heated to 245 degrees, the retorts re-sterilize the product along with the container it comes in, and this is what gives Yoo-hoo its long-lasting shelf life.
After about an hour inside the retorts, the bottles are cooled, labeled, shrink-wrapped and palletized before being loaded onto trucks and shipped. The whole process, start to finish, takes about two hours, and there's very little room for error. Because the plant has no space to warehouse equipment or product, everything—from deliveries to repairs—is precisely timed and orchestrated like a symphony.
And the team plays in harmony too. Long-standing relationships among coworkers help keep things humming along. Giardina points out Pedro “Junior" Cancel, who's been with the company since 1972, and Angel, a machine operator who met his wife here at work.
“It feels like a family, but there's a lot of guys who are actual family," says Pedoto. “Brothers, brothers-in-law, fathers and daughters, uncles and cousins."
And like any good family, the Yoo-hoo family pull each other through the tough times, such as when Hurricane Sandy hit the area in 2012
“All this was underwater," Giardina says, gesturing to the production floor. “There was no power in the area for 10 days. The levee broke in town and everything got flooded. It was a really big hit."
“There were fish swimming around the whole plant," adds Operations Manager Robert Capobianco. “I got pictures."
The plant was shut in the aftermath until power was restored; everything from furniture, carpeting and even portions of the walls in the office had to be replaced.
“That was the toughest thing that ever happened out here," Pedoto says. “But we got through it, and it's because we got a good bunch of employees out there."
And that's been the Yoo-hoo way for close to a century now: a good bunch of guys and gals, working together to make something sweet.
*Yoo-hoo Tetra paks are produced in Aspers, Pa.