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Fast and fresh: Target Distribution Center in Denton now shipping produce

Profile image for By Karina Ramirez / Staff Writer
By Karina Ramirez / Staff Writer

High traffic and movement began last week at the new Target Distribution Center in Denton.

April 12 was the first day the center shipped produce to local stores.

The staff at the 360,000-square-foot building had been shipping only meat since March 8, the center’s official first day of operation.

The Denton location at 3255 Airport Road is one of four food distribution centers for Minnesota-based Target Corp. It is the first robotic food and perishable distribution center dedicated to organize and deliver better and fresher produce, as well as other grocery products to approximately 235 stores throughout Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

“It is the busiest we have been since we opened,” said Steve Dembowski, the general manager.

The center is a state-of-the art, energy-efficient and environmentally friendly ammonia refrigeration system composed of four chambers that at different temperatures will accommodate more than 5,500 different food products. It is the company’s most automated distribution center to date, Dembowski said.

Before going on a tour of the new facility, employee Rodney Wilson spent a couple of minutes providing a short ammonia safety presentation, which he said was standard procedure for all guests and needed for safety reasons.

The reception area contains art pieces displayed across different hallways. The pieces with vibrant colors were designed by art students from the College of Visual Arts and Design at the University of North Texas. The artwork was professionally framed and installed by American Fine Art, a company based in Dallas.

“We partner with local universities whenever we put in a facility and have an artist from the area produce artwork we purchase,” Dembowski said.

Next to the reception area is a training room to one side and a cafeteria on the other. Guests are asked to wear an insulated jacket and gloves before they walk into the center’s coldest areas.

“It seems to be pretty complicated, but it is a pretty simple process,” Dembowski said. “We induct everything to what we call our automation. Induction means we take it from a pallet rider and we put the pallet on a conveyor. It [a product] is stored, put away, pulled, palletized and wrapped all by automation.”

The distribution center is divided into three chambers. The first, called the ambiance chamber, is 54 degrees and it houses produce like bananas, potatoes and other perishable items. It is the part of the process that does not need to be automated.

“Anything that does not need to be chilled goes here,” he said.

The ambiance chamber also contains 20 rooms that will ripen approximately 850,000 pounds of bananas each week.

“Bananas are huge drivers of sales in the stores. If you mess up the bananas, you can lose a person,” Dembowski said. “After we receive bananas in, the team members store them into the yellow banana ripening rooms.”

This is also where 25-year-old Justin Evans, the center’s full-time banana ripener, spends his workday.

Evans said the bananas stored in the rooms come mostly from Guatemala and Mexico. On April 12, the bananas mostly came from Honduras.

“There is never a dull moment,” he said. “It is produce, so it is always changing. There is never a consistency with how things ripen or how things work. So there is always a new challenge.”

Dembowski said the bananas are fragile and that the goal is to keep them from graying or changing their color.

“They will arrive at the store covered in a blanket,” Dembowski said. “The store will take the blanket off and place them in the area where the bananas will be sold.”

After the ambiance chamber there is a wet produce location that houses produce like beans and carrots. Another chamber kept at 28 degrees contains chicken, turkey and ground beef.

The automation process begins in a chamber kept at 34 degrees.

“This is what we call a high bay warehouse,” Dembowski said. “All they [the employees] have to do is tell the system what they inducted; a conveyor takes it and puts it away into a nine-story-like building that has thousands of locations.”

There is an automated cooler for items like apples, oranges and some precooked meat and another automated freezer for products needed to be stored at minus 15 degrees.

The next step is called delayering, where full pallets are broken down to individual cartons that can be shipped to the stores.

“Imagine thousands of pingpong balls creating the perfect suction to pick up one layer at a time off the pallet,” Dembowski said. “Think about it; there would normally be a person breaking down a pallet all by himself.”

Before most grocery items get to a Target store, products are labeled and placed on pallets, then placed on an assembly line. Through computers managed by at least two technicians, pallets are organized according to stores’ needs.

The automation in the facility includes seven nine-story pallet cranes for storage, 10 carton cranes, 10 machines for loading pallets and two pallet wrappers.

For the automated product, aside from receivers and shippers in a dock area, the only people touching the cartons are associates with WITRON Logistik + Informatik GmbH, a German-based company that designed the distribution center’s automation system.

The system is so precise that Dembowski said products seldom get crushed or broken. They can get to the stores at the right time and in the right sequence.

“We have automation for accuracy and speed,” he said. “We can react to something going out of stock in the store that day if we need to. If there is product that ran out, we can reshelf it quickly.”

Dembowski said that in 28 years of working at distribution centers, he had never seen such an automation system.

Dembowski said there are three generators that can deliver full building backup power in case of electrical failure.

The center employs 140 people — 35 to 40 are WITRON employees who help with maintenance and operation.

There are a total of 37 distribution centers nationally catering to general merchandise, Internet shopping and food distribution, Dembowski said.

Target officials are preparing a grand opening event June 3.

KARINA RAMÍREZ can be reached at 940-566-6878 and via Twitter at @KarinaFRamirez.