Adapting to Market Demands: Twin Rivers Technologies’ Strategic Shift to Kosher Glycerin

In our latest interview, we had the privilege of speaking with key representatives from Twin Rivers Technologies, a leading manufacturer of OU kosher-certified glycerin and fatty acids. Chris Schneider, Vice President of Business Development, along with his colleagues Nick Roberts and Garth Leonard, provided an in-depth look into the company’s strategic transition towards a fully vegetable-based product line. This shift not only aligns with growing market trends but also underscores their commitment to meeting the diverse needs of their customer base, including those requiring kosher-certified products.

The team from Twin Rivers Technologies shared valuable insights into their meticulous planning and execution process, highlighting the challenges and opportunities encountered along the way. From navigating the complexities of kosher certification to ensuring seamless production transitions, their experience offers a fascinating glimpse into the operational and strategic decisions that drive their success. Their dedication to quality, flexibility, and customer satisfaction is evident, making Twin Rivers Technologies a notable player in the kosher market landscape.

OU Kosher: So if you could give us just an overview of what your organization does, what your mission is, and your respective roles.

Chris Schneider: OK, so again, my name is Chris Schneider. I’m Vice President of Business Development for Twin Rivers Technologies. In my role, Nick works with me.

We’ve worked to organically grow our business, and we’re doing that via a transition over the last two years from animal-based or a combination of animal-based fatty acids and glycerin to a fully 100% vegetable marketing profile.

It’s been a major undertaking for us over the last several years to make this change. Previously, about half of our business was tallow-based and the other half was a combination of coconut, palm, and soy-based products. Now, we’ve gone completely to 100% vegetable, eliminating tallow and replacing it largely with palm oil.

Twin Rivers Technologies has been in business since the early 1990s. It was a former Procter and Gamble Chemicals plant that was shut down and sold to our previous ownership. The original owners bought it in the early ’90s with the idea to produce, market, and sell biofuels. However, the market wasn’t quite ready for that, and they decided to pivot. In 1994, they restarted the fatty acid plant that was idled. Twin Rivers has been operating the fatty acid facility in Quincy, MA since 1994.

It is a significant property with a deepwater port, allowing us to bring fats and oils directly from Southeast Asia into our plant by monthly ocean vessel shipments. This has been a big advantage for us over the years, especially as freight costs have increased. Having the ability to bring large parcels of bulk fats and oils into our plant has been a real advantage for Twin Rivers.

OU Kosher: Can you talk a little bit about why you made such a monumental switch?

Chris Schneider: We identified two major trends in our business about five years ago. The first was a switch by our customers away from animal-based products. We have a significant market share in the home and personal care industry, and those customers have been moving towards vegetable-based products. Beyond traditional markets, many industrial customers are also moving towards vegetable alternatives.

The second trend was the increase in capacities for renewable diesel as a fuel, which uses fats and oils, specifically tallow and waste oils. We saw this as a threat to our tallow business long-term. Anticipating a shortage of tallow in the marketplace and our customers driving us toward vegetable markets, we decided to make a complete transition away from animal fats to vegetable-only.

OU Kosher: Did you have to stop production while making that transition?

Chris Schneider: We did not. We managed both animal and vegetable products in our plant, so we were able to transition over time.

Nick Roberts: We did it over a period by working with our customers who were historically using tallow to develop vegetable alternatives.  Once we were ready for the full transition, we informed the remaining tallow customers who couldn’t transition with us that we were exiting the business.

Now that we’re 100% vegetable, we’re working to increase efficiencies by not having to manage tallow feedstock.

OU Kosher: How much has this increased your capacity?

Nick Roberts: We’re still finding out, but we’ve seen efficiencies by minimizing changeover time. Changeovers, the process of switching from one oil feed to another or one product to another, are our biggest capacity constraints. With fewer changeovers, we effectively increased our capacity.

Garth Leonard: This is Garth Leonard, VP of Sales and Marketing.  Being a manufacturer in the Northeast, we have significant costs for energy to run our plant, whether it’s vegetable or animal-based products. The primary driver wasn’t cost. We’re still assessing how much efficiency we’ve gained, but having fewer raw material feedstocks and changeovers does provide some efficiency.

We pride ourselves on long-term customer partnerships. Several customers have been buying from us since the early ’90s. During our transition, we provided about a year’s notice and offered alternative options, working to ensure customers had a path forward either with us or someone else.

Another trend we saw during the pandemic was supply chain issues. The US is a net importer of vegetable-based fatty acids and glycerin. We had customers seeking a domestic source of vegetable-based products. To continue servicing that market, we rationalized our plant and fully transitioned to vegetable-based products.

OU Kosher: So in terms of kosher certification, did any of you have experience in that business or know about it before you actually switched over?

Chris Schneider: Yeah, I think we’ve long known about kosher as a significant market opportunity for fatty acids and glycerin over the years. I had prior experience working with a company in the fatty alcohols world that was also kosher business, and we worked with the OU at that facility as well, which has since been shut down. The markets for these products have been long established here in the US.

Having tallow in our mix made it difficult for us to really participate in a big way. But with the change to vegetable, our ambition is to be 100% kosher at some point for all of our products, so at least be able to offer those.

We started about five years ago with the coconut fatty acids. One of our three production trains has been kosher for about five years. We’ve been supplying kosher coconut fatty acids and kosher soybean-based products for those last five years. We were already working with the OU on a limited basis, kosherizing and expanding our position in those markets.

OU Kosher: But you see kosher glycerin as being an important product in terms of sales income?

Chris Schneider: Absolutely. The market for kosher glycerin is larger than the market for kosher fatty acids.

OU Kosher: Is that a secret within the industry?

Chris Schneider: There’s always been a market, but it’s largely been serviced by imports. With biodiesel, a lot of that vegetable glycerin has to be kosher or is available as kosher. There is a long-established market for kosher glycerin, particularly in foods, food ingredients, pharma, and even tobacco.

OU Kosher: Glycerin is a byproduct of the biofuel refining process?

Chris Schneider: That’s correct, as well as a by-product of soap production, fatty acid, oleochemical production, and biodiesel manufacturing.

OU Kosher: How much of an investment are you making in marketing kosher glycerin now?

Chris Schneider: At this point, it’s been largely referrals. We’ve been in the glycerin business for a healthy period, segregating plant-based from tallow-based glycerin. We’ve penetrated the vegetable market and built long-term partnerships with customers. The kosher certification allows us to enter a new market we hadn’t accessed before. Our sales team is working with those customers, and we will utilize social media to announce our new kosher glycerin sourced from the East Coast and made in the US.

We see a niche market for US-produced, hydrolysis-based kosher glycerin that doesn’t come from biodiesel. Additionally, there’s a trend towards non-palm-based products for sustainability reasons. We have coconut-based kosher glycerin available, targeting niche markets.

OU Kosher: Are you able to compete with offshore competitors price-wise?

Chris Schneider: Pricing is always part of the equation, but not everything. We believe there is value in being a domestic manufacturer in the US market. We don’t always have to compete on a price basis with imports. Our typical customer is looking for a long term reliable supplier who can deliver with excellence.

OU Kosher: Is food safety entering into anyone’s decision to buy locally?

Chris Schneider: Food safety is very important. Most importers have systems and regulatory compliance that allow them to sell as food ingredients. It’s crucial to the markets we serve, especially the kosher markets, where many products are directly consumed, such as nutraceuticals and food and beverage products.

OU Kosher: Why did you decide to go with OU Kosher for certification?

Chris Schneider: Our relationship with the OU started with sales to Procter and Gamble. Since 1994, when we began with a former Procter and Gamble soap plant, we have expanded our kosher certification over the years, especially in 2008 with the major addition of the glycerin refinery. The OU has been a significant partner since around 2015.

Once you’re fully in the vegetable space, it makes it easier to transition to kosher. Kosher certification opens more markets for us and provides more opportunities to sell. We’ve been supplying kosher coconut fatty acids to food ingredient manufacturers who require kosher, and there’s a significant market for products that aren’t kosher yet but could be in the future.

OU Kosher: Is product development something your industry does, or is it fairly static?

Chris Schneider: Most of our customers handle base work, but we’re often involved in early-stage development. We help select the right products for their formulations and ultimate goals, providing guidance from our sales and technical teams.

OU Kosher: It’s very impressive the way you proactively got the buy-in of all of your existing customers and let everybody know what was going on, making sure they went along with you.

Chris Schneider: Due to our extensive prelaunch work, they were ready to go along with us.

OU Kosher: So, you can customize and do some level of customization on your product depending on the customer, and they’ll do the R&D on their end and let you know what they need?

Chris Schneider: That’s generally the case, yes.

OU Kosher: Any mistakes along the way? Anything that had to be corrected?

Chris Schneider: I would say that we learned our timelines. Each evolution as we’ve kosherized different parts of each unit operation has made us more efficient and provided better estimates on timelines for the next step.

Nick Roberts: Our rabbinic coordinator, Rabbi Stareshefsky, has been extremely flexible, allowing us to reschedule visits when necessary. Flexibility has been important. We’ve also improved our cleaning techniques, which is crucial for kosherization. Over time, we’ve moved from hand brushing to using water jets for more efficiency. Being an old plant from 1939, each vessel has unique challenges.

OU Kosher: Can you define vessel and train?

Nick Roberts: A vessel can be a distillation column, a hydrolyzer column, or tanks. Tanks are the biggest issue. Learning how to effectively clean and steam them up to temperature has been a process.

We’ve changed some strategies over time. For some tanks, filling with water isn’t always feasible, so we use steaming processes. Planning and upfront agreements on expectations have helped minimize issues.

Initially, there were a few incidents, but over time, our team developed a sense of the rabbi’s expectations and aligned accordingly. One thing to note is that the cost and time invested were significant, but we decided it was the right move for our business and industry.

OU Kosher: How did you manage the kosher process during your veg transition?

Chris Schneider: Our business can’t afford to shut down for a month for cleaning and isolation. We had to manage it on the fly, making the necessary transitions while maintaining production. The expectations were clear, but the amount of residual product to be removed was more than anticipated. We had to sell extra products to non-kosher customers, which wasn’t always cost-effective.

OU Kosher: It sounds like a significant leap, but it seems you’ll realize gains from going completely kosher.

Chris Schneider: We’re focusing on palm and coconut glycerin, including kosher for Passover, and in the future, products like oleic and stearic acid.

OU Kosher: Do these products need a kosher for Passover designation?

Chris Schneider: Not 100%. For example, if it takes five hours for glycerin to work through the refinery, switching from soy to palm and coconut means the initial output will be mixed and not kosher for Passover. We sell this as non-kosher for Passover, but we want to ensure our certified companies know the products can be used on Passover.

We’ve taken additional steps by selling soy materials as non-kosher. We have a separate TRG100 product for non-kosher, ensuring no risk of soy products entering the kosher for Passover market. Our main palm and coconut products will be certified for Passover without additional certification fees.

OU Kosher: Is soy produced on the same line as palm and coconut?

Chris Schneider: Yes, but we’ll monitor the transition time to ensure proper records and certification.

OU Kosher: And it could be sold as kosher, but we’re just segregating all the GMO soybean material into one stock. We have enough customer base in that range, so it’s not going to harm us.

Chris Schneider: And that segregation is a big deal for prospective customers, correct?

Nick Roberts: Yes, our customers definitely want to make sure that what they’re getting works for their needs, whether it’s certified kosher, non-kosher, or kosher for Passover.

We will ensure, through our practices and by working with the OU, that we’re doing the right things and performing the right way.

OU Kosher: That’s all I have. I really appreciate what you guys are doing.

Chris Schneider: Thank you. It’s been a tricky process, and it probably will continue to be, but we’ve managed to stay rational and focused throughout.

Nick Roberts: In some ways, the process has been beneficial because it forced us to communicate intimately with our customers and be open and honest. This created opportunities we might not have otherwise had.

Garth Leonard: There was a significant amount of time and resources invested, both in dollars and people, to get this done. We fully expect to reap the rewards of that.

OU Kosher: There’s value in knowing who you’re buying from, trusting them, and recognizing the benefits of American-made products.

Chris Schneider: We hope to benefit from that trust and recognition.

Garth Leonard: This discussion is an opportunity for us to share our story to a broader kosher audience and make potential new customers aware that there is a new kosher offering in our industry. We appreciate the exposure and partnership with the OU.

OU Kosher: Any final thoughts for our readers?

Garth Leonard: The transition has been challenging but also rewarding, opening new doors for Twin Rivers Technologies. We are excited about the future and the potential to further serve our customers with high-quality kosher products.

OU Kosher: Thank you again for your time. We look forward to seeing Twin Rivers Technologies’ continued success in the kosher market.