Galaxy Desserts sets the trends

by Laurie Gorton
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Sometime this summer, Jean-Yves Charon, Paul Levitan and Pascal Pasquier will make a decision that could change America’s morning pastry preferences and afternoon snacking choices. The executives of Galaxy Desserts, Richmond, CA, and Brioche Pasquier, Les Cerqueux, France, already started the ball rolling with the introduction of four authentic French brioche items in Northern California and the Northwest.

“We believe the US is ready for brioche,” said Mr. Levitan, Galaxy’s president and CEO. “There’s large growth potential since brioche is already being used by high-end restaurants and is now going mainstream in the quick-service segment. All this makes the case for brioche being on trend.”

According to Mr. Charon, Galaxy’s founder and pastry chef, the market is also ready for truly authentic French-style brioche, especially the styles that turned Pasquier into Europe’s leading producer. Galaxy Desserts joined the Brioche Pasquier “family of bakers” in 2012, with both companies investing in each other.

“Food trends change,” Mr. Charon said. “It was the croissant in 1984, then muffins, then bagels. Now, the world is ready for brioche.”

Galaxy launched brioche in May 2013 in Northern California, its home territory. “We are earning close to 100% acceptance from our retail customers when we offer them the brioche line,” reported Avi Hangad-O’Shaughnessy, Galaxy’s marketing manager. At present, the company imports four brioche styles from Pasquier facilities in France. Two of the four feature chocolate in the form of chips or smooth fillings.

“We have to learn exactly what the American consumer wants,” Mr. Charon explained. “Chocolate in bread is new here. But in a way, this is much the same as when we launched our chocolate croissant, and we now sell more of those than the plain ones.”

If all goes according to plan — and the plan is going well — Galaxy Desserts will double the size of its Richmond, CA, facility to install a large new line the likes of which American bakers have never seen before. Mr. Levitan revealed that executives have already committed to saying “yes” on making brioche at this location; it’s now a matter of deciding when to start.

The ‘Oprah Effect’

The past decade brought plenty of good changes to Galaxy, especially in product volume. “The croissant part of our business is much bigger today than the mousse products we started with,” Mr. Charon said, “and we still do plenty of those products, too.”

Galaxy almost single-handedly created the mail-order frozen croissant craze. Well, Oprah Winfrey helped, too. She featured the company’s French Butter Croissants during her show’s Favorite Things 2002 episode. “That catapulted us into a much bigger market,” Ms. Hangad-O’Shaughnessy said. “We went into 24/7 production.”

Mr. Levitan added, “People called and called and called. At the time, we were making the best croissants around, but they were a side business. We went from hand-rolling the dough to buying seven sheeters. And now we have Line No. 23 in place that outputs croissants at the rate of thousands per hour.”

The Oprah Effect transformed nearly everything. “At the time, we were mostly a foodservice supplier,” Mr. Charon explained, “but now the business is 60% retail and 40% foodservice.

Holiday mail orders for frozen croissants and dessert items keep the Richmond plant humming around the clock during November and December, but the croissant business actually made Galaxy less seasonal. “Croissants helped even us out,” Mr. Levitan said. “It’s a very steady business, and brioche will make us even more so.”

Croissants brought breakfast pastries to the forefront of Galaxy’s business, and that set the table for brioche.

Brioche Pasquier developed a proprietary process that makes its products noticeably different from its competitors: They stay fresh longer with a shelf life of 21 days when produced in the US. Rich in butter and eggs, ­brioche can be difficult to process. Although Pasquier automated its production methods, the company was careful to retain traditional parameters.

“To explain how serious Pasquier is about its brioche,” Mr. Charon related, “one of the first things the family tells you is that brioche-making was a 6-hour hand process when Gabriel Pasquier founded the bakery, and that today it is a 5-hour, 50-minute automated process.”

State of constant change

Galaxy Desserts deliberately emphasizes the extraordinary. “We founded the company on the promise that we’d create exceptional individual desserts,” Mr. Levitan said. “We work consciously to keep our company and its products sustainable, successful and incredibly satisfying to the soul as well as the palate. We’re constantly at a pivotal stage, but what entrepreneur isn’t?”

Mr. Levitan and Mr. Charon take a dynamic approach to operating the business. “I do everything that Jean-Yves doesn’t want to do,” Mr. Levitan said. “But seriously, I am responsible for the commercial side: sales, marketing and administration. Jean-Yves is in charge of manufacturing and product development. We cross over all the time. When you run an entrepreneurial manufacturing operation, you have to do this.”

Both maintain a very visible presence in the business. “I try to walk the plant in the morning and at the end of the day,” Mr. Levitan observed. “And you’re more likely to find Jean-Yves in the bakery than his office.”

Mr. Charon grew up in the Brittany region of France and trained in baking with pastry chefs there and in Rennes, Paris and London. He came to the US to work as an executive pastry chef in San Francisco and started his own individual-portion dessert company, Paris Delights, in 1988. Three years later, Mr. Levitan traded in his career as an MBA-degreed management consultant and tapped his business school friends for funding to buy The Cheesecake Lady, a bakery at Hopland, CA. The two men met at a national food show and found their businesses to be a natural fit. They formed Galaxy Desserts in 1998.

The new bakery specialized in French-inspired, all-natural desserts and pastries. Its first products were individually portioned, mousse-based desserts, developed to answer banquet and special event needs for upscale hotel and restaurant operations. Pastry chefs loved them. So did caterers and airlines.

Then came the company’s croissant boom, and it outgrew its original 18,000-sq-ft location at San Rafael, CA. A building in nearby Richmond that previously housed a movie sound stage allowed Galaxy to nearly triple its floor space to 52,000 sq ft. Of this, 20,000 sq ft is allocated to production, 4,300 to packaging and 15,500 to warehousing with the rest offices and ancillary services.

“We wanted to improve workflow and gain more onsite freezer space,” Mr. Charon said. “Where there’s more room, people can work better and more safely. And now, we need even more space.” Richmond can expand by another 50,000 sq ft in an adjacent bay, and executives are currently negotiating for that extra room.

Operating a busy plant

Although croissants provide consistent year-round business, the bakery’s schedule still shows a seasonal pattern. After the three-shift, 24/7 crunch of the holidays, it moves to a two-shift schedule for the rest of the year. Galaxy employs a staff of 200, rising to 300 to handle seasonal production, and runs six processing lines and six packaging lines. Typical output, according to Tony Lee, Galaxy’s plant manager, comes to 1,000 cases a day of mousse cakes. Croissant volume is even greater.

Richmond’s large storage freezer holds 700 pallets of finished products. Everything made here goes out frozen, except the brioche. It is received frozen and refreshed before distribution to stores where it is sold at ambient temperature. The huge partially covered truck dock that occupies one entire wall of the building comes in handy when Galaxy ships holiday orders of frozen croissants directly to consumers.

A cooler stores temperature-sensitive raw materials such as butter and eggs. The company buys almost 200,000 lb of cage-free eggs each year, delivered pasteurized in bulk, liquid and frozen forms. On an annual basis, the bakery uses more than 1 million lb of butter, 2 million lb of flour and almost a quarter-million lb of chocolate in dark, milk and white styles.

“For every ingredient, we have a spec sheet,” Mr. Charon said. “Not only do our specs require kosher certification, they also make sure ingredients fit our all-natural and non-GMO criteria.” Company products are now being certified by Non-GMO Project Verified.

How important is it to Galaxy to find just the right ingredient? Consider the fact that line operators still open consumer-size 20-oz cans of sliced pineapple rings to make its highly popular, individually portioned Pineapple Upside Down cakes. Mr. Levitan said they tried pineapple rings in bulk packs, but only the consumer pack consistently delivers the size that best fits the cups of its customized mini-bundt-cake pans.

The facility is inspected regularly by customers. And it achieved SQF Level 2 certification for the third year. “Yes, we are seeing more and more retailers require SQF,” Mr. Charon said.

Upping ante on croissants

A multi-million-dollar series of upgrades occurred at the Richmond facility during the past year. The company added a new, high-speed croissant line, revamped its packaging operations and installed a continuous mixing and aeration system for mousse cakes.

Galaxy manages its capital budget on a five-year plan reviewed each year. “Quality is always the focus,” Mr. Charon said. “We want to achieve the quality level of a small, artisan bakery but scale production to meet national distribution.”

The bakery divides its production floor into independent zones to accommodate temperature and humidity needs that vary by product. For example, it separates production of croissants into two areas: one for the new, high-volume line, the other for the short-run needs of variety croissants. Mousse cakes and duos are done in a third area. Other cakes, tarts and components of mousse cakes are baked, and this takes place in a fourth bay.

Line No. 23 — so called because it was the 23rd line built by Brioche Pasquier — occupies the coldest of the production rooms at Richmond. It is capable of up to 14,000 pieces per hour and makes full-sized and mini-croissants, chocolate croissants and the laminated “butter bread” pastries introduced in 2013.

Butter for this line tempers overnight on pallets outside the chilled production room. A Savage chocolate melter and tempering system pumps chocolate fillings directly to the line. Inside the room, a carousel-style spiral mixing system prepares dough. Ingredient water is supplied by an ice water system.

Because of space constraints, the new line takes a “U” shape configuration with two reduction sections, followed by a 90° turn to the lapper and another turn. The dough goes through a second set of reduction rolls and travels up an inclined conveyor to a temperature-controlled, enclosed overhead proofer. Doughs descend out of the proofer into final makeup steps. The line trims the edges of the dough, dusts the continuous sheet with flour, sugar or other ingredients and runs it through guillotine cutters and other forming devices. A long conveyor run-out accommodates the manual shaping that gives Galaxy products their handmade appearance.

“When you get it right, you get the same quality as handmade doughs,” Mr. Charon said.

The line was built by Brioche Pasquier in France. Before Galaxy took delivery of the system, it sent Guillaume Perruchet, Galaxy’s R&D associate, to France to test the line and learn how to operate it. He ran trials on the new equipment with raw materials shipped to France from Galaxy’s US flour millers and ingredient suppliers. Back at Richmond, he then taught operators how to run the new, high-capacity system.

To ensure consistent, high-quality results, Galaxy installed a Brabender Farinograph flour testing instrument in its R&D lab. It verifies the moisture, protein and other critical performance characteristics of the high-gluten flour preferred by the bakery for its laminated doughs.

Varieties and cake bases

Galaxy’s pastry product menu also encompasses almond croissants, morning buns, sticky buns and Danish, with most made in the croissant room. Although considerably lower in volume than Line No. 23, these lines are still highly productive.

Dough made by two spiral mixers and fillings prepared in a Hobart vertical mixer supply these lines. Mixer operators divide the bulk doughs into chunks of specific weight and place them onto trays and into racks for resting and retardation. Four Rondo reversible sheeters handle lamination of the doughs. The fully sheeted doughs roll up and rest again before line operators put them on the makeup line.

Cutters divide the sheeted dough into individual pieces, shaped according to variety. In the case of almond croissants, one group of line operators hand-pipes the almond filling onto the pastry squares while another group rolls the pieces into proper shape and sets them onto trays. Another person sprinkles the finished pieces with sliced almonds. At regular intervals, samples are pulled to verify weight.

Formed and filled, the variety pastries — like those made on the high-speed line —move along to the BOC spiral freezer. Frozen pieces emerge for packaging and are placed into cartons, which then pass through an Arpac shrink film system. Cartons are then put into ­cases from a Consolidated Technologies case erector.

The company’s long-term interest in safety led to a current project aimed at improving the ergonomics of the packing operation. “Our experts tell us that you should arrange such workspaces so there is no more than 20 cm from hand to product and so that workers can do their jobs without needing to lift their hands,” Mr. Charon noted.

Conditions are somewhat warmer in the bakery’s oven room. Galaxy bakes its Pineapple Upside Down cake and Chocolate Lava cake onsite and prepares cheesecakes, creme brulee and several varieties of tarts. Two Unifiller depositors portion batters and cremes into customized pans. The oven room, equipped with one large TMB and four smaller Baxter rack ovens, is also used to test bake samples from every lot of product made at Richmond. The company also keeps samples of each lot for QA reference.

Making mousse and duos

Mr. Charon and Mr. Levitan founded Galaxy to make its signature mousse cakes — individually portioned upscale desserts consisting of a round cake slice topped by multiple layers of mousse and decorated with patterned chocolate sides, shaved chocolate curls and unique chocolate decorations. Recently, it added Mousse Duos: smaller portions of its most popular mousses deposited into transparent plastic cups the size of shot glasses.

In the mousse cake room, mousse preparation starts in a Tonelli vertical mixer, with Hobart vertical mixers supplying batters to the cake operation. To chill the mousse and maintain its texture, the company installed a Thermaline tubular heat exchanger. It accepts the mousse from mixers and runs it through a tube-in-tube system chilled by 34°F water circulating in the outer tube. Mr. Charon described the innovative chilling system  as something no other bakery uses.

Chilled mousse is held in large tanks, which operators tap to fill the hoppers of multiple Unifiller depositors. The bakery plans to install a Shufflemixer continuous aerating mixer, also supplied by Unifiller, to prepare the mousses and maintain their texture. This system will also automatically fill depositor hoppers.

To prepare its mousse cakes, Galaxy relies on a technique from the culinary world: short, tube-shaped, collar-like, open-ended moulds made of transparent plastic. These stabilize the cake-and-mousse structure during multiple depositing and freezing steps. Empty moulds placed on trays first receive a thin circle of baked cake that serves as a base for the dessert. Mousse is deposited into the mould, and the whole tray is sent through an Airco cryogenic CO2 tunnel freezer. Some varieties require up to three deposits of mousse — such as the company’s extremely popular triple chocolate style — and they go through a freezing step following each deposit.

After the final freezing stage, operators manually strip the cakes out of their hard plastic collars and put them into shipping trays to travel through a spiral freezer before being packaged for distribution.

Continual R&D

The bakery dedicated a small area next to the mousse cake shop to making the chocolate decorations that give a signature touch to its dessert products. It employs a Design & Realisation shaver to produce consistent chocolate curls. All chocolate decorations, including leaf shapes and the company’s distinctive two-color chocolate cameos, are hand-made at the bakery.

“People think we’re crazy to make these decorations ourselves, but that’s the way we do business,” Mr. Levitan explained, which led him to describe Galaxy’s product innovation process. “Many mornings, when I come in, Jean-Yves will say, ‘I have a crazy idea,’ and we’re off to try something new.”

A restaurant meal or a visit to a specialty bakery often provides the inspiration. Mr. Charon and Mr. Perruchet will experiment with the ideas, mocking up items to try on the lines. Each year, Galaxy adds six or seven new products but takes other styles off the list. “You have to keep your assortment refreshed,” Mr. Charon noted.

Mr. Perruchet added, “A lot of what we do in R&D is ‘Frenchification’ of concepts.” The two look at dozens of ideas each month.

Recent additions include Black Forest and Cappuccino mousse cakes. The Mousse Duo line, introduced in 2007, also grew out of such experimentation, as did the recent addition of Creme Caramel to the duos group. “These are a way to increase our dessert business with products that are controlled in cost, calorie load and portion size,” Mr. Levitan said.

Mr. Charon added, “We like to push the envelope to make something attractive that’s easy for the operator to use and plate.”

Among the newest items is a pastry from Mr. Charon’s childhood: Kouign Amann (pronounced “quee’ ah-mon”), which means “butter bread.” Native to the Brittany region of France, it consists of layers of puff pastry with a sweet butter center and a crisp caramelized-sugar coating. It was a 2013 finalist in the baked goods category for the sofi Award, an annual competition sponsored by the Specialty Food Association honoring the best in specialty foods and beverages.

If plans go forward as it seems they will, the company could easily have award candidates in brioche, too.

This possibility intrigues the Galaxy team, but it’s the prospect of working with Brioche Pasquier and introducing a line of baked foods completely new to Americans that has them really excited.

“There are other good brioche products out there, but there are industry geniuses at Pasquier,” Mr. Levitan said. “They developed a proprietary process, built most of the equipment and customized the control software, all done in-house. The resulting product is all-natural, GMO-free and preservative-free with a long shelf life. It’s true to the family recipe and is so moist, delicious and consumer-pleasing that it raises an incredibly high barrier to any potential competition.”

The investment to make brioche at Richmond involves a large financial commitment — something that Brioche Pasquier has done before and quite recently. In April, it broke ground for a 160,000-sq-ft facility at Milton Keynes, UK, with plans to add another 70,000 sq ft there within five years. A decade ago, brioche was completely unknown in the British Isles; today, it’s the fastest growing morning good in that market.

“America is another English-speaking market,” Mr. Levitan said. “Think of the opportunity that suggests.”
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