Gifco revs up flatbread production
Gifco invests in automation to produce a wide variety of hand-stretched specialty and mainstream flatbreads.

Gifco Foods proves that big things can come in small packages. Since Sufiya Hai formally joined the family-owned-and-operated bakery in 2006, the Whittier, CA-based producer of tandoori naan, roti, chapati and other ethnic flatbreads began steadily investing in new equipment to bolster production capacity to serve a growing number of national retailers and food service operators.

Although it occupies only more than 26,000 sq ft, the operation now packs a punch with five nearly identical production lines cranking out more than 2 million cases of products annually, and that’s with only a single 8-to-10-hour shift, five days a week.

During the past three years, Gifco spent more than $1 million annually to drive production efficiencies to improve its cost structure and to meet customers’ demands as sales blossomed. With the investments, Ms. Hai insisted she’s positioning the company for the long run. She doesn’t believe in scrambling when a major account calls and the business needs to shift into overdrive.

“If you don’t have a strong foundation, you can’t build on it,” she said. “If you build on a weak foundation, it will topple.”

Cliff Tatro, Gifco’s vice-president of sales and marketing, compared the bakery’s operation to a racecar and sales to the fuel that makes it run. “We’re getting the whole operation ready to massively increase sales,” he noted. “It’s like we’re building the Ferrari, and then at the end, we put the gas in and we’re off.”

Ms. Hai, the company’s CEO, explained that Gifco’s strategy is based on simple math. All it takes is another large customer plus three or four SKUs, and that can add up to 1 million products — or 50% more volume — that need to be shipped within 30 days of securing the order.

“We have everything set up so that when we get another major chain and need a million more products, we can just go to a second shift,” she said.

Ready, set, go

When it comes to growing a baking business, timing is often everything. Founded by Ms. Hai’s parents 26 years ago, the company started as Gourmet India Food Co., serving Southern Californian Indian restaurants as well as Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern and other specialty markets throughout the US as far back as the mid-1990s.

During the past five years, Ms. Hai said, Gifco’s sales have tripled as flatbread gained in popularity, sparking demand for items like its top-selling Garlic, Original and Whole Wheat tandoori naan that are now perceived as more mainstream than in the past, much as tortillas and pitas proliferated in the American diet decades ago.

In fact, Gifco seems to be stealing a page from the tortilla industry’s playbook. On its website, www.gifcofoods.com, the company promotes popular meal applications such as Stop Pestoing Me pizza, cheesy garlic bread and Tandurkey sandwich to broaden the appeal for its flatbreads. Ms. Hai noted that national food service chains have incorporated the company’s breads into their casual dining sandwich programs, and the bakery now sells its products nationally via private label.

The company, however, expects branding and new products to turbocharge sales. In addition selling its core naan products under the Gourmet India brand, the company markets a wider variety of flatbreads — including naan, roti, chapati and even pita — under the Good Life name that urges consumers to “upgrade your daily bread.” Currently, retail accounts for more than 85% of its sales with club stores and food service, including school lunch programs, making up the rest.

Recently, Gifco began targeting the in-store bakery channel, and at this year’s International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association’s show, the company rolled out its line of Ready Rounds flatbreads in 8.1-oz tamper-evident packages.

The 4-in., 90- to 100-Cal toaster-sized rounds come in two fruited varieties — Apple Raisin and Cranberry Orange — and three savory varieties — Garlic, Original and Wheat. On packages for the fruited varieties, Gifco urges consumers to top them with jam, jellies, butter, cream cheese or fruit. Additionally, the company suggests using the savory flatbreads to make sandwiches, mini pizzas or bruschetta or as an appetizer with hummus and dips.

Overall, the merchandising strategy is to target multiple eating and snacking occasions throughout the day. “Functionality is everything when it comes to new products,” Ms. Hai said

Unlike many sandwich thins, Ready Rounds are not sliced, and they’re slightly thicker than other thins so they can hold more fillings and toppings, according to Mr. Tatro. Moreover, he said, the rounds’ multigrain base allows Gifco to introduce more healthful inclusions such as sunflower, millet and flax seeds with omega-3 to the family meal and snacking occasions. “We’re putting in real, shelf-stable fruit — real apples, raisins, cranberries, oranges,” he observed. “They’re breakfast items. They’re grab-and-go items.”

Placing six Ready Rounds in clamshells — a packaging format that’s omnipresent in supermarket in-store bakeries — provides a point of differentiation from the polybagged or tray-loaded flatbread rounds found in the bread aisle, Ms. Hai said. “These clamshells have a nice footprint,” she explained. “They’re easy to stack on shelves and bakery tables. They have beautiful jewel tones, and you associate the package with something like donuts or muffins that you buy impulsively.”

Rolling out the rounds also provides a platform for repositioning the company beyond its roots. That’s why it now goes by Gifco instead of Gourmet India Food Co., according to Ms. Hai. “We’re not just an Indian bread company,” she explained. “We want to be known as a specialty flatbread bakery, not just an ethnic bread bakery, which is why we launched Ready Rounds. We are proud we are Indian-owned, and our core competency is naan bread, but we have evolved. We want to show that progression even in our company’s name.”

Driving home health

As another point of differentiation, the company promotes its flatbreads’ clean labels and nutritional benefits. The low-fat products contain no cholesterol, artificial flavorings, added sugar, buttermilk and ghee, lard or other animal fats that are found in many traditional ethnic flatbread recipes.

“We removed a lot of allergens. We still have eggs in some of our products, but we developed a line without eggs and dairy,” Ms. Hai said. “We watch the trends that have staying power to expand our consumer base so they can enjoy our products because they’re vegan.”

The focus on health and wellness should not come as a surprise, given Ms. Hai’s background. Before joining Gifco, she received a master’s in public health from Loma Linda University. She then familiarized herself with the baking industry by taking AIB International’s bread and rolls correspondence program. “It gave me a solid foundation in the science and operations of bread and rolls,” she said. “Of course, I also got a lot of hands-on training by spending a lot of time on the production floor trying to improve things.”

With her background in operations and public health, Ms. Hai manages Gifco’s HACCP, food safety and food security programs with the bakery’s quality assurance manager. “It fits into my education,” she said. “It’s natural for me to take on all of those roles and to ensure that everyone understands that food safety is our No. 1 priority.”

Ms. Hai proudly noted that the bakery recently received 99.4% on its recent Silliker audit. “Our auditor specified that she would use our bakery as the gold standard example for other customers trying to improve their food safety standards,” she said.

She also oversees product development, including everything from working with the R&D manager to create the basic formulas in the lab to scaling up for full-blown production. “I know the operation so well I am able to decide what certain ingredients work or don’t work,” she said. “I know what the inclusions should look like and what’s available from our supply chain.”

Last year, Ms. Hai hired Mr. Tatro full-time. He had been working with Gifco as a consultant to develop packaging and merchandizing programs to support the Ready Rounds rollout. “With my strength being in operations and R&D, Cliff complements me by bringing his expertise in developing the strategies on the marketing and sales side,” she said.

In all, it took two years to develop the Ready Rounds line, which made its debut in June. “We said, ‘Let’s do something really different. We have this complete bakery here that can do any kind of flatbread with any type of inclusions. Let’s utilize the bakery to the max,’ ” Ms. Hai recalled.

Manipulating the dough

The bakery allocates nearly 11,800 sq ft for processing and packaging, 11,100 sq ft for warehousing and a little more than 3,000 sq ft for offices, R&D and other departments.

Hand-stretching remains the key to making the company’s signature teardrop-shaped tandoori naan, which was in production during Baking & Snack’s visit. According to Ms. Hai, it can take up to two months to fully train an employee on how to properly manipulate the dough pieces to create Gifco’s 43 varieties of flatbreads and meet the bakery’s established quality standards. Around 70 people work at the company, and most of them can be found hand-stretching products or in the packaging area.

“We look at automation to keep us as efficient as possible. We know hand-stretching requires more labor, but we want to keep the process artisan,” Ms. Hai said. “We want to be Old World but high speed. There is always a lot of advice on how to automate, but the hand-stretching is a core value and makes us unique. What’s cool about it is that we’re able to get very close on price points to be competitive even with this process.”

The bakery’s two 50,000-lb flour silos feed two Peerless 1,000-lb horizontal mixers with glycol jackets to control the dough temperature. After about a 10-minute mix, the tandoori naan dough is dumped into troughs and automatically elevated to a pair of Reiser 5-pocket dividers to feed the five makeup lines and ovens.

“The old Reiser system was a single-lane operation that we buddied up with a very old-school rounder. But we wanted a multilane rounding system, so we invested in a much more powerful Reiser system that would allow us to produce more products,” Ms. Hai said. “Reiser also helped us figure out a better way to round our doughballs with [Eagle Bakery Equipment] rounding bars instead of the traditional cone rounder.”

After rounding, doughballs drop into a shallow bath of soybean oil before they are manually placed on trays, covered with a lid to prevent a skin from developing and racked. Depending on the ambient temperature of the bakery, the dough may simply rest next to the makeup lines. On cooler days, filled racks can be rolled into a small proof box for a short period.

Relaxation of the dough combined with gentle sheeting followed by hand-stretching creates the naan’s internal texture. “It’s the only way to produce our naan,” Ms. Hai said. “You cannot roll or die cut this product because it degasses it, which eliminates the soft and fluffy texture that we want to achieve. We don’t want to overprocess the dough.”

The products bake in proprietary 20-ft tandoori-style tunnel ovens for about 1 minute at a high temperature. The baking process does not form the pocket that many pitas have. The freshly baked naan breads slide down a short chute to a wire-belt conveyor, then travel up to a pair of Rigo’s wire-belt cascading cooling conveyors and zigzag down the multitiered systems.

The facility currently houses three packaging lines. After passing through a Safeline metal detector, the tandoori naan and other flatbreads can be hand-stacked up to 10 high and placed in bags for food service customers. The polybagged products go through a Kwik Lok closure system and 3M microjet labeler prior to manual case packing.

Tandoori naan also comes in new 2-packs. The bakery’s other flatbreads are bagged in 4-, 6- or 12-count packs. They can be individually wrapped by a horizontal flow wrapping system or placed in clamshells like Ready Rounds.

Fueling future growth

Gifco continues to search for other ways to drive down costs. This year, the bakery looked to further automate its ingredient handling methods and add packaging systems to reduce unnecessary handling of the products. “In the future, I see our processes becoming more streamlined especially as we expand heavily into more mainstream and innovative products,” Ms. Hai noted.

She added that Gifco can enlarge its existing location. The company may explore building a second facility to better serve its East Coast customers. “My goal as a CEO is if you’re going to do something, you do it on as strong of a foundation as possible. Only then can you get the support you need from your staff because they see your business on much solid ground,” she said.