Schwebel’s quality steeped in tradition
How Schwebel Baking sets the standard when it comes to baking quality bread, buns and rolls.

Excellence is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well, and at Schwebel Baking Co., consistently achieving the highest level of quality often comes from experience. Take the workforce at its Youngstown, OH, bakery. Getting on the day shift at the flagship facility often requires decades of experience on the production line, according to Michael Elenz, vice-president of manufacturing.

As he walks through the plant, he routinely points out how long many of his veteran bakers have worked for the company. A mixer operator on the bun line needs 22 years to hold that prime position. A tenured member of the packaging department put in 26 years in various jobs. “A lot of people who start working at Schwebel’s end up working here their whole careers,” Mr. Elenz said.

Such experience anchors the tradition of excellence that is rooted in the company’s storied history, which dates back to 1906 when it was founded by Joseph and Dora Schwebel. The legacy today lives on in the third and fourth generation of family members who work at the company, but nearly everywhere, there are reminders of the past.

Strolling through the Youngtown headquarters, visitors step back in time. The halls are decorated with photos and memorabilia of the company and its ongoing efforts to build its brand name. It could be a photo of Eleanor Roosevelt with Dora, who was inducted into the Baking Hall of Fame in 2009. Promotional pieces show Happy the Clown, who made his debut in the 1930s to boost morale during the Great Depression. A classic sign captures one of the bakery’s most memorable advertising campaigns: “If it’s not Schwebel’s, don’t eat it.”

Lee Schwebel, vice-president of marketing and de facto curator of the company’s history, noted that less than 5% of all family-owned businesses survive to the fourth generation. “The constant is the bloodline,” he said.

But Lee stressed the story isn’t only about the generations that have been active in the family bakery. “It’s about the entire team and all of the people,” he explained.

True to tradition

Throughout the decades, Schwebel Baking has kept to its core competency and still focuses on what it does best, according to Paul Schwebel, the company’s president. “We’re a bread and bun bakery. That’s it,” he said. “We don’t produce any sweets. It’s strictly bread and rolls.”

White bread is still the top seller among the hundreds of products it makes, including wheat, 100% whole wheat, Italian, soft rye and multigrain breads. The bakery also produces breakfast breads as well as hearth-baked breads and rolls, and it distributes bagels, English muffins, pitas and tortillas. The products are sold not only under the Schwebel’s brand, but also under national franchise brands such as Cinnabon, Country Hearth, ’taliano, Roman Meal, Milton’s and Sun-Maid.

“Rye bread is our signature product,” Paul said. “That product dates back 106 years.” The formula hasn’t changed since Paul’s grandfather learned how to bake it in Europe and began baking 40 loaves a day when the family bakery started. In fact, the bakery still produces a 5-lb version of its rye bread for select customers, although the most popular variety remains the 2-lb loaf. “We still make an awful lot of rye bread. There are people from all over the country who will call us and order it, and we’ll mail it to them,” he observed.

The company operates about 30 depots and services the retail and food service channels throughout most of Ohio, western Pennsylvania, western New York and northern West Virginia. In Ohio, it’s the market leader in Cleveland, Columbus, Akron/Canton and Youngstown, as well as in Pittsburgh and Erie, PA.

To supply these markets, Schwebel’s operates four bakeries in Ohio — Youngstown, Cuyahoga Falls, Solon and Hebron — which together produce more than 700,000 packages of baked goods a day. Outside of the Youngstown plant, the company acquired the other facilities as it expanded geographically during the 1980s and 1990s.

All of its bakeries produce hamburger and hot dog buns, and most make white bread. “We exchange products based on shipping needs,” Paul said. The company relies on an intricate system of cross-docking to supply its markets with a full line of bread, buns and rolls.

Award-winning quality

In some competitive product categories such as white bread, Schwebel Baking has found a way to differentiate its products from the rest, Mr. Elenz noted. “In production, we always run the white bread last because we want to be the freshest in the market,” he said.

Seven years ago, the company joined The Long Co., a bakery cooperative based in Chicago, IL, and in competition with dozens of other bakeries, received the co-op’s best bun award six times. In fact, Mr. Elenz said, the cooperative retired one trophy after one of its bakeries received the best bun award three years in a row.

“All four of my bakeries are competing against one another, along with everybody else in the co-op,” he noted. “I’m fine as long as it’s a Schwebel trophy.”

To monitor product quality, every bakery gets evaluated daily with product sent by line operators, not supervisors, to the Schwebel Baking headquarters for scoring. Friendly competition among its bakeries — and even among shifts within each facility — extends into other areas. The company tracks waste, lost time and efficiency, just to name a few. “At the end of the year, we recognize the winners of the program,” Mr. Elenz said.

In conjunction with its quality assurance efforts, Paul added, the bakeries are ramping up their food safety programs — everything from traceability and lot tracking to establishing a product recall program — as they prepare for certification by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) as a part of the Global Food Safety Initiative sometime next year.

Schwebel’s QA and BRC processes are are part of its overall continuous improvement strategy. “If you’re going to survive, you need to reinvest in your business constantly,” Paul said. “You can’t skip a year of not buying trucks or bakery equipment — be it mixers or dividers. There are technological advantages that you have to take advantage of and ordinary wear-outs.”

The insides of the ovens installed in the 1970s and 1980s have been replaced, and new controls now monitor baking times and temperatures. With such controls, the bakeries can monitor their operations in real time and reduce downtime and waste. “Everything today uses PLCs,” Paul said. “The control that you get from them is just totally phenomenal. Any time we have an opportunity to update a control panel or replace it, we do it.”

Tradition at work

The 125,000-sq-ft Youngstown bakery houses a bread line, a bun line and a hearth line that produce a full spectrum of baked goods for the bread aisle. Typically, production runs nearly six days a week with the bakery shut down on Monday and Friday afternoons and evenings for sanitation and maintenance.

Three 100,000-lb Pfening silos hold patent flour, while a fourth silo supplies rye flour to the bread and hearth lines. The silos are enclosed to minimize noise and dust and provide safety. Flour is pneumatically transferred to various use bins throughout the bakery, then blown to the scales on the mixers for the various lines. All minor and micro ingredients are scaled in a central area for lot tracking and traceability. The centralized scaling department also helps the bakery control allergens and ensures accuracy.

Line supervisors have windowed offices scattered throughout the bakery so that they can monitor the areas where they have key responsibilities. “They can observe the makeup area, for instance, while they are doing their paperwork,” Mr. Elenz said.

Overall, the bakery uses six horizontal mixers for the three production lines. Two Shaffer 2,000-lb horizontal mixers, for example, feed the sponge-and-dough bread line. Sponges typically rest in the fermentation room for about 3.5 hours to produce Schwebel’s premium white bread. An AMF divider can produce up to 140, 1.5-lb loaves a minute. Dough pieces travel through a conical rounder and two cross-moulders before dropping into 5-strap pans.

After traveling through an APV (now Baker Thermal Solutions) Templex proofer, the loaves bake in a single-lap oven. Depanned breads travel up SpanTech conveyors to a Stewart Systems overhead cooler that is more than a mile long, Mr. Elenz noted.

The bread line has four Bettendorf Stanford band slicers — one serves as a backup — with Burford closure systems. AMF pattern formers position the loaves that are trayed, stacked and rolled into the warehouse for distribution, which starts before the break of dawn.

Meanwhile, the combination hearth line uses two horizontal mixers, including one for hearth rolls and one for producing Schwebel’s classic rye bread with a traditional, 36-hour ferment. “We take no shortcuts here,” Mr. Elenz noted. The dough travels from a dough chunker up an inclined belt conveyor to a versatile Gemini hearth line outfitted with a Werner & Pfleiderer 8-pocket divider, makeup line and intermediate proofer for rolls.

Hearth items typically are placed on peel boards, racked and rolled into a walk-in proof box and baked in a Readco steel-plated oven. The freshly baked breads and rolls travel on two spiral coolers, with the exception of its 5-lb rye bread that’s cooled on racks. All other products pass through an AMF slicer and bagger and a Burford twist tyer.

For bun production, the bakery relies on a liquid ferment system that feeds a Shaffer 1,600-lb horizontal mixer. Twin AMF piston dividers crank out 800 pieces a minute. After passing through rounding bars and receiving flour dusting and an intermediate proof, the dough pieces are panned and travel to another Templex proofer and bake in a Baker Perkins single-lap oven. After traveling on a Stewart spiral cooler, the buns enter laners, indexers and slicers and baggers.

To ensure product freshness, most of the company’s breads and buns are distributed to retailers within a 200-mile radius of each bakery, according to Paul. Quality and consistency, he added, are the fundamentals to success that have been a Schwebel Baking tradition over the years.

“Our plan is to continue to grow and prosper,” he said. “There are six family members in the business — three in the third generation and three in the fourth generation. So we have the next generation in place, and they’re learning about the family business and performing well.”

Such stability, he said, will keep the bakery on the right track in the future.