The making of a Legend
As Legendary Baking builds its presence in the market, the frozen dessert manufacturer finds creative ways to bolster capacity at its Chaska, MN, facility to meet product demand.

What’s in a name? Everything — when it comes to creating a brand, revamping a business and taking a company in a new direction while remaining loyal to its heritage and core values.

Three years ago, VICOM — one of the nation’s premier producers of frozen pies and desserts — changed its name to Legendary Baking. “We wanted something that described our history and our quality,” said Tim Kanaly, division president of Legendary Baking, based at Denver, CO. “We have been baking legendary desserts for 45 years.”

Unlike VICOM, which sounds more like a telecom, software or computer business, the Legendary name had its roots in baking and in the company’s legacy of owning the upscale J. Horner Legendary Pies and Desserts business. “As we started honing in on a new name, ‘Legendary’ kept coming back to me,” Mr. Kanaly recalled. “We think it fits us very well. It speaks to our quality, creativity and history and how we have been baking pies and making desserts for decades.”

In many ways, the rise of the Legendary Baking brand reflected a fundamental shift in the company’s business model and a separation from a painful period in its past. Five years ago, the VICOM wholesale bakery business and its parent, VICORP Restaurants, which also owned Bakers Square and Village Inn family dining restaurants, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In 2009, American Blue Ribbon Holdings (ABRH), a privately held firm, purchased VICORP.

With the new owner came a new beginning, and ABRH’s CEO Hazem Ouf had a vision to expand the baking division, according to Mr. Kanaly. Previously, VICOM’s business primarily involved serving as ­bakery commissaries for the two restaurant chains. In fact, VICOM stood for Village Inn Commissaries, with 68% of its 2003 revenue derived from internal sales.

Today, the business model is almost reversed. External accounts comprise 67% of Legendary Baking’s revenues. Specifically, retail outlets including in-store bakeries, club stores and convenience stores make up 65% of outside sales, with the foodservice chains providing the ­remainder of volume.

“During the past decade, we’ve made more of a heavy push into third-party sales,” said Mr. Kanaly, a veteran of the business since the early 1990s. “We want to make this more of a stand-alone division. That’s why we gave it a name that people in the industry can recognize and ­associate with. Nobody knew what VICOM was. It didn’t represent anything. Today, we’ve made a mark in the industry. People know who Legendary is.”

Creating a legend

So what is Legendary Baking? The company operates two facilities — an automated bakery in Chaska, MN, and a more hands-on bakery in Oak Forest, IL — with 400 employees who will produce about 21 million pies this year, up from 19 million in 2012. Although apple pie and French silk remain perennial top sellers, many of its frozen desserts involve a combination of complex flavors (see “Now that’s sweet!” on Page 12) and often some form of manual preparation. That prep work may involve something as simple as hand-applying extra streusel atop an apple pie to give an extra crunch, hand enrobing individually quick frozen (IQF) fruit or manually depositing fillings to preserve the integrity of the pieces throughout the baking process.

Overall, the bakery’s product portfolio includes more than 375 SKUs of frozen desserts and sweet goods ranging from gourmet, custom-created and double-crust fruit pies to layered cream pies, meringues, oven pies, cookie dough and an assortment of individual baked desserts.

Many of these desserts such as the complex four-layer Caramel Pecan Silk Supreme pie require manual applications or multiple passes through different production lines to assemble.

Perhaps the best way to describe Legendary Baking is to say what it isn’t. “What’s not Legendary is an 8-in. pumpkin pie that sells for $3. That’s not us,” said Mark Van Iwaarden, director of marketing. “We have a history of pie-making, but now there is more to the company. We’re pie, but we’re becoming so much more.”

Hired last year to expand the company’s brand, Mr. Van Iwaarden noted the company’s Cooperstown-inspired, baseball-reminiscent logo reflects how its ­desserts have become legends in the industry. That’s not just lip service. Since 2001, the company has taken home more than 450 blue ribbons from the American Pie Council (APC)’s National Pie Championship. This year, the bakery notched a record 65 blue ribbons, up from 57 in 2012. That’s a legendary achievement, he said, especially considering that the company struck out big time and won nothing during the 1999 event and received only eight in 2001.

True legends are also born through adversity. From those painful experiences, Mr. Kanaly added, Legendary took feedback from the judges seriously and put their suggestions into action.

“We made changes all the way from ingredients to production,” he said. “APC definitely improved the quality of Legendary’s products, whether it was cherries that weren’t tart enough or picking up the flavor of chocolate because it didn’t have enough pop.”

Offering legendary quality

What makes an outstanding pie? “It all starts with the crust. No question about it,” Mr. Kanaly said. “We use a high shortening-to-flour ratio. It’s got to be flaky and melt in your mouth. Then you need great fillings. If it’s a cream pie, it’s typically butter-based or uses real cream or Philadelphia cream cheese. If it’s fruit, there’s nothing but fruit making up the filling.”

Legendary quality means restaurant-style desserts that are as appealing to the eye as they are appetizing to the palate. “You can merchandise French silk pies with your customers’ eyes,” Mr. Van Iwaarden said. “They see how beautiful they are, and people like chocolate.”

Because of its often labor-intensive process, the ­company “takes pride in not taking on anything that we cannot do, but we stretch the limits and will never compromise on quality,” according to Mr. Kanaly.

“When someone orders 30,000 cases, you better not deliver 29,000 cases,” he said. “You better deliver 30,000. Sometimes we cannot go after a giant account if we ­cannot handle it. Service is everything.”

That’s especially true from June through December, the period when 70% of annual production is geared toward supplying peak demand during the holiday season. As a result, the company continues to focus on nonseasonal items to take advantage of the downtime it has during the first half of the year, according to Mr. Van Iwaarden. (See “More than just pies” on Page 38.)

Tales of two bakeries

From a production standpoint, Legendary has the best of both worlds. Its Oak Forest bakery, which will produce about 6.5 million pieces this year, is a somewhat more labor-intensive operation with shorter production runs and an emphasis on manufacturing more customized products.

From this facility, Legendary Baking delivers fresh baked goods to more than 50 regional Bakers Square restaurants. These restaurants and more than 200 Village Inn restaurants serve as an internal test market and allow Legendary to test its creativity directly with consumers.

The Chaska facility houses seven automated lines, but even in that operation, most pies and frozen desserts get a little handmade touch before they enter the oven or freezer, as Baking & Snack witnessed during its visit this summer. Legendary can start production on a new product in Oak Forest and shift it to Chaska if the volume takes off. Typically, volume needs to reach 22,000 units, or two shifts of production, to move a product to Chaska, which will crank out 14.5 to 15 million products this year. “These two bakeries work in tandem quite nicely,” Mr. Van Iwaarden said.

During the past few years, capacity emerged as an ­issue at the Chaska plant as volume grew, but Legendary creatively resolved the problem in a number of ways. First, it centralized dough mixing. “We took the process off of each line and put it into one area,” Mr. Kanaly explained. “Now we have one person making dough instead of three.” Additionally, the centralized mixing eliminated safety issues involving moving bowls throughout the plant.

Second, it upsized its freezer compressor three years ago, and then replaced the 36-in. freezer belt with a 42-in. belt earlier this year. That 10-day project now allows the bakery to manufacture four 9-in. pies at a time instead of three and add a fourth packaging line. Removing this bottleneck alone increased Chaska’s ­capacity to 27 million pieces annually. “That’s added another 30% of volume to this plant,” Mr. Kanaly said. “We now have four lines coming out of a three-line freezer. If you look at the cost of overhead, that is huge for us.”

Third, Legendary’s added freezing capacity bolstered the plant’s baking capacity this summer to meet the ­increasing demand for prebaked pies. Specifically, it added a Babbco 96-in. wide by 40-ft impingement oven to complement its existing Babbco 144-in. wide by 68-ft oven. The bakery also relies on a battery of older revolving tray ovens.

To make room for the new oven, the bakery shoehorned the oven into its ingredient warehouse. It now brings ingredients and other supplies several times a day from a 22,000-sq-ft facility across the street.

Both Babbco ovens provide 35% reduction in bake time and are made with stainless steel wash-down ­interiors to reduce downtime and enhance sanitation. Additionally, the ovens minimize the amount of time for product changeover because they can increase and decrease temperatures rapidly. Moreover, the air impingement system produces consistent products because there’s no flash heat. “They are top-notch,” Mr. Kanaly said. “They are state-of-the-art, and the features they have built into those ovens are terrific.”

Typically, the company ships six to seven transports from Chaska to its frozen foods storage facility in Chicago. From that distribution hub, they are delivered to customers across the nation, according to Mr. Kanaly.

Preparing for holiday rush

To accommodate the seasonal demand for pies and frozen desserts, the Chaska facility began ramping up production in June. By mid-August, the bakery was running two 8-hour shifts six days a week. At its peak, the 68°F temperature-controlled bakery can crank out products 18 hours a day, seven days a week. About 70% of its volume comes in the second half of the year.

An SAP enterprise resource system controls all order taking and production scheduling. Typically, ­allergens are run on the same day to eliminate cross contamination. The SAP system puts a large “A” drop shadow behind the print on the production form if the product contains nuts, eggs, wheat or dairy allergens. All quality assurance testing is done in-house by batch at both SQF Level 3-certified facilities.

Because of the wide variety of seasonal and limited-time-ordered products, ingredients come in bags or totes. Flour must be refrigerated to work with tempered shortening. For pie crusts, the bakery uses Artoflex 600-lb mixers.

“The triple-action mixers actually fold the shortening into the flour,” Mr. Kanaly explained. “It’s not ­actually mixing. The key is to encrust the shortening with flour so when the shortening flashes up, it adds a crispiness and flakiness to the dough.”

Fillings are made on a mezzanine level. The bakery not only makes a traditional, two-step slurry but also uses a single-stage process where the IQF fruit is added to the pie and the pie is baked so the fruit is only baked once. “You then can recognize the whole fruit,” Mr. Kanaly said. “The filling doesn’t end up like jelly.”

Overall, production operates in multiple phases, with finished product being made at the same time prep work is going on for future shifts. The bakery relies on three Colborne Series 90 pie lines — three cream lines and one shell line. Volume ranges from 22 to 23 12-in. pies per minute to 30 to 35 9-in. pies per minute. Shells roll off the line at speeds up to 60 to 65 a minute.

During Baking & Snack’s visit, the plant was producing pecan, cherry, crumb-topped apple and French silk pies as well as pie shells for future shifts. Throughout the ­facility, the operation involved a combination of automated and manual applications to make finished products.

For the cherry pies, operators hand-scooped fillings. For the 12-in. pecan pies, employees stir the filling to ­ensure the pecans rise to the top as they travel through the Babbco oven and into the cooler and freezer.

From an automation standpoint, the bakery built in versatility by using multiple crossover conveyors to ­divert products to multiple production lines and automatically create more complex cream pies. “With these crossover conveyors, we can add a layer and send the product to set in the cooler; then we add a second layer and head to the cooler again. We then can add a third layer to maximize efficiency and reduce some of the hand labor,” Mr. Kanaly noted.

After freezing, the pies are diverted to the four packaging lines where they are shrinkwrapped and cartoned or automatically placed in clamshells, shrinkwrapped and casepacked. Four Lantech case erectors are located on a mezzanine level and run by only one operator. “We went vertical to get as much traffic off the main floor,” Mr. Kanaly noted.

All product is shipped to the Chicago area, where the company has two 50,000-sq-ft freezers that can hold 11,000 pallets. The company also has a 900-pallet freezer in Chaska used primarily for raw inbound ingredients.

B2B and beyond

Five years from now, the company expects to be a much larger operation. “We’ve been successful in growing our sales and getting our brand out there in just a few years,” Mr. Kanaly said. “The more we’re out in the market, the more we see opportunity knocking on the door and coming to us.”

Historically, Legendary Baking operated on a ­business-to-business model, and its current marketing efforts have focused on branding the company in that environment. However, that could change.

“There are more possibilities than I ever imagined, not only from a business-to-business perspective but also from a consumer perspective,” Mr. Van Iwaarden said. “Business to business, they know us. We’d also like to be known to consumers.”

He has high expectations for the Legendary brand’s potential growth. “I would hope to say the Legendary Baking brand has cracked the consumer arena and would love to say we have 50% [brand] recall nationally. That’s a pretty ambitious goal in five years.”

As the company likes to say, the building of a legend doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes it takes years.