Sandwich Flats: Flat Is Where It's At
by Shane Whitaker
Sliced round flatbreads, commonly referred to as sandwich rounds, flats or thins, have been on supermarket shelves for less than three years. The first thin buns of this kind were commercially introduced in August 2008 under the Arnold brand, which is currently owned by Bimbo Bakeries USA, Horsham, PA. In July 2009, the company announced that it was expanding the product to the Western US under the Oroweat brand, saying that its “Sandwich Thins are thinner than a roll, healthier than most sliced bread, more practical than a pita” and that they are “reshaping the bakery aisle.”
“The growth of the sandwich thins has been extremely fast,” said Charles Foran, president of C.H. Babb Co., Inc., Raynham, MA. “Some benefits of the product are that it is low-calorie, high in fiber, kids like them and they make a good sandwich.”
Ray Anater, senior sales executive, LeMatic, Inc., Jackson, MI, pointed out that these products generally are not aimed at youngsters but instead cater to adults looking for a healthier bread option.
Eric Riggle, vice-president of Rademaker USA, Hudson, OH, agreed that the product’s growth has been spurred by “the desire for a perceived healthier alternative to a bun”; however, he also asserted that the products are quite trendy. “From an equipment supplier’s perspective, we see new product trends every few years where one company introduces a product, it catches fire, and then the rest of the industry plays catch-up to supply the demand for this product,” he said.
Following the successful Arnold and Oroweat launches, Flower Foods, Thomasville, GA, introduced 100% Whole Grain, 100% Whole Wheat and Healthy Multi-Grain Sandwich Rounds under its Nature’s Own brand. In February, Flowers unveiled a new Whitewheat Sandwich Round that offers “the nutritional benefits of wheat bread with the milder taste of white,” according to the company.
Also jumping on board this trend is Pepperidge Farm, Inc., Norwalk, Conn. In October, it introduced Deli Flats, 100-Cal thin rolls in Soft 100% Whole Wheat, Soft Oatmeal and 7 Grain. And in February, Pepperidge announced plans to introduce a new sliced flatbread similar to the Deli Flats, based on its popular Goldfish crackers with each piece of bread shaped like a smiling goldfish.
“[Sandwich flats] are true me-too products,” said Darren Jackson, COO, The Henry Group, Greenville, TX. “All major bread and bun producers scrambled to jump on board either by installing pita lines or creating co-producer arrangements.”
KEEPING IT MOVING.
Thin buns are generally produced on die-cut sheeting lines. “Although, we also have a few clients producing a sandwich thin on a dough-ball-and-press line,” said Mark Rosenberg, president of Gemini Bakery Equipment Co., Philadelphia, PA.
Most of the bread bakers that have introduced these products are more familiar with discontinuous processes in which bread or buns are made from divided and scaled pieces of dough that are then moulded or sheeted into shape, according to Mr. Riggle. “Therefore, there is a learning curve in this processing change for these more conventional bread and bun bakers,” he said.
Most flatbreads are made in a continuous process with one dough sheet cut into shapes. “The result of which is scrap dough in the form of a continuous web that needs be accounted for,” Mr. Riggle explained. “This percentage can be 35% or higher.” The process will require a means to add back the scrap dough and a formulation that permits such additions.
One of the things that make sandwich rounds different from other flatbreads is that they are more like a bun, and an important processing step is docking the dough so that it does not “blow up like an Arabic pita bread during the bake,” according to Mr. Foran. Docking is the process of poking holes in the top and bottom crust, allowing steam to be released from the dough piece during baking.
Because not every sandwich round is the same product, according to Mr. Riggle, bakers can dock their products before or after proofing. “Docking before proofing gives less of a distinct pattern and more bubbling on the surface,” he said. “Docking after proofing gives a more distinct hole pattern and little bubbling.”
PROOF AND BAKE.
The proofing and baking process is also different when producing thin sandwich buns, Mr. Rosenberg said. Cascading-belt proofers are generally employed on these lines with an expected proof time of 20 to 35 minutes. “The oven required to bake a sandwich thin is similar to ovens used to produce flatbreads and pita bread,” he explained. “These ovens are normally between 38 and 60 in. wide and can be up to 70 ft in length, depending on the production rates required.”
“The oven is the key with this style product,” Mr. Rosenberg said. Gemini’s high-heat direct-fired oven handles temperatures of up to 800° F. “The expected bake time of 75 to 120 seconds depends on the product characteristic a client is looking for,” he said.
Line speed is one of the key challenges bakers face. “The product has a relatively long proof time and a short bake time,” Mr. Foran observed, “So, depending on the product, the line speeds can be faster than some other standard flat bread lines.”
Continuous cascade-style proofers are generally used on these lines, according to Mr. Riggle. Flatbread products can be proofed either as a continuous dough sheet or as individually cut shapes. “Given the nature of the cascading style of proofer, the length of a bakery can be an issue with long straight runs of the proofer and then the oven,” he said. Flat buns are not good at going through turns, and if the length of the line is going to be an issue, it is best to turn the dough sheet prior to cutting.
Rademaker’s tier-to-tier transfer system within the proofer allows it to control the cut product at the transfer, so there is not much damage or deformation of flat buns because of inconsistent transfer. “We smoothly transfer the cut pieces between each tier so that the leading edge of the product does not become blunt or flat — staying round,” Mr. Riggle explained.
Because it can control the product at the transfer, Rademaker maintains product registration across the belt, he added. “Proofing systems that do not or cannot control the transfer of products between tiers will typically require that the product be spread to a wider pitch prior to the proofer,” he said. “The result is a more costly and wider proofer and oven to accommodate this loss of product registration. With our system, the width of the sheeting line is the width of the proofer is the width of the oven.”
C.H. Babb high-heat tunnel ovens with temperatures between 800 and 1,000°F are designed for baking thin buns, Mr. Foran added. The company also provides oven loading and unloading conveyors, as well as final proofers for flat bun lines.
In addition to its high-temperature pita ovens, The Henry Group manufactures cascading proofers, spiral coolers, slicer feeds and vacuum-hold-down horizontal band slicers.
LeMatic offers complete turnkey solutions for laning, slicing, stacking and feeding baggers or flow wrappers that package the thin buns. As volumes on these lines increase, companies are considering further automation in the packaging areas, according to Mr. Anater. Initially, employees manually stacked products and fed baggers, but today as volume and competition increases, bakers are using automatic infeeds and stackers, he said.
When thin buns were first introduced, Mr. Anater thought that perhaps they would be like many other new products that are launched every few years such as the square bagel. These items provided an initial boost to the category but lacked the appeal to make a major impact on the bun market. However, thin bun sales picked up more than he anticipated, and these products likely have the staying power to play a major role in the bun aisle for many years to come.
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