Creating artisan breads naturally, part 1

by Dan Malovany
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Throughout the years, Tribeca Oven has earned a reputation for producing high-quality frozen par-baked breads and rolls for foodservice and in-store bakery chains. Founded in 1988 by Peter Lobel, the wholesale bakery got its name from its location in the Tribeca neighborhood in New York City’s lower West Side. Over the years, the business expanded several times and is now located in a 168,000-sq-ft facility in Carlstadt, NJ, across the Hudson River from Manhattan.

Today, Mr. Lobel remains chairman of the bakery with day-to-day operations handled by Marc Essenfeld, CEO, and George Erasmus, executive vice-president of innovation. Mr. Essenfeld, who joined Tribeca Oven in 2005, previously served as CFO of Ecce Panis, East Brunswick, NJ. At Tribeca Oven, he said he “relentlessly continues to grow the organization, adding talented people and investing in infrastructure.”

Mr. Erasmus, who joined Tribeca Oven in 2004, served as vice-president of production at La Brea Bakery, Van Nuys, CA, previously. In his role as Tribeca’s lead baker, he ensures that the bread is made in small batches without preservatives, has no artificial colors or flavors, using a variety of pre-ferments and long resting times for the dough.

Here is the first part of Baking & Snack’s interview with Tribeca Oven.

Baking & Snack: Why has the company grown so rapidly over the past five years? How has your core business changed, and how have you had to adjust to changes in the market?

George Erasmus: As more Americans turned from mass-produced commercial white bread to the more wholesome artisan loaves their grandparents remember from Europe, Tribeca Oven has benefited from the increased demand for Old World- style bread. The increased consumer interest in whole grains and eating healthier has also increased demand for our all natural artisan breads as they have no preservatives, no additives and the shorter ingredient panel really resonates with today’s savvier consumers and professional culinary buyers.

From a business model perspective, Tribeca Oven was initially only a fresh delivered, daily bread manufacturer, servicing the local New York and New Jersey metro area with its fleet of local trucks. We grew over the past few years by shifting our business model in 2005, introducing many classic and unique varieties of frozen par-baked bread and then in 2007 eliminating entirely the time-consuming daily delivery element to the bread business. Our par-baked breads are made the same way as the traditional fresh-baked bread. The difference is that these loaves are removed from the oven when roughly 85% baked, then cooled, flash-frozen, boxed and kept at -10°F until a customer is ready to thaw, bake and sell or serve them.

Frozen par-baked breads are incredibly convenient for the industry and allowed us to make our high-quality product available to a much wider customer base. Customers can inventory a large variety of bread types leveraging our small-batch baking expertise, while ensuring the same all-natural quality across their multiple locations to the consumer. So it’s ideal for our customers, whether they are supermarket in-store bakeries catering to home shoppers or food service providers serving their diners at premier hotels and restaurants.

Lastly, from the customers view, Tribeca Oven’s 70 varieties of artisan breads from specialty loaves containing herbs, spices, fruits and nuts to complex multigrains, as well as classic focaccia, ciabatta, baguette, sourdough loafs, and traditional seeded ryes are sold primarily as private label, to high-end restaurants, premier hotels, and gourmet grocers and retailers. So if corporate buyers or executive chefs request customized breads for their needs, Tribeca Oven can create differentiated sizes, shapes and flavors for them to support their specific menu plans or retail varieties. Here, too, the par-baked process means the individual stores or food service locations can reduce their own staff, shrinkage and infrastructure or the need for multiple skilled bakers devoted to all their restaurants or stores.

Last year, Tribeca Oven completed a major expansion. What were your greatest needs as far as adding production capacity, eliminating bottlenecks, needing more warehouse space, etc.?

Marc Essenfeld: This is actually our second expansion since moving to New Jersey in 2004, and it took more than three years to design and plan it. Previously, we had made great baguettes and ciabattas, but we did not have the ability to produce the large quantity of bread the marketplace was demanding. As a result, we focused on creating a production line capable of making our high-quality baguettes and ciabattas with greater capacity.

This was actually a very difficult process because we were relentless in developing equipment that would not sacrifice quality while achieving increased output. Interestingly, during our 3-plus years in designing this line, we determined that the footprint could not fit within our existing facility and had to expand into the building next door, which fortunately became available. Now we have plenty of warehouse space for continued growth.

What criteria did the company use when looking to buy any new equipment? How did this criteria change as you went through the process?

Mr. Essenfeld: From the moment we began planning the initial 2007 expansion, we were already planning for the next growth phase. In our earlier expansion, there were many innovative ideas that we were unable to execute because nobody in the world was manufacturing equipment for the way we wanted to process all-natural artisan bread. George’s vision was to continue small-batch processing but with significant output and without sacrificing time for the dough to develop, which is essential for our high-quality breads.

To achieve George’s vision, we had to work closely with bakery equipment manufactures that were willing to change the current view of bread manufacturing equipment. We successfully partnered to build a process unique to the baking industry, and in fact, our new production line has several patents!

What objectives were critical to the new operation? How did you achieve these objectives?

Mr. Essenfeld: In developing the objectives of our new line, we were focused on maintaining a delicate balance of quality, efficiency and return on investment. Several members of the Tribeca Oven team had previous career experience developing new production lines, and we all agreed that we needed to do it right the first time — make the proper investments and never lose sight of quality first. Although there were some heated debates from time to time on what is the “right thing” to do, never losing sight of “quality first” ensured we were always selecting the best solution.

Mr. Erasmus: Tribeca Oven had a unique opportunity when building this line because almost all the equipment had never been developed before. We were able to think of what mattered most to us not only from a product perspective but from a personnel perspective too. For instance, to consider, would we or our associates be pleased working in the new environment, and how to ensure each area would be a safe and comfortable workstation. As a result, I think Tribeca Oven has created a very productive, comfortable and safe workplace for our staff.

Mr. Essenfeld: Additionally, since we developed our new line in today’s cautious food safety environment, we were able to design in attributes to provide stronger controls with an eye toward obtaining the desired Safe Quality Food (SQF) certified standards.

How does the new operation better serve your customers?

Mr. Erasmus: As we expand and leverage the new line, the bakery still intends to keep to its longtime tradition of creating small batches of authentic, all-natural breads. We are doing a large-capacity expansion that will ensure consistency and providing product with tighter specifications, yet we’re not willing to sacrifice quality. Basically, our new line allows us to close the range on our specifications, providing our customers with more consistent loaves.

Our revolutionary new line mimics the process artisan bakers use to make bread by hand. It helps us control the amount of handling the dough receives, which will allow the open, airy cell structure to remain intact throughout the process. A baker using a small brick oven moves loaves to different zones to optimize color, flavor and texture of the bread. Our new oven technology gives us control over the subtleness of temperatures and steam during the baking sequence. We invested in superior equipment to more gently process the dough.

For more on Tribeca Oven, check out the upcoming March issue of Baking & Snack magazine.

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