Twists on the trade

by Mari Rydings
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Traditionally, croissants have been regarded as an upscale luxury food item, primarily accessible to consumers with extra spending money. But creative product development efforts and more affordable eating options now attract new consumers worldwide who are quickly discovering the indulgent delights of this flaky, buttery European pastry.

The croissant’s image morphs according to location. In North America, they are consumed either fresh or after being defrosted and baked off. Western Europeans still prefer them freshly baked, while in Eastern Europe, croissants maintain a luxury status. At the other end of the spectrum, consumers in Asia and the Middle East desire croissants with a long shelf life and perceive them as an alternative snack or low-value item, respectively.

Such varying demands require a large amount of flexibility in processing, and getting ahead of the ever-­evolving trends keeps bakers and equipment suppliers busy. Thanks to continuing innovations in production technology and close partnerships with equipment manufacturers, croissant producers have been able to meet the growing demand not just for croissants but for croissants with refreshing flair.

Tracking the trends

Mini — or micro — croissants are gaining in popularity as consumers continue looking for satisfying snacks they can munch on as they go about their day. The micro-croissant trend, which started in Europe, is now making its way across the ocean.

According to Eric Riggle, vice-president, Rademaker USA, Hudson, OH, a European breakfast traditionally included a full-size, 3-oz croissant, but that is changing. “Today, everything in Europe is mini — 15- to 20-g croissants,” he said. “It’s becoming a trend in North America. Instead of putting a couple of big croissants in a package, bakers are packaging four, five or six mini-croissants in a bag. It’s all a part of the snacking trend.”

It’s a trend that Canadian bakery La Petite Bretonne, Blainville, QC, has tracked since it introduced its first Micro Croissants in 1988. Dominique Bohec, the bakery’s vice-president of sales and marketing, confirmed that consumer demand for small croissants has grown, and its growth he expects to continue. “Customers don’t always want a big croissant,” he said. “Sometimes they just want a little something on their plate.” To satisfy this craving, the company offers a Micro Croissants value pack that includes a 24-pack for $2.99.

In addition to smaller sizes, today’s croissants follow another popular food trend — adventurous flavors and fillings. Product developers are expanding beyond the staple butter croissant to welcome flavors and fillings that range from sweet to savory.

“In terms of fillings and flavors, dual combinations are doing well,” said Ron Cardey, CEO, BelPastry, Omaha, NE. “Europeans like meat-and-cheese-filled croissants, but tomato- and spinach-based flavors are also in demand.” BelPastry’s offerings include a Gouda-cheese-filled croissant and a praline-­hazelnut croissant that meet the demand for twists on tradition that venture outside the norm.

 On the flip side, chocolate-filled croissants satisfy the sweet tooth. “Chocolate-filled croissants are one of the favorite breakfast items in Canada,” Mr. Bohec said. Expecting explosive growth with this item, La Petite Bretonne recently invested $13 million to boost its chocolate croissant production capabilities.

At interpack in May, Rheon USA, Irvine, CA, offered yet another take on the chocolate-filled croissant when it demonstrated a style inspired by a chocolate cookie. The pastry featured a cookie texture on one side and the croissant texture on the other.

Another emerging trend that hints at the expected growth in this category is an increased demand by c-stores and restaurants for pre-proofed and frozen croissants that can be baked off on-site. “That was a trend back in the 1990s, but a lot of people didn’t capitalize on it then or didn’t do it very well,” Mr. Riggle said. “Again, it’s been a big trend in Europe for a long time, and it’s really picking up steam in North America.”

The use of croissants as a sandwich carrier adds to its growth potential. According to Mr. Cardey, his company’s pretzel croissants and multi-grain croissants enjoy solid success as sandwich bases for a variety of fillings.

Summing up current changes in croissants, Mr. Cardey said, “Trends come and go more quickly these days, and you have to decipher between trends and fads. The challenge is in getting in front of consumers and giving them relevant products and an indulgent product. We plan two to three years out. You have to have an innovation pipeline.”

Trendy challenges

While bakers and equipment manufacturers embrace the growing demand for croissants, both parties admit that planning years in advance, not to mention keeping up with current demand, presents big challenges on the plant floor.

 “The smaller sizes require more precise control during the turning and coiling processes,” said Jerry Murphy, president, Rondo, Moonachie, NJ. “We can produce products with triangles as small as 2½ in. by 2 in.” He added that other processing challenges include achieving a good lamination effect without damaging the fat and dough layers, maintaining point/tip control throughout the process and ensuring symmetric coiling.

To address these common issues, Rondo supports its customers by offering machine ­design-and-build engineers and dough rheology experts. “It’s important to understand and push the boundaries with the total process both upstream and downstream of the actual lamination and forming steps,” Mr. Murphy said. “In the past, equipment suppliers just developed machines. Today, our customers want us to show them new products and new ideas. To do this, we must have in-house expertise.”

While filled croissants and the technology used to create them aren’t brand new concepts, both have improved over the years. “Rademaker has had technology for filled croissants for years, but the quality of fillings was an issue in the past,” Mr. Riggle said. “We introduced a vacuum moulder that moulds dough so gently it avoids compressing the filling and squishing it out the ends.” Rademaker’s filled croissant line runs 120 rows per minute. At five-across, that’s 36,000 filled croissants per hour. Smaller croissants allow more pieces across the width of the line, pushing the possible number of croissants that can be produced per hour even higher.

Other production challenges that equipment manufacturers and bakers must solve together include developing the correct layering of dough and butter, handling different starting temperatures and rolling the dough triangles without damaging the dough structure.

“To resolve these issues, we work with our customers in our Innovation Center,” explained Paul Rooijmans, sales manager, Americas, Tromp Bakery Equipment, Richmond, VA. “Customers can collaborate with our bakers using ‘industrial’ equipment to create their own preferred product. The flexibility of the Innovation Center provides them with all possible options and production methods.”

High-capacity production that maintains product quality presents yet another challenge, especially with dough as delicate as croissant dough. “The customers of croissant producers want consistent quality and no interruption in the supply chain,” Mr. Riggle noted. “Bakers are looking for higher capacity lines with minimal changeover. Our straight croissant lines run 150 rows per minute, and it takes less than 30 minutes to switch from a 1-oz croissant to a 2-oz.”

Rheon’s HM Line features the company’s Stress Free System, which creates uniform fat layers without damaging the dough. Its ability to extrude a continuous dough sheet also allows the production of bread and pastries in a range of shapes and sizes, giving bakers the flexibility they seek with simple changeovers.

Trimming the fat

Minimizing waste throughout the production process is always top of mind for croissant producers, especially because the cost of the ingredients used to make the pastry can challenge budgets and the balance sheet.

“Croissant production is all about controlling the process and being a disciplined manufacturer,” Mr. Riggle said. “You can’t be sloppy with your process, or you have a lot of waste and a lot of issues with product consistency. Croissants are a very expensive product to make. The cost of butter is outrageous.”

To help line operators maintain proper ingredient levels, Rademaker installs a sensing device on the fat pump that can detect the absence of fat. When fat is no longer coming out of the pump because of a blockage, for example, an alarm sounds, indicating a problem. After a period of time, the line shuts down to minimize waste.

Precise portioning and consistent product weight also can significantly reduce waste. “Accurate portioning is critical to all facets of production, from managing material costs to uniform product appearance to product cook time,” said John McIsaac, vice-president of strategic business development, Reiser, Canton, MA. “Portions that are overweight or underweight result in overcooked or undercooked product.”

Mr. McIsaac described the positive displacement double-screw pump on Reiser’s Vemag sheeter as providing the highest levels of portioning accuracy and transports product gently. The result is smooth, uniform sheets of fat with consistent thickness and width.

Fritsch, Cranbury, NJ, designs its croissant production lines so that only minimal dough side trims are required. The width and thickness of the dough sheet can be set to the nearest centimeter, even the nearest millimeter in some cases. Because the width of the folded dough is set in advance, there is very little excess dough to cut off at the sides. The line’s dough loop control and sender device monitor sheeting throughout the process.

Automated lines, such as Rheon’s V4-Pastry Production Line, typically feature strict production controls that minimize ingredients and product waste. According to the company, its new multi-stretcher, which can be integrated into the line, can cut use of dusting flour by a third compared with conventional systems, further reducing ingredient costs and waste while improving product quality.

Butter stays, gluten goes

Between the consumer drifts toward both healthy eating and gluten-free, it would seem the croissant wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s bakery market. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.

“Everybody talks about health, but this is the one product that bucks the trend,” Mr. Riggle said. “People don’t want to completely deprive themselves of high-quality products. They’re a little more discerning of what they choose to eat. They think, ‘If I have the choice of eating a low-quality product or a high-quality croissant, I’m going to choose the higher quality product.’ That’s why high-quality laminated doughs and croissants are doing so well.”

BelPastry’s Mr. Cardey agreed. “The croissant is not a health food; it’s a mental health food,” he said. “When people indulge, they want a great experience. Croissants are about indulgence and treating yourself. It’s all about moderation.”

Regardless of the croissant’s indulgent reputation, bakers do have to count calories, especially for retail products that must meet labeling requirements. Today’s processing technology can help them keep those calories in check.

“Consistent metering and distribution of fats and shortening are especially important for retail products with nutritional labeling,” Mr. McIsaac noted. “In those products, the fat-to-dough ratio must remain constant to achieve exact calorie counts.” He added that Reiser’s Vemag sheeter precisely meters butter, margarine and puff paste shortenings of varying viscosities, resulting in minimal giveaway and true calorie counts.

As far as gluten-free croissants, bakers are either in, out or somewhere in between. “Producing a gluten-free croissant is not core competency for BelPastry,” Mr. Cardey stated. “We made a decision to not go that direction. It’s not who we are.”

While La Petite Bretonne sees a future for the market, Mr. Bohec said the bakery isn’t sure if it wants to invest in such items, which would require dedicating a plant to the production of gluten-free croissants. “Gluten-free is a niche for us,” he said. “The Canadian market isn’t big on gluten-free, and it’s difficult to get the puff that is expected.”

However, if and when bakers decide to ramp up ­gluten-free production, equipment suppliers will be ready to work with them. According to one Fritsch engineer, the company’s systems are capable of handling the sticky dough that characterizes gluten-free products and makes processing challenging.

Rondo’s Mr. Murphy said that his company has worked for the past several years to develop a formula and process that allows production of gluten-free croissants on an automated system. “Gluten-free products are difficult to process,” Mr. Murphy acknowledged. “The formula has to have enough body to hold the fat and layers. A gluten-free dough sheet does not do up and down well. We hired resources with baking backgrounds to help us create a formula, and the result is that these products have the taste and appeal of traditional wheat-based products.”

Croissant crystal ball

In terms of innovative technology, high-capacity production lines that maintain product quality standards will continue to be in great demand. Interest in automated lines is expected to grow because of the increasing desire to reduce labor costs.

Bakers also want flexible lines that will let them explore the latest trends with minimal changeover time. “There is not a lot of margin for error in the process,” Mr. Riggle said. “People realize that the new profits in the bakery come from reducing downtime that’s unexpected or even by cutting the time for a planned changeover. We’re looking at ways to simplify the process, simplify the controls and provide unique-fit tooling where the customer has to go on the line and slide cutters around.”

With bakers and suppliers working together on new product development and technological enhancements, the category is set to expand on a whole new level.        

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