Starting up a mothballed bakery

by Dan Malovany
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Upgrading 30-year-old bakery to today’s demanding food safety and security standards can be a big challenge. Certainly, that’s what Skinner Baking found out after it purchased a former Sara Lee bakery in Paris, Texas, in 2012.

In its heyday during the 1980s, a 375,000-square-foot bakery operated 11 lines, employed more than 1,275 people and stood as one of the pillars of the local business community. Back then, the state-of-the-art operation served as Campbell-Taggart’s flagship facility and later as a bulwark for its subsequent owners, Anheuser-Busch, then Earthgrains and finally Sara Lee Fresh Bakery business.

However, years of neglect and lack of reinvestment took its toll. Additionally, the bakery stood idle for about two years. Skinner Baking faced a problem that many baking companies inherit in these days of consolidation.

Fortunately, Skinner Baking had an experienced team of maintenance technicians and sanitarians who had worked at the facility before it closed and knew how to clean and repair every nook and cranny, said Rodger Coan, plant manager.

It was a massive undertaking. During the first six months, Mr. Coan noted, the start-up team repaired walls, resurfaced ceilings, fixed the roof, removed unused electrical conduits, replaced lighting and gave everything a fresh coat of paint, which considerably brightened up the 375,000-square-foot bakery.

Moreover, they cleaned, repaired and rebuilt equipment. For food safety reasons, they also enclosed areas where ingredients are received or transported from one part of the bakery to another. Earlier this year, the quality assurance staff was making final preparations for certification under the Safe Quality Food (SQF) Institute. The company’s Omaha bakery has been SQF Level 2 for the past three years.

When people walk into the Paris facility today, Skinner Baking wants them to feel like they are actually inside a modern artisan bakery.

That’s why the company recently remodeled the lobby — complete with new signage featuring the J. Skinner logo along with an Eiffel Tower wearing a cowboy hat — as well as offices and conference rooms. Even lunch rooms that serve an array of snacks, beverages and prepared meals were redone.

“We invested in the creature comforts of the business,” noted Audie Keaton, president and chief executive officer. “We wanted to make sure this is a comfortable place to work for our employees.”

Additionally, the company painted the outside silos and the building’s facade. The crew landscaped the grounds on the property. As a final touch, they put up a J. Skinner signature neon sign that glows at night and reflects the company’s modern artisan image to those driving on the nearby highway.

Mr. Keaton knows there is no direct return on such cosmetic investments, but he’s a firm believer that first impressions pay off immeasurably in the long run.

“I believe a business has to look the part,” he said. “It’s not a facade or show. It reflects how we go about conducting ourselves. When you first walk into a facility, you should see a very clean, organized, professional atmosphere, and that should translate all the way from the lobby through the bakery and to the finished goods in consumers’ hands. I’m very proud that we’re buttoned up from that perspective.”
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