Companion Bakery brings artisan to scale

by Andy Nelson
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Companion Bakery
Companion Bakery supplies grocery and food service clients as well as operates its own on-site retail bakery.
 

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, MO. — Maintaining the quality standards your customers have come to expect, while at the same time growing your company — it’s a balancing act many if not most businesses have to deal with at some point, and it requires skill, patience and hard work to pull it off.

Josh Allen, award-winning baker and owner of Maryland Heights, Mo.-based Companion Bakery, which supplies grocery and food service clients as well as operating its own on-site retail bakery, knows his company has to grow if it wants to thrive. His quest is to grow it wisely, to bring what he calls “intention” to a process that, at his company, yields 30,000 lbs of fresh, frozen and par-baked product daily.

“I’ve always defined artisan bread as bread made with intention, recognizing that probably as soon as we’ve turned on a mechanical mixer we’ve walked away from ‘artisan’ in the true sense of the word,” Mr. Allen said.

Turning out 30,000 lbs a day, Companion, which was founded in 1993, can’t shape and mix its doughs by hand or bake them in a wood-fired oven, as some of Mr. Allen’s fellow master bakers still do. Some tasks at the company are still done manually, but that’s due more to economics than to a desire to be artisanal, he said. If he could, he’d automate more processes and increase his volumes. The business owner in him knows it’s a necessity.

Companion Bakery
Josh Allen, award-winning baker and owner of Companion Bakery
 

“I’m a huge believer that you either grow or you die,” he said. “We’re certainly interested in growth and would love to grow out of this facility. We have a very competitive group of people that work with us, for us, who are interested in that growth.”

Change is the rule, he said. When your business reaches a certain level that you’re happy with, you get to enjoy it for about a month and a half, on average, before you have to start asking the “what’s next?” question. So how do you grow while still maintaining “intention”?

“Thinking about the process at every step,” for starters, Mr. Allen said. Using only the best equipment also helps. On the Companion floor are San Cassiano mixers, MIWE roll-in e+ ovens and proof boxes, makeup equipment from Rheon and Bloemhof and a Contemar indoor flour silo. Companion uses a multi-deck instead of a tunnel oven to handle the big variety of products the company makes, and it ages its dough two or three days in the silo; “green” flour doesn’t handle hydration as well as flour that’s been aged, Mr. Allen said. In addition, because the silo is made of fabric, it allows product to breathe.

Companion measures success by “the three A’s,” Mr. Allen said: accessibility, affordability and approachability. Accessibility means distributing through as many channels as possible. Affordability is understanding the local market and selling product at a price that “makes sense.” And approachability is baking bread that works well as one of many components in a meal — a fairly simple sourdough or whole grain, for instance, rather than something complicated with lots of bells and whistles.

“We’re selling a lot in the middle of the country,” Mr. Allen said. “It’s not L.A. or San Francisco or New York. Bread is just bread, and that’s okay.”

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