Finding the silver lining

by Dan Malovany
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When Superstorm Sandy smashed into the Northeast in 2012, the second costliest hurricane on record changed the lives of millions of people, including everyone who worked at Tribeca Oven as well as the customers of the producer of premium par-baked artisan breads and rolls.

“October 29 is a day we will never forget,” recalled Marc Essenfeld, CEO of the Carlstadt, NJ, bakery.

On that fateful day, not only did Mr. Essenfeld and many employees have to deal with personal devastation, but the disaster also threatened their livelihoods by flooding the 179,000-sq-ft bakery with 3 ft of water. The storm knocked out three production lines, including a first-of-its-kind proprietary multi-million dollar line that took years for the bakery and its vendors to design and develop.

Facing everything they built in various stages of ruin, Tribeca’s management team and owners, which included founder Peter Lobel; George Erasmus, executive vice-president of innovation; and Mr. Essenfeld, had two options. “Right after the storm, it was almost ‘Do we hand the keys back to the bank?’ because we had loans on the business, or do we dig out?” Mr. Essenfeld recalled.

For Tribeca, the difficult decision of whether to hold ’em or fold ’em required an act of ­determination. “After the flooding, I asked, ‘What would it take?’ ” he added. “I’m very analytical, so I’m always asking that question. It sometimes drives people nuts, but I’m always wondering what would it take to achieve that goal or desired outcome. And I keep on asking what would it take until we come up with a plan to achieve the goal. ‘Not possible’ is the simple answer. Every problem can be solved; you may choose to pass on the plan to achieve it, but there is always a solution.”

For two months, Mr. Essenfeld and Mr. Erasmus — both veterans of the artisan baking industry — worked 16 hours a day along with dozens of employees to painstakingly rebuild the bakery line by line. “Our emergency plan wasn’t strong, but our resiliency was,” Mr. Essenfeld said.

Besides cleaning up a sanitation nightmare, the main problems were that electronics and water don’t mix. Restarting production using the rack ovens was relatively quick because the circuitry is located on the top of the ovens. Others, such as its newest custom-designed line, took much more time. In addition to rewiring thousands of connections, Tribeca’s European vendors needed to fly to the US to assess the damage and determine what custom-designed parts needed to be replaced and reordered.

“For the most part, we came out of the storm and got most everything running by the end of November 2012,” Mr. Essenfeld said. “However, 2013 was still a year of rebuilding. We had to rebuild relationships with customers and reestablish customer confidence.” (See “Improvising in the face of disaster” on Page 12.)

Seeking a perfect fit

During that challenging period, Mr. Essenfeld added, it also became apparent that the entrepreneurial business needed to seek a partner with the financial wherewithal to take the specialty bakery to the next level. That’s when Tribeca made the decision to hit the reset button in more ways than one. “Most of the partners’ net worth is in the business,” he said. “We went through a very limited process where we went to the market to pick some players we thought would be a good partner for us.”

On Super Bowl weekend in 2014, Tribeca came to an agreement with C.H. Guenther & Son (CHG), a San Antonio-based business with 16 mills and bakeries throughout the US, Canada, the UK and Belgium.

For CHG, Tribeca fills a void in its presence in the milling and baking markets. “We’re a grain-based company, and we have been looking for an ­artisan-based partner to fill a void in our portfolio,” noted Steve Stroud, CHG’s president of sales and marketing.

In late 2013, Guenther bought Golden West and Le Boulangeries Rene, two Canadian bakeries that specialize in buns and English muffins for casual dining chains and other foodservice distributors. Tribeca, which operates as a stand-alone company, nicely complements those acquisitions because it serves a different end of the foodservice channel.

“Tribeca is in both foodservice and the in-store bakery [markets],” Mr. Stroud explained. “We have a strong national account presence, so we can help Tribeca with some of the larger chain restaurants. We are not in the bakery/deli area where they are strong, and they can help us in that channel. They’re in more of the ‘white tablecloth’ restaurants where we supply more of the quick-service and family-dining segments.”

The executives at the two companies had known one another for a few years, so there already was a good level of comfort between the businesses. “We have had a history with Tribeca,” Mr. Stroud recalled. “When we heard [Tribeca] was available, we made sure we got on the short list.”

With the purchase, Mr. Essenfeld and Mr. Erasmus remain with Tribeca, while Mr. Lobel stayed on as a consultant for a year and spent more time in his native Zimbabwe. Mr. Stroud noted Tribeca has a strong management team that it wanted to keep in place because of its expertise in the artisan bread business. “Their reputation in the industry is outstanding, and we wanted to take advantage of their  category expertise,” he said.

For Tribeca, CHG is a “perfect partner,” according to Mr. Essenfeld. Initially, Guenther is providing administrative, engineering, in-house counsel and other infrastructure, such as rolling out SAP system controls. “They’re making our company stronger while allowing us to focus a lot more of our energy on making and selling great bread,” he noted.

Mr. Erasmus, a master baker, observed that CHG’s team of scientists has improved efficiencies within the bakery as well as strengthened some of its processes. For example, they showed Tribeca how to optimally cook grains to ensure longer shelf life and how to better source flour and other ingredients based not only on price but also on quality.

“A true master baker is touchy-feely, but there is always science to it. CHG has the scientific expertise that we can leverage to combine the art with the science and make the process more consistent,” Mr. Erasmus said.

From an operations perspective, partnering with CHG also will allow Tribeca Oven to invest in another production line that will replicate many of the patented processes in its proprietary operation, but in a new and improved way. “We learned so much during the past three years about running that line better,” said Mr. Erasmus, who is working with existing vendors on the design. “The question is, ‘How do we optimize ­efficiencies and improve quality and still make products more affordable for us and our customers?’ ”

The future line will have 50% more capacity than the existing one and is expected to be installed in 2016 within an 80,000-sq-ft area that’s currently used for warehousing and storage. “The goal is to automate production for the non-value-added processes and, as always, to improve the quality and consistency of our bread,” Mr. Erasmus said.

Lemons into lemonade

Overall, the bakery uses 70,000 sq ft for production and packaging and allocates 19,000 sq ft for offices. About 270 people now work at the company with the operation running three shifts up to six days a week.

Actual production at Tribeca is divided between an older semi-automated operation that produces everything from Jewish ryes to cheese breads and sourdough loaves, and the newest automated line that produces mainly baguettes and ciabatta, which account for about 65% of its volume. “I like to say that walking from one part of the bakery to another is like going through a time warp,” Mr. Essenfeld said.

Flour is stored in three HB-Technik 55,000-lb silos while minor and micro ingredients are prescaled into separate containers that are labeled for lot tracking and other requirements under SQF Level 2 certification.

After the storm, Tribeca took the chance to make the best out of a bad situation and reorganized some departments to improve plant efficiency. For example, it moved all of its mixing into one central area in the older bakery. “Because we had to redo the damaged floor in that room, we took the opportunity to centralize the mixing area,” Mr. Essenfeld said.

That room now houses four new Sancassiano spiral mixers for making artisan breads and rolls that are less pounds per hour. These mixers, which create 440-lb batches, also are used to help develop 15 starters, including European sours, biga and poolish. The bakery also uses four types of preferments. Typically, the bakery makes up to six types of mothers a day. Depending on the product type, combined floor time for preferments and starters can run up to two hours.

 “When we talk about production, it’s all about small batches,” Mr. Erasmus said. “It’s not necessarily about mixing in small batches, but fermentation in small batches. Fermentation can create a lot of heat, so having small batches provides better control of the process.”

The mixing room also has six Sancassiano 660-lb twin-arm mixers. The bowls travel up two bowl hoists to chunkers. The 400- to 550-lb chunks feed a Rheon semi-automatic line that cranks out 2,000 lb of product per hour. The makeup line gently creates a 3-in.-thick dough sheet that is quickly reduced to the desired thickness

During Baking & Snack’s visit, the line was producing sourdough loaves. After a rotary cutter and guillotine cut the sheet into squares, operators manually folded and formed the loaves, which are put on racks and into a walk-in retarder/proofer. Proofing temperatures can range from 50 to 100°F with times extending from 90 minutes up to 12 hours. It’s easy to see how some breads can take up to two days to produce.

After proofing, the pieces are hand-scored and baked in one of six Miwe rack ovens or in its Miwe automated thermal-oil deck oven. Typically, breads are 80 to 85% par-baked and finished off by customers.

A new addition to the old bakery is a Koenig roll system with a six-row divider/rounder providing a dough range of 30 to 130 g and a production rate of up to 18,000 pieces an hour.

The Koenig Industry Rex divider/rounder can divide soft doughs that have up to 72% hydration and as much as two hours of bowl resting time. Its low mechanical pressure provides gentle dough dividing while a short rest on the feeding belt prior to the rounding station allows the dough piece to recover, resulting in an increase in dough quality and volume.

The rounding station in the divider consists of an oscillating inner rounding drum, an exchangeable outer rounding drum and a rounding belt. A retracting belt combined with a tray/board conveyor allows automatic panning at speeds that reach 1,000 trays or boards per hour.

Bigger and higher quality

The newer part of the bakery features a 6,000-lb-per-hour line with several patented and proprietary systems. Mr. Essenfeld fondly compares the creation of the line to the creation of the “flux capacitor” because he said the line redefined the future of artisan baking for the company. It took Mr. Erasmus and Minipan, an Italian company, two years to develop the sheeting and makeup portion of the line.

During Baking & Snack’s visit, the line cranked out the company’s signature baguettes, but it can also make hoagies, rolls and a variety of sheeted items. On the front end, there’s a room filled with tubs of dough, which must be transported from the mixing room in the old bakery before receiving extensive floor time. To streamline production on the future line, Tribeca plans to purchase additional mixers and install them near the front of the line to eliminate the need to convey the tubs from one end of the facility to the other.

The tubs are carried up to a mezzanine level where the dough is manually added into a system that creates a 900-mm sheet. The dough spends up to 45 minutes on the sheeting line to be in a “relaxed state” before cutting, after which the dough pieces are placed on patented proofing boards.

The products then enter an Iteca modular proofer for up to two hours. The computer-controlled proofer has the ability to store up to 400 proofing boards in all. Two robotic loaders and unloaders provide flexibility and a steady stream of production while avoiding the inflexible first-in-first-out process of many other proofers.

Mr. Erasmus noted that the 2016 line may have the capability for even longer proof times. That’s one of the “new and improved” features he is working on developing. Currently, the bakery adjusts fermentation and floor time at the beginning of the process to bring out the full flavor and texture of its products.

After proofing, the baguettes are hand-scored before entering the Hueft two-deck thermal oil oven. The 80-ft oven has three zones with independent heat controls on the top and bottom of each deck. Generous amounts of steam are often provided in the first zone to allow ovenspring without setting the crust.

“From a weight-to-size ratio, our products tend to be lighter and larger than others,” Mr. Essenfeld said. “We build volume with a longer process, more hydration and a little more air because all of those things also add flavor to the breads.”

Mr. Erasmus noted that the oven on the future production line will be shorter in length and contain more decks to provide more control to the bake time, thus preserving more moisture in the breads and giving them longer shelf life. The higher level of control will also lend greater flexibility and reduced downtime.

Changeover times currently take 20 to 120 minutes. With the additional decks, changeover will drop to 5 to 25 minutes, providing huge savings in operating costs. “We can actually be finishing one product and start baking another with little or no downtime,” Mr. Erasmus said.

After baking, the products travel to an Alit enclosed dual-spiral cooler, set at 60°F, and an Alit spiral blast freezer at -40°F. Frozen products then pass through Safeline metal detectors before being bulk-packaged using a Niverplast combi case erector and liner. The bakery recently installed an ABV Manufaktur vision system that counts baguettes and frozen products and automatically drops them into cases.

Set for a brighter future

Throughout the bakery, there are still signs of the flooding from Hurricane Sandy, including water marks on the brick walls. That visual reminder only reinforces the company’s decision to locate electronic components and ­computer-control panels 30 in. or more off the floor where possible.

In many ways, the disaster helped redefine Tribeca Oven, observed Mr. Essenfeld, who was named 2014 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for New Jersey

“We came together as a team,” he said. “We put some practices in place like our daily huddles. Our management team gets together for five minutes every morning to talk about what’s going on in our business, how we did yesterday and what we need to do today. It’s really helped communication.”

By aligning itself with CHG, Mr. Erasmus noted, Tribeca ensures it will be around for the long haul. However, the company isn’t forgetting its roots.

“We absolutely want to be efficient and get a return on investment, but we also want to stay focused on what got us here, and that’s quality,” he said. “It’s all about flour, water, salt and yeast. It’s all about being natural. We’re getting shelf life by staying true to old-fashioned baking, and it’s all about giving the dough the required time and temperature.”

While the business is evolving, some things didn’t change. It’s about bread from the hearth. “We’re a family-owned business, even with being a part of CHG, we’re still family-owned, and we take that part of our core values seriously,” Mr. Essenfeld said.

Those values — and the belief that every cloud has a silver lining — are what make a company strong.       

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