Slideshow: La Petite Bretonne takes minis to the max

by Dan Malovany
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QUEBEC — It doesn’t take much to bring a smile to a precious child’s face. Rather, children by their inquisitive nature are often delighted by little things in life — whether it’s a first-time trip to a petting zoo, lounging around the house watching Saturday morning cartoons on their iPads or even something as low-tech as a light, fresh, warm treat after a grueling long day at grade school.

Maybe that’s why simple pleasures such as La Petite Bretonne’s mini croissants have become the No. 1 selling branded croissant throughout its core market in Quebec while gaining popularity not only throughout Canada but also internationally.

Weighing just a tad over 0.5 oz and sized to fit securely in a tiny, young hand, the bakery’s Micro Croissants — micro not only in size but also for their microwaveability — are more than a croissant, according to Dominic Bohec, vice-president of sales and marketing for the Blainville-based company.

Dominic Bohec, La Petite Bretonne
Dominic Bohec, v.p. of sales and marketing for La Petite Bretonne

“They’re a breakfast item for kids, an afternoon grab-and-go snack or even — when filled — a perfect small sandwich, not to mention can be served as a dinner roll,” Mr. Bohec said. “They can be consumed in so many ways, and while they’re perfect for kids, their size, texture and taste appeal to all ages.”

Because of the company’s focus on children, the croissants are quite different than the classic, sophisticated, French-inspired patisserie. Butter? No. The margarine-layered pastries contain no trans fats and 30% less saturated fats than their butter counterparts.

“Croissants don’t necessarily have a ‘healthy’ image,” Mr. Bohec said. “But our croissants have only 5% fat and around 70 calories per piece [or 200 calories per a three-mini serving]. If you put our croissants on a napkin or piece of paper, you won’t see any grease left behind.”

Flaky? Again, no. Certainly, that delicate nature is a key attribute of the authentic croissant, but La Petite Bretonne understands that it’s not foremost in everyone’s mind.

“If we’re making flaky croissants, first, you’ll probably see a lot of crumbs in the 24-piece bag,” Mr. Bohec said. “We don’t want that. And second, kids don’t like crumbs.”

It's not only kids but also families who the company targets with a laser-like focus, and the last thing parents need are snacks that make a total mess.

“They don’t want them to be super flaky because they don’t want the crumbs on the table or on the back seat of the car,” Mr. Bohec said.

But what about expensive? Certainly, croissants are the crème de la crème of French baked cuisine. However, here the answer is even more emphatic: No, no, no.

When it comes to price, La Petite Bretonne believes in simple luxuries and family values — and carries out the latter in more ways than one. Most of its mini products come in 16- to 24-piece bags priced for consumption as an everyday snack or for multiple meal occasions.

“Everything we do focuses on kids and the family,” Mr. Bohec said. “We package many of our products in family packs, and everything we do is focused on value.”

Call it a form of “micro” economics that emphasizes giving the biggest bang for the buck.

Amassing ‘micro’ technology

That value proposition, Mr. Bohec said, is how the company differentiates itself in the market. Cranking out products that fill that niche, however, requires a production strategy that includes a highly automated operation, efficient in many ways.

Mr. Bohec stressed that the formula for the croissant dough is not rocket science — white all-purpose flour, water, yeast, salt, sugar and margarine.

“We only have one recipe for croissants, but the secret is having people who know how to make a quality croissant with a long fermentation period and who have a respect for the process,” he said.

La Petite Bretonne Micro Croissants and Chocolate Buns
The company's Micro Croissants and Mini Choco buns are popular breakfast items.

Specifically, he noted, the laminated dough retards for 8 hours to develop the pastry’s full flavor. But that’s only part of the story behind the company’s success in its niche market. Since it began producing mini croissants in 1999, the family-owned business headed by Dominic’s father, Serge, invested millions in building an 86,000-square-foot nut- and peanut-free facility. In 2006, La Petite Bretonne spent $7 million to start up the initial bakery with a single croissant line. The company spent an additional $1 million on what was back then the latest in packaging technology.

In 2012, to keep up with demand, the bakery invested about $13 million to expand the facility by 49,000 square feet, add a second makeup system to the croissant line, install a chocolate-filled bun line and add robotics and other state-of-the-art systems in its packaging department.

Today, the dual production line can produce 52,000 Micro Croissants an hour, or up to 1,200,000 daily and a potential of 300 million annually. The second line turns out 24,000 chocolate-filled, croissant-style buns an hour or 48,000 mini-filled chocolate buns and other filled snacks.

A third production line is in the early planning stages, Mr. Bohec said. It would require yet another addition to the Blainville plant. The company also operates an 80,000-square-foot bakery in Joliette that makes wirecut and diecut cookies, all-butter madeleines and other convenient baked sweet goods.

Moving into new markets

In addition to its Micro Croissants, La Petite Bretonne’s branded repertoire includes popular Mini Choco buns that Mr. Bohec said are his favorite. The buns can be microwaved for breakfast, as a snack or as a dessert or grilled over a campfire just like a marshmallow. Mr. Bohec said both Micro Croissants and Mini Choco lines are among top-selling breakfast goods in Quebec with a commanding share of the retail market.

Other miniature pastries include MicrOmega croissants doused with flaxseed that provide omega-3 health benefits, a mini cinnamon-filled bun that’s a sibling of the Mini Choco, and smaller dinner rolls. This year, the company is reintroducing its square Croissant Sliders for appetizers and finger sandwiches. The bakery also sells larger, more traditional-sized chocolate chip-filled croissants, offered in a 6-count tray pack.

This year, the company is reintroducing its square Croissant Sliders for appetizers and finger sandwiches.

In addition to its branded line, La Petite Bretonne's diverse market strategy crosses several channels, including branded retail, private label, contract manufacturing, food service and supermarket delis. And it is planning to graduate into new venues, potentially convenience stores, in the coming year.

“Our products fit into any food service restaurant or c-store that serves pastries and coffee or snacks that can be eaten on the run,” Mr.Bohec said. “We also see our products as providing a nice alternative to frozen baked-off items in in-store bakeries because of the products’ smaller size.”

While La Petite Bretonne dominates the Canadian market, it continues to expand throughout the U.S. with a solid foothold established in the Northeast as well as pockets of strength in the Midwest and the South, where its value line has gained traction in recent years. It already has a solid presence in Mexico and throughout the Caribbean, according to Mr. Bohec, but going national in the U.S. remains its primary target for future growth.

“In the U.S., we’re still a niche product, but our brand has huge potential for growth, especially in the South and Western U.S.,” he said.

Micros on maximum power

Strategically located near a spaghetti bowl of intersecting major highways just 10 minutes from Montreal’s airport, the Kosher- and BRC-A-certified bakery operates with 150 employees working seven days a week, with three 8-hour shifts during the week and two on weekends to allow time for sanitation and maintenance.

A single Abtek International 45,000-lb silo supplies flour to two Mondial Forni spiral mixers, which turn out 300-lb batches of dough in a temperature-controlled room set at 15°C (59°F). Because of the delicate nature of croissant dough, the bakery prefers smaller batches to control the dough’s temperature and ensure consistent production. Additionally, the enclosed makeup room remains a constant 17°C (63°F) to prevent the dough from rising prematurely.

La Petite Bretonne also sells larger, more traditional-sized chocolate chip-filled croissants.

Elevated bowls feed the Canol laminating line, where the extruded dough passes through a multi-roller station to create a 1-cm thick sheet. Margarine from 20-kg blocks is extruded atop the sheet, which is folded repeatedly before being cut into 15-lb chunks, wrapped in plastic and placed on racks for retarding. The bakery color codes its doughs: blue plastic for Micro Croissant dough chunks and red plastic for Choco croissant buns.

For makeup, line operators manually load the blocks of Micro Croissant dough onto a belt feeding another Canol dual production line. The dough travels through a multi-roller, flour dusting station and three reduction stations before a circular cutter slices the sheet into seven 10-cm wide strips. A die cutter turns the strips into isosceles triangles, which rotate 90° so that the base of the triangular pieces enters the rolling station first to create coiled, straight croissant pieces.

“Because we don’t bend them, we’re able to operate at a much higher rate of speed without any operator touching them,” Mr. Bohec said.

The dough pieces tumble onto baguette pans that travel to a Mondial Forni tray proofer for a stay of roughly 1 hour. The products then bake in a Mondial Forni 120-foot direct-fired oven at 170°C (335°F) for about 15 minutes before passing through a Capway depanner then to a Technopool spiral cooler for an hour or so.

Meanwhile, the Canol chocolate bun line sprinkles a stream of chocolate chips over the 6-across dough strips. The line’s plows then fold the strips twice to create continuous tubes. A guillotine cuts the tubes into Mini Chocos or more conventional-sized chocolate chip pastries. After proofing and baking at slightly different times and temperatures than for Micro Croissants, the filled products cool for 90 minutes (See slideshow of La Petite Bretonne's production lines)

Packaging delicate products

The delicate products then enter the highly automated packaging department, designed by La Petite Bretonne with the assistance of De La Ballina (since renamed Pattyn Bakery Division) to handle a baker’s dozen of packaging formats.

For the most part, La Petite Bretonne-branded Micro Croissants come in 24-count bags with a 21-day shelf life for fresh distribution on 49 independent routes throughout Quebec. They are also shipped throughout Canada or internationally with a 6-month shelf life in the freezer and 21 days after thawing. The mini pastries come in other bag sizes, depending on the product variety and whether they’re being co-packed for private label accounts.

Most La Petite Bretonne-branded Micro Croissants come in 24-count bags with a 21-day shelf life.

After manual inspection, mini croissants travel through a De La Ballina vision system that counts and measures the shape of each product before it gently tumbles them into a Manter bagger — one of a half-dozen such systems in the packaging department.

After a Kwik Lok system closes the bags — the packaging department has a total of eight closure systems — they pass through a Fortress metal detector and are manually packed in baskets for fresh distribution or cases for further shipping. Wexxar systems erect and tape seal all cases. Frozen products are palletized and shrinkwrapped. The cases also include La Petite Bretonne-branded palletized shipping displays for easy assembly at retail outlets. “

It’s much more expensive, but it’s what our customers want,” Mr. Bohec said.

Three years ago, La Petite Bretonne invested significantly in labor-saving robotics to automate packaging of its more conventionally sized, 2-oz chocolate-filled buns. After cooling, the pastries pass through a De La Ballina laser vision system that serves as the “eyes” for quality control as well as for counting, locating and positioning the products as they enter the robotic pick-and-place system, according to Mr. Bohec.

Eight Schneider Electric robots comprise the heart of the system. They gently pick up and place filled croissants into plastic trays, which ride on a SpanTech conveyor along the side of the center belt. In all, the robots load six items into each 12-oz tray, which then enters one of two Formost Fuji horizontal baggers. Closing, metal detection and casepacking follow.

For La Petite Bretonne, it’s OK to be the little fish in the big pond.

“With the way the company is growing, we have enough on our plates right now,” Mr. Bohec said. “In the next five years, we’re going to double the size of the business. We plan to develop the U.S. market further and build a bigger position in Canada. We’re going to do it through new products and being a leader in our niche market, but we don’t want to move too quickly.”

As the saying goes, if you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.

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