Slideshow: Fireking can't stop. Won't stop.

by Charlotte Atchley
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BRAINTREE, MASS. — Greg Acerra never meant to get into the baking business. A trained chef, he was getting his three restaurants off the ground and found himself lacking in the bread department. In the early 1990s, the gas station across the street from his three restaurants was for sale, and Mr. Acerra saw an opportunity.

“I thought that would be a great place to put a little bakery,” he said. “Everyone wants to own a bakery in their lifetime, so I bought the gas station and turned it into Fireking Baking Co. & Bistro.”

With two ovens, a divider, a baguette moulder, two proofers, a spiral mixer and a New York City baker named Krzysztof Ramotowski, Mr. Acerra’s bakery started up. With the added assistance of a pastry chef, the bakery made its first iteration of Fireking baked bread and pastries to serve at his restaurants, all located on the same corner in Hingham, Mass. It also sold product out of its retail storefront.

Growing ‘like a weed’

What was meant to be a simple business to supply the restaurants, however, could not be contained, and Fireking quite accidentally became a bakery wholesaler. The president of a chain of sandwich shops in Boston, Rebecca’s Cafe, called Mr. Acerra, asking for Fireking bread.

“It wasn’t our intention whatsoever to get into the wholesale baking business, but I didn’t know better. So, I bought a truck and figured we would live happily ever after,” he said. “Of course, I bought the truck and then my life turned into a 24-hour-7-day-a-week event.”

With the added wholesale business, Fireking found itself quickly outpacing its capacity. Bread was cooling in the dining room after the restaurant closed. Loaves were being sliced one at a time.

“I think the fear of failure kept me going at the time,” Mr. Acerra said. “I made a promise. I didn’t want to look like a fool.”

The requests kept coming. By word-of-mouth, other restaurants started calling for Fireking bread, and 350 square feet for production wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Mr. Acerra made the move one weekend to a space more than twice the size of the original bakery, but growth kept happening, and he had to move shortly thereafter to a 10,000-square-foot facility in Weymouth, Mass.

Mr. Acerra thought, surely, this would be the last time he transplanted the bakery.

“I moved over there into a building that, in my lifetime, I never thought I would fill,” he said.

And for almost 13 years, Fireking existed in that building, expanding from one rack to six and one deck oven to two 8-door units. By 2002, Fireking had ditched pastries and was only focusing on bread, and still the business was bursting at the seams.

In 2012, Mr. Acerra bought the current 40,000-square-foot facility in Braintree, Mass., that houses Fireking today. Again, he thought this would be the last time Fireking would move, but already, he’s purchased 26,000 square feet next door in which he plans to eventually expand some manufacturing.

“It grew like a weed, the business,” Mr. Acerra said of the bakery before moving it to Braintree. “I was trying to slow the growth down. I still didn’t have a sales person; it was all word-of-mouth. If a sales person had brought in accounts, I would have probably been upset because I couldn’t handle the load.”

Today, Fireking mostly serves food service customers, but instead of being a slave to his own distribution system, Mr. Acerra outsourced sales and delivery to distributors. He still has a small route, though, and Fireking still handles deliveries to its original wholesale customer, Rebecca’s Cafe. The company still sees double-digit growth, never lower than 20% annually. The frozen finished baked business is booming even more, at about 30% annual growth and has taken Fireking outside of New England to mid-Atlantic states, Florida, Las Vegas and California. To accommodate this ever-expanding business, Mr. Acerra needed to upgrade his equipment. 

Operators load rolls onto a bagger and check for quality control.      
 
Evaluating needs

At the beginning of every year, Mr. Acerra sits down with his management staff, and together they look at their projected annual business to discuss what the bakery needs to be successful. It’s a meeting where Fireking’s staff can pitch their wish list: pans, racks, trucks, ovens, mixers, new production lines.

“I try to get my managers everything they need to get the job done,” he said.

Fireking’s first forays into automated equipment came in the form of a new Rheon divider/moulder, purchased in 2005. Before that time, the staff did everything by hand with only the help of a 20-part divider. With one customer buying 20 to 30 pallets of ciabatta, Fireking just couldn’t keep up.

“I thought, ‘I have to get this machine or get out of this business,’ ” Mr. Acerra remembered.

Since then, Fireking added a Koenig Rex roll line, upgraded to two Koenig Rex Futura Multi roll lines and, most recently, installed a Koenig Menes line, all at the requests of employees to help them fulfill their growing capacity needs. 

After that Rheon line, Mr. Acerra made the commitment to new equipment.

“When you first start out, you’re a scrapper,” he said. “You don’t have a lot of access to the capital that you need to grow the business, so you’re buying used equipment and doing what you can.” 

Now that Fireking is growing at full force, Mr. Acerra doesn’t have as many challenges acquiring the capital needed to invest back into the business.

“I made a personal commitment that I only want to buy new equipment from this point forward, and I want to buy the best there is,” he said. “It will be expensive, but I believe [ROI] will come back fast.”

When Mr. Acerra made this commitment, he laid out some criteria about what he would be looking for. He wanted the best, most efficient equipment for sure, but there was more to his checklist than just that.

With so many global equipment companies, it was important that he would have access to parts in the U.S., even if his equipment was made overseas.

“Eventually you will need those parts, and you can’t wait two weeks for them to come in,” he said. Next-day parts availability in the US was a must for any piece of equipment he would purchase.

Also important to Mr. Acerra was service. He sought a company that employed its own service technicians instead of outsourcing such work.

Fireking outgrew its first hamburger bun and dinner roll line, and the staff asked for another, larger capacity line. In came Koenig with its Rex Futura Multi, a “next step” roll line that includes a forming station and a wider range of weights. Now, Fireking could extend its product line with just one machine. Fireking installed its first such line in June 2015 and added a second in February this year. The two new lines run moulded products, dinner rolls, hamburger rolls and lobster rolls in varying sizes.

About a year ago, shortly after the Rex Futura Multi lines were purchased, Mr. Acerra needed another line to take on extra capacity. He found an answer in the Menes line. The new line can handle dough absorptions up to 85%, which works well for Fireking’s artisan products. “It’s fast, it treats the dough well and doesn’t degas the dough,” Mr. Acerra said.

The Menes line can produce 3,500 loaves of Fireking’s rustic bread in 45 minutes with only two operators, replacing seven operators and six hours of production on the previous system.

Installed in November 2015, the Menes line took much programming and tweaking to get everything just right. Each step of the process had to be run, checked for quality and then programmed. If at any point, a weight or measurement was off, programming went back to step one to find the issue. With the programming perfected, “it’s fast, accurate and makes beautiful product, but it’s not ‘plug-in and go’ when you set it up,” Mr. Acerra explained. “It’s a lot of programming. It’s a lot of patience working your way through it, but Koenig works with you the whole way through.”

The reliability of the new equipment and the improvements in efficiency, quality, accuracy and labor reductions have strengthened Mr. Acerra’s resolve to invest in further automation and new equipment.

“We used to be finished here at 11 p.m., and now some days, we’re done at 2:30 p.m.,” he said. “That’s why I say you can’t afford not to buy this equipment. It’s that efficient.”

 

Twin-twist mixers output Fireking's brioche dough in 15 minutes with minimal friction.
 
Flowing through the facility

Fireking’s current facility consists of two buildings: 40,000 square feet of production space and 26,000 square feet of storage that Mr. Acerra hopes to one day incorporate into production. For the time being, however, the bakery houses five bread lines and four packaging lines to handle 191,000 cases of product shipped out through distributors every year.

Most of Fireking Baking Co.’s customer base continues to be food service, so its product line consists of dinner rolls, hamburger buns, hot dog buns, lobster rolls and brioche. The company also produces pan loaves, Pullman breads and artisan products such as ciabatta and focaccia.

Flour is delivered by truck and stored in KB Systems silos. Flour and water are metered into three Koenig twin-twist mixers and two San Cassiano spiral mixers. All other ingredients are hand-scaled and manually added. Eventually, Mr. Acerra plans to add a fourth Koenig mixer. The twin-twist mixers can output brioche dough in 15 minutes.

Dough then makes its way to one of five lines: The Koenig Rex Futura roll line, two Rex Futura Multi lines, the Rheon line or the Koenig Menes line. Each one except the Rheon line includes an automatic bowl hoist to transfer dough to the hopper. The Rheon line requires operators to hand cut dough out of the mixing bowl into totes before being loaded in the hopper.

On the two Rex Futura Multi lines, rotating feeding stars cut the dough into portions before moving it to the divider. Dough is portioned by a rotating dividing drum and then shaped by an oscillating rounding plate, adjustable to the consistency and weight of the dough. Dies can be easily changed to accommodate a wide range of weights.

The Menes line gravity-feeds dough from the hopper to the sheeter. Double satellite heads reduce the dough without degassing it. Rollers bring the dough to a consistent thickness and width. On this line, dough sheets are reduced three times and then cut. Excess dough is collected and stored in the cooler to be added into other batches later. The 80-foot line can also mould and seed product. Changeovers are done quickly with dies being changed out and the seeder wheeled in within a matter of minutes.

All lines deposit finished dough balls on boards or in pans. Operators manually load the boards and pans on racks and move them to the cooler.

After makeup, many products retard in the cooler — some as long as 12 hours. This is a point of differentiation for Fireking where Mr. Acerra refuses to compromise. Once the dough has been sufficiently retarded, it is proofed. Pullman breads, dinner rolls and brioche rolls are baked in 15 Revent, Hobart and LBC double-rack ovens. High-absorption doughs and oval breads are shaped and prepped by operators before baking in one of two Bongard deck ovens.

After each step in the production process, products are checked for quality. Each operator is responsible for the quality check at their station to ensure that any issues that may arise are caught early and addressed.

Bread is then cooled on racks at ambient temperature before going through a Lematic bun slicer ahead of packaging. A Formost Fuji bagging line and UBE bun bagging line handle retail packaging while bulk packaging is still done largely by hand. Frozen products are packaged after the freezer.

Packaged items are put on pallets and staged for shipping to Fireking’s various distributors. The warehouse management is done manually. Plant Manager Christopher Micallef creates a production schedule and passes it onto Warehouse Manager Geovania DeOliveria, who ensures products are staged in front of the loading dock door for each truck. Every door is assigned to a different distributor, and products are color-coded to ensure delivery to the correct distributor. Everything at Fireking Baking Co. is made to order.

A seeder can be rolled into the line to add toppings to loaves.
 
Investing in cleanliness

Sanitation happens around the clock while the bakery is in operation and also at night. During the day, a new Douglas double rack washer cleans pans, racks, tables and other tools.

Two cleaning crews come in at night. Facility cleaners wipe down floors, walls and mixers and handle scheduled high cleaning such as light fixtures. Another crew takes those machines apart and cleans them every night.

The sanitation team keeps the maintenance team informed of any weak points it might catch during routine cleanings. With five engineers on Fireking’s maintenance team, the bakery’s equipment is on a preventive schedule that avoids playing catch-up with equipment that’s already broken.

“By the time you’ve fixed something, you’ve lost something, either in parts or production time,” Mr. Acerra said. “One of my goals was to go from being a good fixer to a good maintainer.” To achieve that, the maintenance team replaces equipment components on a schedule: belts, e-stops, blades, etc. This proactive approach and an eye from the sanitation team keep Fireking running with minimal downtime for repairs.

As he looks forward, Mr. Acerra doesn’t see business slowing down for his accidental bakery any time soon. The growth he’s been fortunate to experience he attributes to timing and luck.

“We got in at the incubator stage of the whole artisan bread trend,” he said. “I was able to grow the business in the direction that the industry is growing: artisan and upscale breads.”  

While this timing and luck may have helped get Fireking off the ground, Mr. Acerra is quick to share the bakery’s success with his employees. He considers them family.

“I love coming to work,” he said. “I love the people who work for me. I love to see the success of the people who work for me. I cannot ever see myself not doing this. I love growing the business.”

In the next five years, Mr. Acerra expects Fireking to get even busier. With the frozen finished baked business taking off and supplying most of the company’s growth, he’s planning on installing a new freezer in the space he just acquired. He is also entertaining the idea of going into frozen dough while he’s at it. 

At one point Mr. Acerra didn’t dream this small bakery would outgrow the original 1,000-square-foot space; 10,000-square-foot space or even his current 40,000 square feet, but this time, he’s ready for it. In fact, he’s more than ahead of it.
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