Catering to sandwich cuisine

by Laurie Gorton
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Ask any Philadelphian: Nothing quite matches the thin, crispy crust and tender, soft crumb of a true hoagie roll. This sandwich style, especially the Philly cheesesteak, is as much a regional staple as the po-boy in New Orleans. Now, it is attracting menu attention outside the ­“hoagie zone,” and that spells opportunity for Liscio’s Italian Bakery, Glassboro, NJ.

The bakery specializes in hoagie rolls, called “Philly bread” by many customers. For nearly 20 years, sandwich shops in the Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York region have made their menu favorites with Liscio’s bread and rolls. Today, however, the bakery also ships products as far away as Connecticut, Indiana, Texas and Oregon.

“Cheesesteak and hoagie shops find our breads better for their sandwiches,” explained Charles (Chad) Vilotti, Liscio’s co-owner and vice-president, “and Philly cheesesteak sandwiches are gaining interest in other areas of the country. We’ve been able to grow with some of the very best operators in the business.”

Several of the bakery’s key accounts are now national in scope. For example, one has 90 stores with four more about to open in Florida.

Such fare is big business. Menu trends throughout America favor sandwiches — all kinds of sandwiches — with a category incidence of 77% among all operators, according to the Foodservice Research Institute. These experts describe dynamic 14% growth of sandwich ­cuisine over 10 years as a historic gain and way ahead of every other menu category. Sandwiches show great diversity. While grilled cheese sits atop the list with a 3.6% menu share, the Philly cheesesteak comes in at No. 7, right after the corned beef reuben.

“The mom-and-pops are still good partners for us, but we’re changing the way we operate to be a larger producer in a more productive plant,” Mr. Vilotti said. Steps in this direction not only include the option of on-site freezing but also the adoption of British Retail Consortium (BRC) and Safe Quality Food (SQF) criteria and third-party inspections.

Continuing local demand and nascent national interest in the bakery’s products have stretched its sales nearly 300% in six years. The increased product volume and enhanced food safety efforts that accompany such business push the bakery to operate better and more efficiently.

Expanding product platforms

Emblazoned on each delivery truck, Liscio’s company motto states, “It all starts with the bread.” It certainly did for co-owners James Liscio and Chad Vilotti. Both come from a baking background, but when they first met, they sat on opposite sides of the desk.

Mr. Liscio started baking in high school, taking a job with a small mom-and-pop bakery-deli. During college, he worked in another bake shop before opening his own bakery in 1994, a retail location that quickly earned a wholesale following for its Italian bread specialties.

Mr. Vilotti’s great-grandfather opened one of the first Italian bakeries in South Philadelphia, and his grandfather developed a bakery ingredient distribution company while at the family bakery. Mr. Vilotti started working in that business while in college and later ran it for 20 years. After selling the ingredient company in 2000, he joined Mr. Liscio, adding his business management experience to his partner’s production expertise.

Hoagies account for the majority of Liscio’s business, but lately the company finds itself venturing into “better burger” territory, the latest development in sandwich cuisine. And the results are tremendous.

“Burger rolls really blossomed,” said Mr. Liscio, the bakery’s president. “This is hoagie country, and burgers have not been a big thing in this area. But they are now.” And they’re only getting bigger as upscale ­hamburgers go national.

Attentive to customer needs, bakery ­managers accepted a challenge from a local operator of a quick-service restaurant specializing in gourmet hamburgers. “He wanted to set his signature burger apart from others in the market,” Mr. Vilotti said. The customer asked the bakery to develop a rustic, pan-baked bun that would be crustier than the usual soft ­hamburger bun.

Mr. Liscio worked out the formulation and production details, and soon the customer had his new bun. Sales of the signature sandwich went through the roof.

Spreading business reach

Located just about a half-hour ­outside Philadelphia, Liscio’s occupies a 10-acre site on New Jersey’s busy Route 47. Since moving to Glassboro in 2004, the company added 10,000 sq ft of retarder space in 2007, bringing the building up to 50,000 sq ft. By 2011, it was filled with additional production equipment to handle rising demand.

“We laid out the bakery to grow,” Mr. Vilotti said. “We took on technology to fit the needs of these products and allow our business to grow more aggressively.”

Recent capital equipment additions include upgraded double-spiral mixers supplying each production line, a new roll makeup line, increased retarding capacity and efficient push-through proofers, two additional tunnel ovens and two more ambient-temperature spiral coolers. A new power plant was also installed.

During the same period, the company acquired properties next to and behind the existing plant. Liscio’s built a new bakery-deli on one lot and relocated its 5,000-sq-ft pastry operation to the back shop there. It adapted the 6,000-sq-ft building on the other lot to warehouse bagged and boxed ingredients and provide administrative offices. The company plans to connect the wholesale plant and warehouse soon.

Another essential step for Liscio’s was implementation of BRC and SQF food safety programs, ­important to attracting high-volume customers, including leading supermarket chains. “In doing these programs, we knew they would make us a better company and allow us to entertain those types of clients,” Mr. Vilotti said. “I knew from my ­previous distribution business the value of participating in programs such as those that AIB International offers. When we moved here, we decided we would run the cleanest, most ­efficient operation possible, and we get constant requests for third-party audits.”

Work with these formal food safety programs began in earnest three years ago. Efforts included onsite training for all staff members. The company became SQF-certified in 2012 by AIB and received a “Superior” rating on that group’s most recent inspection. Two employees currently hold HACCP certification, and separately, the company supports an in-house employee safety committee.

“We continue to ‘climb the ladder’ on audits,” Mr. Vilotti reported.

Automating traditional arts

Hoagie sandwiches demand a special sort of bread. Its subtle flavor, paper-like crispy crust and soft interior crumb wouldn’t be possible without retardation of the dough, according to Mr. Liscio. Accommodating such a long process presents challenges. “But we’ve tried to maintain the integrity of the process,” he said.

The bakery works hard to sustain traditional results while operating an automated process. “We don’t skip steps, and we strive to keep ­doing things as when we started,” Mr. Vilotti explained.

Now with a staff of 210, the bakery begins its day at 4 a.m., when bakers arrive to start up lines. Items made up the day before are just reaching the end of their retard period. Proofing, baking, cooling and order makeup take place simultaneously with mixing and makeup of the next day’s products. Distribution activities begin at 8 p.m.

Liscio’s targeted the goal of consistent quality product starting on day one. “To drive out variability, every aspect of a baking business has to become more efficient, more effective,” Mr. Vilotti said.

Automation contributes to that consistency by steering away from routine manual tasks, but it’s not all about manpower reduction, according to Mr. Liscio. “There’s always the potential for labor savings,” he said, “but we redeploy individuals to ­better use their skills.”

Operators keep careful watch over products in progress and monitor machinery closely. Mr. Vilotti added, “In this business, the human element is a needed aspect to production, and the personal touch is important.”

Mr. Liscio and Mr. Vilotti rely on vendor support from their primary equipment and ingredient suppliers to guide them through the technology maze. “We frequently host other bakers from all over the country interested in evaluating our process and our processing and baking equipment,” Mr. Liscio said.

Making, baking rolls

The bakery’s original Pfening bulk flour system delivers flour to four mixers, although operators scale minor ingredients from scratch. The system routes batched flour from the outdoor 85,000-lb silo through a metal detector and into a stainless-steel sifter before it reaches four stainless-steel, 500-lb scale hoppers above the mixers.

To date, Liscio’s has been able to keep up with rising production ­demand by boosting the frequency of flour deliveries. However, in case of emergency, it stocks a supply of bagged flour equal to a full load. “Our middle name is ‘backup,’ ” Mr. Liscio said with a laugh.

The bakery now uses four Gemini/W&P dual-spiral-arm, high-speed mixers. Each can ­handle dough loads up to 500 lb per batch. Mix times range from six to 10 minutes, and the finished dough leaves the bowl through a bottom discharge port into a waiting dough trough.

The bakery’s automated bread and roll makeup lines have the ability to produce many different products from 1.5-oz rolls up to 15-oz stick bread. These include two Gemini/KB variety roll lines for moulded, round and Kaiser rolls and one Craft Master low-stress combination bread and roll moulding line. Each employs a trough lift to unload dough, thus eliminating the need to manually feed dough into the 700-lb dough reservoirs above the Gemini TWL dividers. The newest line makes stamped Kaiser rolls and moulded rolls weighing 1.5 to 7.5 oz. The automatic loader on each line can deposit round and moulded dough pieces directly onto peel boards supplied by an integrated board feeder.

Operators place boards filled with dough pieces into mobile racks and wheel them into the refrigerated 38°F retarding room. To fill the next day’s production schedule, operators move racks to the two roll-through rack proofers.

All racks feature a top plate. “These act as lids to prevent condensation or dust falling onto the dough pieces,” Mr. Liscio explained. The company embraced this recommendation made during an AIB inspection.

The bakery is now equipped with three tunnel ovens supplied by Gemini Bakery Equipment. The first two are manually loaded, but the newest 77-ft tunnel oven — installed in 2011— operates with an automatic peel board oven loading system. “That way, the oven is always full, which aids efficiency and enables a more consistent bake,” Mr. Liscio observed.

Baked rolls and buns slide down a transfer plate as they leave the oven and move onto a conveyor taking them to three G&F ambient-­temperature spiral cooling systems.

The partners are considering adding an automatic oven loader to one of the two smaller tunnel ovens; however, floor space is too tight and production rates too low to justify one on the company’s original 60-ft tunnel oven. Liscio’s kept a few of its original single-rack ovens to handle low-volume items.

Packing, shipping products

Finished products depart Liscio’s loaded loosely into white corrugated boxes. Such boxes are standard for fresh local distribution of hoagie rolls and Italian breads because they maintain the bread’s crisp crust texture.

“Most bakers in this region use brown boxes,”

Mr. Liscio explained, “but we use only white ones printed with our name. This helps differentiate us.”

The corrugated boxes return to the bakery where they are dumped to remove any debris and thoroughly ­inspected before reuse.

As the company expanded distribution into other markets, it began to offer different packaging styles. In Delaware, for example, customers want their products in sealed plastic bags. Liscio’s added a Cavanna packaging and bagging line to accommodate such requests.

“The next step will be to automatically pack ­hamburger buns and other rolls,” Mr. Vilotti said.

Liscio’s assembles its product for distribution in a dedicated part of the main building, placing orders into a bank of locked cages assigned to individual drivers.

Supermarkets represent another flourishing part of the bakery’s market. Liscio’s now serves more than 90 area stores using direct store delivery (DSD) methods. Like the sandwich shop business, fresh DSD to supermarkets involves loose rolls.

With a good number of national accounts, the company is being pulled into the frozen side to grow along with its customers. It recently acquired a liquid nitrogen flash freezer. Currently in storage, the freezer will be installed on the next build-out.

Everyday consistency

Mr. Liscio and Mr. Vilotti credit their bakery’s success to its ability to produce consistent product day in and day out. “Customers want consistency,” Mr. Vilotti said. “Samples are all fine and well, but the ­everyday product has to be the same every day.”

They acknowledged the role that their staff plays in supporting such performance. “Our ­employees are the backbone of our system,” Mr. Liscio said. “The entire team is dedicated to producing a great product, and they know the importance of this to our customers.”

Mr. Vilotti added, “Machines can only do so much. It’s the people who run them that make the difference.”

Looking ahead, the partners ­expect further DSD expansion. “Our category — fresh Italian bread and rolls — is not yet saturated,” Mr. Vilotti observed. “We also have a future in products distributed outside the region. That’s based on our customers wanting ‘Philly bread’ for their operations.”

The future may bring more ­competition, but Liscio’s is ready for it. “We have the variety of product enabled by use of machine and manual methods — variety that many of our competitors lack,” Mr. Vilotti said. “We’re not the only game in town, so we have to play it better with quality and consistency.”

Mr. Liscio confirmed this commitment. “Consistency is a product issue and a service issue, but consistency is our strength,” he said.                       

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