The rise of flatbreads

by Charlotte Atchley
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The American consumer’s horizons are expanding. Foodie culture, globalization and the increasingly diverse American population have all helped ethnic foods like flatbreads break into the mainstream. The health and wellness movement is also helping flatbreads gain momentum as people move away from conventional sandwiches and adopt wraps as an alternative with fewer carbs. Such a diverse category gives consumers a vast landscape of bread alternatives to explore. 

This assortment of products impacts the process, too. “From an equipment standpoint, the most important thing is versatility because the flatbread industry is constantly changing,” said David Moline, sales and marketing manager, Moline Machinery, Duluth, MN. “There’s such a wide variety of flatbreads. There are wraps all the way through to naan and sandwich thins. They all fall under the flatbread category, yet they’re all processed very differently.”

Flexible equipment enables flatbread bakers to process several different products on fewer lines. Different strategies in design can optimize production to adapt to future new products. Equipment itself is designed to streamline changeovers, limiting the amount of downtime when switching between products.

“The rising demand for flatbreads is increasing the development of additional varieties, many containing flaxseed, ancient grains and other premium inclusions,” said Cesar Zelaya, bakery technology manager, Handtmann, Inc., Lake Forest, IL. “Each formulation and product requires its own production configuration, so equipment that enables quick changeovers is becoming even more valuable.”

That equipment offers even more if it can do all this and maintain product quality. Equipment that can deliver consistent products and quickly move between different types of flatbreads helps bakers keep up with demand in this ever-changing market.

It often comes down to good planning between the baker and equipment supplier to ensure it is built to handle a variety of products now and in the future. Bakers need to account for the tools they will require as well as the space necessary for the full length of the line.

“Most customers shortchange themselves on space,” said Eric Riggle, vice-president, Rademaker USA, Hudson, OH. “It’s hard to go back and create the space if you don’t leave the space for it.”

Designing a line for flexibility also requires bakers consider including different types of makeup tooling that will allow them to create a wide variety of products. Just by including extra gauging stations, different cutters or rollers, bakers can open up entire new markets for their business.

When designing a line, it’s important to consider necessary sheeting capacity and the proper dough forming, especially when working with different doughs, Mr. Moline said. Modularity can be critical here. Having a modular production line allows equipment and tools to be exchanged quickly. This helps bakers accommodate different sizes and shapes even on the same dough. “Some flatbreads require no-stress systems, where it’s very relaxed, and some flatbread systems require a tighter grain,” Mr. Moline said. “So modularity in dough formers and makeup sections are the most critical aspects when it comes to the versatility of your sheeting line.”

Koenig Bakery Systems, Ashland, VA, builds quick change and flexibility into its lines with a multi-head die cut stamping unit that can be quickly changed out to handle a variety of sizes and shapes. The lines also are built modularly. “The modular design allows additional machine units to be added in the future should new products be required,” said Richard Breeswine, president and CEO, Koenig Bakery Systems.

Rheon built modularity into its sheeting lines as well. With modular equipment, bakers can pick and choose what they need to create a process that will fit their various products. “The layout for the equipment will change according to the types of product,” said John Giacoio, national sales manager, Rheon USA, Irvine, CA. However, a modular line can create a long production footprint. In that case, Rheon offers standalone machines that focus on one type of product. These dedicated machines may not be as flexible, but they save on floor space if that is a concern.

Mr. Riggle also suggested that flexibility works best if the products running on the same line have a similar makeup process. “We try to identify from a flexibility standpoint when things are most similar so that we can educate our customers and say, ‘This is going to be a good fit,’ ” he said. For example, flatbreads made on a sheeting line could be processed together, whereas flatbreads made by a press method would do better on a separate line.  Once the types of flatbreads are identified, Mr. Riggle observed the line be designed to accommodate the most challenging.

Fritsch USA, Cranbury, NJ, gives bakers the option to either laminate the product or directly sheet the dough.

Proofers from the Kaak Group, represented in the US by Naegele Inc. Bakery Systems, Alsip, IL, have the ability to proof individual products or the complete dough sheet that will be cut into final product later.

These kinds of options open the door for different flatbreads that might have been inaccessible to bakers otherwise.

Overall, planning is key. Bakers need to consider up front any bottlenecks throughout production that will hinder flexibility and efficiency. These problems will often occur at the proofer or packaging line, not the sheeter, but it’s important to keep in mind, according to Mr. Moline. Flexibility means little without efficiency.

“As long as we know about all the lines up front, we can enable a baker to very quickly change over their system and complete all their necessary production across all their SKUs within reason on a single sheeting system,” he said.

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