Artisan bakers automate to meet demand

by Charlotte Atchley
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Artisan baked goods continue to make space for themselves in people’s pantries and on the menus of fast-casual and quick-service restaurants. Everywhere, artisan buns, baguettes and rolls are replacing bread as carriers for sandwiches. Consumers purchase them to bring upscale flavor to their kitchens, prompting bakers to find new ways to keep up with this growing demand.

“You’re seeing those products more widely accepted, so the volume and demand are there,” said Eric Riggle, vice-president, Rademaker, Hudson, OH. “We’re seeing clients who make traditional products want to make artisan products with the same quality but more consistently and faster, with less labor and waste.”

As artisan bakers scale up to keep up with rising volume, they often run into issues, depending upon their level of manual production. They must consider not only their plant’s floor space and work flow but also details larger commercial bakeries take for granted, such as managing changeovers and sanitation for an automated line. “It can be quite overwhelming,” said Jerry Murphy, president, Rondo, Inc., Moonachie, NJ. “It takes longer to scale up than smaller bakers really think about.”

In addition to the difficulties of going from a manual or semi-automated production to automated operation, artisan bakers have their doughs to worry about. Artisan doughs are typically high hydration and sticky, which poses unique challenges to equipment that could degas and damage the cell structure that is characteristic of artisan products. Artisan breads build that cell structure and flavors through a long fermentation time. All that time will be wasted if the dough goes through the rough and tumble of conventional bread dividing, rounding and moulding equipment. “You don’t want to ruin the cell structure, so you need the equipment to be gentle,” said John Giacoio, national sales director, Rheon USA, Irvine, CA.

Then there’s the charm of the snowflake — every artisan baked good is different. Uniformity is seemingly the enemy of all things artisan. Today’s automated equipment not only handles the doughs gently enough to retain their delicate cell structures but also replicates product variations created by human hands.

Testing the equipment

“Skeptical” describes how artisan bakers feel when they first think about automating their baking process. With growing demand for their products, automation becomes their only option if they want their businesses to keep expanding. The fear of degassing the dough, however, is very real.

With such carefully prepared doughs, “[Bakers] do not want to put it into the equipment,” Mr. Giacoio said.

Testing centers such as the two labs Rheon operates in New Jersey and California give bakers the opportunity to run their doughs on the machines without risk. In this safe space, they can experience how their dough will respond to automation. “They say a picture is worth a thousand words,” he said. “Running a dough on our equipment is worth 10,000 words.” 

Any baker can benefit from testing, but artisan bakers especially need trial and error to discover how to get the volume and quality they need before making the investment in equipment.

“Things you can do by hand are difficult to replicate on a machine; therefore, the most important thing that any artisan baker can do is test prior to making a capital purchase,” said David Moline, sales and marketing manager, Moline Machinery, Duluth, MN. “Spending that time up front is the most valuable thing you can do. It will ensure that the transition to commercial is as smooth as possible.”

Most equipment suppliers now offer testing services to bakers interested in purchasing equipment. Moline Machinery has a full technical center showcasing the ­company’s sheeting capabilities. “We can replicate any process that would be a permanent process change for them prior to installation,” Mr. Moline said.

Rademaker invites its customers and prospects to its technology center in The Netherlands to test Rademaker’s current processes or new technologies the company is developing.

Mecatherm, Barembech, France, also showcases all of its equipment in a demonstration lab. A team of bakers and engineers can help bakers adapt their formulas to run on industrial lines.

Having the equipment company’s technical bakery experts and engineers on-site gives bakers access to people who understand dough and can guide them in their tests. “One of the major things we have to offer is the number of bakers we have on staff worldwide who can help our customers scale up and automate equipment,” said Bob Marraccini, vice-president, Rondo.

Fritsch’s technical center in Germany employs 25 dough technologists who help bakers find the appropriate equipment for their formula. “Artisan bakers are invited to visit and perform product tests in a commercial environment with assistance from our team of master baker technicians,” said Matt Zielsdorf, Fritsch USA, Cranbury, NJ.

With something as tricky as automating artisan, testing becomes critical before investing a large amount of capital into such a radical change to their operation. Testing centers offer bakers assurance the new automated process will deliver the same product quality as before, if not  better.

Understanding the process

The secret to automating traditionally handmade breads and rolls involves figuring out how to replicate the nuances of a hand process with machines. This requires breaking down intuitive processes and plenty of testing.

“Every artisan bakery is unique, with its own signature style and product,” said Rich Breeswine, general manager, Koenig Bakery Systems, Ashland, VA. “Artisan bakers choosing to automate sometimes fall into the trap of believing they have to sacrifice quality for increased output. That doesn’t have to be the case. At each step of the process, from mixing to dividing, from forming to baking, if you find the equipment that is right for your operation and your goals, you can seamlessly automate without affecting your final product.”

Examining each step of the process seems straightforward but can be difficult. “Bakers need to understand their process at a level of detail they may need to rethink,” Mr. Murphy said. “That’s the hardest part: defining  the process  and then scaling up to a larger size. If you don’t understand the process, you’re going to scale up incorrectly.”

Bakers need to understand their operation down to how each shift operates and document their process controls. They need to know how operators manage mix times and temperatures. They must also consider the amount of time the product is in the retarder box and proofer. “They think they are doing a very good job of that, but then when they automate it, they learn that they don’t really have a good discipline around that process,” Mr. Murphy said.

Rondo helps bakers by creating a flowchart and documenting their parameters. “It’s another set of eyes looking at their processes and finding the weakness,” Mr. Marraccini said.

Customization is also important because no artisan process is the same. “It’s important to not try to copy someone else’s process or equipment decisions,” Mr. Riggle said. “What makes artisan ‘artisan’ is that each product and process is unique and, therefore, should be treated as such. There are many different variables that need to be understood and controlled in an artisan process. To simply buy someone’s machine because you know someone else uses it is a recipe for not achieving the maximum for your artisan product.”

Replicating the process

Once the baker’s process is established, the challenge of replicating the hands-on operations with a machine begins. Skilled bakers gently handle the dough, manually dividing, moulding and rounding it with minimal degassing. Without a makeup process that can imitate the baker’s hands, the dough’s delicate cell structure will be altered.

The dough feeder is critical. “It cannot impart any stress onto the dough,” Mr. Moline said. It has to be as gentle as possible when turning the bulk dough into a continuous sheet. Moline offers a wide variety of multi-roll sheeters that can manage high-hydration doughs without damaging their structure. Its automated dough-sheet tension system ensures the machine doesn’t unnecessarily pull on the dough sheet as it’s formed.

Rademaker’s DSS also can produce a dough sheet without imparting any tension on the dough. “We control the flow of dough into and out of each gauging station in a manner that does not pull or push the dough but rather sheets consistently and gently, resulting in a consistent and efficient process and a higher quality product,” Mr. Riggle said. Bakers not only see an increase in volume but also can reduce the amount of dusting flour.

Once the dough sheet is formed and reduced, it must be divided, which can be a tricky place, full of potential for damaging that cell structure. “Rather than using mechanical forces to divide and process, Koenig uses gravity to eliminate stress,” Mr. Breeswine said. Koenig’s Ceres Bread Line features gravitational dividing with a rotating hopper and cutting disk. Existing force of gravity reduces mechanical tension.

Rheon’s V4 stress-free dividers also employ gravity. Dough runs through a V-shaped chute with four to six rollers on either side to guide the dough through. It can divide without delivering any mechanical force into the dough.

During the past few years, Rondo introduced a new way of cutting baguettes from a dough sheet — the stamped baguette. Instead of rolling a dough log into baguette form, the Rondo system gently cuts a baguette shape out of the dough sheet.

Forming also dramatically alters cell structure. “When you’re hand-forming product, you’re going to do a certain amount of degassing.” Mr. Giacoio said. The problem is that high-absorption dough can stick to the equipment. Rheon designed its forming units to routinely handle doughs with 80 to 90% absorptions. The company’s boule rounder, or punch rounder, features side rounders made of UHMW plastic that retains oil left on the dough from its resting time. The rounder features a live conveyor on the bottom with paddles on the side that simulate human hands creating a boule. “You can adjust to how much it’s rounding so you don’t have a completely round boule,” he said. “You can make it artisan-looking.”

Rounding also is a moment in production where variations occur during manual makeup. Rademaker’s boule rounder mimics hand rounding with an oscillating movement, which rounds the dough piece with very little force or damage and creates the minor shape variations consumers expect from their artisan breads.

Once the dough is ready to bake, tunnel ovens with stone hearth baking surfaces replicate the baking profile of smaller ovens while delivering the efficiency and capacity of a tunnel oven. “Many bakers start out producing bread and rolls on both rack ovens and multi-deck ovens,” said Mark Rosenberg, CEO, Gemini Bakery Equipment, Philadelphia. “Although these oven styles offer a lot of flexibility, they normally are more demanding for bakery personnel to operate and produce the uniformity of product often required by the foodservice clientele.”

To provide some uniformity and relieve pressure on bakery workers, Gemini offers a stone hearth tunnel ovens that  can provide the thicker artisan-style crust and golden brown bottom artisan bakers strive to obtain. “It will also produce the more uniform color and shape preferred by the foodservice industry,” Mr. Rosenberg said.

Avoiding others’ mistakes

As artisan bakers automate, it’s important they avoid the missteps others often make. Mr. Zielsdorf repeatedly sees bakers underspec’ing their equipment in hopes of reducing its cost. “They remove key elements of the line to save on space or change their recipes to suit equipment,” he said. “At Fritsch, we build the equipment for the products as required to meet the customer’s specifications.”

Bakers cannot cut corners when scaling up. It’s important they enhance the rest of the bakery to match. “Each piece of equipment needs to be designed and sized to work with the other pieces of equipment in the process,” Mr. Riggle said. “Many times, you will see a beautiful production line in a facility with an undersized mixing system and oven; the line then becomes inefficient and drags down the entire system. Or they don’t invest in enough cooling capacity for the production volume and end up with hundreds of racks all over the bakery.”

Mr. Breeswine urged bakers not to focus all of their attention on downstream equipment but to keep a close eye on the mixer. “Every artisan baker knows  that every bake begins with the mix,” he said. “A common mistake we see is that all of the focus goes into downstream make-up equipment, and the mixer becomes an afterthought.” Bakers need a mixer that will match the capacity of the downstream line and deliver a quality and consistent mix.

It’s also easy for bakers to get wrapped up in boosting production line capacity and assuming they need a large hopper at the front of the makeup line to keep up. “They think, ‘We have to put a lot of dough through this line, so we need big hoppers,’ when actually they’re diminishing the quality of their product,” Mr. Giacoio said. Putting too much dough in the hopper at once degasses it, exactly what artisan bakers want to avoid. Rheon anticipates and prevents this by building its lines with smaller hoppers.

Bakers often fail to anticipate future needs when designing an automated line. “Planning ahead for modularity and building it to be flexible in the future are something you can do to minimize the impact of making something different as the markets change,” Mr. Moline said.

A few years ago, Rondo developed its Midos dough-band forming unit and put the concept of flexibility at the forefront of the design. Prior to the Midos, bakers would use either a three-roll extruder to form dough bands for laminated products or the company’s stress-free Oscar unit to create dough bands for high-hydration products. The Midos can develop a dough band for either end of that spectrum. The Midos offers multiple rollers that create the dough band and offers independent speed capabilities and different gap adjustments to accommodate a wide range of product needs.

At the oven, too, Jerry Barnes, Middleby Bakery Group, Elgin, IL, said artisan bakers should avoid choosing a one-dimensional system, chosing instead one that can provide flexibility through varying degrees of heat transfer methods. “Bakers should consider the range of product types to be run when selecting a particular oven to improve ROI,” he said. “Given the long expected lifetime of an oven versus shorter-term trends in products, having a highly flexible oven can future-proof an investment.”

Scaling up to automation can be overwhelming. But artisan bakers have to adopt some level of automation to keep up with demand and to keep businesses growing. Through testing and partnership with suppliers, they can go forth into the automated world with confidence.

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