Highland Baking: What Customers Want

by Laurie Gorton
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Providing quality bread at wholesale prices" — that’s the niche Jim Rosen and his family carved out for Highland Baking Co., a producer of high-quality, artisan-style breads and rolls supplied to restaurants and other bakers throughout the Chicago, IL, region. Its frozen division supplies frozen hamburger buns, specialty pan breads and a variety of other breads to food service clients nationwide.

But wholesale needs strained capacity and space in the company’s 80,000-sq-ft bakery at Lincolnwood, IL.

Operations maxed out. But that all changed when the company found an empty 250,000-sq-ft former food processing plant in nearby Northbrook, IL. Now up and running and consuming 600,000 lb of flour per week, the new site gives the company ample room to grow.

Although Highland Baking started up in 1985, the company benefits greatly from the owners’ long family history in the baking industry. It was almost 100 years ago when Samuel Rosen, Jim’s grandfather, arrived in the US. The Poland-born master baker settled in Chicago and, in 1909, founded S. Rosen Baking Co., specializing in Jewish hearth rye bread and variety rolls. It became a major supplier of buns to the city’s many small eateries and fast food businesses. Samuel Rosen passed the company along to his son Don, and his grandson Jim learned his baking skills in the family business. In 1981, the company merged with another Chicago-based bakery, Alpha Baking Co., which continues to make S. Rosen’s brand breads and buns.

After helping with the transition to Alpha, Jim Rosen was ready for different opportunities. He and his wife, Gail, pursued a venture in Florida within the baking industry, but a few years later, they returned to baking by taking over a small bakery housed in a 1,500-sq-ft shop at Highland Park, IL. "That’s where the name of our company comes from," explained Jim Rosen, president and c.e.o.

With a modest business and two employees to bake its specialty products, the couple soon they found themselves challenged by an order from Alpha Baking. The wholesale bakery sought a supplier for bagels and challah that it could distribute to its own customers. The company found itself baking mostly small-run products for the larger bakery, and it soon ran out of space.

Shortly after moving into a 6,000-sq-ft location at Lincolnwood, IL, the company added another big customer: a bagel-chip producer with a standing order for 3,000 to 4,000 doz bagels a day. "That got us over the hump," Jim Rosen said. "We grew our fresh business from there."

The quality of its fresh products prompted interest from clients in the food service field, particularly the national chains, and that led Highland Baking to add a frozen division. "Frozen accounts for 60 to 75% of our business today," Jim Rosen said. "The frozen items are fully baked, then frozen and shipped out." And nearly all of the bakery’s fresh line is distributed to restaurant customers. "We have virtually no grocery business," he added.

Highland Baking does a good job of balancing the artisan and specialty bread and bun products of its fresh business with the commercial-scale output of its frozen division. "We achieved this by almost having two different bakeries under one roof: one focuses on the high-volume items and the other on the small-run things," Jim Rosen explained. "We realize each requires its own focus and skills. The challenges are making sure we have the right people in the right places, as well as always understanding the customers’ needs and making sure we communicate correctly to set appropriate expectations."

While the fresh business covers metropolitan Chicago, the frozen side’s customers include national restaurant chains, hotels, caterers, packaged food manufacturers. But it no longer bakes bagels.

Not only did the Highland Baking business grow, so did the Rosen family’s involvement. "Our son Stu always knew he wanted to be in the bakery business," Gail Rosen said. After earning an advanced degree in business management, Stu Rosen became the company’s general manager and vice-president. "Our daughter Cheryl also works here full time in human resources." The couple has a 13-year-old son, Daniel, who is still in school.

In the sprawling Chicago market, many bakeries compete to serve the region’s numerous food service locations. Others specialize in artisan-style products. So what makes Highland Baking stand out? Stu Rosen credited the company’s success to three key elements: flexibility in operations, attention to customer needs and commitment by everyone involved.

"Flexibility of operations is critical," he said. "We have a plant that can make products for individual restaurants and scale up for larger chains." The company selected highly adaptable machinery and systems so it can readily match bakery capabilities to customer size.

"In our philosophy, what matters is what the customer wants," Stu Rosen continued. "We don’t know of any better way to manage our business than that." And the bakery is managed by a fairly small group of people. "We turn decisions quickly," he said. "At the end of the day, we’re all committed to the business here.

"Finally, I really do believe that this place operates on the heartbeat of my dad," Stu Rosen stated. "He has earned the trust of his people and built it over the years. That commitment enables us to grow."

"My door and Stu’s are always open," Jim Rosen said. "The other thing that makes us unique is our people. Nobody, including myself, is bigger than the operation. It takes all of us, all 340 people here, to make it work."

Going frozen with volume production methods posed an enormous challenge to Highland Baking, but the bakery and its staff accomplished the changes by taking the same care with frozen processing and products that it does with its fresh items. The equipment was larger in capacity, but the commitment to quality remained the same.

"We didn’t know how fast the frozen business would grow!" Jim Rosen said. "It seems like people were just waiting for us to get into this line."

"Frozen wholesale was an enormous change for most of our people," he continued, noting that his experience at S. Rosen and Alpha prepared him for this larger scale of production. To that point, Highland Baking relied on manual makeup and rack ovens exclusively.

"There was no way to grow without going into automated tunnel oven methods," Jim Rosen said. "The biggest thing was that we had to be sure the product coming out of the tunnel oven was the same as it would have been coming out of the rack ovens."

Compared with adding that first tunnel oven, the second one was almost easy "because we knew the technology," according to Jim Rosen. "Basically, we bought the same Gemini Werner & Pfleiderer oven in a slightly updated model."

Still located at Lincolnwood, the bakery had grown in size, taking up the entire building. In 2003, the building in back of the bakery became available, and the company added it, erecting a freezer to connect the two.

"By the start of 2005, we were almost out of production capacity at Lincolnwood," Jim Rosen said. "We had to decide what to do to continue our growth." Putting in another oven there would have undesirably limited the fresh side of the business. Adding another site was one option, but he wanted to have everything under one roof.

After more than a year of searching, the managers found the Northbrook site. Highland Baking made a leapfrog jump from its 80,000-sq-ft bakery into a 250,000-sq-ft building on a 17-acre site. "It was quite an undertaking," Jim Rosen observed.

On July 1, 2006, Highland Baking took possession, and on July 5, demolition started. Using a general contractor plus tapping some of its own people, Highland Baking moved quickly to upgrade the Northbrook building. Built as a dairy, it had also housed a dry soup operation, but food plant standards had moved on. To adapt the facility for use as a bakery, the company replaced its entire heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system, removing an old water-cooled setup. The transition team then tackled the makeup air, roofing and plumbing systems.

Environmental considerations are also more important today than when the building was first erected. Besides the dramatically more efficient HVAC system, Highland Baking chose "green" air handling methods, an environmentally safe refrigeration system and more energy-efficient plant lighting.

The company added a security system based on employee badges that assign different levels of access to individuals. Closed-circuit cameras installed externally and internally monitor entrances, egress points and certain internal locations. The company keeps its gates locked and verifies the security status of incoming supplies.

The new facility was laid out for future needs "We wanted more open space to separate the fresh and frozen operations as well as the packaging area. We also needed a larger freezer," explained Boris Golenson, chief engineer.

During the planning period, Highland Baking supervisors walked through the new site and contributed ideas for its layout. The company also tapped consulting services from AIB International for advice about the new facility.

"Our staff assisted with installation," Mr. Golenson said. "When testing the new equipment, we brought people over from the old bakery to train them on the new systems."

Getting staff to a comfort level with the new facility was important, according to Gail Rosen, who observed, "We could not just throw them in but instead wanted to ease them along with us."

Managers discussed the move with its staff at length and in detail. The company hosted employees and their families at the new facility for a visit before the renovation and again right before startup. "They were informed of the actual move almost a year prior to the jobs moving, in case they wanted to consider relocating closer to the new plant," Jim Rosen said. "We repeatedly told everyone our goal was for all employees to come with us."

Such care paid off. Highland Baking retained 90% of the Lincolnwood staff. Among the staff making the transfer was one of the company’s first five employees, Martin Abundes, who is now the fresh department’s head supervisor.

"We lost no key people — no supervisors or assistant supervisors," said Mike Galenson, director of operations. (Mike Galenson and Boris Golenson are brothers, although they spell their last names differently.)

Of the 250,000 sq ft available, Highland Baking uses 100,000 sq ft for processing, 50,000 sq ft for packaging, 30,000 sq ft for warehousing, 14,400 sq ft for freezing and 5,000 sq ft for offices. The rest, which includes a second story over part of the building, is held in reserve for future needs.

During the transition, Frank Nevarez, plant manager, managed the Lincolnwood property, while Stu Rosen and Mr. Galenson focused more on the Northbrook operations. Highland Baking ran both locations during the transition, and customers experienced no service interruptions. Today, the bakery runs three shifts a day, with Saturday the down day for maintenance. Sanitation takes place around the clock, directed by sanitarian Vince Miller.

The first line installed was the new tunnel oven, which was put right to work baking hamburger buns for the frozen division. Rack ovens followed, along with all the processing equipment associated with the fresh operation. The existing tunnel oven was then transferred to the bakery. Highland Baking was able to bring most of its existing equipment to the new site, but it also bought the second tunnel oven, a few more rack ovens, a third stone-hearth deck oven, a 2-pocket multipurpose divider and a 6-pocket roll line. It put in a 2,200-pallet freezer.

"This plant operates as two bakeries in one," Mr. Galenson said. Stu Rosen explained, "Each department, fresh and frozen, has its own supervisors, scheduling and equipment, and they follow the same policies on safety and employee practices." The two departments share support systems such as ingredient handling and engineering.

The layout created an interior corridor separating the offices from the production shops, which are laid out for straight line flow taking raw materials through processing and into packaging, with finished products loaded in trays and moved out into the distribution area at the opposite end of the building. "There is no crossing of raw materials and finished products," Mr. Galenson said.

Ingredient handling encompasses a 300,000-lb capacity flour silo, with Shick bulk handling technology. Flour is automatically sifted and sent to holding bins above the mixers, but the rest of the ingredients are manually scaled.

Highland Baking is well known for its handmade fresh products, according to Gail Rosen. The company invested in machines to do the hard work of mixing and dividing, but manual methods are the rule for makeup of many of these artisan products. For example, one of the company’s newest products, 1-in. hamburger buns, have become a hot culinary star, featured in hors d’oeuvres at some of the city’s fanciest restaurants. Their dough pieces are cut on an Erica Record divider.

Fresh production uses six processing lines with equipment supplied by Adamatic, Gemini/W&P, Glimek, Kemper and Rheon. "We added a 2-pocket divider, more proof boxes, a production freezer and a product retarder for preparation of our artisan items," Gail Rosen said.

Although the layout provides plenty of elbow room around the machines, there is space to expand fresh operations into the area now stores ingredients. "In the old plant, the layout was much tighter," Mr. Nevarez said.

Seven mixers, including several Kemper spiral units, take their flour supplies from the Shick system. With other ingredients added by hand, doughs ranging from 50 to 400 lb are mixed in mobile bowls. "In an hour, we can make four different doughs," Mr. Galenson observed.

"Fresh has more variety, smaller runs and different toppings," Jim Rosen said, comparing it with the company’s frozen products, which he described as "more of a bulk production situation."

Fresh products are made using rack proofers and rack and stone-hearth deck ovens. Proofers feature push-through design for first-in, first-out sequencing. "Hard" products such as crusty rolls bake in three W&P Matador deck ovens, while other items go to the bank of rack ovens from Revent, Adamatic and Sveba Dahlen. "We had run out of room for more rack ovens," Gail Rosen said. "We prefer rack ovens because of the fresh side’s batch sizes."

Fresh products also cool on their racks and are pushed to the packaging operation where LeMatic baggers assemble the baked items in individual packs, in dozens, in full packs and in other configurations. After a Kwik Lok closure seals the bags, the packages pass through a Loma metal detector. Some fresh products are put into brown bags or boxes.

The frozen/wholesale side’s equipment is large in capacity, but operators put the same care into these products as they do fresh side items.

"Although this side is more automated, there’s always someone watching the product," Mr. Galenson said.

A scaling station next to the mixers allows operators to portion hand-add ingredients, while the Shick system supplies bulk flour to the three Shaffer 1,000-lb-capacity horizontal mixers. A Gemini bread divider and an Adamatic bun divider portion doughs into units of proper weight. A new Adamatic bun system was installed during the transition to Northbrook, along with automatic loading systems for both ovens. A Perfect Score slitting system is available for automating this process, and a Burford seeder dispenses toppings, according to customer preference.

From the Gemini/W&P ovens, products are depanned onto conveyors that take them though the G&F Systems ambient-temperature spiral cooling system. Each oven line has its own spiral cooler. A LeMatic pan cleaner removes any debris.

The cooled products proceed through LeMatic bulk packaging lines and metal detectors. The bulk pack stations on the frozen side allow a final inspection by the packaging line operator. Placed in cases and put on pallets, the packaged buns and bread are shrink-wrapped.

Highland Baking’s business revolves around its customers, and the company is continually adding new products, according to customer demand. The company considers product assortment to be an integral part of customer service. "We can get into production with a new item very fast," Mr. Galenson said.

Such speed is only possible because of the bakery’s flexibility in operations and the skill of its personnel, said Mr. Nevarez.

"Service is key to our success on both fresh and frozen," Jim Rosen said. "We can turn around samples in a day or two. That’s helped us gain a foothold in fresh and, especially, in frozen."

This concern with service extends to the fresh side, too. "We are the only bakery in this market with a live operator taking orders as late as 11 p.m.," Jim Rosen said. "Customers can call in that late and still get their orders by noon the next day."

Such speed served Highland Baking well in its decision to move into larger quarters. "The new location gives us the ability to expand our business tremendously into the future," Jim Rosen explained. "Our complete focus can now be on this facility."

And on its customers. "We are a customer-driven company," Gail Rosen explained. "That’s our niche, too."



This article can also be found in the digital edition of Baking & Snack, March 1, 2008, starting on Page 43. Click
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