High standards, human touch

Production of some types of baked goods can be so automated that, as long as someone is there to turn on the mixers, products will get out the door. Not so with artisan bread; it requires human interaction and strict quality control.

“You have to have an operator running that Rheon,” Mr. Davis said. “You have to make sure the dough pieces are not degassed too much and that the shape is proper.”

La Brea Bakery breads offer the end user a consistent experience every time without sacrificing that artisan touch.

“People on the line will manipulate the dough however it needs — sometimes rounding, sometimes pinching the ends. Consistency has to do with production parameters, but each piece doesn’t have to be exactly the same every time,” Mr. Davis noted.

Throughout the process, La Brea ensures a personal touch in almost every area. In some places, that element is irreplaceable. For instance, while the bakery may use a LeMatic butterfly-hinge slicer on many of its finished rolls, scoring is always done manually prior to baking on all lines, old and new.

“We do all hand scoring, still, in every one of our bakeries,” Mr. Davis declared. “That will never change as far as I’m concerned.”

The human factor is a huge part of not only La Brea Bakery’s overall success but also its day-to-day production.

“When it comes down to it, this is about our employees, the men and women who do this every day. This is a non-stop operation, and they’re the ones executing it,” Mr. Davis said.

Throughout the facility, a number of blue bins can be seen, many with loaves inside. They are receptacles for rejected products, pulled at the discretion of operators at any point in the process and donated locally for feed.

“Quality is everyone’s job here, and we empower everybody to look for it. If they feel something is not right with a food, they have full power to remove it,” Mr. Davis explained.

For example, the 10-or-more-hour process is designed to maintain a specific color, cut and crumb structure. Any loaf that can’t meet that standard — although it could be perfectly acceptable to bring home that day — is not fit for a store shelf or restaurant table. In short, “good enough” is never good enough.

All workers are trained to understand quality standards and specifications, which are posted throughout the plant and reviewed in daily shift meetings.

“We have staff dedicated to this — quality leads — and they’re trained by the quality team,” Mr. Davis said.

Quality at La Brea Bakery comes not only in the form of what goes out the door but also in how the plant operates from an efficiency standpoint. The bakery works under a corporate Aryzta Integrated Management System managed by dedicated continuous improvement staffers trained in Six Sigma. These people, as far as Brendan Maguire, bakery director, is concerned, are worth their weight in gold ... or black, or green, or yellow, depending upon their Six Sigma belt certification.

“They are fully ‘belted up’ and do a great job for me,” he said. “They probably bring me two-and-a-half times the value of their salary every year in savings.”

When La Brea Bakery built the Van Nuys facility nearly two decades ago, it was the company’s first foray into automation. While the original line can make virtually any product, La Brea Bakery learns with each stage of growth. And grow the bakery does. Each new line is designed to streamline the process and is made with specific product capabilities in mind as demand for high-quality, clean-label, non-G.M.O. artisan breads continues to accelerate.

“When we built this plant, all the infrastructure was there to put in another line,” Mr. Maguire said. “It’s just about deciding how the market is out there and what sort of line we want to install. The invisible elements are all there to make it happen. And we have to assume we’re going to keep growing.”