With 90 years in business under its belt, the Corropolese Bakery & Deli in Norristown, PA, sits on the cusp of automated adulthood in a wholesale bakery’s life. After decades of making Italian bread, rolls and tomato pies by hand, brothers Joe and Mike Corropolese have launched the family business into the modern age with automated ingredient handling, dough handling, sheeting and a new tunnel oven.

“We were a manual labor operation forever,” said Joe Corropolese, president, remembering his days in the bakery. “You have to buy equipment, modernize and go with the times if you want to grow. You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I stay small and keep it manual?’ But if you do, you don’t grow.”

Growth for Corropolese Bakery & Deli has been a constant, and the business is a fixture in the community it serves. This year Corropolese Bakery made the Philly Hot List as the Best Bakery of Philly and its tomato pie was voted the best by Philly Magazine readers. “Everyone knows us from our stores,” Joe said. “That’s where we sell a lot of our product, and if people hear a restaurant or pizzeria sells our product, they know about it. They recognize the rolls.” Every week, he said they have customers from out of town stopping by to pick up their signature products: sandwich rolls and tomato pies.

Today, the bakery has four retail locations. It also recently took on wholesale customers, a tribute to the bakery’s beginning. These new horizons for growth require a new approach and investment in the family business, decisions Joe and Mike are willing to make.

A family’s next chapter

In 1924, Guilio Corropolese opened a bakery inside his home on Airy Street in Norristown, PA, with just a brick oven and a mixer. This small operation turned out 2,000 loaves a week for wholesale customers and some neighbors who would come to the door to buy bread. During the Great Depression, Guilio fed the community, whether his customers could pay or not. Eventually, Guilio passed the bakery along to his son Joseph, who upon retiring at age 62, turned it over to his son, Guilio (Butch) Corropolese.

In 1983, Butch’s oldest son, Joe, graduated high school. While he had grown up working in the bakery, Joe recognized that the current operation was too small for both himself and his father. If he was going to stay in the family business, it needed to go through another growth spurt. To answer that call, the Corropolese family opened its first retail location in 1984. By 1987, the Corropolese Deli location was doing so well that the business had become completely retail, selling its Italian rolls and tomato pies out of its own storefront. In 2008, Joe moved exclusively to the retail side, and his younger brother Mike, now COO, remained in the bakery. Today, the bakery supplies four retail stores in the area: Norristown, Limerick, Douglassville and Lansdale.

After decades of hard work — including 21 years without a day off — Butch had enough faith in Joe to pass the torch to the next generation. In 2000, Butch retired at age 60, and Joe and Mike set their ambitions high for the family business. “We’ve all done a little better than our fathers,” Butch said. “My father did a little better than his father. I did a little better than my father, and these boys have blown it out of the park.”

“For years we would look at Baking & Snack, and we would see the articles with the guys standing at the end of the tunnel oven, and we would ask ourselves, ‘How do we get there?’ ” Mike said.

It turns out moving into the wholesale business — a move Joe always wanted to make to diversify business — would be the catalyst that brought Corropolese into the automated baking world.

“We added automation and equipment to make the job easier and more efficient,” Joe said. “It needed to be a time saver.” With four retail shops opened at this point, two owned by Joe and two franchises, the brothers reached a tipping point where they had enough success to invest back into the company.

In 2003, the bakery started up its current facility. The Corropolese Bakery moved often due to space constraints, and Joe had learned some lessons from the past. “We left ourselves room to grow,” he said about the current bakery. “We only wanted to move once and not have to keep moving every time we needed more room.” While the brothers have filled the 18,000 sq ft they currently lease, the building offers more open space next door to expand in the future, something they’ve already tapped into by adding 5,000 sq ft for the oven. “Three years ago, the oven room wasn’t there,” Joe said. “That was solely expanded into for the oven.”

With a new space at the beginning of a new century, and money to spend on their future, the Corropolese brothers moved ahead with their plan to take the $12 million business to the next level.

Rolling with new equipment

Balancing the needs of all four retail stores and wholesale orders requires diligent communication between Joe and Mike. Every day, each Corropolese Bakery & Deli retail location faxes its orders to the bakery in Norristown. Mike knows that every morning he needs to have the products to the stores no later than 6:30 a.m.

To keep things as fresh as possible, the bakery crew, 30 employees altogether, works at night, and the quantity of the orders determine when Mike and his team get started. The new equipment, however, means they have the capacity to meet the daily demand and then some.

Corropolese Bakery’s roll line is a combination of automation and hands-on care, a bakery in transition from its handmade past and its automated future.

Flour silos were the first investment the brothers made in 2007, purchased to save Mike’s and other employees’ backs from carrying 100-lb bags of flour every day. Flour and water are both automatically metered into a Topos Mondial removable-bowl 500-lb spiral mixer, but other ingredients are hand-added. This mixer cut the bakery’s mix time from 17 minutes to seven. “The efficient mixer equals smaller batch sizes so the dough doesn’t have the opportunity to get old,” Mike said. Multiple bowls mean that as one bowl exits the mixer to the dough handling system, another is ready to take its place in the mixer. This has eliminated downtime.

After the mixer, the bowl is lifted by a KB Systems hoist from Gemini Bakery Equipment to be chunked and divided before entering the intermediate proofer. The system can be changed over in two minutes. “Most bakeries have different boards in their machines for different products, and they have to change the board,” Mike explained. “But we only have one board with adjustable side guides, which only take 30 seconds to adjust.”

Installed in 2009, this dough handling system turns out 10,000 rolls per hour, with no added labor, compared with the 2,000 rolls per hour they were making ­previously. After the sheeter/moulder, operators measure the rolls to ensure they were moulded to the proper length. If not, the machine can quickly be adjusted. A PLC stores all formulations.

The rolls are then dropped onto cornmeal-coated boards and moved to racks. At that point, every roll is measured again and, if necessary, scored by hand. That handmade touch is something Corropolese is known for and something the brothers want to hold onto despite automation. “When you get big, you forget about that stuff,” Mike said. “We’re trying not to forget. We’re trying to keep the quality up.”

The rolls then move into the retarding proofer to ferment and gain flavor through the next day. First thing Mike does every night is move the product from this retarder to a proofer — one he designed himself from two Reed proof boxes. The proofer sits at 100°F and 100% humidity.

From the proofer, the rolls go into another retarding cooler that acts as a staging area for the oven. Here the dough is brought down to 55°F before entering the oven.

Bakers then load the bread and rolls into a J4 indirect-fired, cylcothermic oven from Topos Mondial, the first sold in North America. “That took a big leap of faith, but it was also a great opportunity for Corropolese,” Mike said. The oven was installed in the spring of 2013 and was a significant upgrade from the bakery’s three revolving tray ovens.

Three different ovens with three different skilled bakers running them caused variations in product and quality. Every load was different. “The quality was not there,” Mike said. “It was good enough to get us where we are, but the quality now is so much different.”

With the J4 oven, the bakery requires three to four operators, but only one of them needs to be a skilled baker, and the oven can bake in three hours with better quality and consistency what the three tray ovens baked in 12 hours. That vast an improvement could not be ignored.

Going from revolving tray ovens to a tunnel oven was not without its learning curve, but Topos Mondial was with Mike as he learned to make automated tunnel oven baking work for him. Despite Corropolese Bakery’s growth, the production line still does short runs with many changeovers instead of long runs of one product.

Typically during a changeover, the operator would change the bake profile to get consistent heat throughout the oven suited to the new product. However, this was not efficient for Corropolese Bakery due to the many different products being baked back to back. To address this, Mike, assisted by Topos Mondial, learned how to change the spacing and loading of the various products onto the baking hearth. The idea is to load the oven to get the same lb per sq ft of product on the baking belt, so that the operators can stay with one baking profile for many similar yet different types of products. Now, the operators keep the bake profile the same but simply change the loading pattern of the product on the belt to maximize use of heat.

The oven’s Duotherm zones also give Mike and his operators control over the product’s color without having to change the bake time. Heat from within the baking chamber blows around the product to accelerate its transfer.

This J4 oven also came equipped with STIR technology, which converts convective heat into infrared wavelengths that penetrate the product. Baking takes 15 to 30% less time than with normal convection heat, resulting in a greater volume-to-weight ratio. Mike saw such an improvement in their rolls’ volume that he actually had to change the type of flour he was using to a lower protein type, saving money in the process.

After exiting the oven, the rolls travel the perimeter of the oven room on a conveyor to cool down before being separated for orders, which are staged near the bays at the end of the oven room. Orders are then picked up either by Corropolese’s nine delivery trucks to be dropped off at the retail locations or by wholesale customers. 

Signature demands consistency

Corropolese Bakery produces more than 100 different products including hoagie rolls and pastries, but they are most known for their tomato pies, a regional dish that has won the bakery several local awards. Similar to a pizza, though the Corropolese family insists it isn’t a pizza, the pie’s thick yeast-raised crust is topped with tomato sauce and baked. The bakery also offers it with other toppings.

“If you’re coming to one of our stores, you’re probably coming for that,” Joe said. “Most people don’t leave without one.” This much demand for Corropolese’s signature product meant that as the business continued to grow, automation was going to be necessary to keep delivering the quality consumers expect from the bakery’s top product.

Before purchasing a Rondo sheeting line a year ago, eight employees manually stretched the tomato pie dough, again resulting in variations. The Rondo line now does the same process without changes in quality from pie to pie, with only two operators required. Currently, the line is running at 40% its capability. During peak demand periods, such as at Christmas, the line can speed up to 640 pies per hour with four operators.

Before going through the Rondo sheeter, the dough for the crusts rests in Topos Mondial troughs. Then the dough goes into the hopper, is dusted with flour and reduced from 25 mm to 2.4 mm. The dough sheet is then cut to the appropriate width and length. Scrap dough is saved and reused.

Operators at the end of the line put crusts into pans, shape the edges and rack them. Pies rest again before the sauce is added. Currently, an Edhard depositor applies the sauce, which is then spread manually by operators. This inefficient process will be remedied, however, with the latest equipment upgrade, a Quantum custom-made depositor, scheduled to be installed in December. After the sauce is deposited, the pies are loaded into the J4 oven to be baked.

“With how many tomato pies we sell, this line is very important,” Joe said.

As far as the future is concerned, the Rondo sheeting line offers Corropolese plenty of capacity for growth. Rondo has many attachments that can expand the equipment’s capabilities beyond sheeting tomato pie dough. With this line, Corropolese Bakery could automate production of its tea biscuits as well as expand into cinnamon buns, frozen pizza dough and baguettes.

Fruits of automation

Return on investment wasn’t a priority for Joe and Mike when they went shopping for new equipment. These investments they deemed a necessity for their plan for growth. “We had to modernize if we wanted to do wholesale,” Joe explained. “We wanted to go to the next level.” The investment has already paid off with the growth they have seen in the past few years since the installations.

With product quality on track, growth has been organic. If Joe and Mike want new business, they simply go find it themselves. Without a dedicated sales team, the brothers make connections with potential customers as they live their lives in the community. “If we eat at a restaurant, and we don’t like the bread, we’ll try to get their business,” Joe said. “We would like to be able to eat our own bread in any restaurant in town.”

For their stores, they’ve seen success with radio advertising, something they dabbled in years ago but have reinvested in recently. “We set up an entire program for the year and one just for football season,” Joe said. “It’s working. Business has been up since the radio advertising started, and people come in and say they heard of us on the radio.”

As the wholesale business has taken off, the bakery has picked up some private-label business as well. “We can’t put our own product in the supermarket, or else we’ll compete with our retail shops, but we can do rolls for private label in the supermarket,” Mike explained.

He recently developed a brioche bun for a private-label customer. The most difficult part wasn’t developing the product, he said — that only took a few weeks — but developing the packaging and ensuring all the nutritional facts, ingredient list and product statements were acceptable.

Until then, Corropolese had largely steered away from packaging, presenting its rolls in the stores in cardboard boxes instead. As business grows, though, Mike wants to be capable of handling any request. “I’m getting into everything. I’m trying not to leave any stone unturned,” he said.

Even though the brothers understand their niche — tomato pies, Italian rolls of all sizes and Kaiser rolls — that doesn’t mean Joe and Mike aren’t willing to try new things. Mike has tried trends such as whole wheat Kaiser rolls, brioche and pretzel rolls, but, as Joe explained, despite customers asking for these products, they only make up 1% of the bakery’s sales, while traditional Italian rolls and tomato pies drive the business.

Corropolese also picked up a pastry business that supplies its retail stores. Previously, the company purchased cakes from a supplier to sell in its stores, but now all 20 varieties are made every day in a small room off the main bakery along with cookies, pies, cream puffs, brownies and other pastries. Even though it is considered a small part of sales, the pastry business has grown from $50,000 to $300,000 in three years. The four employees who create the pastries also hope to use the new equipment to automate some of the pastry products. 

With this sky’s-the-limit attitude echoed from the top down, the Corropolese brothers have big plans for the future. They added capacity through automation and have another retail store in the cards. They are considering going into packaged rolls, which will mean more investment, this time in a packaging system. There is also talk of venturing into other states. These big dreams don’t intimidate this family. “We have the facilities, and we’re more than capable,” Joe said.

As for the fifth generation, Joe and Mike are letting their kids decide their futures. “I’m giving them a chance to make up their own minds,” said Joe, who has three children, one of whom uses her graphic design degree to help out the business and another who works in the stores. “We leave it open for our kids. The option is here, but we want our kids to get a college education at minimum.” Both Joe and Mike bypassed college to work full-time at the bakery.

Mike, who also has three children, echoed Joe’s sentiment. “You always want your kids to do better than you did,” he said. If they decide to stay in the family business, it seems their fathers are doing everything in their power to lay a strong foundation for that to happen.