Before opportunity knocks, the door is already open at Gold Standard Baking. That’s the strategy that the Chicago, IL-based manufacturer of croissants, Danish, butterflake rolls and other laminated baked goods adopted two years ago.

In many ways, it’s all about carpe diem, or seizing every opportunity that pops up on any given day, according to Yianny Caparos, the bakery’s president who left the company after it was purchased in 2008 and returned in May 2010. It doesn’t matter if the new business comes from existing customers, contract manufacturing or even the food service, in-store bakery, convenience store, mass merchandiser and other channels that Gold Standard now serves. “Since my return to the company, our flexibility and response time to customers and pursue new opportunities have accelerated,” he said. “All channels are treated equally. To us, they’re all new business. We’re not just focused on one channel.”

On the production side, Yianny noted, quick and nimble remain the operative words, while an acute attention to detail guides its operating philosophy. “The culture in the plant is about having a sense of urgency about everything,” he noted. “What some people may consider a minor point is a major point to us. Everything has a sense of urgency, which makes us respond quicker.”

Gold Standard bases quality on consistency and its ability to repeatedly replicate what a customer wants. “We have customers who require a low amount of margarine, a specific type of butter or different ingredients in their croissants. We can create a product to a customer’s specifications, and that’s what quality is,” he explained. “We can provide a consistent bake color. We can achieve detailed specifications and make consistent products over and over again at high volume, and we still offer the hand touch when it comes to creating the croissant.”

The company’s focus on customer service and product quality continues to drive growth, Yianny added. Gold Standard’s operation was busting at the seams until it completed a $13 million investment to add a third croissant line that boosted capacity 50% earlier this year.

Today, the 160,000-sq-ft bakery — which also houses a Danish production line — makes about 130 SKUs and cranks out more than 100,000 croissants an hour, or more than 10 million each week. Even more impressive, most of them are hand-bent before baking. And there’s room to grow with the new line now at 60% capacity.

“How far can we go?” asked George Caparos, the company’s vice-president of sales and Yianny’s brother. “We believe we can double the business as far as what we are doing today.”

Masters of its niche

Gold Standard has come a long way since its humble beginnings. Founded in 1987, the neighborhood bakery of breads, cakes and sweet goods was purchased by East Balt, a major Chicago-based bun producer, in the 1990s. Constantin Caparos, along with his sons Yianny and George, headed the operations to build sales. In 2002, East Balt ventured in a different direction, and the Caparos family bought the bakery back and decided to focus on croissants, a hot and trendy item at that time. Shortly afterward, it purchased what would be the first of three Rademaker croissant makeup lines.

“Ten years ago, there were times when we were running two days a week,” George recalled. “It wasn’t 24 hours a day.”

In 2008, Arbor Private Invest­ment Co., headquartered in Chicago, acquired Gold Standard, although the Caparos family kept a minority interest. Yianny, who left the bakery at that time to pursue personal interests, knew the market was strong. (See “For Arbor, Gold Standard means green” on Page 26.) In fact, the company added its second production line later that year and eventually began producing up to 4 million croissants per week, according to a Baking & Snack report in 2009. “We knew we would grow, but we didn’t know the full potential for the long run,” he said.

Despite all of the chatter about health and wellness, croissants have become ingrained into the American diet. “Everybody acts like they won’t eat them, but they do,” Yianny said. “The croissant is no longer just a breakfast item. It’s a 24-hour item that participates in all day parts of the eating occasion. They’re used to make breakfast sandwiches or with a cup a coffee or at lunch with chicken salad or even at dinner instead of a dinner roll.”

 Additionally, Gold Standard expanded its business by converting customers from frozen dough to a thaw-and-serve products and shipping its croissants in multiple packaging formats, including bulk pillow packs for food service, and clamshells and party platters for in-store bakeries. “We haven’t expanded or diversified our customer base. We’ve just grown our business,” George said. “Our goal is just to make everybody’s life easier.”

 Moreover, the decision to focus on thaw-and-serve laminated dough products enables Gold Standard to partner with bakeries to diversify their product lines. “We’re in a category that allows us to make friendships with the major leaders in the industry who have been great mentors to us,” Yianny observed. “Our decision to become a niche player has been a key factor in our success.”

Simplify a complex process

Becoming a high-volume producer of croissants and other laminated dough products requires a commitment in more ways than one. In fact, Yianny noted, automating the process involves millions of dollars. That price of entry tends to keep competition to a minimum. “The beauty of it is, not a lot of people want to do it and do it right,” he said. “You need to make that big investment to create a consistent, quality product where you can sell it to major customers at a price point that they’re comfortable with at a volume that meets their demands.”

Initially, Gold Standard produced croissants the conventional way with overnight retarding of the laminated dough. Then, working with Rademaker, the Caparos family figured out a way to reformulate the dough and reduce production time to 3.5 hours. “We simplified it for our operation, but it’s still a complex process,” Yianny said. “We were able to remove time from the traditional process but maintain the attributes that a croissant needs — light and flaky, honeycombed products.”

The complexity of the process involves the attention to detail, especially on the front end. “Weighing minors, ensuring accurate ingredient handling, controlling mixing time and temperatures, and following process controls for quality assurance are critical to producing a consistent product,” Yianny said.

To document these process controls and ensure product consistency, Gold Standard in 2009 became one of the first bakeries in the industry to become certified through the Safe Quality Food (SQF) Institute as a part of the Global Food Safety Initiative. Today, the bakery is SQF Level 2 and has received an AIB International Superior rating. Multilingual Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP), Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and allergen signs are posted throughout the facility to reinforce its operating policies.

Tenure and training also provide the keys to consistency. More than half of its middle managers have grown up with the company, according to Yianny. However, the startup of the third production line added 120 employees to the workforce, which now stands at 370.

With many new faces, the company budgeted 40 hours per person in safety training for next year. “We like to use the analogy of the soccer team mentality,” said Yianny, who coaches youth teams. “The goalkeeper is just as important as the guy on the bench. It’s not just the starting 11 who are important. It’s the other guys on the bench who are critical to winning the big games. A sanitor is just as important as a plant manager. A person in accounts receivable is just as important as the mixer operator. Our philosophy is, ‘We’re only as good as our weakest link.’ ”

10- to 12-day runs

Gold Standard began the planning process for installing the new production line about 18 months ago, according to James Carr, chief engineer. The company didn’t need any physical expansion, but it did need to add drains and other infrastructure before installing the equipment.

Working with Dunbar Systems, which served as project integrator for the installation of its previous croissant lines, the bakery teamed up with it existing equipment suppliers because they understood the bakery’s expectations for the project. “We had really good partners with our existing equipment manufacturers, so we continued to partner with them,” Yianny noted.

All vendors received written specifications from Gold Standard. Those requirements outlined what materials were acceptable for building the equipment as well as expectations for future sanitation and maintenance, according to Mr. Carr.

Today, production runs in 10- to 12-day stretches, followed by a day off for preventive maintenance and sanitation. Production is scheduled 10 days in advance.

As a part of its SQF program, workers’ uniform colors are coordinated by job function. Management wears blue uniforms and hats, white for production, yellow for shipping and red for maintenance.

Three ShickUSA 50,000-lb flour silos are indoors to protect them from Chicago’s harsh weather, provide stable flour temperature and ensure front-end control to the process. In addition to lot tracking and traceability, allergens are placed in color-coordinated bins. Butter, margarine and other ingredients — as well as hourly quality control samples from each shift — are held in a 150-pallet storage freezer.

Temperature control is critical to producing consistent products. All mixing and makeup take place in 55°F rooms. The plant also has separate rooms for the proofer and ovens and for cooling and packaging.

On the new line, doughs mix for about 10 to 12 minutes in a Shaffer glycol-jacketed, 1,400-lb horizontal mixer with touch-screen PLC controls. The bakery prefers to produce 1,000-lb batches to better control dough temperature and consistency as they travel down the makeup line. Ideally, the company likes its doughs to be no more than 60°F when leaving the mixer. “We rely on smaller batches because we don’t want the dough to get old,” Yianny noted. “We place tremendous attention on the front end because, if we are effective and efficient at this section, the rest will follow suit.”

After the tilt-bowl mixer kicks out the dough, the trough is elevated to the hopper of the low-stress sheeter on the Rademaker 800-mm-wide makeup line. The initial sheet then travels through a multiple-roller sheeting head before a wide ribbon of butter or shortening is pumped down the middle of the sheet, and two folders on either end cover the dough over it. PLCs monitor the softening of the cubed fat and the dispensing of the continuous stream of margarine to ensure the temperature and accuracy of the application.

The folded sheet passes through a second reduction station, then to a four-by-four lapping-and-layering system, which acts much like a reciprocating conveyor to create the layered sheet. Next, the layered sheet travels down an inclined conveyor to another four-by-four lapping system before it heads up through yet another reduction station and into an overhead retarder for a 30-minute rest.

In a critical part of the operation, the dough sheet traverses through a series of five gauging stations — each with its own flour duster to prevent sticking. After a brush removes excess flour, a circular cutter divides the sheet into five strips and slices off the trim, which is reworked into future batches. The finger strips of dough ride along a diverging conveyor to a rotary cutter that forms triangular dough pieces. A rotating unit positions the triangles with the baseline facing forward before the pieces receive a mist of water to seal them after they pass through the curler. The curled pieces drop onto hamburger bun pans and then are hand bent by a battery of employees.

“We like the flexibility on the line and the homemade look that’s created by hand-bending each croissant,” Yianny said.

Space-saving design

Filled pans are conveyed into a separate room and then lined up eight across onto a stabilized overhead tray-style proofer from The Henry Group. That proofer, located above the direct-fired tunnel oven also supplied by The Henry Group, allowed Gold Standard to fit four production lines and dedicated packaging lines into its facility. “We designed our lines to save as much space as possible by going vertical with the proofer,” Yianny noted.

After proofing for 70 to 80 minutes at 85°F, the pans drop down and enter a mesh-belt oven to bake at about 350°F for up to 18 minutes, depending on the size of the product. Following baking, the Capway depanner shoots a blast of air to release the croissants that are vacuum-lifted to a BMI conveyor leading to a G&F Systems enclosed temperature-controlled spiral cooler in the separate packaging room. The croissants cool for about 50 minutes to reduce their temperature to under 75°F prior to packaging, according to Alex Salgado, the longtime plant manager who also collaborates with Yianny and George on new product development.

The croissants next head to a LeMatic laner, slicer and bulk packer, which overwraps the croissants, then vacuums out the air as it heat seals the package along the sides. Because of the line’s high speed, Gold Standard uses two Safeline metal detectors — one after cooling and another after bulk packaging. The pillow packages are placed in baskets and stacked. Four stacks are then secured by a Lantech stretch wrapper and rolled into a separate room for staging and delivery. The bakery also case packs products for many of its customers.

Typically, Gold Standard’s customers either pick up their products, or they are distributed via common carrier or through food service distributors.

More flexible in packaging

To add further versatility to its operations, Gold Standard plans to scout out new packaging and robotic systems at the 2013 International Baking Industry Exposition. “In terms of new products, we are pretty straightforward being a croissant supplier,” George noted. “However, we are looking at packaging alternatives to find new ways to help our customers.”

Down the line, the bakery has sufficient room to expand at its existing location, which sits on 5 acres. “We can add 75,000 sq ft to the building and still have enough room for parking,” Yianny observed.

Such expansion, however, will depend on the avenues for growth that become available to Gold Standard. “Since I’ve been back, we don’t choose our opportunities,” Yianny said. “We’ve opened ourselves to every opportunity.”