Go where your customers take you. This primary business dictum shaped ACE Bakery’s decision to open a new $18.4 million, 60,000-sq-ft manufacturing location at Gaffney, SC. Although the Toronto-based bakery has been selling its frozen par-baked artisan breads in the US since 2003, this venture marked its first south-of-the-border outpost — south of the US-Canada border, that is.

“This bakery helps define our future in a meaningful way,” said Lee Andrews, president of ACE Bakery. “It’s proof of our strong commitment to customers and US bread-lovers coast to coast. Our intent is to put an ACE baguette on every kitchen table in North America.”

At full capacity, ACE Bakery’s newest location can output 32 million frozen par-baked baguettes a year — enough to stretch across the Atlantic from Gaffney to Paris and back again. As currently configured, the new bakery produces par-baked breads, including ACE’s classic baguettes and rustic ovals, and it will eventually bake breads 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. “This bakery will take us up to 100 million loaves annually systemwide,” Mr. Andrews said.

Selection of Gaffney gives the company access clear down to Florida and points west. The Vaughan, ON, bakery handles the Northeast, explained Philippe Gaudet, director of marketing. “But it was challenging to supply bread to California,” he observed, “however, we knew we could ship from a Mid-Atlantic location throughout the US.”

In a related move, two weeks after celebrating Gaffney’s grand opening, ACE Bakery’s parent company, George Weston Ltd., Toronto, indicated a new focus favoring the US for its capital investment program over the next few years. During a May 7 analysts’ briefing, company president Pavi Binning cited the new Gaffney bakery as an example of this commitment.

Bakery metamorphosis

Toronto has been home to ACE Bakery since its founding 20 years ago. What began as a passionate hobby evolved into a world-class bakery, a leader in the fresh-baked artisan category and an emerging powerhouse in frozen par-baked breads. Today, almost two-thirds of the company’s business is with in-store bakery and foodservice customers.

“Our focus is on innovation,” Mr. Gaudet said. “That’s a sweet spot for us with our customers.”

Like many of the big names in the baking industry, ACE Bakery started in a family kitchen, that of Martin Connell and his wife, Linda Haynes. But unlike those other bakery entrepreneurs, they sought a different archetype: not a soft farmhouse-style loaf of white bread but an authentic French baguette. They launched their quest in 1982 by building a tiny backyard bakehouse at Caledon, ON. Over the next several years, they visited artisan bakeries throughout North America and Europe, researching methods and experimenting extensively.

That passion prompted the husband-and-wife team to open to the public in 1993, establishing ACE Bakery in Toronto. Demand grew, and the bakery did, too. It moved into a larger facility in North York, ON, during 1997. Two years later, par-baked baguettes joined the roster to meet the needs of in-store bakery clients. Demand rose even higher as the company entered foodservice channels. In 2009, ACE opened an automated facility at Vaughan to produce par-baked breads. The company became part of Weston in 2010.

Vaughan paved the way for Gaffney. Less than 20 km (about 12½ miles) from ACE’s fresh facility in Toronto, the Vaughan bakery created a new paradigm for the company. To achieve the high volume of par-baked products that its business forecasts predicted, the company adopted automated systems that maintained the characteristics of its manual methods.

Brian Sisson, ACE’s vice-president of operations, and company engineers thoroughly studied mixing, makeup, proofing, baking and freezing options. They did a massive amount of research to address the notoriously difficult problem of handling artisan doughs in automated fashion. They sought best-in-class European and North American technology. Everything they saw indicated sheeting would be the way to go to prepare artisan-quality breads.

“In 2004, we installed the first Fritsch sheeting line in North America that made baguettes,” Mr. Sisson recalled. “We got into automatic proofing technology with Gouet [now part of Mecatherm].

 “We went to Europe several times to test ovens,” he continued. “We knew we wanted a stone-hearth system, and the Mecatherm technology has been a tremendous advantage for us. We selected spiral cooling and freezing equipment from Alit, and these have become our standard.”

Shell building, swift progress

By late 2011, the company identified the need for a US bakery. To save construction time, it sought an existing shell and found what it needed about an hour west of Charlotte, NC, on the busy I-85 interstate highway. “From a distribution standpoint, this area made a lot of sense,” Mr. Andrews said. “And the state is very business-friendly, catering to new investment.”

Because of another time-saving decision, ACE took just six months to turn that shell into a fully functioning bakery. “We benefit from the fact that Gaffney mirrors Vaughan,” Mr. Andrews said. “We basically replicated the installation from that bakery to this one. That helped expedite the project, and it went almost exactly to schedule — maybe even a bit quicker.”

Handed the keys to the building on July 9, 2012, ACE managers moved quickly. Knowing all along this bakery would be equipped like the earlier one, Mr. Sisson and his team lined up vendors and ordered equipment well in advance. The team handed off building and utility prep to a local contractor in Gaffney, Keystone Constructors, Inc.

Because of the two-year gap between Vaughan and planning for Gaffney, ACE was able to take advantage of several refinements and updates to various pieces of equipment. The line in South Carolina is somewhat larger in capacity, too.  “Putting Gaffney together, we started with what we had at Vaughan,” Mr. Sisson said. “And we told each vendor, here’s what we learned, and here are the changes we need. We knew what we were getting.

“The key vendors all had their people here ready for installation,” he continued. “Aug. 2 was the first day of setup, and we were running Jan. 15. We got tremendous support from the vendors. We’ve known most of them for a decade, some much longer. We’re like an old family.”

Three starters, 20 products

Baguettes are Gaffney’s primary product, but it also produces oval artisan bread, artisan rolls and ciabatta — about 20 styles in all, counting the variations in toppings and shape. “But baguettes will be more than half of all Gaffney’s output,” Mr. Andrews said.

By late April, the new facility operated two shifts with a staff of 51 people under Al Sautner, director of operations at Gaffney. The company expected to staff up for a full three shifts by the end of May.

The company characterizes its ingredients as simple and natural — basically just flour, water, salt and starter. The majority of ACE bread is made with unbleached wheat flour, which yields a natural-colored crumb. It leavens its bread with starter and small amounts of fresh yeast. Of the company’s seven starters, all developed by its founders, Gaffney currently uses three.

Savory product styles add extra-virgin olive oil, thyme, rosemary and similar herbs; cracked black pepper and sea salt; black olives, onions, potatoes and sun-dried tomatoes; sesame seeds; and cheeses. Sweet varieties incorporate apples, cranberries, figs, orange zest, raisins, sour cherries, chocolate,

cinnamon and walnuts. The company’s River Road Bakehouse breads are rich in grains and seeds and include a deli rye style.

The bakery practices careful temperature control, keeping the mixing room at 75°F and the makeup area between 74 to 76°F.

Baking at Gaffney is a 12-hour process, which includes baking and freezing. “The process is where art meets science,” Mr. Gaudet explained.

Managed by a KB bulk flour system, flour is held in two 75,000-lb-capacity silos. All flour is sifted before it reaches the weigh

hopper feeding the mixing room’s dispensing station. On signal from the operator, the system releases a weighed amount of flour into a mobile mixing bowl waiting below. Other ingredients, including starter, are manually batched and added to the mixing bowl. Ingredient water passes through a system that blends hot, chilled and city water before reaching the bowl. Three Sancassiano spiral mixers

prepare doughs.

Allowed a short period of floor time, doughs are wheeled to makeup, with the entire bowl lifted mechanically to discharge into the hopper feeding the Fritsch sheeting line.

Process for par-baked

This computer-integrated line replicates the manual method, according to Marcus Mariathas, ACE’s director of product development and master baker. Fed by gravity, the dough enters the first of three sets of reduction rollers followed by a satellite roller head. A guillotine cutter turns the solid sheet into separate strips. Then, they go through a set of moulder belts that lengthen the logs, creating the string-shaped dough piece characteristic of baguettes.

For shorter baguettes or dinner rolls, another cutter portions the dough to the desired lengths. After moulding, the dough pieces drop automatically onto peel boards. Loaded peels move into the Mecatherm vertical proofer, which operates at 22 to 25°C (72 to 77°F). Leaving the proofer, dough pieces are slit shallowly on their top surfaces, with seed toppings added according to variety.

“When we look at technology, we seek to replicate what we do by hand,” Mr. Mariathas said. “This makeup line is highly automated, but the technology we chose enhances the process and the finished product.”

Continuing on to the next room, which houses the Mecatherm stone-hearth tunnel oven, filled peels line up in front of the oven. The oven loader picks the dough pieces up off the peels, carries them into the oven entrance and slowly retracts, leaving the pieces on the heated stone hearth. Steam is applied immediately thereafter. Loaves move slowly and smoothly through the zoned baking chamber.

Gaffney, like Vaughan, makes par-baked loaves. The company defines par-baked as 85% finished and frozen.

Par-baked loaves slide down the discharge plate at the oven exit, and a conveyor carries them to an Alit Aliflex ambient-temperature spiral cooler. After they finish their trip around that spiral, another conveyor moves them along into the Alit spiral freezer. Engineers timed the ambient cooling system to bring the internal temperature of the par-baked loaves and rolls down to 100°F before they enter the freezer maintained at -35°F.

ACE installed a LeMatic band slicer between the cooling and freezing spirals, allowing preparation of sliced rolls should customers require.

Leaving the freezer, all products pass through a Fortress Technology metal detector. A Capway conveyor, equipped with white plastic belting, moves the solidly frozen baguettes into the packing stations. Operators count the loaves and bundle them into polyfilm-lined shipping cartons. A 3M-Matic case sealer tapes the cartons shut before an operator stacks them on a pallet. Loaded pallets get a stretch-film wrapping to stabilize the load during storage in the on-site holding freezer and distribution.

A QA station at the end of the line features a small deck oven, allowing the technician to bake off samples. The technician pulls items from the freezer exit and a case off the packaging line every 30 minutes. She takes samples of bread off the oven line every 10 minutes. After baking off the par-baked items, she evaluates them for crumb texture, crust color, shape and length.

Building great expectations

The new bakery hired its staff from the local

community. To acquaint the newcomers with ACE Bakery procedures, key operators trained in Canada for three weeks, partnering with staff there. Several of the Vaughan supervisors and bakery line staff traveled to Gaffney to help with startup.

Gaffney will soon join other ACE Bakery locations in meeting British Retail Consortium (BRC) safe food manufacturing criteria. The initial BRC inspection requires a minimum of three months in operation, and ACE managers focused on meeting that deadline.

 “We put the Gaffney staff through training about food safety, health and employee safety,” Mr. Sisson said. “This facility is extremely safe. As of today, April 23, we have run 117 days without a lost-time accident. The Toronto bakery has clocked more than 1,300 days, which is essentially from the time the doors opened. It is important to us that people who come to work here go home safe at the end of the day.”

As a routine matter, ACE evaluates products of all three production locations together. All send product samples to the head office. “We ‘cut’ the products together to make sure they maintain ACE Bakery standards,” Mr. Andrews said. “ACE is known as being committed to quality. That’s a big part of the culture of the company, and it started with the founders.”

By reviewing and tasting products of all three bakeries together, the company ensures that the customer won’t experience any differences. “They can buy the same ACE baguette whether they’re in Toronto or Florida or any other location,” Mr. Sisson said. “And, yes, we also measure our products against the competition.”

With future expansion in mind, ACE purchased 10 acres of land surrounding the bakery, and the current building still has 10,000 sq ft of unused space.

“Today, we have hundreds of American customers, and that number increases every month,” Mr. Andrews said. “To ensure that we are in a position to expand production as our customer base grows, we have planned ahead and left room for expansion.”

Vaughan and, now, Gaffney propel ACE into the future. “We probably doubled in size since 2009,” Mr. Andrews observed. “We believe there is continued growth at that level for the next five years, primarily because we feel our products are uniquely superior, and we also plan to build our brand,” he said.

“In many markets, we’re known for our great products, but we also want to be known for our high-quality and reputable brand,” he continued. “We would like to double in size again in five years. I don’t see that as out of the realm of possibility.”

Gaffney represents the company’s first manufacturing bakery outside Canada, but if the business lives up to potential, the South Carolina site won’t be ACE’s only outpost in the States.