For entrepreneurs and family businesses, time rarely travels a straight line. More often than not, a startup company grows in fits and starts as it seizes opportunities or creates its own.

Thirty years ago, Fady Hayek sat at the dinner table and wondered, “What’s next?” His family, immigrants from Lebanon, had moved from Ottawa to Vancouver a few years before and had just sold their restaurant business. “Maybe we should open up a pita bread bakery,” his mother suggested.

Fady, then 25 years old, did some preliminary research and found a void in the market. The Hayek family put down a deposit on an automated production line and began talking to potential distributors.

“Three out of three advised me not to go ahead with the project,” he recalled. When he informed them the company already invested in equipment, one distributor suggested, “I advise you try to get your deposit back.”

Undeterred, Fady, his parents, brother Sid and sister Fadia proceeded to start up the small wholesale bakery called PBF Pita Bread Factory, inviting the doubting distributors, the local newspaper and even the mayor of Burnaby, BC, a suburb of Vancouver, to its grand opening gala.

The gambit paid off. “One of the distributors said, ‘I didn’t know pita bread could taste that good. Let’s make a deal.’ We met the next day and started producing private label for him,” recalled Fady, now the company’s president.

Fast forward to today; PBF and its 175 employees produce an array of traditional and thin, authentic Middle Eastern-style premium pitas under the PBF Signature name. The wholesale bakery also cranks out frozen and fresh bagels, tortillas, naan, pies, pizza shells, pizza pretzels and gourmet cookie dough distributed locally, sold throughout Canada and parts of the US and marketed under the Bakestone Brothers and 24th Avenue brands as well as through private label customers.

“We focus on specialty products,” Fady said. “We’re anything but sliced bread. We like to bring something special to the table.”

Like many burgeoning businesses, the company found itself repeatedly hitting the wall when it came to production as it entered new markets, partnered with national customers and diversified its product portfolio over the years.

“We started with a 3,600-sq-ft bakery, which became 7,200 sq ft a few years later. That became 28,000 sq ft, and then we had to add another 14,000 sq ft to meet our needs,” noted Sid, operations manager, who along with Fady and youngest brother Ron, COO, manage the daily business

Two years ago after it outgrew the 42,000-sq-ft facility, PBF put all production under one 75,000-sq-ft roof. Even better is the ample room for future expansion. Now the company can focus on honing its strategies instead of juggling its business and adjusting its game plan.

“We can expand into a warehousing space that is next to us,” Sid said. “We’ll just tear down a wall and have access to another 50,000 sq ft for production.”

Until moving into its updated facility, still located in Burnaby, PBF experienced its share of growing pains and had simply run out of room to meet its customers’ demands.

“In the old plant, we had to add a line here and a line there, and there was no designed flow to production,” Sid said. “Here we have a nicely laid-out bakery. The great thing about starting fresh with a new building is setting up a system where you have the operation flow in a straight line. It just makes us a lot more efficient than we were in the past.”

Googling a design

To help design the bakery, Fady and Sid relied on Google SketchUp, a free 3-D software modeling program. Sid precisely measured the length, width and height of every piece of equipment. “By using this program, we were able to see what the bakery would actually look like before it was built,” Sid explained. “That way, we could make any adjustments before we spent money on construction.”

In all, it took about a year to complete the design and secure local permits before the company’s 10-person engineering and maintenance staff began installing new equipment, starting with a new Lawrence tortilla line. They then began moving existing lines from the old bakery, staging each project in four-week intervals. “We gave ourselves plenty of time in moving each line so that we didn’t interrupt service, and we didn’t overwork ourselves,” Fady said.

Overall, the new facility houses seven production lines, including four automated operations that produce bagels, tortillas, wraps, pitas and naan in the main section of the bakery. Production of cookies, pies and pizza pretzels is done on semi-automated lines in a smaller, enclosed room because many of these products contain nuts, dairy and other allergens. The bakery also has five packaging lines.

Production runs 24 hours, five to six days a week. Typically, the operation — certified by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) — is shut down on Mondays for preventive maintenance and sanitation.

Flour is stored in five silos, which together hold the 220,000 lb of flour that’s used on a weekly basis. Bulk ingredient handling is done in an enclosed room to minimize flour dust throughout the bakery. Minor and micro ingredients are combined in a separate area using a Wenger premix system to reduce scaling errors.

A battery of nine mixers — ranging from spiral mixers to 1,000-lb horizontal mixers — is located along a wall behind plastic curtains — again to control flour dust and improve sanitation.

The age and style of the mixers reflects how the bakery has expanded during the past three decades. Each of the main production lines has multiple dedicated mixers to streamline cleaning and reduce turnover time when switching from one product to another.

Six-month shelf life

Perhaps the biggest boost in production came from installing a new tortilla line. At the previous bakery, 14 people worked on two tortilla lines. Now, only five operators work on the new Lawrence line. “We’re now producing twice as many tortillas as before with about one-third of the people,” Sid observed. “It’s one of the most automated lines Lawrence makes.”

Tortilla doughs are mixed for about 7 to 8 minutes in either a Diosna or a new Koenig 450-lb, double-spiral mixer. The bowls travel up a Gemini/ABI lift to a WP 10-pocket divider. Dough balls then receive a 10- to 15-minute intermediate proof to rest the dough before pre-pressing and thus ensuring consistently round tortillas.

The line has multiple chutes that guide the dough balls from the intermediate proofer to the pre-press, which sets the dough pieces on the belt before they are hot-pressed. “We prefer the double press because without the pre-press, the dough balls may move slightly, and you’ll get a lot of pieces kissing one another,” Sid said.

A reciprocating conveyor drops a fully pressed set of tortillas onto the oven infeed line, and pieces bake in a three-tier oven. The hot tortillas take advantage of a proprietary cooling process that provides extended shelf life.

Specifically, the tortillas enter an enclosed cooler that uses purified air for 2 to 2.5 minutes at 4° to 5°C (39° to 41°F) to minimize exposure to mold spores. A dehumidifier also reduces moisture that can harbor mold.

All tortillas travel through a Lawrence Accuview tortilla inspection system to check for consistent shape, thickness, toast points and other product characteristics.

“This system takes hundreds of images of the products per second,” Sid said. “If they don’t meet our specs, it rejects them.”

Freshly made tortillas or flavored wraps then enter a counter-stacker and packaging system, which includes two Thermo Scientific metal detectors. They’re packaged using a Hartmann bagger with a heat seal closure.

Generally, products sold at retail have a six-month frozen shelf life followed by seven weeks at ambient temperature.

However, PBF also produces tortillas with a whopping six-month ambient shelf life. These tortillas for Mexican food kits are packaged on a GHD Hartmann system using an airtight foil or thick plastic heat-sealed bag. “A combination of packaging, processing, strict sanitation and a proprietary formula that allows us to get extremely long shelf life,” Sid said.

Operators manually feed the tortillas along with packets of salsa and seasoning into the Nordale cartoner that automatically seals the kits. Finished kits are manually case-packed, palletized and sent to the shipping area.

Pitas on parade

The bakery produces original and flavored pitas, naan, flatbread sandwich thins or thin bagels on its main production line. Two 1,000-lb mixers produce the dough that’s fed to a WP six-pocket divider.

“We like this divider because it requires little maintenance,” Sid noted. “It’s very reliable. Sometimes it’s easy to invest in cheaper technology, but if you look at changeovers and downtime in the long run, the payback on a more reliable machine is huge.”

Unlike tortillas, which are pressed, pitas and naan are sheeted. After initial sheeting, they receive a 7- to 11-minute intermediate proof followed by a second sheeting and a 20- to 40-minute proof on an 11-tier, 1,100-ft cascading proofer. After baking in a FME/Welbilt steel-plate tunnel oven, the products travel along an elevated cooler. “We built the conveyor on top of the machines to save space and get the most out of the footprint of this building,” Sid said.

PBF imported a second pita line from the Middle East six years ago. The products bake for only 12 to 18 seconds in the single-pass brick oven. “Our customers wanted us to produce a more authentic, thinner pita that is baked faster and was more like what they ate when they were growing up,” Sid noted.

Because pitas are so delicate, an operator manually stacks them to feed into a KLR Systems bagger, equipped with a Kwik Lok closer, or into a heat-seal system before they pass through a Loma metal detector. “Because we have multiple SKUs and sizes up to 12-in. rounds, we need a very versatile packaging department,” Sid said.

Traditional boiled bagels

PBF makes many of its bagels the old-fashioned way with long fermentation times and a quick boil before the oven. It can also steam the dough pieces, if that’s the customer’s preference. Two 1,000-lb horizontal mixers dump the dough into a trough that’s hoisted to a dough chunker feeding a Baking Machines divider and production line.

PBF uses a wide span of proofing times, ranging from 45 minutes for some items to 20 hours for more traditional-style bagels. Typically, they’re retarded in a 60-rack cooler for six to eight hours at 5° to 6°C (41° to 43°F).

“We want to accentuate the products’ taste and texture, and the only way to do that is to ferment the product slowly,” Sid said.

Overall, the production line requires only two ­people — one in mixing and one near the proofer to rack and unrack products. After boiling and seeding the bagels on both sides, they’re baked for 9 to 11 minutes in a 35-ft tunnel oven. After 45 minutes of cooling, the products are either packaged fresh or diverted to a GEA Refrigeration Technologies Aerofreeze single-spiral blast freezer at -30°C (-22°F) for 20 to 25 minutes.

Fresh bagels travel through a Ryan Technology system for butterfly or traditional slicing. They’re penny-packed six to a package using a UBE bagger, Kwik Lok closure and then case-packed. Bulk bagels travel through a counter and are placed 72 to a plastic-lined case. Bulk mini-bagels are packaged in 36-count bags.

Going gourmet

PBF uses its original pita line and a Sottoriva 350-lb spiral mixer to make par-baked pizza shells. The dough pieces are baked in Dahlen double-rack ovens.

A separate room houses semi-automated lines with a Reiser Vemag depositor and a Unifiller depositing system to create the bakery’s signature pizza pretzels and frozen cookie dough pucks. “All premium pies are handmade,” Sid said. “They’re all hand-deposited, which makes them the most difficult part of production.”

Because of allergens, access to this production area is highly restricted. Designated employees must wear red aprons and sign in and out of the room. “No one leaves the room except for an emergency,” Sid said.

During the next five years, PBF’s primary goal is to fill up the bakery, according to Fady. This includes bolstering capacity on existing lines, installing two additional production lines for new products in the current operation and then breaking down the walls to the 50,000 sq ft of warehouse space adjacent to the main operation, for even more new products.

When reflecting on the company’s roots, Fady acknowledged that using the term “factory” in its name might not be one he’d use today, especially with the bakery’s long fermentation times and use of traditional processes and formulas.

“That’s why we refer to us as PBF. We’re anything but a factory,” he said

Fady quickly added that they’re proud of what their family built over the past three decades. With the new facility, he noted that the company now has the tools to take the business to a new plane, but that they couldn’t have done it by themselves.

“We’re just three guys,” he noted. “The heart of the engine is our employees. They’re the ones who make things happen.”

And that’s what helps PBF bring something special to the table.