Using only four basic ingredients — flour, water, salt and yeast — artisan bread bakers have quite a challenge producing unique products that differentiate themselves from the competition. “The difference comes from the variety of preferments, the products’ physical characteristics and presentation at the consumer level, and consistent quality, of course,” said Peter Kelsey, owner and head baker of Minneapolis, MN-based New French Bakery. “When I first opened a 2,000-sq-ft storefront bakery in 1995, I knew it was these points of differentiation along with customer service that would make my venture successful.”

Strong sales growth required starting up a 15,000-sq-ft fresh wholesale operation just two years later for Greater Minneapolis food service and retail customers. The plant expanded in 1999 to 24,000 sq ft and included the company’s first automated oven and frozen distribution of fully baked and parbaked items. Operations reached capacity within six years, and management knew it needed a larger facility to handle its fast-growing parbaked business. “I found a nicely constructed, 52,000-sq-ft building for sale that was designed with high ceilings and straight-through flow,” Mr. Kelsey noted. “I acquired it in fall 2005, vacated the tenant in 2006 and began renovations that fall.” The $15 million plant was commissioned in August 2007 with one high-speed artisan line.

The mixers, makeup and oven systems have capacity for 5,600 baguettes an hour, but proofing, freezing and packaging systems were set up with capacity for 2,800 pieces per hour. “We didn’t even need that speed when we first started the line,” Mr. Kelsey noted. “But with sales growth at nearly 25% annually, we hit capacity, running 24/7, within one year.”

In December 2008, Mr. Kelsey began plans to expand the plant, with a completion date of October 2009. “We ran into the same problem many companies run into, difficulty in securing loans, especially being an independent,” Mr. Kelsey recalled. “Fortunately, we convinced some investors and banks, and we began the expansion project last March.”

Last month, the plant commissioned the second spiral freezer, an additional proofing tower and new automated packaging systems, doubling production capacity to the full 5,600 pieces per hour. “I also designed the original plant layout to handle a complete second production line that would allow a total capacity of close to 10,000 pieces per hour.”

Rita Rangel, director of sales, said New French runs more than 500 SKUs, 225 of which are frozen items with a core of 15 “take and bake” varieties. Most wholesale artisan producers bake a majority of sourdough items and also some French and Italian bread, according to Ms. Rangel. “We, on the other hand, produce a majority of traditional French and Italian items, using select preferments, and also produce some sourdough,” she said.


Mr. Kelsey, who trained at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris and worked at a 3-star restaurant and Parisian bakery, knows how to make high-quality baked foods with expensive ingredients. But he also understands that with only four simple ingredients, a lot more has to go into the process to outshine others in the market. In 2008, management began a series of packaging changes to entice consumers to pick New French items over others in the “wall of brown” of the in-store bakery. “I knew that if we could motivate more people to try our product, we would continue to elevate our sales with repeat customers,” Mr. Kelsey said. “We also wanted to offer a brand that was recognizable and inviting within the in-store bakery.”

Changes included clear packaging with printed pastel blue and large simple wording such as “TAKE BAKE SLICE SAVOR” and “GRILL SLICE SHARE SMILE.” “We also adjusted the size of some baguettes and rolls so we could ship all types of bread in a single sized corrugated tray versus a box,” Mr. Kelsey said.

As it turned out, the shippable display tray reduced corrugated use by 30%, saving resources. Head space in the case was eliminated, thus enhancing integrity of the products during shipping and storage. “We were actually able to reduce our price to customers by close to 35%,” Ms. Rangel noted.

All New French breads are parbaked to about 90%, according to Mr. Kelsey. “We impart more color to the parbaked items because we know home ovens can’t achieve the intensity of heat to fully color the bread as industrial ovens can,” he said. “Therefore, consumers generally overbake parbaked loaves until they see the appropriate golden brown color and then complain about the taste and texture. We prepare loaves to the point they just need an 8-minute heat in the home oven to produce the aroma, taste and texture of homemade bread.”

To achieve this, New French patented an automated process that allows baguette or ciabatta dough with up to 72% hydration to be easily formed, proofed and transferred to the oven. “This produces a very moist product, even after it is frozen and then baked the second time by the end user,” he added. “I could not find any supplier at the time that could accomplish this. More recently, some are getting close, but I think I still have a slight advantage.”

Being one of few truly independent artisan bakers of its size, Mr. Kelsey found that competition demands the company excel in all areas of business — maintaining positive financial ratios, being innovative, sustaining product quality and consistency, enhancing sales techniques, maximizing customer service through merchandising assistance and delivering a better bread experience to the consumer.

Mr. Kelsey cited five artisan bakers that in the past 18 months or the next six months will be at least doubling capacity. “New capacity means tougher competition,” Ms. Rangel said. “We have to help retailers execute a merchandising plan that works. We need to show how we contribute to their bottom line. And we need to do this as a company and as a segment of the bread industry selling products through the in-store department versus the traditional bread aisle.”

New French business currently supplies 70% of its output to retail and 30% to food service. Although its facility is certified to produce organic products, demand for these products dramatically dropped off when the recession hit the industry 18 months ago, according to Mr. Kelsey. “The most important thing for us as a company is to maintain the all-natural product — to not add preservatives or chemical dough conditioners.”

Speed to market is an area of which New French prides itself, introducing products from concept to shelf in as little as two weeks. “We generally produce eight to 12 new product samples for customers each month,” Ms. Rangel said. “We’ve had some years when we successfully introduced 13 new varieties.” The company built a test bakery equipped with processing systems similar to the larger operation, so ramp-up is fast and simple. Two skilled artisan bakers work in R&D, with input from Mr. Kelsey.


The company uses six different preferments: liquid sour; stiff white; wheat sour (or lavain); German rye sour; poolish or French sponge; and biga, which is an Italian sponge. “This allows a varied flavor profiles. With the poolish and biga, you get a lactic acid fermentation, which produces a milder or sweeter flavor,” Mr. Kelsey said. “This complicates scheduling to no end because each of these preferments requires different fermentation periods, and some products even vary using the same preferment.”

To resolve this, New French implemented an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that not only schedules production but also helps invoicing, inventory and lot tracking. Although the company produces artisan products, it also wants to be as technologically advanced as makes sense. “So having a state-of-the-art ERP system is really nice,” Mr. Kelsey said. “If there is ever an issue, we can track and trace every aspect of the ingredients, process or product whereabouts in the distribution system within 30 seconds. This gives us and our customers peace of mind.”

The 52,000-sq-ft plant includes 35,000 sq ft of processing and packaging space and a 10,000-sq-ft warehouse, with the remainder for offices and ancillary activities. Operations, with 80 full-time employees, runs one versatile production line, although Mr. Kelsey designed the line and plant for three stages of expansion. Current throughput is 4,400 lb (2 tonnes) per hour. Processing begins with two 100,000-lb flour silos from KB Systems. Ingredient handling and recipe control is automated using a WinBack system from Germany. It scales and feeds flour to one of three 500-lb Diosna bowl mixers, where water and preferments or sponge are also scaled and fed into the mixer using load cells. The ingredient system monitors the dough during mixing and calculates the amount of ice required to maintain proper dough temperature.

Finished dough rests, then is fed to the Fritsch makeup and laminating system that produces cut or moulded products ranging from baguettes and bread sticks to ciabatta, focaccia, batards, rolls, petit loaves, filone and boules. The gentle treatment of the dough and the resulting quality of the final product are two distinct attributes of the makeup line. Low-stress handling permits New French Bakery’s high absorption dough to maintain its integrity through the process. The pre-portioner component on the makeup line contributes to quality as well because the dough feeds into the hopper with no stress, which allows the dough to almost fall through the machine. Moulding has the same low-stress, 2-step configuration. 

A Back-Tech modular roll-forming system wheels in and out of the process line along with a Back-Tech seeder. Fresh dough pieces rest and proof for eight minutes in a KB Systems overhead proofer before moulding. A Burford flour duster prepares peel boards for products.

One proprietary method is the company’s patented process that allows the 72%-hydrated dough to be laned, automatically scored and transferred to the oven. “It’s a mixture of current and older technology that I manipulated and pieced together,” Mr. Kelsey said. “It allows consistent scoring of highly hydrated dough pieces with no loss of integrity, so products come out of the oven looking handmade with a crispy crust and moist crumb.”

“We’re looking at stamping technology that one supplier claims provides an even better product,” Mr. Kelsey said. “If that is true, we may consider this as a replacement option now or for future expansion.” The current expansion, which went online in mid-January, included proofing — a third step tower within the existing proofer structure, with room for a fourth. Each tower layer holds six peel or framed cloth-pocket boards, and proofing takes about two hours depending on product.

A second spiral cooler/freezer also was installed, plus expansion of the plant’s ammonia system. Packaging lines also received a facelift with faster horizontal form/fill/seal systems and improved automation.

“This expansion phase cost $3.5 million,” Mr. Kelsey said. “And we added enough ammonia and packaging capability to accommodate the final expansion plans that include a second production line.” When the plant started operations, Mr. Kelsey anticipated growth and installed a 4-deck, 37-ft (120-sq-m) MIWE Thermo-rollomat flow-through tray oven. However, it only used two of the four decks until increasing production last month.

Conveyor support legs were also designed to stack a second conveyor above the first, allowing additional throughput without additional floor space when the third phase of expansion takes place. “That should be about two years,” Ms. Rangel estimated. “With continued sales growth, we will be ready for this by 2012 or 2013.” The final expansion will include additional mixers, a second makeup line, a 2- or 3-deck oven and a cooler/freezer.

After baking, products make their way to packaging on SpanTech modular plastic belting. Rolls are diverted from the main line and bulk packed via a Cusinato vertical f/f/s bagger. All other products are visually inspected, run through Safeline and Mettler Toledo metal detectors and packed using either a Ulma or Ilapak horizontal f/f/s wrapper. Two Alit 25-tier spiral systems blast freeze all products produced at the plant and are equipped with sequential defrost coils, allowing continuous operation.

“We are still cautious about the economy and what this year will hold,” Mr. Kelsey said. “But we are banking on our growth record even through the Atkins diet period and the past two years of recession. Consumers are looking for good quality, great tasting bread to have with meals or as a snack, and you are not going to find that in the center-of-store bread aisle. You’ve got to hit the in-store bakery, and we are doing everything we can to provide great product, eye-catching packaging and customer service to help merchandise the department, so more people break the habit of visiting the in-store bakery only for cakes and pies.” ?