Opposites don’t necessarily attract in the business world, but when they unite around a passion for a common goal, their contrasting perspectives can lead to discoveries that never existed before. That’s fundamentally how Tribeca Oven developed a one-of-a-kind process to automate the production of artisan breads. In doing so, the company achieved the flexibility to accommodate small-batch mixing and a vast array of fermentation, floor and proofing times, according to Marc Essenfeld, CEO of the Carlstadt, NJ-based bakery.

Since joining Tribeca around seven years ago, Mr. Essenfeld and George Erasmus, executive vice-president of innovation, have taken diametrically opposed approaches to running the artisan bakery. A former chief financial officer in the baking industry, Mr. Essenfeld’s world primarily revolves around profitability. On the other hand, Mr. Erasmus’ universe encompasses an uncompromising approach to maintaining quality and remaining true to time-tested processes for making authentic Old World breads and rolls.

“The yin-yang approach has been successful for us,” Mr. Essenfeld observed. “George is about making quality artisan bread. That’s what he loves to do. I’m all about running a successful business. But together, we’re all about making profitable high-quality products from the get-go.”

That synthesis of opposites characterized the company’s recent project to increase output. Automating what previously had been done by hand didn’t exactly involve zen and the art of baking. Rather, the two executives did what any professionals do when neither wants to compromise: They duked it out until they found common ground.

 “I’m very quantitative. George is very qualitative. How do you marry the two? You take off the gloves, and you fight it out until you realize, ‘Wow. We just had a breakthrough,’ ” Mr. Essenfeld said. “We have a great relationship, but it would not be surprising to hear us yell at each other behind closed doors. We always walk out of that room — OK, maybe it takes a couple of days — aligned and in a good place.”

Aligning the stars didn’t happen overnight. Tribeca worked with equipment suppliers and spent more than $10 million over three years to develop the now-patented process that the bakery wanted. In the end, the investment expanded the facility from 53,000 sq ft to 168,000 sq ft last year and tripled capacity to produce about 100,000 loaves a day. In addition to a new production line, the bakery now has enough warehouse space to accommodate its future growth.

Fundamental shift in strategy

Tribeca Oven’s expansion in 2011 actually began seven years before when the artisan bakery moved from its previous location in Brooklyn, NY, across the Hudson River to the former Ecce Panis facility in Carlstadt. Back then, the company decided to change its business model from supplying fresh-baked breads and rolls distributed daily throughout the metropolitan New York area to producing frozen par-baked baked goods now sold nationally to hotels, food service chains and a rapidly growing number of supermarket in-store bakeries.

With the shift to a frozen par-baked format, the company simplified its portfolio from 200 stock-keeping units (SKUs) baked each day to around 70 now produced on a regular basis. “We went through our product list and figured out which ones were our big movers and then went on to figure out how to best automate them, while keeping our high quality standards” Mr. Essenfeld said.

To keep up with the rising demand for its products, Tribeca added mixing and baking capacity in 2007. However, even though it had plenty of capacity at that time, the company knew it would eventually have to invest in automating production as its national presence grew. Having the luxury to take a long-term approach to investing in the bakery, the two executives wondered if they could devise a process where flexible, yet-to-be-developed technology would be able to adapt to a product’s specifications instead of changing their products’ characteristics — and often their level of quality — to make them more efficiently on existing equipment.

All too often, Mr. Essenfeld said, bigger and faster is not actually better — especially when it comes to artisan bread production. “At that time, the artisan bakery industry was really growing. Often, quality was sacrificed on the altar of throughput. It wasn’t intentional; it was just the nature of the beast,” he observed.

“Previously, you were making a couple hundred pounds of product an hour on the line, and then everyone tried to make the same products on lines running 4,000 to 5,000 lb an hour. The technology wasn’t there,” he continued.

For example, proofing times for artisan products vary considerably, with some items needing just 2 hours of floor time and others 6 to 12 hours. The previous technology generally worked best creating a constant floor time of approximately 2 hours. “In the end, the process really changed the product.” Mr. Essenfeld said. “What previously differentiated your products from everyone else’s were the use of preferments and the variable rest times that fully developed the product’s flavors and textures. If the processes are all the same, the products tend to be similar.”

Creating an agile operation

Yin and yang play a big part in how Tribeca stages production of its items, especially its need for high output rates for par-baked products. To avoid a one-size-fits-all situation, Tribeca first divided its products into separate categories that each had fundamentally dissimilar production methods. Today, hand-formed items and round breads are still made in the versatile, but labor-intensive, older section of the bakery. These products include everything from 3-lb Jewish rye loaves to round breads such as Farmhouse wheat, cheese bread and Pugliese loaves. However, baguettes and ciabatta  — bread and roll styles that account for 60% of the bakery’s volume — are now made on a new automated production line.

Overall, the company allocates 80,000 sq ft to warehousing and future expansion, 65,000 sq ft to processing, 10,000 sq ft for packaging and 13,000 sq ft for offices. The plant houses four processing lines and three packaging lines. Custom-blended flour is stored in three 55,000-lb HB Technik silos. Pre-scaling of minor and micro ingredients actually begins up to 8 hours ahead of production to coordinate scheduling that accommodates products with various fermentation and floor times.

The 115,000-sq-ft addition that opened last year changed the Tribeca story into a tale of two bakeries. In the older part of the operation, for instance, Tribeca does all of its fermentation and small-batch mixing. Specifically, the bakery uses a battery of spiral mixers, including Sancassiano 600-lb twin-arm mixers with a special tool designed to minimize frictional heating of the dough. The twin-arm mixers also develop the dough’s gluten structure more effectively, according to Mr. Erasmus. The bakery uses three Scotsman flaked ice machines to assist in controlling dough temperatures during mixing.

In all, Tribeca relies on up to 12 different ferments — including European sours, poolish and biga — that can take up to 24 hours to develop. Typically, these sours account for as much as 30% of the final dough. After mixing, dough batches rest for several hours, with the amount of time depending on the product. Operators attach a production sheet that labels the exact time of mixing, the length of fermentation and when the dough should be ready for production, Mr. Erasmus said.

To address the issue of variable fermentation and floor times, creative scheduling — instead of automation —
proved to be the answer. “We have products that rest 90 minutes and some all the way up to 3 or 4 hours. How do you build a conveyor system that handles that flexibility? You can’t,” Mr. Essenfeld said. The bakery created manual processes to achieve the needed timing. “It’s not that much labor. You have one person following a schedule and overseeing fermentation and floor time instead of investing $1 million on equipment. In the end, it’s a matter of determining whether the return on investment should be in equipment or in human capital.”

Rheon production lines, each with about 2,000 lb of throughput an hour, handle makeup of rounds and hand-formed breads. The older part of the facility also houses a Kemper roll line that produces rolls ranging from 40 to 120 g at a capacity of about 1,200 lb an hour, according to Mr. Erasmus.

After makeup, racked products enter a variety of proof boxes — each set at a different temperature and humidity level. Adjusting the process to the product is an uncompromising priority, Mr. Erasmus said. Proofer temperatures range from 50 to 100°F.

The company uses about a dozen ovens including Revent and Adamatic double-rack ovens and MIWE thermal oil deck ovens outfitted with automatic cloth loaders to gently handle high-moisture dough pieces without damaging them. After baking and cooling, par-baked breads and rolls are frozen before casepacking and palletizing.

Patented processes

Crossing into the plant’s new section from the original bakery is like traveling forward in time because production technologies change so drastically. In addition to ciabatta breads and baguettes, the new production line can make hoagies, buns and other sheeted breads and cut rolls. Overall, Mr. Erasmus said, these breads and rolls all have similar makeup processes, but proofing and baking times vary. Tribeca decided to automate production of these items because they made up about 60% of its sales volume. Additionally, the bakery had a clearer vision on how to automate these products than it did for its hand-formed or rounded breads, according to Mr. Erasmus.

To accomplish its goals, Tribeca Oven challenged its equipment suppliers to develop proprietary systems. In the makeup area, for instance, the bakery wanted a system that gently sheets and folds the dough — similar to a hand makeup process — then allows the sheet to rest for up to 25 minutes before cutting and proofing.

“We believe dough is like a muscle,” Mr. Essenfeld said. “If you work it out a little, let it rest, then work it out again and let it rest, that’s how you build the strength in the dough and create a consistent, quality product.”

Over a two-year period, Mr. Erasmus traveled to Italy eight times to work with Minipan to develop the sheeting and makeup system and with Iteca, another Italian company, to design the line’s multifaceted proofer and oven loader.

To eliminate stress to the dough during the makeup process, Tribeca and its vendors voted against extrusion methods. Rather, on the Minipan sheeting system, which can output up to 6,000 lb of product per hour, the dough is manually loaded from a mezzanine platform into what Mr. Erasmus called a large steel “clamshell.” This clamshell carries and gently drops the dough chunk onto the center of a conveyor where the dough sheet is formed.

The 900-mm-wide dough sheet then travels slowly down a zig-zag conveyor that provides up to 25 minutes of resting time and uses minimal floor space. The sheet then enters a series of cross rollers and multi-rollers.

Needs ample rest time

During Baking & Snack’s recent visit, the new line was producing square ciabatta rolls. The process requires the dough sheet to pass through a seven-blade circular rolling cutter. The dough strips split along eight finger conveyors and receive additional rest time before a guillotine cuts the strips into squares. A conveyor then loads the squares onto rectangle setters — large 4-ft-by-9-ft cloth-covered boards that each hold eight rows of squares.

Allowing the dough pieces ample rest time provides consistency for the square ciabatta rolls and similar items. “We were getting so much variance in shape and size because the dough can be pretty tenacious, especially if you rush the process,” Mr. Erasmus said. “We wanted a more relaxed, more consistent dough that would hold its shape after cutting.”

According to Mr. Erasmus, Tribeca also needed a proofer that could simultaneously handle multiple varieties of artisan breads and rolls, despite proofing times that may range from 45 minutes to more than 2 hours. To accomplish that feat, Iteca designed a computer-controlled, multi-level modular proof box to function like the storage-and-retrieval systems that some wholesale bakers use for automating trough or pan handling.

For the most part, the proofing process requires moderate humidity at temperatures just slightly higher than ambient. Unlike serpentine or swinging tray proofers where the products travel through the proofer, the Iteca system keeps each setter board in one spot, thus yielding a more consistent product, noted Stephen Bloom, vice-president, Allied Bakery Equipment, the Santa Fe Springs, CA, company that worked with Tribeca and its suppliers on the project.

“The secret to designing this system is not just the robotic handling and the flexibility to avoid first-in-first-out handling requirements but, even more, the design of the airflow to ensure that no matter where the product is in the box — upper right corner to lower left corner to anywhere in between — the temperature and humidity environment is precisely the same,” Mr. Bloom said.

Maximizing oven throughput

After a short rest, some products are hand-scored. Others, such as ciabatta rolls, travel on setters along conveyors to an Iteca-designed oven loader. Here, the challenge involved loading products into the oven in a way that adapts to their various shapes and sizes yet eliminates bottlenecks, according to Mr. Erasmus.

A flying-wing oven loader with an extremely thin nose picks up the often sticky dough pieces and places them onto its belt without crinkling or damaging them. The belt then loads the dough into the Heuft twin-level oven.

To control the baking process, Tribeca can individually adjust the oven’s three zones. The oven uses thermal oil heating, which Mr. Erasmus said provides energy efficiency as well as a more consistent baking process by minimizing flash heat. The Heuft oven also allows independent control of top and bottom heat within each level. Typically, the bakery maximizes the bottom heat in the first zone of the oven to ensure substantial ovenspring without setting the crust. In the next zone, the oven’s heat can be adjusted to various product specifications while the last zone is set at a constant temperature to finish the par-baked process and provide color.

Additionally, Mr. Erasmus said, the 80-ft multi-deck oven comes with a 9-ft-wide, steel-hinged-plate belting system that can rotate back with its hinges to shorten or extend the bake time without creating gaps that can compromise throughput.

Planning for the future

After they are baked, the products travel through an Alit enclosed, dual-spiral cooler and, if necessary, through a slicer-bagger before blast freezing. Throughout the bakery, all products pass through Lock or Safeline metal-detection systems. Items such as frozen par-baked ciabatta rolls are packed in cases formed by a Niverplast case erector and bag inserter. Tribeca stores the palletized products in its holding freezer for 24 hours before transferring them to an offsite cold storage warehouse.

According to Mr. Erasmus, Tribeca plans to install another new line in the near future to upgrade its roll capabilities, and it continues to work with its equipment suppliers to develop a proprietary process for automating its hand-formed breads. As in the past, it may require additional patented technology to accomplish the bakery’s goals, but in the end, time is on the company’s side.

“We have a good process in place, and we’re assessing new opportunities where we can and still do so within our means,” he said.