Bakeries can be difficult to keep in the family. Often they are bought up by larger companies or passed off to someone outside the family once a generation loses interest. Fantini Bakery, Haverhill, MA, has managed to maintain its family-owned status for more than 100 years, and today’s patriarchs are ensuring the future by preparing the fifth generation to take the reins.

“We plan to be here another 100 years, so it’s interesting owning a company you know will probably outlive you,” said Robert Fantini, president. “You want to take care of it, so we’re administering to take care of the company, to make sure people know how to operate the place.” 

Robert and his brother Joe, general manager, have brought in their sons and daughters, whoever is interested in working, and have begun teaching them the lessons they’ve learned from those before them and how to avoid the miscues they learned from along the way. “It’s really important to learn from your mistakes, and even though the next generation didn’t live through those mistakes, they have to know what they were,” Joe said, referring to a moment in the late 1970s when Fantini almost went under.

As insurance against repeating some of those errors, they’ve also been investing in training, sending sons Alex, Tommy and Mike to AIB International, Manhattan, KS, to gain a better understanding of modern commercial baking. While all three men may have grown up in the bakery — Alex and Mike can recall sweeping the floors when they were 12 — attending AIB classes have brought them perspective that comes with meeting others in the baking industry.

“You learn a lot working with other managers and people from the big bakeries: Bimbo, Flowers,” Alex said. Being outside of the day-to-day of the bustling bakery and learning from not only books but also peers, Alex, Mike and Tommy have been able to bring about critical changes in operations to ensure the business keeps up with changing times, a legacy from their grandfather who introduced automation to the bakery.

With the knowledge they gained at AIB, Alex, Tommy and Mike have introduced some changes. About five years ago, they brought in AIB to conduct an inspection and help improve food safety procedures. “It was eye opening at first because you think you’re doing things right,” Alex said. “Then they do inspections, and you can’t believe you’ve missed things or you’re not doing things you’re supposed to be doing.”

However, with a business as established as Fantini Bakery, change doesn’t always come about so easily. The bakery employs 150 people, some of whom have worked there for decades and others who are second-generation employees. With so many legacies, modernizing procedures takes a lot of time and effort.

“One of the challenges was a lot of the regulations are newer, like in the past 10 years or so,” Mike said. “A lot of people here, the foremen, have worked here for 20-plus years, so they’ve been doing one thing, one way for 20 years, and then a lot of this stuff has to change.”

Facilitating new work procedures took some micro-managing among the department heads and sending them to training as well. “Change starts from the top and works its way down,” Alex said.

As an added check on the team, everyone is also being cross-trained across the bakery so that no balls are ever dropped. “We want everyone to have a good understanding of all the different departments so they appreciate and step in to help whenever someone asks for it,” Robert said.

Alex, who is currently heading food safety, initially managed the first AIB inspections the bakery underwent. During Baking & Snack’s visit, it was Mike who had taken over the preparations for an impending inspection. While Tommy is currently the dough expert, Robert insisted they want everyone to be able to help maintain product quality. Not only is Mike learning inspections, but he’s also handling quality control and will be learning more about the sales and distribution side as well. Alex has taken on many of Robert’s day-to-day duties of the business, focusing on good manufacturing practices.

In Robert’s and Joe’s minds, being a part of the family business was never required for their children. Robert even remembers his grandfather and uncles urging him not go into the family business, saying that the work was too hard. With automation in place, the work has gotten easier, and while Robert and Joe have tried not to place an expectation on their children, the opportunity to work has always been there if they wanted it.

“If you want a paycheck, you have to do some work, but it has to be fair work for a fair pay,” Robert explained. While Robert and Joe remain at the helm, Robert’s son Alex and Joe’s sons Tommy and Mike work full time in the business. Robert’s daughter Camille, fresh out of college, is currently learning the accounting side of Fantini Bakery, and his other daughter Amanda is working for the sales department. Joe’s daughter, Shayna, though still in college, has hopes of working in sales for the business when she graduates. As this fifth generation is trained, Robert and Joe hope to pass on a legacy of quality bread at a good value that is known throughout New England.

Modernizing a legacy

Fantini Bakery has been baking sandwich rolls and bread since Sabatino Fantini opened the bakery in Haverhill in 1902. After coming to America from Italy in 1894, Sabatino first worked as a baker in Rhode Island and then opened his own bakery in Lawrence, MA, before finally settling in Haverhill. Since those early days, the bakery has always been a family affair. Sabatino’s brother Rinaldo came into the business with him when it moved to Haverhill. When Sabatino passed away in 1924, his sons took over the business until the 1960s when Robert and Joe’s father Robert (Bob) Fantini stepped into the leadership role. With eight children, many of them helped in the bakery.

“I got involved packing bread after grammar school, and my brothers would stop by and pack bread, and my sisters would help with customers and work in our thrift store. My mother [Joan] was an integral part, doing the paperwork and bookkeeping,” Robert said, recalling Joan doing paperwork more than once from her hospital bed after giving birth. “It was a working family, and we just lived running a business.”

With Bob at the helm, the bakery made the move toward modernization. In 1972, it relocated from a house to its current building, and with that move came the space for bigger equipment — the Fantini’s first tunnel oven. With a new oven and more space also came the possibility of greater product throughput.

Following the advice of the equipment suppliers, Bob increased the variety of products they offered. At its start, the bakery was producing Italian and French breads, eight to 10 different items. With the new equipment, Bob began making between 15 and 20 different doughs, resulting in 80 products.

Robert and Joe have kept up that legacy of strengthening the product portfolio. Fantini Bakery also now produces sliced bread, rye bread, an assortment of dinner rolls, hearth bread and high-absorption doughs such as ciabatta and focaccia, totaling 100 different items and 300 product codes. Five years ago, the Fantinis installed a used Rheon line to handle the new high-absorption doughs to meet demand. During the past three years, production of those doughs has gone from 100 lb a week to 2,000 lb per week.

As Bob increased the product range, all of those baked goods had to go somewhere, so he also expanded the bakery’s customer base. “He increased our distribution so we weren’t just a Haverhill bakery,” Robert explained. “We became a Central New England bakery.”

Today, Joe and his sales team, including his sister Peg, who recently joined the team, continue to broaden the reach of the bakery’s products with good old-fashioned pounding the pavement. “We have several sales people that are out every day visiting existing customers to make sure they’re happy and knocking on doors to get new business,” said Inga Dahne, director of sales. Some of Fantini Bakery’s distributors also actively sell the products throughout the region.

The bakery handles its own local distribution with three delivery routes. Customers outside of these local routes pick up their orders at distribution centers throughout the region. Orders come from customers as well as distributors, and the operations team aims to have product finished and ready to leave three hours before the truck is scheduled to depart as a buffer for any unforeseen delays.

The sales base consists of a nearly even split between supermarkets and wholesale throughout New England, including Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The bakery is currently pushing to expand business to south of Boston. The bakery has all types of wholesale accounts including K-12 schools, colleges, restaurants and sports arenas, including Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium. Their largest customer, supermarket chain Market Basket, has also expanded from a local store to cover Central New England, taking Fantini Bakery with it in the process. With plenty of opportunities from all these customers, private-label business isn’t on their radar.

“We don’t like spikes,” Joe said of the bakery’s growth. “We like steady. We don’t do anything crazy. We’ve been here for 100-plus years, and we want to make sure we’re here another 100-plus years.”

The family is happy with the growth that got them to where they are today, but to ensure they continue to deliver good quality bread at a value to their customers, the Fantinis continue to look at adding even more automation, following the example set by Bob.

Automating tradition

Since converting a grocery store into a bakery in the 1970s, the facility has gone through several expansions and now spans 60,000 sq ft. The Fantinis have filled the space with six production lines — two bread lines, a roll line, a Rheon line, a KB automated roll line and an older automatic production line just in case something breaks down. “We really invest into the bakery,” Joe said. “Everything we do is to become more efficient so we can continue to offer the best value to the customer.”

That tunnel oven purchased all those years ago? There are now four, including a Benini triple-deck oven, a Babbco tunnel oven on the most automated line and a Sarmatek triple-deck, high-capacity oven installed in 2014. 

The older part of the bakery houses Lines No. 1, 2 and 4, which produce mostly hearth breads and buns. Peerless and Shaffer horizontal mixers develop the dough for pan breads, hearth breads or rolls. The roll dough is sent through a KB roll system while the other doughs are sent through a Benier rounder and intermediate proofer.

Dough balls from the Benier system are sent through a Baker Perkins moulder, installed a few years ago. As the bakery has tried to keep up with demand for its products, consistency has been a challenge they’ve answered with more training and automation.

For scali bread, the bakery’s best-selling product, the Fantinis were struggling with maintaining the quality and consistency as they tried to match throughput to demand. The Baker Perkins moulder provides gentle processing of the dough and doesn’t deliver as much stress as is typical with automated equipment. The impact of this gentle processing can be seen down the production line. As the loaves come out of the proofer, the tops are more consistent in height.

Robert was drawn to this equipment, not just to get a better accuracy in moulding but also because of its ability to reduce dust in the bakery. Because moulding generally requires dusting flour, which then gets into the air causing sanitation and health issues for the employees, Baker Perkins designed its moulder to eliminate the need for dusting flour. With four sets of closed coupled rollers, it has optimal release properties, eliminating the need for scrapers and enabling the equipment to handle dough without damaging it or dealing with stickiness, even without dusting flour.

 The dough pieces are then placed on a peel board and seeded by hand, a process the family is interested in automating in the future as well. The dough pieces traveling through Lines No. 1 and 2 before entering a Pfening proofer while Line 4 uses a Sarmatek proofer. Operators then load the bread onto one of three tunnel ovens. After the ovens, the product cools on Lanham and Technopool conveyors before heading to packaging. In a twisting packaging room, buns and bread loaves travel through LeMatic slicers and are packaged by UBE bagging systems before entering the warehouse.

Ten years ago, the facility grew to encompass Line No. 3, the bakery’s most automated line, which produces Kaiser rolls, hamburger buns and pan breads as well as orders for K-12 schools. White flour is stored in silos from Shick USA and metered automatically, but the white whole wheat flour and micro ingredients must all be measured and added manually — another area the Fantinis hope to automate in the future.

After the dough is mixed in Shaffer and Peerless mixers, it is loaded by trough into a KB roll system to be divided, rounded and sent through an intermediate proofer. Dough balls are loaded into pans automatically and then sent to the proofer, which sits on the second floor of the bakery. A Capway Systems conveyor and elevator carries the pans and delivers them to the IJ White proofer before bringing them back down to be loaded into a Babbco single-level tunnel oven.

While the rolls are sent to a Capway spiral conveyor, the pans are handled robotically by a Capway Robocap system and stored until their next use. After cooling, the rolls and pan breads are sliced by a LeMatic band slicer. An operator stacks the buns into two layers before they are bagged by a UBE packaging line and sealed with a Kwik Lok clip. These packaged products then meet up with the product from Lines No. 1, 2 and 4 to be sorted into orders in the warehouse.

The production schedule is based on orders placed by customers and distributors. Production begins at 5 a.m. every day and starts with the lowest-temperature products and moves up by temperature from there. After that, products are baked from shortest to quickest time.

Sanitation and maintenance is scheduled for Tuesdays and Saturdays after production. According to Mike, Line No. 3 usually finishes first, so the sanitation team starts there. As production finishes up for the day, the sanitation team moves to clean those lines as well. The team consists of seven to 10 employees; however, the concept of cross-training has trickled down from the family to apply to all 150 employees, too. While there may be dedicated teams for each function of the bakery, everyone knows how to do more than their share to ensure no balls are dropped.

Planning for the future

As Faninti Bakery has continuously invested in automation for the past 40 years, it has also continued to add on to its grocery-store-turned-bakery to make room for equipment. This has resulted in production lines that are woven around one another in the limited space of the bakery. To give themselves more room, the Fantinis have drawn up plans to expand the building into the front parking lot. “We want to straighten out all of our lines and mixers so that everything is aligned for better flow and begin to automate the proofer, feeding the oven,” Alex explained. “And we want to have extra space for the future.”

Ground-breaking on the new construction is scheduled for May or early June, and the Fantinis hope to be finished by fall of this year. When construction is complete, the bakery’s warehouse will double, and there will be enough space to streamline the packaging lines. According to Alex, they also plan to add an automated line for hearth breads — they’ve dubbed it the “super hearth line” — that will produce hearth rolls faster and more efficiently.

With space to stretch out their lines and plans to further automate the operation, the family is optimistic about the future. “It would be good to make twice as much product in less time,” Robert said. “In the old days, we’d have one or two ovens and have to work 22 hours to get all the bread made. Now, a long day with four ovens is 12 hours. With the new line, we want to try to get everything done in 10 to 12 hours. I think it makes better quality of life for people.”

And taking care of the business, its customers, its employees and the family is what Fantini Bakery is all about.