While growing up in multigenerational baking family in Switzerland, René Fluri was destined to follow the well-worn path to become the family’s 4th-generation baker. He worked as an apprentice, went to business school and was ready to take over his family baking business. "As my father began to foresee retirement, I said I wanted to see America before taking over the business," Mr. Fluri said. "Entering Canada was easier at the time — in 1958 — so I ventured to Montreal and worked for one year to gain additional experience. I ended my travels in Vancouver, BC, and was planning to return to Montreal and then Switzerland."
In Vancouver, Mr. Fluri found a job at a small baker called Gizella Pastry Ltd., making fine pastries. Business flourished under Mr. Fluri’s quality and expertise of pastries, and he extended his stay. The owner soon offered to sell the business to Mr. Fluri. "I planned to own it for two years then sell out and move back to Switzerland," he recalled. But opportunities did not warrant his return, and Gizella Pastry continues to be one of
Mr. Fluri’s three operations.
Today, however, it is a wholesale-only business operating from a 37,000-sq-ft facility in Vancouver. He also exports to Asia, the UK and the US.
In 2003, Mr. Fluri also acquired Les Boulangeries Rene, a 35,000-sq-ft hamburger bun bakery in Montreal.
FROM PASTRY TO BUNS.In 1982, McDonald’s Canada, looking for dedicated bun production in Western Canada, approached Mr. Fluri about building a single purpose bakery for the QSR’s regional outlets in British Columbia. Because of his reputation for quality, consistency and service, the fact that Mr. Fluri had no prior experience in bun production was not an issue to the fast-food giant. McDonald’s was looking for an entrepreneur who could be a dedicated supplier and focus on supplying its growing business in the region. Mr. Fluri consulted with several McDonald’s suppliers in the US before making the decision to build the bakery.
The resulting $5.5 million, 40,000-sq-ft Golden West Bakery opened in 1984. For 25 years, Golden West in Delta, BC, has supplied McDonald’s restaurants in the BC market with hamburger buns. In 1986, McDonald’s asked Mr. Fluri to add English muffin capacity to the facility. This request was once again stimulated by the baker’s consistent high-quality products.
The installation of the English muffin line provided impetus for Golden West’s journey in the retail English muffin business. Today, although 70% of Golden West’s English muffins are sold to McDonald’s, it also supplies retail packages to six US states as well as all of western Canada.
"On the retail side, we supply customers in Western Canada as well as customers in the US, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong," said Nick Mesich, company vice-president. "The key element to the bakery’s success has been our unrelenting dedication to quality and service."
Key strategic decisions came in 1999. "The addition of a 10,000-sq-ft freezer to accommodate our export business as well as the expansion of our 1,200-doz-per-hour muffin capacity with a new in-house fabricated 2,200-doz-per-hour line — the fastest in the world at the time —
allowed us to double our volume and expand our customer base," Mr. Mesich noted.
Demand reached the point that an additional line was needed, and the bakery installed a second line in 2005.
NEXT BIG STEPS.Being entrepreneurial minded, Mr. Fluri and his team entertain nontraditional solutions to traditional challenges. One of those solutions came when the bakery looked to diversify its production capabilities and reach out with new products and to new customers that could not be supplied because of the limited production flexibility offered by its existing equipment. The final incentive was a new premium sandwich that McDonald’s was going to introduce on a hearth-style double-split-top honey-wheat roll.
"It is a lower-absorption dough that could not be run on a traditional bun line," Mr. Mesich said. "The mixers could handle the dough, but the pumps and the divider could not. The dough was too stiff." With limited space, Golden West looked for a solution that would enable it to run this type of product using its current makeup line. Its use of Vemag dividers from Reiser proved a sound decision. They were able to still use the existing divider and, by wheeling it out and moving the Vemag in place, could quickly change product types. "It wasn’t without challenge, and our engineering manager Grant Cancy worked closely with Reiser’s engineering group to make certain modifications, and we had a very short window of time to get it done," Mr. Mesich noted.
The bakery installed the Vemag adjacent to the divider it was using at the time. The only other part of the line that needed modification was the oven. "The product needed steam to get that nice shiny gloss and dough break at the slits, and our oven was not designed to have steam," said Sylvain Alie, operations manager, a 9-year veteran of Golden West. "We couldn’t just add steam jets because of corrosion issues, so our engineering team
designed and fabricated a new front section to our oven to accommodate steam. All this had to be completed and ready for production within a 30-day window, without disrupting current operations."
The bakery now uses Vemag systems on all its lines. Management cited added flexibility, tightened scaling tolerances and maintenance accessibility as benefits of the Vemag. "In addition to the honey wheat roll, the change allowed us to produce a wide selection of lower absorption rolls, which we are producing for Asian export markets," Mr. Alie added. "And the dividers allow us to take on any foreseeable product introduction McDonald’s throws our way."
During the past five years, Golden West also replaced most of its packaging equipment and all its mixers. This was done to poise itself for another 25 years of uninterrupted supply.
Golden West was among the first bakeries in Canada to be HACCP certified. AIB International helped with the HACCP work, and the University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, certified its program. "Having these is a good business tool for us and compelling argument for our customers," Mr. Mesich added.
SPACE UTILIZATION.The 50,000-sq-ft plant includes three production lines that output 13 SKUs, totaling more than 20 million dozen buns and English muffins annually.
"The plant works on an ‘almost’ just-in-time manner," Mr. Alie said. "We have to be very organized, and scheduling is crucial. We have very little room to store raw materials and certainly can’t afford the space to store or barely even stage product for shipment." More than two-thirds of production is made to order and shipped.
Two flour silos are filled via rail car — a declining trend in the US but one that is still popular in Canada. Oil, flour, yeast and sugar are bulk stored and metered along with water to the Peerless 2,000-lb-capacity mixers, while other ingredients are hand-added.
For bun production, sponge is made then allowed to ferment for about four hours. The first-in first-out trough room uses a hydraulic pusher to advance the 12 troughs, stored shortways side by side, from one end of the room to the other.
The fermented sponge is added to a Peerless cold-bar mixer with additional ingredients, and finished dough dumps into a Food Machinery Equipment (FME) dough chunker. "The custom-designed chunker really helped our capabilities to produce variety doughs," Mr. Mesich said. "It is much gentler to the dough structure of regular buns as well as the stiffer hard rolls and whole-wheat doughs."
Dough chunks also maintain constant pressure in the Vemag dividers. "We run weights ranging from 45 to 100 g, and the accuracy we get is excellent," Mr. Alie added. "The benefits of no dividing oil, reduced noise and less energy use were also incentives when we considered purchase options."
After dividing, a 2-minute intermediate proof is followed by moulding and panning via an AMF Pan-O-Mat. "We standardized our formulas, so all products convey through the Lanham Systems final proofer for approximately 60 minutes, adding efficiency to the operation," Mr. Alie said.
A Burford seeder tops buns with sesame seeds when required. The line is also equipped with an in-house designed water splitter.
Depending on product, items bake in the Lanham oven for between seven and 15 minutes. Depanned buns cool on the overhead racetrack conveyor for 20 minutes before descending to packaging.
ADDED ENGLISH.Muffin operations use straight-dough procedures. After preparing dough in a Peerless 2,000-lb mixer, a Vemag divider portions the dough, which then proofs for 20 minutes in nylon mesh proofing cups before being deposited in the cups on the griddle conveyor.
Muffins bake for 10 minutes in the 90-ft, 2-tier griddle. The rows of cups are covered for the initial baking to establish and maintain product shape. The line then inverts to a lower tier, flipping the muffins in the process. On the return passage, the initial top side browns, and the product equilibrates to its final moisture. Muffins cool for 40 minutes before heading to packaging.
The third line, a smaller capacity muffin line, is used for specialty products. All products are checked for quality parameters via Dipix (now Montrose Technologies) in-line vision systems, a standard among McDonald’s bun bakers. In packaging, Golden West relies on LeMatic slicers and "forkers" for the buns and muffins, respectively, before bagging 6-by-5 pillow packs using Sandvik systems or penny stacks in UBE bagging equipment. An AMF ST bagger handles retail bun packaging.
In the current employee-centric mindset, Mr. Fluri noted that quality and service can only be supplied if an equally diligent and committed workforce is supporting the organization. Loyalty and commitment from both sides has supplied the bakery with the flexibility it requires to fill the needs of today’s market. A strong program of cross-training has allowed the bakery to take full advantage of lulls on one production line to complement demand on the other. This means less overtime but most importantly a strong pool of qualified machine operators that can quickly be inserted in key jobs.
Mr. Fluri set his personal bar quite high for a man in his position. "I don’t expect more from the employees than I do from myself," he said. "I believed in truth and fairness and practice what I preach." Mr. Mesich, a 25-year veteran with Golden West, added that you must lead by example, earn respect, gain loyalty, create energy and have open communication.
This article can also be found in the digital edition of Baking & Snack, September 1, 2009, starting on Page 47. Clickhere to search that archive.