VIENNA, VA. — Even as the company contends with numerous obstacles in its efforts to operate, Yamazaki Baking Co. is diverting production of nearly half its baking plants to help with the massive humanitarian relief under way in Japan.

Offering an update was David B. Conner, vice-president of human resources of Yamazaki’s U.S. subsidiary, Vie de France Yamazaki, Inc., based in Vienna, Va. Tokyo-based Yamazaki is Japan’s largest baking company. In the United States, the company operates six plants sprinkled across the country along with several retail bakery-cafes.

Working closely with the Japanese government, Yamazaki began producing about 500,000 baked products daily (bread and sweet goods) for shipment principally to emergency shelters in areas most severely affected by the March 11 earthquake that hit northeastern Japan.

“The Japanese government wants us producing as much as we can as quickly as we can,” Mr. Conner said. He said Yamazaki has gradually increased production through the week to more than 500,000 units per day for the relief effort.

As of March 17, 31 of Yamazaki’s 33 baking plants were fully operational.

“The only problem at the operating plants is the rolling power outages that extend well beyond the crisis area,” Mr. Conner said.

The two plants closest to the quake were not operating. Mr. Conner said that one of the plants, in Sendai, the heart of the affected area, put an engineering preparedness plan into place immediately following the earthquake and was ready to resume operations by March 15.

“Unfortunately, the plant still is not running,” he said. “There is no power, no gas and no water in Sendai. But the fact that those plants are ready to run is great news and was a tremendous engineering accomplishment.”
The second plant not running also was ready but unable to operate because of utilities outages.

Yamazaki has diverted production of about 14 plants in the eastern half of Japan to the humanitarian efforts, at the request of the Japanese government.

The company bakes a range of products in Japan, including bread, sweet buns, confectionery products, side dishes and desserts. Its annual sales total $7.2 billion.

“We’ve scaled down production to a couple hundred s.k.u.s (stock-keeping units) we can do quickly,” he said. “We’re focusing on items with little proofing time to aid the humanitarian efforts and get product to market.”

The simpler product line also helps deal with the rolling power outages, he said. Yamazaki’s 17 remaining plants in western Japan are dedicating production to their traditional markets in addition to supplying, as much as possible, outlets normally served by the company’s eastern baking plants. Demand has been up, and keeping retail shelves filled has been a challenge.

“We need to do what we can to feed the people,” Mr. Conner said. “It’s the right thing to do and is almost certainly going to continue for a long time to come.”

One concern Mr. Conner expressed earlier in the week that proved unfounded was whether the baking plant workers, about 3,000 per facility, would be able to get to work. Public transportation disruptions were widespread after the earthquake.

“It’s the culture there,” he said. “There is a spirit of overcoming. Whether they walk, ride a bike or hitchhike, they get there.”