MILWAUKEE — Since 1923, a Miller Baking Co. has always been in Milwaukee and owned by a member of a Miller family — just not the same one. In 1970, Brian Miller’s father, Richard, bought the small retail bakery known as Miller Baking Co. and shaped it into a wholesale baking business. The bakery sold bread, rolls, muffins, cookies and donuts to hotels, restaurants, caterers and grocery stores throughout Milwaukee. With zero baking background, Richard Miller built his business on a commitment to quality and service. When he decided to retire in 1997, he sold the bakery to his son, Brian Miller.
“I think my dad went into it with a head full of steam, and ignorance is bliss,” Brian Miller, president, said of his late father’s decision to buy a bakery. “Most people who got into baking, especially then, had a family component, and there was none for him. My dad just had the opportunity to buy a small retail bakery, and he went for it.”
When Brian Miller purchased the bakery, the attitude was very much the same as his dad’s. He spent little time in the bakery growing up; his father hadn’t wanted to push the business on him and encouraged him to get jobs elsewhere. After a year in law school, he got a call from his father offering first dibs on the business before he sold or closed shop for good.
“We had never had a discussion of me taking over the business, but I moved back home, and it’s been an amazing ride,” he said. “It was a very vertical learning curve. It’s been very humbling. I had no experience reading P&Ls, managing people, handling sales and operations. I was 25 years old. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and sometimes I think that’s a good thing. It might have been overwhelming if I truly knew what I was getting into.”
The learning curve may have been steep, but Mr. Miller has implemented his father’s lessons in quality and service to grow the business further. Ten years after taking on Miller Baking Co., he incorporated soft pretzel buns into the daily fresh production and watched the line take over production.
“We grew from 35 lb in a Hobart mixer to a couple hundred pounds to a couple thousand pounds to, ‘Holy cow!’” Mr. Miller recalled. “People were calling us from other cities wanting to know if they could get the product.”
Then in 2010, three years after toying with the idea of soft pretzel buns, Whole Foods Midwest division approached Miller Baking Co. about selling frozen pretzel buns to the retail chain. Thus began the move from a bakery selling rolls in white bakery bags to selling a branded product. Pretzilla was born.
Dedicated to Pretzilla
Miller Baking Co.’s original building on 5th Street in downtown Milwaukee is 12,500 square feet. In that facility, the bakery made all 175 stock-keeping units (s.k.u.s), including 30 varieties of donuts with different toppings, and managed to squeeze in Pretzilla production wherever it could.
“We were producing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week of soft pretzel buns along with all the fresh route items,” Mr. Miller said. “We were using literally every square inch of the building, and it wasn’t until May 2014 that we actually moved into a dedicated facility for Pretzilla and put in automated equipment.”
Moving Pretzilla into its own facility was key to Miller Baking Co.’s growth.
“I held off growth because there was only so much room and so much time,” he said.
Wanting to carefully manage the business, Mr. Miller had been slow to invest in more space. Being at capacity, however, forced him to make a move. In 2012, he bought a new facility for Pretzilla production. Eventually the building was expanded to its current 30,000 square feet. Production started in the facility two years later.
The new bakery, the Steven Road facility, houses one production line and four packaging lines. The flexibility of the Gemini Bakery Equipment makeup line allows the bakery to make bites and twists as well as soft pretzel buns for hamburgers and sausages.
A bulk system scales flour from two KB Systems silos, holding 70,000 and 90,000 lbs, and load cells monitor the flour left in them. Chilled water is automatically metered, while all other minor and micro ingredients are hand-scaled. The formula remains mostly the same across each product variety.
“We might scale the batch down for the smaller products so the process time stays the same,” said Mike Walz, chief operating officer, Miller Baking Co.
The dough is mixed in two Koenig double helix mixers. For burger buns, the straight dough is mixed in 400-lb batches. The dough is automatically lifted into the hopper of the Gemini makeup line. For the burger buns, the dough travels through the 5-pocket divider and rounder before the pieces are flattened and placed on peel boards. This flattening helps control the diameter of the product as it proofs and bakes. The makeup line can be adjusted for sausage buns, which will be sent through rollers to curl and mould before entering the intermediate proofer.
“We’ve had a good relationship with both Gemini and Koenig,” Mr. Miller said. “From a customer service standpoint, Koenig and Gemini both do an amazing job.”
Workers rack the peel boards and roll them into a 23-rack LC Bakery Equipment proof box. Larger products such as the burger buns take about an hour to proof. The products are then removed from the peel boards and sent through the caustic bath that transforms regular buns into soft pretzel buns.
Operators must go through special training to handle the caustic bath operation. While everyone in the bakery wears hair nets and protective sleeves, operators in this area also wear eye protection and aprons. They continuously monitor the levels of lye in the bath to ensure consistent product quality.
Once the products emerge from the caustic bath, two ABI robots score it, which is an upgrade from the original manual process. In the move to automation, it was important to Mr. Miller that the product quality — in taste as well as appearance — be maintained.
“If you look at our product, no one bun looks the same, and that’s by design,” he said. “We’re not trying to make a cookie-cutter product. Engineering the process to get it more consistent can take away from the quality.”
Introducing automation with these goals in mind was a concern for Mr. Miller but necessary to keep up with demand. After working with suppliers and their equipment, he felt confident about maintaining product quality. The soft pretzel buns and rolls are still clean label, allergen-free and show those trademark inconsistencies.
“There’s always going to be a little bit of trade-off, but I would say the success and sales speak volumes,” he said.
After scoring, buns are re-racked and placed in one Revent or one of six Sveba Dahlen double rack ovens. They bake for approximately 15 minutes then cool in ambient temperature for 60 to 70 minutes, depending on the season, before being packaged.
Buns and rolls marked for food service customers will be sent through a LeMatic bulk packer; products for retail customers are packaged in a Formost Fuji horizontal flowwrapper. The bakery also packages bites in two different tub sizes: a large one or a snack-size carton that comes with a cup of cheese sauce for dipping. These snack bites are inspected by a Thermo Scientific X-ray because of the foil seal on the cheese dip, but all other baked foods packages receive metal detection from an Advanced Detection system before freezing in a freezer that can hold about 300 pallets. While it only takes three hours to freeze product, it takes 16 hours to get product to the desired temperature.
Soft pretzel buns and bites don’t remain in the freezer for long. Production follows closely behind orders, and Mr. Walz estimated that about 90% of products ship within four days. As the bakery gears up for its busy season — May to October — the production schedule will accommodate the need to build up inventory to handle extra orders.
Strategic production is one of the lessons Mr. Miller and his team learned as Pretzilla took off and forced them to grow. Before, the bakery had a production schedule of “run, baby, run,” Mr. Miller said.
“We weren’t using KPIs in the beginning or even scheduling,” he explained. “In the beginning, we just did whatever we had to do to get the product out.”
Since then, the company has increased its efficiency by strategically planning each day, week or month.