Looking out the window on final descent toward San Juan, Puerto Rico, a few blue tarps are the last visual reminders of the devastation left from Hurricanes Irma and Maria that rocked the island in 2017. Driving through the streets reveals a city in full swing with restaurants serving up local cuisine and rooftop bartenders crafting mojitos over a breathtaking ocean view.

And in the town of Bayamon, the lush landscaping of Pan Pepin’s campus-style headquarters reflects the island’s beauty, not the destruction it survived.

In fact, this producer of bread, buns and tortillas barely missed a beat. While cranking out products to feed islanders in need, Pan Pepin also resumed construction for its new facility to house a bread line mere weeks after the disaster. That certainly says something about the strength of not only the bakery but also the Puerto Rican culture.

“Most employees were back to work within a couple of days, even though they were dealing with the aftermath at home,” recalled Mario Somoza, president of Pan Pepin. “That’s a testament to their commitment and resilience.”

Truly understanding how Pan Pepin accomplished all of this with a mere two-month setback on the 52,000-square-foot facility in the wake of destruction requires a closer look at a story that goes back further than the storms.

Growth beyond the odds

Despite the vibrant surroundings, running a bakery on an island with a little more than 3 million people is not without its challenges.

Outsiders may think of Puerto Rico and picture paradise. While there’s some truth to that — not many manufacturing facilities have a koi pond outside the entrance — the reality is not about living a lavish island life. Pan Pepin has worked hard to grow despite more than a decade of economic hurdles.


“We’ve had an economic crisis on the island for the past 12 years,” Mr. Somoza said. “It’s already had an impact with the people emigrating to find new opportunities in the U.S. Then the storms hit and made it worse.”

Mr. Somoza estimated that nearly a million people have left the island representing a 20% decline in the population.

“That’s fewer mouths to feed, which causes the market to contract,” he said.

Still, Pan Pepin found itself at capacity and ready to expand. In 2010, the company leased two buildings next door, which had been part of a window manufacturing company, and purchased them two years later. Initially the plan was to install a new bread line in one of the acquired buildings; historically, that’s how Pan Pepin addressed growth.

“The way the company had always grown was ad hoc,” Mr. Somoza said. “It was per need; the company added capacity when it needed and where it could. You can easily fall into that mode of, ‘We need another line, so let’s throw it in there.’”

This is the logical mentality for life on 3,000 square miles of land where greenfield expansion opportunities don’t often present themselves.

But then the company talked to its equipment vendors who cautioned that the quick route wouldn’t be so easy considering the massive renovations necessary for both buildings.

“Our need wasn’t urgent, yet, so we could step back and say, ‘What really makes sense here?’” Mr. Somoza explained.

And, thus, the master plan began.

A total makeover

Pan Pepin makes all its products in Bayamon for four distribution outlets in Aguadilla, Hormigueros, Ponce and Humacao in addition to shipping out of the headquarters (each depot distributes to roughly 20 sales routes, and Bayamon delivers to about 60). In addition to its own branded products, the bakery also distributes Dave’s Killer Bread for Thomasville, Ga.-based Flowers Foods and produces Nature’s Own, Healthy Choice and Milton’s bread, all through licensing agreements with Flowers, Chicago-based Conagra and Milton’s Craft Bakers, Carlsbad, Calif., respectively.

The company owns its fleet of 150 step vans, eliminating the need for third-party distributors. Managing this much traffic flow led to a flurry of inefficiency on the main campus, where production and distribution were happening in four buildings on both sides of a main thoroughfare.

This was just one revelation that came from the master plan developed by ArchUD. While the first phase involved tearing down one of the acquired buildings and replacing it with improved employee parking, the new building, now known on campus as Planta A, was designed as part of Phase 2.

“Before, our reality was a movement of people, finished product, raw materials, mechanics, employees moving in multiple directions like a spider web,” Mr. Somoza explained.

Pan Pepin

Today, production is much more streamlined. All bread and bun production — two bread lines and two bun lines — are housed in three facilities on one side of the street, while a tortilla line (with another on the way) lives in a building on the other side. Near the tortilla bakery, another older building eventually will be available to produce new items should Pan Pepin expand into other product categories.

Before that happens, though, Phase 3 will involve adding one loading dock that will connect all bread and bun lines so that finished product can leave immediately and head to the depots throughout the island.

The beauty of the master plan is in its flexibility.

“The architect told us, ‘You can do this all over a three-year period or a 20-year period. You can spread it out however you want based on resources and what’s going on,’” Mr. Somoza recalled. “The plan adapts.”

And if recent history is any indicator, adaptability is key … you never know what can change when you’re sitting inside the eye of a storm.

Survival and startup

Pan Pepin had just hit the mid-point in Phase 2 when Maria and Irma delivered a one-two punch, but the bakery’s damage was relatively small compared with what other buildings and businesses suffered.

“The thing was a bunker,” Mr. Somoza recalled. “The hurricanes came and went, and we didn’t lose a single nail, screw or panel.” This was thanks in part to the building’s concrete precast panels ArchUD had designed.

The only structure that was a total loss was the ­bakery’s frozen warehouse.

Through a combination of timing and luck — and perhaps a bit of divine intervention — Pan Pepin not only resumed regular bakery operations within two days, but it also returned to work on Planta A construction two weeks later.

Once it was back underway, the biggest challenge was securing external resources such as forklifts, cranes and even shipping crates to execute the install. Throughout the island, these items were being used for recovery efforts.

“The vendors were more than willing to do whatever they could to help, and they hung onto the equipment until we could work it out,” he said.

Pan Pepin

Thanks to that high level of support from equipment suppliers, including AMF Bakery Systems, Shick Esteve and Shaffer, a Bundy Baking Solution, just to name a few, the new line started up only two months past the original deadline.

Although the timeline experienced just a minor setback, the installation was not without its hurdles. Perseverance and partnership from the vendors as well as Ron Foster, the Dallas-based third-party installer, were about the only ways to survive an install without electricity.

The entire high-tech, fully automated bread line was installed solely on backup generators. In fact, when Pan Pepin celebrated the facility’s grand opening, several areas, including parts of Bayamon, were still without power, even though it had been more than a year since the hurricanes. The lights — and line — turned on just in time to do the testing and training before the bakery officially started up.

“That was in November 2018,” Mr. Somoza said. “We started up the day after the opening, and we’ve been running ever since.”

Putting it on automatic

Pan Pepin was running at 90% capacity when the master plan began, and although the expansion was based on that need as well as the need to replace the company’s original bread line, efficiency became a natural byproduct.

“One thing we discussed at the outset was moving the volume products to this line so we can minimize changeovers and make it as efficient as possible,” Mr. Somoza said.

This way, the older lines would focus on smaller-volume and variety products.

The automated line also helped solve workforce issues. While many old-school bakers remained on the older lines where products are still made with more manual processes, the company strategically moved a few workers who showed interest in tackling new technology to the new line, where output speeds can reach up to 150 loaves per minute over a 7-hour process.

“We were able to add a lot of capacity and just add a few people to the line,” Mr. Somoza said. “It’s almost tripled the capacity that we had on the old line, but we didn’t have to triple the staffing.”

Pan Pepin

Running three products on one pan — white, whole grain white and whole wheat — the bakery boasts some of the most modern technology in the industry today; that’s obvious before anyone steps foot in the building. Towering outside stand Shick Esteve’s two 50,000-lb white whole grain flour silos and two 100,000-lb standard white flour silos that signal to all who enter big things are ahead.

The company’s first Shick Esteve system also includes two tanks for liquids, a super sack system for the whole wheat flour and a bag dump station for minors, all new technology for Pan Pepin. This system has helped streamline the bakery’s method of bread production because it identifies the formulas for the sponge and the dough, which prevent confusion as to which ingredients go into each of the Shaffer mixers — one 1,600-lb for the sponge and two 2,400-lb for the dough.

All ingredients are pneumatically conveyed on the Shick Esteve system, in which each recipe is loaded, and progress can be tracked on Allen-Bradley control screens.

“On the other line, we needed to use bags by hand,” said Victor Rodriguez, director of operations. “But now, you can put the quantity you need in the formula and just use one button. That’s it. It’s easy, it goes faster, and you have a lot of consistency with the final product. It’s the same, every time.”

Another major advancement in the new facility is the AMF fully automatic fermentation room.

“This was a big deal for us,” Mr. Somoza attested, noting that tripling capacity would have introduced an exorbitant amount of labor to move the troughs.

“We were able to add a lot of capacity and just add a few people to the line.”

Mario Somoza, Pan Pepin

“We were used to dealing with about 1,500-lb dough sizes on our other lines. Now, we’re talking about 2,400 or 2,500 lbs. It’s about employee safety because you don’t want to move those heavy troughs, but we’re also much more consistent.”

Moving troughs from the 1,600-lb sponge mixer through the fermentation room and up to one of the two Shaffer 2,400-lb dough mixers is a carefully orchestrated slide-puzzle. After the sponge ingredients are mixed, they are dumped into the trough and moved into the fermentation room on a first-in-first-out basis.

While the sponges ferment for a few hours, it’s just a matter of waiting.

After a trough leaves the fermentation room, it’s hoisted up into the dough mixer, and the sponge is dumped while the trough automatically slides back and is sprayed with oil before it reaches the sponge mixer to start that slide-puzzle over.

Keeping things moving

The fermentation system stays on an automatic loop, which ensures accuracy and consistency. Meanwhile, back at the mixers, finished dough exits and runs through a Shaffer chunker.

Afterward, dough chunks pass through a Mettler-Toledo metal detector before traveling to the hopper of an AMF ADD two-pocket divider with rounder and flour duster. Here, a curling chain ensures every dough ball is evenly coated with flour.

“This is important,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “You need to be sure all the dough gets flour so that when you go to the sheeter, you won’t have a sticky dough that will get stuck in the rollers.”

Pan Pepin

Next, the dough balls head toward the Shaffer sheeter-moulder-panner system. The moulded pieces are dropped into six-strap pans and conveyed to the 13-tier AMF spiral proofer for an hour, which gives the dough just enough time to rise while still leaving room for the oven spring.

During Baking & Snack’s visit, Mr. Somoza pointed out that after panning, the loaves run the “wide way” for the remainder of the process. While it’s typical to run wide into the proofer and oven, Pan Pepin runs its loaves this way throughout the processes on the recommendation of a fellow baker who noted that this was an efficient way to save conveyor space.

When loaves exit the proofer, lids drop onto the pans before they enter the AMF Bake-Tech MidiSaver continuous oven, which bakes about 150 loaves per minute.

“It’s a very nice oven,” Mr. Rodriguez said.

After baking, the Stewart Systems depanner keeps the process moving on this continuous one-pan loop. The depanner pulls off the lid and sends it to the return. Then it pulls out the bread, and the pans go through a pan cleaner and start the process over at the moulder, while the finished loaves head up the AMF BakeTech Continuous Cooler, where they cool for an hour until reaching 100°F. At that point, the bread passes through a Mettler-Toledo metal detector and is then ready to be packaged.

This is another area where automation has stepped things up for the bakery, with three packaging lines running simultaneously. First, loaves pass through a Bettendorf-Stanford slicer.

This was Pan Pepin’s first experience with Bettendorf-Stanford; the bakery learned about the equipment at the 2016 International Baking Industry Exposition on the recommendation of another baker. The slicers actually suffered damage due to the setbacks caused during the hurricane recovery, but Matt Stanford, president of Bettendorf-Stanford, personally oversaw the equipment’s rebuild and made a trip to Bayamon to ensure first-hand that the reinstall went off without a hitch.

After slicing, the bread is packaged with a Bettendorf-Stanford bagger. Then it is sealed and tied with a Burford Corp. TEC200R tamper-evident closure system. The two steps maintain freshness of the product for the consumer.

Final stages … for now

The cycle is complete, and packaged loaves are loaded into trays and taken to the shipping dock, the final addition to this phase of the master plan and what will become the first step in Phase 3. At that time, the dock will be the line that literally connects all buildings that house bread and bun production.

From here, products are sent either to the four other depots for distribution or directly to customers on the North Coast and in the San Juan metro area, the territory that the Bayamon plant serves.

Then there is one final stage in production, and it’s the final “technological first” in the facility: the AMF automated tray washing system. On the dock, incoming trays are returned and stacked perpendicular to one another before entering the tray wash room. As they are loaded onto this fully automated system, a robotic arm lifts, rotates and unstacks the trays before each one is conveyed around and inverted to release any crumbs or debris into a garbage disposal.

Pan Pepin

Then the trays run through the washing system and are dried and conveyed back to the packaging area, where they’re ready to once again receive the finished loaves. This system, which also came on the recommendation of other bakers, has streamlined efficiency at the back end of the process. Eventually, Mr. Somoza said, the bakery will build a permanent wall between the tray washing room and the stale receiving area. But that’s for a later phase.

Phase 3, which is expected to be an eight-month project, is on hold until 2020.

“Initially, we thought about straight-away, as soon as we finish Phase 2, we’ll get into Phase 3,” Mr. Somoza said. “But now, because we’re working on the new tortilla line, we’ve kind of said, ‘We need to take a breather from this.’”

As the sister storms proved, everything can change on a dime, and the outcome, good or bad, is sometimes beyond anyone’s control. That’s the beauty of the master plan: It can change as circumstances change. With the challenges the market faces on the island, especially with the shrinking population, Pan Pepin must be prepared for anything.

“We have to be able to respond faster to customer demands and be more innovative with the products we’re going to sell,” Mr. Somoza expressed.

“Other than that, our basic goals remain the same — create a positive work environment that will allow people to create the highest quality product possible.”

That’s how, despite all odds, Pan Pepin will stand strong.