Much of Michigan Bread’s success is due to its commitment to natural fermentation, said Spiros Assimacopoulos, president and chief executive officer of the Taylor, Mich.-based bakery.

The bakery cranks out a range of breads, including brioche, baguettes, Italian bread, traditional buns and rolls, sandwich breads, and the company’s Detroit line of breads: 3-lb hearth-baked sandwich loaves.

Products start with poolish, sourdough or biga that are fermented 18 to 24 hours before use. Michigan Bread is protective of preserving this part of the process, though it’s not the most efficient style of production.

“It’s the right way to make bread to me,” he said. “We’re proud of the quality of our products, and this method is key to that. It’s what’s most important as long as the business model is viable. I’d rather grow slowly or level off than compromise that value. It’s our secret sauce, and it’s not even a secret. We’re just committed to making bread in this traditional way.”

The commitment seems to be paying off, however, as the business isn’t growing slowly at all. Since its start in 2010, Michigan Bread has grown to annual revenue of more than $10 million.

“Because of that growth, we’ve had to reinvent ourselves and our process a number of times,” Mr. Assimacopoulos said. “We have a lot of opportunity for growth going forward, and in many ways, we feel like we’re just getting started.”

To continue this trajectory, the company took its first steps into automation this year with two new production lines.

Throughout its history, Michigan Bread has only moved its location once, and for the time being, it’s staying put. In 2012, the bakery relocated to a 61,000-square-foot facility in suburban Detroit. Initially, this facility housed seven small production lines to handle the diverse production runs. With the latest equipment installations — two makeup lines from Koenig Bakery Systems — Michigan Bread has consolidated those seven production lines into three but increased throughput as well as overall quality. In the coming weeks, the neighboring business will move out, freeing up another 12,000 square feet for future expansions: a second spiral cooling tower, automated proofing system and a tunnel oven.

Line No. 1 is a Menes-H sheeting line, and Line No. 2 is an IREX industrial roll line. With the introduction of the IREX, Mr.  Assimacopoulos said bakers were able to increase hydration by 3%, which has several benefits including better machinability, improved flavor with increased volume and shelf life. Overall, this investment allowed the bakery to increase throughput by 250%. This is changing the face of Michigan Bread’s customer from independent restaurants to regional chains. While the independents are Michigan Bread’s backbone, broadline distribution to larger customers in other states is the fastest-growing side of the business. To accommodate the broadline foodservice distributors, Michigan Bread purchased an offsite cold storage facility last year for products destined for other states throughout the Midwest and as far as Florida.

To deliver fresh bread daily requires deliveries of minor ingredients and flour multiple times a week. Flour is stored in a BB Impiati flour silo that holds up to 77,000 lbs, and both flour and water are metered automatically. Two employees scale minor ingredients by hand using Doran scales with batch control to prevent over-scaling.

These ingredients are incorporated with poolish, sourdough or biga in one of four mixers from Bertuetti and one from Koenig, the largest handling up to 300-kg (660-lb) batches. With the no-stress Koenig lines, the bakery doesn’t need additives to protect the dough during processing; however, that means dough consistency — and temperature — is critical. This led Michigan Bread to invest in Maxium water and flour chillers.

“In the summer, the flour comes in at 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and there is no amount of ice that will cool that down,” Mr. Assimacopoulos said.

While operators on Line No. 3 chunk dough by hand and add it into the makeup equipment, Lines Nos. 1 and 2 feature bowl hoists that lift mixing bowls and empty them into hoppers. Dough is chunked automatically and then either formed into a dough sheet on Line No. 1 or divided into dough pieces on Line No. 2. Line No. 3 is the last remnant of Michigan Bread’s old way of doing things on the makeup side, and the impact to efficiency shows.

"We have a lot of opportunity for growth going forward, and in many ways, we feel like we’re just getting started."

Spiros Assimacopoulos, Michigan Bread

Line No. 1, which was making baguettes during Baking & Snack’s visit, also handles the majority of the bakery’s breads and ciabattas. The dough band travels through three sets of rollers — satellite roller, cross and standard sheeting — to get to its desired thickness. These rollers gently stretch the dough band to the appropriate thickness without imparting pressure on the dough. The dough sheet is cut into strips by roll cutters, and a guillotine cuts the dough into baguettes. A cross-roller and opposing moulder roll up and shape the baguette pieces before they’re automatically panned.

After dividing on Line No. 2, the dough pieces are moulded and panned automatically. While Line No. 1 only needs three employees to run it, Line No. 2 requires five.

Pans are racked and then moved to either the proofer or retarder, depending on the product’s needs. Brioche, Italian bread and some ciabatta go into the retarder first.

“It’s double the handling and double the energy, but the difference in quality is akin to marinating a steak overnight or grilling it immediately,” Mr. Assimacopoulos explained. “You start with the same material, but the end result is something completely different.”

In 2012, Michigan Bread’s proofer held 12 racks, but the bakery has since expanded its proofer capacity to 60 double racks of product. Once proofed, the bread moves to one of three types of ovens. Soft pan breads and rolls go into one of nine MIWE or Cinelli indirect-gas-fired convection ovens. Ciabatta and Detroit breads are placed in one of two thermal oil deck ovens after being hand-scored and sprayed with water. The rest of Michigan Bread’s product portfolio is baked in one of seven MIWE thermal-oil ovens. Each one can bake three racks, 60 pans, at a time, a huge saving on space.

Michigan Bread lucked out when moving into this facility because it inherited the previous tenant’s thermal oil piping.

“That infrastructure is typically very expensive, but they had already installed it,” Mr. Assimacopoulos said. “Using thermal oil, which is radiant heat with no turbulence, really sets our product apart.”

Four Daub heat exchangers prepare the oil and circulate it back into the oven. The heated oil flows through the baking surfaces, creating a consistent baking temperature throughout.

After baking, product is either depanned automatically and cooled at ambient temperature on an IJ White spiral cooler or left on racks to cool in the packaging department.

“With only one spiral right now, we’re doing a lot of rack cooling, which is labor intensive,” Mr. Assimacopoulos said.

With the extra 12,000 square feet, Michigan Bread will stretch out its production to accommodate a second cooling tower for two straight full production lines.

After cooling, bread is polybagged on one of three UBE packaging lines. Currently, only one is automatically loaded, but that will soon change. Kwik Lok systems close the bags, which are then sent through a Mettler Toledo metal detector. Michigan Bread recently invested in Hartmann reciprocating slicers and baggers, which will slice up to 45 Detroit loaves per minute as opposed to slicing five to six loaves a minute as it does now.

Product set for broad-line distribution is palletized and driven to the offsite cold storage location. Fresh product is moved to the distribution department, where it’s staged with other vendors’ breads for delivery the next day. Drivers will arrive the next morning to deliver product along 20 routes to Michigan Bread’s 1,200 independent restaurant customers. The team is in the process of implementing a pick-to-light system to streamline warehouse management, which it hopes to have up and running early next year.

Ask Mr. Assimacopoulos what his plans are for the next five years, and he’ll give you his “generic” answer: “I’d like to maintain the brisk pace of growth and perfect everything from a quality and culture standpoint while executing the business model,” he noted.

But as he walks through the bakery, pointing out what’s new and what’s to come, it’s clear the future is anything but generic for Michigan Bread.

This article is an excerpt from the October 2019 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Michigan Bread, click here.