When it came to food safety, Neri’s Bakery Products refused to settle on taking its Safe Quality Food (SQF) certification to anything but the highest level. At least, that’s how Anthony M. Neri, general manager, recalled the conversation a few years ago between his younger sister Brett Neri-Ferraro, now head of human resources and SQF practitioner, and their father, Dominick Neri, president and chief executive officer.

“My father came in, and Brett said, ‘If I’m going to do all that work, we’re not going to SQF Level 1. We’re going to Level 3 from the beginning,’” Anthony Neri recalled.

Ms. Neri-Ferraro, however, offered a slightly different version of that meeting.

“I believe my exact words were, ‘Go big or go home’” she said.

Neri’s Bakery did take the huge step and achieved SQF Level 3 certification and has consistently scored in the 90-plus percentile since its initial audit, said Ms. Neri-Ferraro.

“They were a long two years, a lot of sleepless nights and, on top of that, a lot of money that our family had to put back into our business to get it to Level 3 certified,” she said.

It’s easy to see why the journey was so extensive; the company has simply grown so much over the years. Today, the 350,000-square-foot, three-story facility takes up an entire city block in downtown Port Chester, N.Y., a 50-minute train ride north of the Big Apple. Currently, the plant houses seven production lines that use more than 2 million lbs of flour each week to produce its top-selling Kaiser, hero and club rolls as well as bread, buns and “kettle boiled” bagels.

Overall, the monolithic charcoal gray structure with its signature red stripe painted along the outside encloses what were originally three separate buildings that the company built, acquired and remodeled as it expanded over the years. At the north end, the bread department now operates three lines, each with a dedicated oven producing about 1,100 dozen rolls per hour. To the south, the bagel department consists of three makeup lines supplying two ovens at a volume of 3,400 dozen an hour. In any given week, that adds up to more than 1.1 million bagels. Sandwiched in the middle is the newest production line that cranks out 1,800 dozen hamburger and hot dog buns an hour.

Despite being landlocked by city streets on four sides, Neri’s has found room to grow. Next year, it is expanding its pastry department that will turn out 320 individually wrapped cookies per minute and a cinnamon bun line making 12,000 pieces an hour.

Fresh take on old school

The world may have changed since the company was founded by Paul Neri Sr. in 1910, but the bakery’s original recipes and traditions for creating its culinary confections and signature bread, rolls and bagels have not.

“Our pastry division handcrafts the masterpieces using the best ingredients, benchmarking our standard of excellence,” Anthony M. Neri said. “For decades our tasty inventions have been a part of Port Chester’s’ parties and gatherings.”

However, the highly automated wholesale operation prefers working in the background as a leading co-manufacturer for the commercial baking industry. Neri’s also supplies restaurants, delis, schools and other food service institutions throughout the Northeast and beyond.

During the past three decades, Neri’s Bakery has blossomed under the veteran, third-generation leadership of brothers Dominick Neri, and Paul Neri, vice-president. To build the bakery to what it is today, they’ve worked closely with their cousin Bob Neri, vice-president of sales, and brothers Sondro Neri, who oversees the bagel department, and Salvatore Neri Sr., who manages the pastry department.

With all of them in their 50s and 60s, the fourth generation of Neri family members — ranging in age from 22 to 35 — now manages the bakery’s daily operations. Along with Anthony M. Neri and Brett Neri-Ferraro, they include Anthony Frank Neri, plant manager and son of Paul Neri, and Salvatore Neri Jr., who works with his father coordinating production in the pastry department.

For both generations, the focus is now about ensuring the “success” in succession for the foreseeable future, and it’s quite a group effort.

“Our fathers are involved, but they are old school,” Anthony M. Neri noted. “Let’s face it. They have an abundance of experience. At the end of the day, why wouldn’t you sit down and have a conversation with somebody who has been doing it longer and knows more about the bakery than you do? When the whole team puts our heads together, we can move mountains.”

The bakery’s long-term growth can be attributed to the family’s perennial reinvestment into upgrading all aspects of the business, ranging from customer service and product quality to employee training, food safety and, of course, the latest in automation. That commitment is so ingrained that it’s become a strategic part of the company’s mission statement that’s paid back so well over the years.

“There’s no ‘We only have $2 million to spend this year,’” Ms. Neri-Ferraro explained. “We are constantly reinvesting. If something costs $2 million, but spending $3 million will be better in the long run, we’re spending $3 million. There are no short cuts.”

Such investments include paying a little more for quality ingredients such as fresh eggs, butter and milk that are integral to the bakery’s made-from-scratch product quality.

For customer service, Neri’s still maintains an open-line policy. No voicemail jail, even after hours. All orders come in by email or fax or can be adjusted by phone.

“When a customer has an issue, and customers will have issues, they can call and get in touch with any one of us anytime,” Anthony M. Neri said. “When they phone, they’re not going to get an automated service pushed from number to number. They’re going to talk to somebody, and their questions or problems get answered and solved accordingly.”

To enhance efficiency and product quality during the past five years, Anthony Frank Neri noted the company rebuilt equipment and added new. Among its largest investments included two WP tunnel ovens from Gemini Bakery Equipment with dual burners that provide enhanced temperature control throughout the multi-zone baking process. The four older tunnel ovens — all about 90-feet — have single burners.

Likewise, he added, the new bun line provides versatility because it can make every product except bagels. New packaging systems reduce labor, slash waste and operate faster to eliminate bottlenecks. More importantly, these investments respond to the market’s ever-changing need for 6-, 8-, and 12-count retail bags and even the onslaught of consumer-driven, individually wrapped baked foods.

“As a copacker, people are constantly pitching us ideas, and if it’s within our capabilities, we’ll do our best to meet them,” Anthony M. Neri said. “One of the biggest changes is that everything is the fast-paced, ‘grab-and-go’ trend. Ten years ago, the quantity of individually wrapped items was probably zero, whereas today we’re often doing an individually wrapped bagel for the ‘grab-and-go’ customer.”

Betting on the future also has meant doubling down on food safety, said Ms. Neri-Ferraro. The company conducts all salmonella and listeria testing in-house, as well as everything from shelf-life testing, lot-tracking and extensive training on GMPs and cleaning protocols. And don’t forget investing more on structural changes from insulating pipes and replacing boilers for more efficient product steaming to redirecting airflow to create a food-safe environment throughout the plant.

“SQF is very broad,” she said. “I can list a million things that we do.”

The bakery also swapped out several miles of older, overhead “racetrack” cooling conveyors with new G&F spiral coolers with clean-in-place systems. In addition to improving sanitation and eliminating unscheduled downtime, the multi-million-dollar makeover freed up precious space for further expansion by placing the spirals on newly built “mezzanine” levels between the floors.

To enhance shelf life and quality control, Neri’s also elevated its bagel slicing and packaging departments from the ground floor near shipping to temperature-controlled mezzanine levels and completely sealed them off from the rest of the bakery.

“We’re using every bit of space we have within our four walls,” Anthony Frank Neri pointed out.

Those investments opened up enough room for the new pastry department, which is an initiative of the fourth generation to expand into the sweet goods arena. During the recent International Baking Industry Exposition, Neri’s wrapped up shopping for the new line that includes purchasing Escher 500-lb mixers, a Rondo cinnamon bun makeup system, a Reiser Vemag divider for cookies, a 65-foot Babbco impingement oven and Formost Fuji wrappers. Production is scheduled to ramp up in early 2020.

“I think deep down, both our fathers would be very proud of us,” Ms. Neri-Ferraro said. “They would be happy to leave it in our hands, knowing that it’s going to be successful.”

And then Anthony M. Neri chimed in, “They would never tell us that, though.”

Just a few minutes later, however, Dominick Neri walked into the room and was asked to share his thoughts in front of the group.

“I have no problem leaving the company to them because I think they are capable of running it,” he said. “I see nothing but good things. During the past few weeks while I was away, we had one of the busiest weeks we’ve ever had. They must be doing something right.”

This article is an excerpt from the November 2019 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Neri's Bakery Products, click here.