Listen to this article:

In the upper Midwest, work ethic can often be defined by the climate. They don’t let a few inches — or even a few feet — of snow slow them down.

“Last winter, we got down to about negative 44,” said Eric Fonstad, director of operations for the bread and bun bakery at La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip. He joked, “We like it when it gets that cold because 40 below will kill off all the germs.”

Here, challenges simply carve the pathway toward success. That’s the Wisconsin mindset, and it’s ever apparent at Kwik Trip, the region’s largest convenience store operator and one of the most vertically integrated in the industry. This family-owned retailer not only operates more than 700 stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, but it also completely controls its own bakery, dairy, kitchens and distribution, including a 500-truck fleet.

“Every store gets a delivery every day,” Mr. Fonstad said.

Just nine years after an overhaul on its former bakery plant, Kwik Trip started up production on three new lines — one for bread and two for buns — in a brand new 200,000-square-foot facility that features state-of-the art technology, including a new continuous mixer, record-setting bread makeup and a fully automated gantry system in its warehouse, just to name a few. It’s a testament not only to overall c-store growth but also to the foresight and innovation from a half-century-old company and the can-do attitude of its workforce.

C-store’s vertical trajectory

Much of Kwik Trip’s success can be attributed to two factors: vertical integration and the rise of the c-store.

It’s no secret that consumer eating habits are changing thanks to the mobile lifestyles of young consumers raised on life hacks and instant gratification. Trends like the “snackification” of American eating habits helped evolve these outlets from gas stations to grab-and-go options to the one-stop shops they are today.

In fact, a recent article from CNN Business cited data from the National Association of Convenience Stores that indicated c-stores have increased sales by 30% in the past decade with a 28% increase of store openings since the turn of the century. The article included Kwik Trip as one of the top c-store chains in the country in part for its food service offerings such as sandwiches and take-home dinners.

Kwik Trip’s status as a c-store innovator should come as no surprise because the company has always been an early adopter: Kwik Trip began in Eau Claire, Wis., in 1965 when, according to CNN Business, there were only 5,000 ­c-stores in the entire ­country. (Today, there are more than 150,000.)

Keeping with that innovative ­attitude, Kwik Trip got into vertical integration in the early 1980s, first with its dairy operation, and then followed in 1985 with baked foods. It’s been a key factor in the company’s success ever since.

“When you talk about vertical integration, that means we make it, we ship it and we sell it,” Mr. Fonstad said. “Those are the three key ingredients, and then you have total control over the quality of products you’re sending out to the stores. We don’t pay a middleman to make it or ship it for us, but quality plays the biggest part.”

In the earlier days of its vertical integration, Kwik Trip was making cake and yeast-raised donuts along with a few other baked foods in a space it shared with the distribution center. Sales grew, and in 1988, the company built a dedicated baking facility. In 2009, it reconstructed the building, and, in addition to sweet goods, it produced bread and buns on two shifts until 2018 when that production moved into the new plant, leaving the original bakery dedicated to sweet goods production.

“We knew about two years before that we were heading for capacity, and we started planning,” Mr. Fonstad recalled. At that point, the company worked with Wieser Brothers General Contractor in La Crescent, Minn., for construction of the new building on the land Kwik Trip had reserved for growth on its roughly 120-acre campus. Construction began in 2017, and production was up and running in the fall of the following year.

“This plant was built to support four times the volume we had in 2016, and it’s positioned well to support that,” Mr. Fonstad said of the fully automated operation.

Taking baby steps

While Kwik Trip is no stranger to technology, the company knew it would have to step up its game to support the growth trajectory it’s currently on.

To meet that goal, Kwik Trip strategically planned its move. For starters, the operation would go from two shifts on a shared line — buns during the day and bread at night — to one shift with bread and buns being produced simultaneously on three new makeup lines.

Making that switch required careful overlap by first splitting the day in half and moving only bun production to the new bakery.

“We did the same thing with bread,” Mr. Fonstad said. “But we ­strategically started up the bun line first because we knew it would challenge us the most. We wanted the OEMs and our coworkers to put the most energy into that part of the start-up.”

By doing this, the bakery never missed a beat in production, and every store received its order on time, every day. It’s another testament to the company’s vertical integration. After all, coworkers are not just in the Kwik Trip bakery. They’re also the folks working in each of those 700 stores, and the bakery has a responsibility to provide them with the product they need.

“We had to plan inventory, so we never stopped producing,” said Dan Walters, bakery R.&D. manager. “We never shorted one package of buns to stores.”

Mr. Fonstad credits the relationship with vendors and the commitment from coworkers for that success.

“Without our OEMs, this process would have been a lot harder,” he said. “But the equipment vendors did a great job helping us get this plant started. A lot of credit goes to them, but also a lot of credit goes to the coworkers on the floor. They paid attention and learned from the OEMs how to run the new equipment.”

Bigger, better, faster

Once the new plant was fully operational, automation was only the beginning. New and upgraded technology enabled the bakery to crank out more product at higher quality than it had experienced before, and that’s the key to sustaining growth.

“Uptime was critical for us,” Mr. Fonstad said. “We asked all our OEMs, ‘What’s your uptime?’ And we checked references. If someone was using AMF or Reading or Zeppelin, we wanted to hear from them.”

For example, raw ingredients are now managed through a Zeppelin Systems USA PRISMA ingredient handling ­system that automates everything from a sprinkle or dash of minor ingredients in the bakery’s J-Bin ingredient ­storage room to bulk items such as flour housed in one of two 224,000-lb silos or sugar from the 80,000-lb silo, all from Zeppelin.

Eric Reimer, bread line supervisor, said the automated ingredient handling not only streamlines the operation but also mitigates the potential for human error. Through the PRISMA system, Mr. Reimer can view the status of all raw ingredients on one of two laptops.

“We want to make sure our products are moving through the pipe,” Mr. Reimer said. “You can’t see a lot, so you need to be able to trust the system.”

With four main common hoppers and 16 individual 800-lb hoppers, along with a weight-loss system that has two load cells that talk to each other, this automation ensures that all ingredients stay on spec.

“If we’re requesting 120 lbs of something, we want exactly 120 lbs,” Mr. Reimer said. “We don’t want anything over or under a parameter because it will hinder the quality of the product. That was the biggest thing we needed here. We needed to eliminate any chance of human error, and we did that with this level of automation. We set parameters, and we can’t move on to execute the product until those parameters are met.”

From there, ingredients are sent to either the “bun side” or “bread side” of the bakery.

“This plant was built to support four times the volume we had in 2016, and it’s positioned well to support that.”

Eric Fonstad, Kwik Trip

On the bread side, three 2,000-lb AMF vertical mixers feed one AMF makeup line that produces a variety of bread loaves at an astonishing rate for 1-lb loaves: 225 per minute.

“We broke the record for AMF,” Mr. Reimer proclaimed. “Their old record was around 209, and I said, ‘We can go faster than that.’”

The three-pocket divider cuts 75 per minute per pocket, and dough balls are weighed by a BSI system that rejects any that are out of spec and reintroduces the dough back into the process. In all, the operation produces around 18,000 lbs of bread per hour.

“It’s pretty impressive when all of a sudden you see how many loaves of bread we made,” Mr. Reimer said.

Meanwhile, on the bun side, Zeppelin dosing systems feed an Exact Mixing from Reading Bakery Systems continuous mixer, a technology first for Kwik Trip. Flour and minor ingredients come together in a Brabender premixer at a constant rate before feeding into the mixer.

“One big advantage of the continuous mixer is the shorter mix time,” Mr. Fonstad said. “It’s meant for long runs, and we probably only changeover three or four times based on demand. The other advantage is the consistency. We get the same, consistent dough coming out all the time. You maintain efficiency and quality with a continuous mix.”

The new technology was not without its learning curve, but thanks to a good relationship with Reading, it was a short one.

“We were accustomed to barrel mixing, so when we were first introduced to continuous, we needed some education,” Mr. Fonstad said. “We spent a lot of time learning how to run it. They had a lot of in-house supervision for us and trained us on how to use the mixer as far as moisture content and mix time. We developed all our ­recipes with Reading, and they did a great job with us.”

The mixer feeds two AMF Accupan bun systems that produce 1,600 buns a minute. Each divider makes and deposits them into a Bundy Baking Solutions pan. The pans are fed into the makeup area by a Workhorse Automation system.

“We run all our bun products at full rate,” Mr. Fonstad said. “None of them are at half or even three-quarter rate. We’re running them at the full rate the system was designed to run.”

With the three new lines and the efficiency of the continuous mixer, Kwik Trip makes more bread and buns in one shift per day — instead of two at the old plant — and creates a better work-life balance for coworkers.

“Now, they work four 10-hour shifts,” Mr. Fonstad said. “We ­eliminated overtime, which is a big benefit.”

Going bigger, better and faster is all about doing more with less.

This article is an excerpt from the February 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Kwik Trip, click here.