OVERLAND PARK, KAN. — BEMA’s Baking Industry Forum (BIF) gathered via webinar last week for a town hall addressing some of the biggest concerns among the group’s baker participants.

Bakers included John Mulloy, director of operations for 151 Foods, Bellmawr, NJ; Brandon Heiser, chief operating officer, Roskam Baking, Grand Rapids, Mich.; Mario Somoza, president, Pan Pepin, Bayamon, PR; and Richard Ybarra, corporate manufacturing engineering project manager, Publix Super Markets, St. Petersburg, Fla.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has skyrocketed demand for bread and other baked foods and snacks and has many operations running around the clock. And that adds complexity to myriad changes commercial bakeries are facing in a time of crisis.   

In the midst of these challenges, however, Mr. Heiser has made some serendipitous discoveries.

“It has been about eliminating disruptions,” Mr. Heiser said in the March 23 webinar, hosted by Emily Bowers, senior director, education and operations for BEMA.

“When we’re forced to do things differently, we tend to get better,” Mr. Heiser explained.

Mr. Ybarra noted that tapping into technology such as Microsoft Teams has helped streamline communication while travel is halted, preventing visits to or from suppliers.

“We’re doing several conferences through Teams, and it has allowed us to collaborate,” he said. “We have a large construction document we call the ‘page turner.’ We go through it page by page so everyone can provide input. We’ve found it keeps our progress moving forward.”

Because of Pan Pepin’s location in Puerto Rico, the bakery is no stranger to technology such as FaceTime or Zoom for remote meetings and vendor support, but Mr. Somoza said that the crisis has prompted everyone to step up their remote game.

“I think this will help us all get better at it,” he said. “The more our vendors and suppliers get used to doing virtual service calls, the better they’ll get at it. And that helps us take care of issues in a faster manner down the road.”  

The current state of affairs has allowed bakers to not only discover new efficiencies but also identify emerging leaders.

“This has provided an opportunity for people to step up and take on new challenges or areas of focus they otherwise may not have,” Mr. Heiser observed. “I’ve seen new leaders rise to the occasion in several cases.”

At Publix, the company has had to make several adjustments in its manufacturing plants just to keep baked products on the shelves.

“We’ve had a lot of people come forward in our manufacturing plants,” Mr. Ybarra said. “In this new norm, they’ve come up with great ideas, and they’re putting them together efficiently. We’re seeing new leaders come out of this pandemic, and we want them to be successful and have opportunities to move through the organization.”

Similarly, collaboration at 151 Foods, not only among the internal team but also between the bakery and its suppliers, has been key in moving production forward.

”I’ve always said how proud I am of the team at 151 and how they always step up to a challenge,” Mr. Mulloy observed. “Everybody is working together. We all know that no one can do this on their own. It’s a challenge for everyone, and we’re getting through it collaboratively, day by day.”

The COVID-19 crisis is evolving almost daily, and that leaves little room for finding one right answer to overcoming production challenges.

In these critical times, bakers keep their eyes open to outside-the-box thinking and new approaches to operations from potential leaders.

“A team comes together when there’s really no true answer,” Mr. Heiser said. “We all have to figure this out together.”