Fireking Baking Co. has expanded far beyond founder Greg Acerra’s pet project. When the Braintree, Mass.-based bakery was bursting at the seams of its 40,000-square-foot facility, Mr. Acerra realized this business had become bigger than himself.
“Suddenly the business had grown to a point where it’s not just me with a crazy idea of making bread for my restaurants,” he said. “There are people who have committed their careers to my company. Now it’s about how do you sustain the company and brand. Now it’s about what’s best for the company and not necessarily what’s best for me anymore.”
When Fireking moved into its previous facility, Mr. Acerra said that was it, the last move he would ever have to make. But seeing the commitment some of his employees made to the business, Mr. Acerra reciprocated. In 2019, he renovated and moved into a 200,000-square-foot facility only 500 yards from the old building.
“If you’re not growing and creating more opportunities for your bakers and keeping them inspired, they’re not going to hang around,” Mr. Acerra said. “They want to grow professionally, and if I don’t provide that opportunity, I would understand completely why they would leave.”
While Fireking may have plenty of new space and more brand-new equipment than it’s ever had, its product line and processes have largely remained the same. The company is still committed to premium artisan breads and rolls, mostly produced for foodservice with some retail business. Food distributors pick up orders five days a week. Much of the new business has come from word-of-mouth.
“I’ve never had a salesperson,” Mr. Acerra said proudly. “Over the past couple of years, I had to slow it down because I couldn’t produce for the new business. I made a mistake a few years ago by growing 40% in one year. Sometimes you get overly ambitious and think you can do this, but you can’t do it very well because it’s too much at one time. I learned that you have to measure your growth because you never want to impact current customers by taking on too much at one time.”
One change to the business is where it’s growing. Fireking products are reaching farther across the country as the company’s frozen retail business expands. Today, foodservice remains the bulk of the business, but retail makes up 30%, Mr. Acerra estimated. Previously, Fireking only had two freezers, one onsite and one across the street. In the new facility, Mr. Acerra anticipated — and accommodated — the new growth with two onsite custom-built freezers with room for a third. He still has the offsite freezer as well.
The new test kitchen onsite at 185 Campanelli Drive supports Fireking’s ability to get creative for its customers, something Mr. Acerra and his team are passionate about.
“I don’t want to make the same hot dog bun, sub roll or hamburger roll every day,” he said. “My background is in restaurants, so I’m always into the creative side of the food industry, and I’m attracted to those products. Sometimes they aren’t even as profitable. They’re more difficult to make and more labor, but when you can show your customer something new, you excite your customer base.”
The 1,500-square-foot test kitchen replicates in miniature the processes out on the plant floor. An electric deck oven emulates the Miwe thermal oil deck ovens on the floor, and Mr. Acerra installed one of the new Roto Passat rack ovens from Koenig Bakery Systems in the test kitchen instead of the bakery. The kitchen also has a mini proofer, retarder, cooler and freezer. The mixer is the first one Mr. Acerra owned.
“The mixer I have in there was the first mixer from my first bakery that was in a gas station,” he said. “We stripped it down and rebuilt it. That’s kind of sentimental.”
Reaching this commercial baking, it may be surprising to some that Mr. Acerra insists on using rack ovens and continues to make such a diverse array of products. But this has long been the foundation of Fireking and a principle
Mr. Acerra won’t be abandoning any time soon.
“You always want to be as efficient as you can, right?” he said. “But sometimes I believe flexibility trumps efficiency. Because I think efficiency restricts you. I believe there’s value to the customer in flexibility and being able to say yes.”
And Mr. Acerra chooses his equipment based on its flexibility and its capability to serve his customers’ products, first and foremost. Forcing a dough to run a machine that isn’t intended for it because it can do it faster but not better, or changing a roll’s size or inclusions to avoid buying new equipment is just not how Fireking does business. New products are matched to the machine that preserves their quality first.
“You have to identify which products run on which machines more efficiently and steer products in that direction without compromising the product,” he explained. “And if it doesn’t work, then I have to find a machine that will make it. I’ll buy my team whatever they need because this equipment has to serve the product, which in turn serves my customer. It’s about how do you make it the best, and then find a machine that will do it the most efficiently. Let quality dictate efficiency, not efficiency dictate quality.”
This article is an excerpt from the April 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Fireking Baking Co., click here.