Like many commercial bakeries, Custom Foods, started out with one entrepreneur who thought to himself, “I could do it better.”

It was the mid-1990s, and Custom Foods founder Joe Bisogno was running a chain of Mr. Goodcents restaurants in the suburbs of Kansas City, Mo. The story begins the same as many: Mr. Bisogno wasn’t satisfied with the quality of bread for the sub sandwiches he sold in his stores, so he began baking it himself.

But there’s something about Mr. Bisogno that makes this venture a little different than your average bakery startup story. You see, Mr. Bisogno is a serial entrepreneur, and if he’s not satisfied with the status quo, his answer is simple: create another company, and do it himself.

And it’s exactly that can-do culture that has evolved this DeSoto, Kan.-based bakery from a vertically integrated supplier of frozen bread for its sandwich shops to a nimble, highly diversified producer of frozen dough for bread, buns, rolls, pita, naan, cookies, pizza dough balls and pizza crusts. Today, in the 48,000-square-foot, SQF-certified facility, Custom Foods makes more than 200 SKUs on seven production lines for about 50 different customers.

“It’s still about growth, development and expansion. This is not a conservative ‘batten down the hatches’ approach at all."

Mike Hurt, Custom Foods

The bakery hangs its hat on the ability to pick up just about any opportunity that comes its way, and by doing so, the company has weathered the pandemic and helped many of its customers stay afloat.

“We take on projects that a lot of other manufacturers won’t,” said Ethan Hart, president, Custom Foods, “because we’re working to match their custom products and formulations. We work with them to create, and that helps to establish a strong customer alliance. We have to stay diversified. So many bakeries are weighted so heavily in their portfolio with one or two items, and if that thing goes away, you’re in big trouble.”

Whether it’s a multigrain sub, dinner roll, simple pizza crust or hemp-protein cookie, Custom Foods has perfected its customers’ formulas with no margin for error. Beginning with the R&D team — Jessica Baker, R&D manager, and Manfred Goule, executive chef — to the workers who scale minor ingredients and specialty blends, customers’ formulas are sacred.

So much so, in fact, that the bakery has a zero-tolerance policy for altering a formula.

That mentality became the difference between survival and success when the coronavirus (COVID-19) came to town and turned foodservice upside down and inside out. Diversification kept Custom Foods in the game, and it’s the key to a vibrant future.

“We like to keep it custom here,” Mr. Hart professed.

Pizza, pizza and more pizza

Custom Foods’ ability to identify opportunity filled the bakery’s production gaps that stay-at-home orders created. Subsequently, aside from a few weeks’ lull at the onset, it’s pretty much been business as usual at the plant, thanks in part to a boom in the pizza market.

“We have been really fortunate in that, during the pandemic, pizza has performed exceptionally well across all channels,” said Mike Hurt, national sales director. “The pizza side of our business has sustained us.”

The bakery has made a name for itself by picking up pizza co-packing business over the past few years with frozen dough balls and pressed pizza shells as well as a few par-baked crusts. Five years ago Custom Foods was barely into the pizza business; today, it makes up nearly 30% of the company’s business.

As foodservice operators adjust their back-of-house operations to fit carryout and curbside business, pizza has become more about portability for consumers than the time-intensive experience that comes with dining in at an artisan-style pizza joint.

“Customers who use a preformed shell don’t have to toss or roll the dough anymore,” Mr. Hart said. “They don’t have to make it in the back of the house and worry about that equipment cost, safety or consistency. They can just pull a shell out of the box, thaw it for five minutes and top it.”

[Related reading: Why the market for pizza continues to grow]

Because pizza is a fairly simple process — relative to all the bread varieties or the 60 different cookie formulas it makes — it wasn’t hard to incorporate it into the operation. The new pizza line started up last year and runs from two 1,400-lb Topos Mondial THM-14 horizontal mixers to an IJ White spiral freezer, both of which were installed in the 2015 expansion. Mr. Hart had to make sure the pizza line was designed to keep up with the speeds on both ends.

“The Topos mixers reduced our mixing time because of the more aggressive agitator assembly,” Mr. Hart said. “So, on the pizza line, we’re currently using them to send 6,500 lbs of dough downstream per hour. And the blast freezer has automated coil defrosting cycles and damper controls. It can freeze 15,000 lbs of dough per hour.”

After mixing, manual dough handling is a thing of the past thanks to Topos chunkers and AMF Bakery Systems conveyors that take the pieces toward the vacuum hopper of the new Reiser Vemag HP-20 extruder. Before dough chunks enter the hopper, an inductive sensor reads the levels in the hopper to keep everything in motion. When the hopper is full, the sensor signals the chunker to stop.

The Vemag’s vacuum hopper provides the portion accuracy needed to create a consistent product — a must when “custom” is the name of the game.

The automation play

As Custom Foods picked up exponentially more pizza business over the past few years, automation became a must, not only for speed and accuracy but also for the flexibility to serve a variety of customers with specific product needs. And the automation has made things a lot easier for the workforce by easing much of the manual burden as well.

While items like custom blends of specialty flour must be hand-scaled for accuracy, the ShickVeyor system from Shick Esteve offers simple and easy-to-use automated pneumatic flour delivery that transports bulk flour from one of two 110,000-lb indoor silos.

On the pizza line, the automation has made the dramatic production increase easier for operators and ensured a streamlined process. After being divided, the dough hits Dorner conveyors heading in two directions. Mr. Hart worked with Dorner on a custom design to increase capacity. 

“We could have sent the conveyer in one direction with not as much capacity, but I said, ‘Why would we do that?’ ” Mr. Hart recalled. “With the bi-directional conveyor, we can feed more rounders on both sides and increase our throughput two-fold.”

The belts feed four Benier conical rounders to create pizza dough balls, which the bakery was producing during Baking & Snack’s visit, and downstream, the automation supports those custom orders as they head to the freezer’s infeed.

As they travel on the Vemag’s Smart Shuttle conveyors, a Mettler Toledo checkweigher ensures tight tolerances for the products. Again, Custom Foods takes their customer specs very seriously, and accuracy is a critical part of the process.

At the infeed, the Smart Shuttle capabilities replaced manual orientation, alleviating stress on workers and increasing flexibility — not to mention energy savings — down the line.

“Here, the system can be programmed in a variety of ways for different patterns that we want to place on the infeed,” Mr. Hart explained. “If we want three dough balls across or nine across, the Smart Shuttle conveyors will manage it. That allows us to fill up the spiral belt more accurately so we’re not wasting energy in the freezer.”

Mr. Hart noted that the pizza line improvements drove efficiency up to 90% and made work life easier for the operators, too.

“The shuttle conveyors accomplished all of that,” he said. “We had people who would transfer dough balls onto the infeed of the spiral belt all day, and I said, ‘You know they make machines that can do that.’ Now, our shuttle conveyors send those dough balls in whatever pattern we desire at the rate we need.”

Additionally, inserts allow for a multitude of weights and sizes ranging from 6 oz to 40 oz.

“And it’s all covered within three inserts that go into the machine,” Mr. Hart said. “It can be done in a two-minute changeover time.”

[Related reading: How to protect dough when the freezer comes before the oven]

Automation also provides the flexibility to create various types of pizza products quickly and efficiently. The line is convertible, so operators can quickly shift from producing dough balls to pressed pizza shells by simply swinging a rounder out and over to the checkweigher. Then the dough balls travel on a resting spiral and then through an AM Manufacturing hot press to make the shells.

Mr. Hart chose pressing technology to avoid reworking trim from die-cut sheeted dough and potentially interfering with the integrity of a formula. It also provides easy flexibility for customers.

“We had a customer who had been ordering doughballs from us for more than a decade,” Mr. Hart recalled. “They came to us and asked if we could do a crust. With this system, we could easily take the dough with that original formula and make a crust. It was that easy; we just sent it downstream through a different process.”

Having convertible components on the pizza line has not only made the process more efficient, but it also made crusts a bigger piece of the pizza pie.

“This has been one of the biggest transformations for Custom Foods,” Mr. Hart said. “Three years ago, we hardly did pizza shells at all. Now, we are cranking them out. In fact, two years ago, we did almost 4 million shells in a matter of about 10 months.”

Built for growth

Bakers must essentially plan for anything these days, and that’s where Custom Foods’ diversity comes in handy.

“We try to make predictions based on what’s going on right now, but it’s a fluid situation, and things change every day in this COVID environment,” Mr. Hart said.

Custom Foods will do that with the modular, totally mobile design of the new bread line. If any part of production goes down, components can be transported to the pizza line to keep production moving. That’s the destroyer mentality at work.

"We have to stay diversified. So many bakeries are weighted so heavily in their portfolio with one or two items, and if that thing goes away, you’re in big trouble.”

Ethan Hart, Custom Foods

“We’re designing this bakery so we can do creative things like that in case something catastrophic happens,” Mr. Hart said. “We’ve always got that built-in plan where we can transform some of the equipment, pivot and still produce for customers without an interruption in their supply chain.”

That’s always been the Custom Foods way. In fact, plans are underway for an additional 20,000-square-foot warehouse space to be built next door, and in the next three years, the company plans to transform the existing 10,000-square-foot warehouse into production space. In the 2015 expansion, the space was designed with the plumbing and electrical networks built in, so when the time comes, it will just be a matter of moving the equipment — most likely another new fully automated pizza line and the current system for par-baked products — into the space.

Despite any uncertainty of the future, this bakery plans to forge ahead.

“It’s still about growth, development and expansion,” Mr. Hurt said. “This is not a conservative ‘batten down the hatches’ approach at all. Where we were and where we want to be is the same as it was six or nine months ago. How we get there might be slightly different, or some of the executional components might be different, but as it relates to our goals and vision, we are still aligned. We’re marching ahead to fulfill that.”

This article is an excerpt from the August 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Custom Foods, click here.