The best bakery operators aren’t afraid of a challenge. And the most successful businesses overcome them, often while making it look easy. So, what’s their secret? It’s the ability to remain flexible in the face of adversity, and some bakers have great advice on how to do just that. 

“We get a lot of challenging opportunities, and with that, we have a team of people who are very versatile,” said Mike Kemper, founder and chief executive officer, Kemper Foods International, New Albany, Ind. “We have no choice but to be flexible. That’s the arena we play in.”

Over the years, that’s the reputation Kemper Foods has built for itself as the place to go when you have a project that otherwise can’t be done.

During the past several months, bakers had to shift their production to accommodate for drastic changes in the marketplace caused by foodservice shutdowns and panic-buying in the grocery stores. It has truly been survival of the fittest.

But getting there isn’t impossible. You just need to have a few tricks up your sleeve.

Have a strong foundation

Versatility must begin with two key elements: a strong workforce and a solid infrastructure.

At Schaumburg, Ill.-based Gonnella Baking’s plant in Aurora, Ill., Plant Manager Daniel Banks relies on a highly experienced union workforce and a large, state-of-the-art facility.

Process Flexibility

“It helps to have a company that has the financial resources to bring to bear those opportunities that might take a quick-turn CapEx or something of that nature to take advantage of it,” he said.

For example, Gonnella had to make some adjustments for a convenience store customer that wanted a mini hot dog product. The bakery invested in a new board to incorporate into its production line that already included AMF Bakery Systems Accupanners, Reiser and AMF dividers, and mixers from Shaffer, a Bundy Baking Solution.

In short, having the right basic industry equipment allows other components to be introduced and quickly take on the extra production.

This has made life a little more manageable during the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.

“It wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been,” Mr. Banks said. “We were very fortunate at this plant — it was a combination of luck and having the right controls put in place — but we never had any major shutdown issues in four months.”

“We’re into double pump. We’re into twisting. We’re into this crazy, fun stuff, so our people are always prepared for challenges and change.”

- Mike Kemper, Kemper Foods

At Kemper Foods, it has been business as usual during the pandemic. Mr. Kemper attributes that to the company’s operational foundation and business philosophy.

“We may not be the largest, but we do have a reputation of being the fastest while maintaining food safety, quality and consistency,” he said. “We’ve had opportunities in the past four to six weeks with customers saying, ‘Can you get me something that’s ready-to-eat, grab-and-go, poppable, shareable and already wrapped that can be heated?’ And we could do that because we already had a head start when the pandemic hit.”

[Related reading: Kemper Foods leverages game-changing opportunity]

Jim Kline, president, The Ensol Group, suggested that when designing a system, bakers should keep flexibility in mind from the beginning.

“The ability to integrate is a wonderful thing,” Mr. Kline said. “Automated batching systems are great, especially when building in the flexibility to augment it or modify the formulas when needed. If bakers aren’t doing that now, they’ll have to figure out how to do it later … because it will come up.”

Mr. Kline advised bakers that taking the 10,000-foot look at the operation is a good place to start.

“Doing this allows them to take a look at what they have versus what they need, and then they can figure out how to get there cost-effectively and efficiently,” he said.

Be ready to adapt

While many bakeries didn’t have the good fortune of a head start, several operators were skilled at thinking on their toes. In times of crisis — whether it’s the worst-case pandemic scenario or a short-term issue involving a huge order with no lead time — instinct and quick decisions are game changers. 

Preparation, instinct and strategic investment allow Kemper Foods to prepare for challenges and change, so quick adaptations have been second nature at the plant.

“We’re into double pump. We’re into twisting. We’re into this crazy, fun stuff, so our people are always prepared for challenges and change,” Mr. Kemper said. “We never just have an easy transition from, say, a pocket sandwich over to a filled biscuit. It’s normally an equipment change, process change or even temperature change.”

For maximum flexibility, equipment at Kemper Foods can be moved throughout the building.

“We bought equipment for single projects or multi-projects,” Mr. Kemper said. “We’ll put them away for a while, and then, sure enough, they’re back out for something else. We can move them from room to room, depending on the project and the opportunity.”

Process Flexibility

In the Chicago area, Gonnella was faced with having to make some serious decisions very quickly when restaurants were ordered to close.

“Our wheelhouse is foodservice,” Mr. Banks said. “Gonnella exited Chicago-area retail DSD about three months ago and refocused efforts on our national foodservice business. But COVID killed that temporarily.”

But parallel to the halt in foodservice was the boom in retail, which caused a drastic deviation in production for Gonnella, specifically at Mr. Banks’ Aurora plant.

“Gonnella has the reputation to make quality products, so we had a lot of retail opportunities, and we turned from foodservice to retail — on a dime,” Mr. Banks said. “One week, we were running foodservice and the next week running trailer-loads of retail white and wheat bread and hamburger and hot dog buns.”

[Related reading: Becoming armed and ready for COVID-19]

Despite the opportunities, the pandemic did impact operations, and the facility went from 30 shifts down to five, then back up to 21 shifts. Today, the plant is almost back to pre-pandemic capacity. This sort of expand-contract-expand scenario calls for instinctive leadership.

“Gonnella has been really supportive,” Mr. Banks said. “Being a small organization with four bakeries and directed by a family, they were able to make decisions very quickly. We benefitted from the ability to make decisions and quickly take advantage of opportunities.”

When the sales team comes to the bakery with an opportunity for a big order and a six-day turnaround, Gonnella’s leadership allows the team to run with it for the good of the business.

“They give the go-ahead at a moment’s notice when it makes economic sense,” Mr. Banks explained. “They’ll give us the authority to do what we need to do.”

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