Aspire Bakeries' La Brea Bakery started out as an artisan bakery and remains committed to its mother starter and the long fermentation times its breads require for optimal quality. This commitment, however, hasn’t stopped the company from automating where appropriate. During the past four years, capital spending has been driven by a need to keep up with growth, streamline efficiencies and improve employee safety. However, that has never come at the cost of La Brea Bakery’s artisan heart.

“Baking is an art and a science; it’s not one or the other,” said Marcus Garcia, bakery director for La Brea Bakery’s facility in Van Nuys, where it recently installed a new automated packaging line. “If you have one more than the other, you will struggle, and sometimes it’s too late, and you’ve engineered out that flexibility, and it starts impacting your product. It’s definitely something we focus on that we never want to impact the quality of our product or the safety of our employees.”

Overall, the Van Nuys bakery spans 130,000 square feet, housing three production lines. Line 1 produces breads with the longest fermentation time. Take & Bake products run on Lines 2 and 3, which can run simultaneously. While Line 3 runs Take & Bake product, it is mostly used for breads and rolls such as torta rolls, sub rolls, sliders and baguettes for foodservice customers. The Van Nuys bakery employs 277 people.

While the pandemic delayed the possibility of certain improvements, an installation that could not be put on hold was in the investment in the Take & Bake products and a more automated packaging operation. Before the installation, the packaging process for Take & Bake products included work in progress, or WIP.  Product that couldn’t be packaged right away would be shuffled aside and then sent back through the line to be packaged when there was time.

To keep up but also bolster capacity, La Brea Bakery installed an additional Ilapak Delta overwrap machine and relocated its current Ilapak wrapper along with transfer conveyors to feed product from Lines 2 and 3. The bakery also connected Line 3 to the overwrap equipment, giving La Brea Bakery the flexibility to expand the Take & Bake volume.

“The new equipment has given the bakery the opportunity to simplify and streamline our labor as a result of eliminating the WIP,” Mr. Garcia explained. “Prior to automation, this WIP was typically processed at an overtime rate. With the automation and the streamlined process, we have eliminated the overtime.”

To maintain the traditional artisan quality, La Brea Bakery’s breads are baked using the same artisanal techniques as when the recipes were originally created.

“That means we’ll have a product with that great quality sour taste and bite,” Mr. Garcia said of Line 1. “It runs baguettes, large boules, different sizes and shapes.”

While Line 1 does have that versatility, Line 2 is the most flexible line, producing focaccia, ciabatta, small dinner rolls, loaves and baguettes.

The automated packaging equipment may be the latest installation, but since Baking & Snack’s last visit to Van Nuys in 2017, the bakery has been busy investing in ways to become more efficient and improve quality. The bakery installed larger Sancassiano batch mixers that the internal team rebuilt. What used to be mixed in three batches, the operation can now mix in two. Not only is the bakery producing more dough, but it’s making things easier on employees.

“We manually transfer the dough, so by only doing two batches instead of three, people aren’t moving as much dough,” Mr. Garcia said.

The mixers are all fed by an ingredient management system. Line 3 uses a Zeppelin system. Flour is stored in two silos for Lines 1 and 2 and three silos for Line 3. Additionally, the starter is held in a series of tanks feeding all lines. La Brea Bakery’s starter ferments for several hours before being added. This is one place where the artisan method will not be compromised.

“Time is very critical to our process, and with expanding automation, we didn’t lose sight of that,” said Gilberto Gonzalez, production and packaging manager at Van Nuys. “We stayed true to our tradition and legacy  of our signature starter. It still takes roughly 24 hours from start to finish to make a La Brea Bakery product.”

Another critical element in the process is ice because dough time and temperature of La Brea Bakery’s products are tightly controlled. A new 10-tonne Northstar machine can keep up with the bakery’s demand for ice during even the hottest California summers, saving the bakery money.

“In the past, we would build pallets of ice and store it in our freezer, and on many occasions, we had to purchase ice externally at a cost of $2,000 per pallet to keep our bakery in operation,” Mr. Garcia explained.

Afterward, the dough is fed to one of three Rheon makeup lines, which maintain the delicate structure of the artisan doughs by using gravity to move them through the system. Lines 1 and 2 are original Rheon sheeting lines dating back to 1998, when La Brea Bakery started the Van Nuys facility.

After makeup, product spends a number of hours in the Iteca or Capway proofers before entering one of several Daub or Heuft deck ovens the bakery has. After baking, the product is checked by the new Sightline vision system, an investment in Mr. Garcia’s commitment to efficiency and continuous improvement.

“My background is in Six Sigma lean manufacturing, so data is really important for making decisions and having the right sample size,” he said. “Prior to this data we were making decisions on a small sample size, and we weren’t able to make good decisions.”

The new vision system provides a sample size encompassing 100% of the product coming off all three production lines and rejects product that is out of spec. Monitors in the makeup and packaging departments display visual guides to show operators if the product is within specifications.

“Our employees love it,” Mr. Garcia said. “It’s a communication tool to tell where we’re at with waste in real time.”

After baking, product is cooled on an IJ White spiral cooler before traveling in the IJ White spiral freezer. Product is then packaged manually on Line 1 or automatically on Lines 2 and 3 before being checked by metal detection and delivered to customers.

This article is an excerpt from the May 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on ABA & La Brea Bakery, click here.