The beginnings of Baker’s Quality Pizza Crust, Waukesha, Wis., may started in a small room in the original commissary, but after becoming an independent business, the production moved to an 18,000-square-foot building that it shared with five other tenants. As business grew by word of mouth, the company started taking over more of the space and eventually purchased the whole building.

In 2017, Baker’s Quality had saturated the Midwest market and started looking to other regions for growth, investing in national promotion at trade shows and in trade press for the first time. The company decided to focus most of its efforts in growing the business toward the West Coast but found a challenge in shipping its frozen crust over the Rocky Mountains.

“It gets very expensive, so we’ve developed pickup and deliver pricing,” said Anne Cookson, vice president of sales and marketing. “We thought it would be a barrier, but we’ve found that if they want the product, they want it.”

The Baker’s Quality business was built selling pizza crust to smaller pizza restaurant chains with five or fewer units. Baker’s Quality still serves many of those customers but through wholesale distributors along with a few larger customers who buy directly from the bakery.

“That’s the part of the business we’re trying to grow: larger restaurant customers who have 50 to 200 units,” Mrs. Cookson explained. “We’re trying to keep it in our wheelhouse and not max out our capacity.”

That’s just what happened in that former facility, though. The bakery was bursting at the seams, running 24 hours a day for 5-6 days a week.

“It was putting a lot of stress on our employees and our ability to fulfill orders,” said Chris Miller, director of operations.

The bakery was out of freezer space and considering freezer trucks. The reversible sheeting lines were no longer cutting it.

“It was very start-stop and inefficient, but it gave us the quality we needed,” Mr. Miller said of the old process.

Baker’s Quality favors sheeting over pressing to get its yeasty, bubbly crust. Over the years automation has slowly become a bigger part of the business as needed, but Mr. Miller explained that they still value hands-on processes.

“We don’t want to be that manufacturer that’s only good at one thing,” he said. “We want to be able to adapt to the trends in the marketplace and do that well and quickly, so we’re retaining some of our smallness and hands-on mentality so we can adapt.”

After a lot of research into more options that could provide the efficiency they needed while still delivering the quality, Baker’s Quality chose to work with AMF Bakery Systems for an AMF Tromp sheeting line that would replace its fresh/frozen production line. With that line installed and with a new par-baked line on the horizon, the equipment dictated what Baker’s Quality was looking for as it pursued expansion.

Mrs. Cookson said they looked for a site that was close enough to retain their Milwaukee-based workforce.

“We could have built a building or gotten something cheaper if we expanded our search range, but we could have lost some amazing employees,” she said. “We also didn’t want something too big.”

They found a brownfield site that was just over 40,000 square feet, which immediately tripled the company’s capacity with more shipping docks, cooler and freezer space and a more efficient production layout.

“We took everything we wished we had and put it into this building,” Mrs. Cookson said.

The building was purchased in November 2019, and three months later, construction had begun. After a tumultuous summer, production started just after Labor Day.

The timing of Baker’s Quality’s move as well as the downturn suffered by its customer base made for a rough year. Mrs. Cookson and Mr. Miller did not mince words about their 2020 experience.

“It was terrifying,” Mrs. Cookson said. “We built this business selling into restaurants, and that had always been so profitable. You never think that all the restaurants will close.”

In fact, she said, three years ago, as a part of a crisis planning exercise, they made a pandemic plan, but they anticipated how the company would respond if its employees got sick. The idea that an entire channel would shut down did not occur to them. Instead of their employees getting sick, business evaporated overnight, and Baker’s Quality was forced to lay off its workforce.

“We thought we were well-diversified because no one customer made up more than 15% of our business,” Mr. Miller explained. “But what we didn’t touch on was our lane of sales. Our lane has always been bars and restaurants. We don’t do anything with frozen pizza or hospitals; it’s always been bars and restaurants, and that was a big detractor.”

Construction and installation were also delayed due to travel restrictions and material and labor shortages. The original start date for production in the new facility was June 1, 2020, but in the end, production did not start until September. Baker’s Quality signed off on the architectural drawings the week before the pandemic took hold in the United States, and Mrs. Cookson said they moved ahead from a place of blind faith.

“We knew we had a good business; we knew we had a good product,” she said. “Honestly, there was no other option for us. We don’t want to do anything else, so we had no other choice but to keep moving forward.”

As she looks back on the experience, Mrs. Cookson can see how every problem that came up inadvertently solved another one. Orders disappearing overnight is scary for the bottom line, but with construction delayed, they would have been forced to keep up with typical summer demand in the old facility, which would have been impossible. And because of travel restrictions in Europe, Baker’s Quality had to install and train on the par-baked production line with pandemic-reduced technical support from the AMF Tromp team in the Netherlands.

“We would have never survived another summer in that building, so the reduction in business allowed us to make it through another summer in the old facility and gave us time to figure out the new production line,” Mrs. Cookson explained. “Any challenge we were presented with pretty quickly resolved itself.”

This story does have a happy ending, though. Because the fresh/frozen line had already been installed in the old facility, the Baker’s Quality team knew how to operate an AMF Tromp sheeting line. Business returned to normal levels and continues to grow. The entire workforce was re-hired and returned to work in a new building with new production lines poised to take on new growth.

This article is an excerpt from the June 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Baker's Quality Pizza Crusts, click here.