Tasos Katsaounis didn’t expect to move into a new 40,000-square-foot facility that was eight times the size of the original craft bakery. Part of it was his conservative nature. The president and chief executive officer of Houston-based Bread Man Baking also didn’t want to compromise the brand’s reputation in the market, but the march to growth was inevitable.
“The idea was all about maintaining integrity and quality, but to produce artisan breads at scale,” he explained. “Everyone said, ‘As you grow, you are going to lose quality.’ I know that happens, but call me stubborn. I don’t necessarily believe it has to be that way just because it’s always been that way.”
Bread Man Baking has come a long way in a short time. The new $3.5 million facility, replete with $2 million in new equipment, can turn out up to 30,000 units a day compared to 5,000 pieces daily at its previous operation.
The bakery offers 37 varieties of its top-selling sourdough breads, artisan batards and brioche buns along with ciabatta, focaccia, Parker House dinner rolls and Pullman-style sandwich breads. All these clean label baked goods are made with natural starters.
A businessman turned bakery owner, Mr. Katsaounis did what any career consultant would do by researching the project. He reached out to bakers for advice on how to properly expand a manual artisan bakery into a more automated one.
Specifically, he sought the best equipment and technology that complement Bread Man Baking’s commitment to making clean label artisan bread.
“I bugged the heck out of them,” he recalled. “I wanted to understand how they operate, and not to compete with them. I just wanted to understand what I needed to do to accomplish these goals.”
Greg Acerra, owner of Fireking Baking Co., Braintree, Mass., was one of the bakers who opened his doors and spent hours with Mr. Katsaounis.
“I knew Greg had grown quickly as a company, and he has experiences I can learn from and lessons he could share with me,” Mr. Katsaounis said. “Greg told me, ‘Build the biggest, baddest bakery that you can afford, and people will come.’ I turned to Greg, and I said, “I’m a data guy. I need adequate data to make an informed decision on anything. I can’t go back to Houston and ‘build it, and they will come.’ ”
Yes, that’s more for a field of dreams in Iowa. Still, Mr. Acerra provided a reality check, pointing out that Bread Man Baking had created a brand with a special story and a narrative for quality that captured customer loyalty.
Many young bakeries like Fireking Baking, he added, quickly find themselves moving to larger places because they initially underestimated their potential growth.
“That’s when it hit me. I said, ‘Greg is 100% right. I’m going to go for the larger facility,’ ” Mr. Katsaounis recalled. “Is there risk involved? There always is, but it’s how you approach that risk. I’m glad we went to this size. If we had gone smaller, which is what my gut was telling me, and not listened to Greg Acerra at Fireking, I may have regretted that decision.”
Uptown Bakers also allowed Mr. Katsaounis to tour its Hyattsville, Md., bakery to develop a clear understanding of what to accomplish and what pitfalls to avoid. Bread Man Baking soon hired Didier Rosada, master baker and vice president of operations at Uptown Bakers, as a consultant.
“Didier was a massive help,” Mr. Katsaounis said. “He assisted us in designing the entire facility. He made contacts with the equipment manufacturers he knew.”
From a business perspective, Vantage Partners, a Houston-based investment company focused on direct investments into commercial real estate and private companies, invested in Bread Man Baking in 2019 and allowed Mr. Katsaounis to attract skilled bakers and upgrade equipment in the original facility.
“Vantage Partners responded with an additional investment without hesitation when I proposed a new state-of-the-art facility to improve our production capabilities and increase our outputs,” he said. “They played a vital role in our expansion to further invest in talent and technology to maintain the quality of our product as we scale.”
The firm currently advises on strategic business decisions.
“I couldn’t be happier with our partnership and look forward to our continued growth together,” Mr. Katsaounis said. “We may just be beginning to expand our capacity now, but it is going to increase significantly throughout the next few months. We’re only six months into this place, and we’re already seeing bottlenecks as the result of our rapid growth.”
Operationally, Bread Man Baking relies on a pair of experienced bakers to take the craft baking at scale to the next level.
Drew Gimma, director of operations and an artisan baker who’s worked with several award-winning chefs, is teamed up with Leo Garza, plant manager with 20-plus years of commercial baking experience. Together, the bakery duo oversee the day-to-day operation from both the art and science of baking.
As business has taken off, production changes regularly. Currently, about 40 people work on a single shift starting at 4:30 a.m., five days a week. With new accounts and market expansion, the bakery is adding a second shift and some new equipment.
At the same time, Mr. Garza is applying lean management principles to enhance efficiency, balance the workload or adjust processes to ensure product consistency.
“A lot of people approach work with the standard of ‘We have always done it that way.’ Here, we refuse to operate that way,” Mr. Katsaounis said. “Constant improvement is part of the competency models that we implement here in our daily production.”
Mr. Gimma noted such adjustments may include bumping up hydration by 3% to seal a dough piece better, proofing 2˚F warmer for 15 more minutes or adding more rest time to a batch prior to makeup.
“Any of those little tweaks in the process can have a major effect,” he said. “It’s important as artisan bakers that we continue to give bread the time it needs to ferment to produce a nutritious loaf.”
The prolonged production process begins with creating sourdough, poolish and biga, which are fed twice a day and take 12 to 24 hours to ripen in temperature-controlled environments.
Overall, Mr. Garza said, the air-conditioned bakery averages around 74˚F, which provides better product consistency and employee comfort in a normally hot, humid Houston climate.
Three mixers, including two Sveba Dahlen 540-lb spirals with covered bowls, supply three production lines. The bakery plans to add two additional mixers as capacity ramps up. The fresh dough typically rests up to two hours prior to makeup.
Artisan breads — including Old World boules, traditional ciabatta, fluffy focaccia, authentic baguettes and more — are made on a versatile Rheon production line. After a bowl lift empties dough into the hopper, a stress-free system divides the pieces before entering several stations, including a pressure board, curling chain, flour duster and a rounder for boules, which were being produced during Baking & Snack’s visit. Mr. Katsaounis noted the bakery plans to add more modular makeup components to the line shortly.
Pullman and other hearty loaves are produced on the Glimek line, which can crank out 1,500 to 2,000 pieces an hour, depending on their sizes. After traveling through a cone rounder, the pieces receive a 15-minute intermediate proof before moulding, traveling under a pressure board and panning.
All buns and rolls are made on the versatile Sottoriva line where dough travels through a four-pocket divider/rounder, where the dough is portioned and then enters a rounding drum, a pressure board, flour dusting and automatic panning.
All products are panned or placed on peelboards or trays before they’re racked. Some racks are covered with plastic drapes that prevent skin from forming on the pieces during ambient resting. Others enter the 20-rack Lillnord proof box for 60 to 90 minutes or a second system that can provide proofing or retarding. Both proof boxes are designed for easy modular expansion as the bakery’s capacity increases.
After proofing and hand-scoring when needed, the products are rolled into six Revent single-rack ovens. The bakery also relies on two Empire four-deck ovens, including a larger one with 16 doors and a new, smaller one with eight doors.
The freshly baked goods then cool for about one hour to 90 minutes on racks before being loaded onto a UBE slicer/bagger for bread or another UBE system for buns.
The bakery also uses a Lillnord blast freezer set at -24˚C (-11˚F) before the products are cartoned, palletized and forklifted to the storage freezer.
Frozen products are shipped via common carrier while the bakery has a fleet of vans and a bakery route truck for fresh delivery up to six days a week.
Mr. Katsaounis noted that streamlining the manual packaging department is a high-priority initiative for this summer. All products receive Safeline metal detection. The company recently hired a consultant to assist with its SQF-certification and will add a full-time food safety specialist this summer.
In the coming months, the bakery plans to implement its long-awaited formalized training program for both existing and new employees while automating the production process to improve efficiency and bolster capacity.
“We’re looking to automate certain processes throughout production that don’t impact the way we’re producing quality, artisan bread,” Mr. Katsaounis said. “Just automating the loading and unloading of ovens speeds ups the efficiency and throughput and has no bearing on whether you are fermenting a sour for artisan bread.”
The facility has ample space to add equipment as bottlenecks occur and demand grows.
“In the near future, we’ll see a pretty nice bakery that can do more than we’re positioned to do now,” Mr. Katsaounis said. “The level of technology is what excites me about what we are doing here that allows bakeries like us to marry it with an artisan bakery.”
This article is an excerpt from the July 2022 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Bread Man Baking Co., click here.