When I visit bakeries, I am often asked, what do I find most impressive? I cannot deny that the size and scale of the mixer or oven is impressive, but to me it’s the small details that always catch my attention. It’s in the way a bag is opened by a puff of air and pulled over a loaf of bread. Or the satisfaction of watching bread get perfectly depanned without a human in sight. It’s in the vertical conveyor that defies gravity and hauls dough chunks to an overhead conveyor. I believe it’s in those unassuming points in the production line where efficiencies really come alive. 

In the July issue of Baking & Snack, you can take a tour of Flowers Foods’ most efficient Dave’s Killer Bread production line to date at Flowers Baking Co. of Henderson, Nev. While the 200-foot tunnel oven is impressive, the elements that make the production line’s efficiencies really unlock are smaller. The auto-scaling system for micro ingredients isn’t complicated or impressive to look at, but the system fills a bucket of pre-programmed ingredient amounts with the push of a button and has virtually eliminated human error from the scaling process.

Moreover, a pan cooling system not only allows pans to be used or stored more quickly, but also reduces the heat in the bakery’s environment. Empty pans travel upside down to improve food safety and lengthen pan life. Pans run wide instead of narrow so the production line doesn’t have to run so fast to meet throughput. And it is mesmerizing to get up close to an automated packaging system to see all the delicate details orchestrating the process of bagging, grouping and tray loading. 

While automation took the bakery to the next level of efficiency, making the operation hum came down to the relationships Flowers Foods had with its supplier partners and their willingness to work together. That was the message that kept coming up during my visit. 

“In the end, this project’s success is a result of the supplier partners who were willing and able to collaborate with us and each other and the tremendous support from the outstanding bakery team at Henderson,” said Robert Ray, vice president, network optimization project management, Flowers Foods. 

Relationships are the foundation of the baking industry. Whether it’s developing a new product in the R&D lab, designing and realizing a new production line or building one’s career, it all comes down to the relationships one has with their colleagues, both internally and externally. Robert Benton, executive vice president of network optimization for Flowers Foods, retires this month after a 43-year career, and it is the relationships he’s built that he values the most from his time in the industry.

“Most people who know me would expect me to say that I love building bakeries, and it’s true I do,” he said. “But that doesn’t come before the joy that I have received from building teams and the friendships I have gained within the company and outside of it, especially with our vendors. Those will last for a lifetime.”

Mr. Benton encourages young professionals to go all in and build those relationships because it’s those connections that help keep the bread coming off the line.