The management team and most of the employees at Rocky Mountain Pies have returned to their old bakery, which had been closed, to make it their home once again.

The management team and most of the employees at Rocky Mountain Pies have returned to their old bakery, which had been closed, to make it their home once again.

For Mark (Par) Grandinetti and Doyle Converse, it was like déjà vu all over again. Since the 1990s, the two had worked at Western Country Pies, the Salt Lake City bakery that was their base for more than a decade before it shut down in 2004.

Less than two years later, in 2006, their new company, Rocky Mountain Pies, fired up production in the same facility, which was a shell of a building when they took it over. Today, the plant houses two lines that crank out a variety of cream, meringue, seasonal and fruit pies. Currently, 75 production workers - many of whom worked for Western Country Pies - operate on a single shift, producing an average of 25,000 to 30,000 pies a day.

Grandinetti, president, and Converse, the bakery’s vice president of manufacturing, expect to add another shift during the second half of this year. This move will reunite them with dozens more of the former co-workers who have expressed interest in coming back to the baking industry.

“With the exception of about five employees, all of the rest of them have been with us at least five years, and some of them have been with us for at least 20 years,” Grandinetti says, going back to when he and others cut their teeth in the pie industry by operating Marie Callendar Restaurant and Bakery franchises in the 1980s.

In many ways, the latest startup of the plant is almost a Goldilocks story for Grandinetti, Converse and the others who returned. At 75,000 sq. ft., the bakery is not too big and not too small.

Instead, Grandinetti describes the operation as just about right for an upstart company that established itself as a niche player in the pie category during its first years in existence and is looking to double its business within the next 12 months. At full capacity, the bakery could crank out upward of 100,000 pies over three shifts. There also is room to add a third production line in the facility.

“We built this plant to grow by pressure,” he explains. “We didn’t build this big, 700,000-sq.-ft. mausoleum that we have to fill up. We can go up and down real quick without huge overhead to maintain.”

That’s a good thing, especially in the refrigerated and frozen pie business, which has its seasonal peaks and valleys throughout the calendar year.

Tasty, Flaky Pastry

Production runs on one shift, five days a week, except during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons, when the bakery ramps up to full throttle. Ingredients and packaging, Doyle notes, are stored next door in a building that once housed production lines and warehousing for Western Country Pies. Each morning, the bakery brings over ingredients and materials that are needed to fulfill the day’s production schedule.

Pastry shells for cream and meringue pies are made the previous day. When the company gets to a three-shift operation, Doyle says, the shells will be pre-made for the next shift.

Pastry dough is mixed in a 700-lb., old-fashioned double-arm mixer. Because the dough contains 85% shortening, 100% of which is vegetable shortening, the shells have to be baked upside down and between two pie tins in a revolving tray oven for about 35 minutes to reduce shrinkage caused by the high fat content. Volumes range from about 8,000 to 10,000 shells a day based on the production schedule and seasonal demand for the bakery’s products.

Bases, fillings and toppings are created in 300-gallon kettles located on a mezzanine floor. Fillings are made using a combination of slurry and individually quick frozen fruit.

The cream line can produce up to 35 pies a minute, depending on how complicated the product is to assemble. The fruit pie line can make up to 100 pumpkin pies a minute. During Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s visit, the bakery was producing coconut cream and cherry lattice pies.

On the cream line, coconut base is initially deposited, followed by a full layer of whipped cream rosettes, and then finished with a second layer of whipped cream rosettes in the center of the pie. All of the depositors work simultaneously as the pie tins travel single-file down the line. At the end of the line, an employee visually inspects the pies and adds extra slices of decorative coconut. This hand application provides a bit of a homemade look to the product and avoids crumpling of the coconut slivers by a machine.

The cream line also produces meringue pies, which are hand-peaked before entering the meringue oven to again give them that same homemade look.

On the fruit line, the pastry dough is hand-loaded into a hopper. After traveling through a roller former that shapes the dough into a brick, the flour-dusted pieces enter a reduction station where two sets of rollers flatten the dough into a thin, round piece. Three-spout depositors then drop the fruit filling into every other pie shell. The depositor hopper is located no more than 10 ft. from the line to minimize damaging the fruit.

“We don’t cook the slurry and the fruit in one area and pump it 100 ft. in another,” Grandinetti says. “Having fruit integrity is critical to making a good pie.”

Next, employees pick up alternating unfilled dough pieces and hand-cut them into 1-in.-wide strips using a roller cutter. Down the line, bakers hand-apply the lattice in a criss-cross pattern. Typically, 8-in. pies have four lattice strips, while 9-in. pies have five strips.

“Not every strip has to be perfect so that it doesn’t look machine-made, but the hand-laid lattice should follow a similar pattern,” Doyle says.

The fruit pies then receive a sugar-water glaze for browning and some final hand-crimping before lining up, 12 across, and being automatically loaded into the 85-ft. direct-fired oven.

After unloading, the pies are placed into plastic trays and stacked up to 15 high for cooling. Each basket can hold five 8-in. pies, four 9- or 10-in. pies, or two 12-in. pies at a time. They’re stored in a 15,000-sq.-ft. blast freezer until the products reach 30ºF, before being packaged in plastic trays with elegant black bottoms and clear plastic tops.

Two labels are adhered to the packages. The bottom contains the Nutrition Facts panel and other production-related information. The top may include a Rocky Mountain Pies label or one from an in-store bakery’s brand. The products are casepacked, palletized and shrink-wrapped before being stored in the bakery’s 500-pallet freezer or shipped to offsite storage.

Little to No Rejection

During a single shift, the bakery looks to have less than 2% rejections. At Western Country, the bakery had a 0.7% cripple rate. On the day of SF&WB’s visit, only 19 pies were rejected because of damaged crusts or some other out-of-spec criteria.

Over the next year or so, the bakery plans to add a spiral freezing system to streamline production efficiencies. Rocky Mountain Pies also plans to install more revolving tray ovens as demand for pastry shells increases.

In the short run, the strategy is to get the second shift on board to meet anticipated demand for capacity, as well as for strictly practical reasons, including maximizing oven time and enhancing the utilization rates of the makeup equipment.

“We also will get more efficiencies when we have the second shift because we won’t have to perform a full clean up before and after one shift,” Grandinetti notes.

In addition, Grandinetti and Converse say, putting on a second shift will help them bring back their former employees. In the end, for Rocky Mountain Pies, there’s no place like home.

At a Glance

Company: Rocky Mountain Pies
Location: Salt Lake City
2007 Sales: $10 million in first year of operation
Products:Cream, meringue, fruit and other dessert pies
Plant Size: 75,000 sq. ft.
No. of Employees: 75
No. of Lines: Two full lines, plus two utility lines

Key Personnel
President: Mark (Par) Grandinetti
V.P. of Finance: Kris Burt
National Sales Mgr.: Julia Jones
V.P. of Mfr.: Doyle Converse
V.P. of Procurement: David Park
V.P. of Special Projects: J. Samual Park