Take a tour of Hill Country Bakery's new $30 million bakery and see how this company produces exactly what its clients want at lightening speed.

By Dan Malovany


Nobody knows exactly what the future holds, but with their new, $30 million bakery in San Antonio, the veteran staff at Hill Country Bakery are doing their best to be prepared to bring to the market whatever their clients want with lightening speed.

    That’s why the 110,000-sq.-ft. facility currently not only houses one high-speed line that can create dozens of varieties of upscale layer cakes and other desserts, but it already has the infrastructure to install a second line and the space to add two more, when necessary.

    For Steve O’Donnell and David Nolan, managing partners of the San Antonio company, it’s all about anticipating the unanticipated. It’s about designing and building a facility that’s so flexible that it can go anywhere the market goes and react to any trend that may pop up down the line.

    No regrets. No would-a, could-a, should-a.

    “I don’t want to be in a situation where I find myself thinking, ‘If I knew then what I know now, I would do it differently,’” says O’Donnell, a 32-year veteran of the baking industry. “We’re looking forward so that we’re doing it right the first time for the future.”

    In 1998, O’Donnell and Nolan built their first wholesale bakery, a 30,000-sq.-ft. facility that now houses 15 double-rack ovens and two semi-automated lines that produce a wide variety of cookies, cakes and other baked sweet goods.

    In 2005, Hill Country Bakery opened a nearby 65,000-sq.-ft. plant that has a 125-ft. tunnel oven that’s much more automated than its first facility. In fact, its production line can produce up to 20, 5-lb. cakes a minute. However, its rack blast freezer and semi-automated packaging department still require a fair amount of labor and pose a bottleneck to ramping up production.

    In June, the company started up production at its new facility, which has a 175-ft. tunnel oven, inline pan washers, spiral coolers, a dual spiral blast freezer and an automated wrapping and cartoner. Because it meets U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for certification, the bakery can produce almost any type of product.

    For food safety and security, the plant complies with Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) specifications and even the federal Bioterrorism and Security Act. Employees have to use a biometric system, or fingerprint scanner, to get into the production area. For the last five years, its other bakeries have received a superior rating from the American Institute of Baking. The company is ready to grow at almost an instant notice.

    “When we’re ready to expand, we just have to wait for the equipment to be delivered,” he says. “We already have all of the pipes and fixtures in place.”

    With everything in place, O’Donnell believes the third time is the charm for Hill Country Bakery.

3-2-1 Liftoff!

Located just a 15-minute drive from downtown San Antonio and the historic Alamo district, the three bakeries are situated in a neighborhood that was economically challenged when the company started a decade ago. However, as the business has expanded over the years, the neighborhood has come to life.     With the help of incentives from the City of San Antonio, a number of new businesses and urban development projects followed Hill Country Bakery’s lead and moved or relocated into the area.

    “We thought, ‘Why build a bakery in the country as a greenfield project when the people in the bakery live here?’” O’Donnell says. “In addition to supporting the city, we thought building the bakery here would bring something back to the community.”

    In all, 275 people work for Hill Country Bakery, which has seen sales rise steadily over the past decade. In fact, annual revenues now are in the $100-$200 million range.

    Production in the bakeries runs on two 10-hour shifts, seven days a week. The facilities spend the four hours between each shift for preventive maintenance and to extensively clean the equipment and remove potential allergens, O’Donnell explains.

    Ingredients are stored on-premise and at a nearby 12,000-sq.-ft. warehouse, which holds two days worth of dry goods. Because of the large amount of custom-made products it produces, the bakery doesn’t have any bulk handling systems and stores most ingredients in 2,000-lb. totes, 55-gallon drums, 50-lb. bags and other smaller pails and containers.

    In the new bakery, two, 2,000-lb. slurry mixers made batters for the line while a smaller, spiral mixer creates the streusel for topping cakes, muffins and other sweet goods. During SF&WB’s visit in May, the engineering department was putting the final touches on a 73-ft. conveyor system that holds 32 propriety depositors, which were designed in-house to mimic production the way a chef works.

    “Since they are the fourth generation of depositors, we’ve learned along the way how to make them easier to clean, easier to maintain and make them more robust so they last longer,” O’Donnell says.

    After baking, the cakes are depanned and travel to a spiral ambient cooler. Following ambient cooling, which lowers the internal temperature of the products to about 160°F, the baked sweet goods enter a refrigerated cooler that slowly drops the internal temperature to 50°F before heading to the spiral freezer, which lowers the temperature to about 10°F.

    “What we learned from plant two is that we need ambient cooling, refrigerated cooling and then freezing to get the quality of product that we like,” O’Donnell explains. “We wanted to follow that process with the new bakery so we wouldn’t have any product quality issues. We know that this process works great, and we produce great products and it works, so why change it?”

    Because the bakery is located in a residential neighborhood with an elementary school next door, Hill Country bakery uses R-507 refrigerant, which is environmentally friendly, non-explosive and safe to use.

As the products cool, the pans, which are silicone-coated for better product release, are routed through an automatic pan washer located adjacent to the oven before traveling back to the depositor station to start the whole front end of the makeup process again. The facility also has a washdown room for those pieces of equipment such as depositors without clean-in-place systems.

    Meanwhile, the frozen products are placed on cardboard bottoms and mechanically sliced with paper inserts in between each pre-portioned piece before being collared around the edges with cardboard and shrink wrapped. Instead of metal detection, the bakery uses an X-ray system that can track non-metallic material and download images of rejected items so that the line supervisors can quickly analyze what foreign matter got into it.

    The automatic cartoner then boxes cakes before they’re casepacked, palletized and shipped to the company’s 40,000-sq.-ft. holding freezer that is located about one mile from the bakeries and can hold 90 truckloads of products.

Eye Toward the Future

Once the new production line is up and running at full speed, Hill Country Bakery plans to transform its second bakery into more of a hands-on operation to make shorter run items or to create difficult-to-produce products that can’t be totally automated. Some of the equipment such as the mechanical slicers from plant two will move to the new plant three while equipment from plant one will be transferred to its second facility. Its initial bakery will become a pilot plant.

    As business flourishes and the company automates even further, O’Donnell says, Hill Country Bakery will move its employees into new positions.

    “We’re getting more business so we do not reduce headcount, but rather, we add them on another shift,” he says.

    Down the line, Hill Country Bakery plans to diversify its product portfolio to produce everything from batter cakes, muffins and cookies to possibly pies, paninis, filled-stuffed pockets like calzones and even bagels filled with cream cheese.

    The future in the food industry, O’Donnell says, is heading in new directions. Whether it’s supplying desserts, creating an afternoon snack or providing a prepared product for meal replacement, Hill Country Bakery wants to have the flexibility to produce whatever ideas are thrown at it.

    “We don’t know the unknown, but we want to be ready for it when it happens,” O’Donnell says.

    And that’s when Hill Country Bakery will fully realize that its plan for the new bakery is working like a charm.