PARTNERS' bakery is built for expansion to meet the future demand for its specialty crackers, granola and snacks that have become increasingly popular among mainstream companies.


By Dan Malovany

Never underestimate the competition. At least, that’s what conventional wisdom states. For PARTNERS, however, business throughout its history has been anything but conventional.

   Since it was founded in Seattle in 1992, the company’s challenge has been properly estimating the demand for its products. In fact, after spending a week baking, packaging and labeling products to fill the initial orders for the household business, Marian Harris and her son Greg Maestretti quickly realized that working in the retail channel was totally unlike operating a restaurant where an order is filled and that’s it.

   “We didn’t think there would be repeat business,” she recalls, laughing at her naiveté back then. “They wanted more product?”

   Less than a year later as orders poured in by the hundreds, they moved operations from a cooperative bakery where they rented out production by the hour to a 6,000-sq.-ft. leased facility where they could operate around the clock, if necessary.

   Then, bursting at the seams in 2001, PARTNERS doubled its production footprint. Still, the bakery continued to scramble to fill orders, especially during the end-of-year holiday season.

   With its all-natural PARTNERS, low-fat Wisecrackers and organic Blue Star Farms products making headwinds in mainstream grocery channels, a long-term plan definitely needed to be put in place.

   “After doubling our production space, we could see the next change coming,” notes Cara Figgins, Harris’ daughter and vice president of the company. “We could plan for it coming, but we didn’t realize how quickly it was going to happen. There was a big market trend toward specialty, natural products that are something different for consumers who want to pay a little bit more. The grocery stores were recognizing that specialty food buyers are making them money so there is now a real concentration on those products.”

   Today, PARTNERS operates in a 45,000-sq.-ft. facility in Kent, Wash., where its new production line produces more than 1.2 million crackers a day or three times the capacity it had at its old Seattle operation. Three shifts run 24 hours a day five days a week to meet demand for its branded and private label products.

   “We’ll need eight days a week for production this fall,” Maestretti notes.

   To further ramp up production, the plant has ample room for the company’s older semi-automated line, which it plans to have up and running in the not-too-distant future. Additionally, the company is retooling its gourmet granola to reduce labor and increase throughput. Currently, it bakes the cereal and snack in six single-rack ovens, and Maestretti notes that more oven capacity is on the way.

   Since moving into the building in 2006, PARTNERS has added the bells and whistles as well as upgraded the professional checks and balances to provide the quality control and food safety procedures required by its retail customers. The bakery is Kosher-dairy, inspected by the American Institute of Baking and certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through a Washington state agency, and it’s building a quality assurance laboratory for its staff.

   At the same time it’s expanding capacity, the company actually has pulled back on some of its plans to further automate production. That’s because the extrusion technology it wanted to use didn’t create the same quality of artisan cracker as semi-manual sheeting of the dough had done in the past.

   “As you grow and you automate, you want to maintain those gourmet artisan characteristics that your product has, but you also want to do it as cost-efficiently as possible,” Figgins says. “I want as many people to buy our product because it’s a great product. On the other hand, we don’t want to lose our unique artisan style so we have worked hard at maintaining the product look, taste and crispiness during this period of transition.”

   Currently, production starts with hand scaling to create 400- to 500-lb. batches in a spiral mixer. Ingredients such as Walla Walla onions or fresh garlic are ground up on premise to give the crackers and flatbread their distinctive flavor, Maestretti says.

   After manual makeup on a reversible sheeter, the dough is chunked and loaded into a laminating system that relies on a series of reduction stations and cross rollers to create the cracker-thin sheet of dough. A roll cutter is adjusted to produce the 1.5-in. square crackers or the larger 3- by 6-in. flatbread style crisps. Scrap is trimmed and removed on the sides.

   The sheet then passes through a guillotine to create the individual pieces before adding a coating of seeds, oil and spices, depending on the product’s variety. The innovative tunnel oven actually is a series of nine, pizza-style convection ovens that each serve-line an individual zone in the oven and are linked together by about 10-ft. sections of stainless hoods that capture the heat.

   “It gives us the flexibility in that we can keep on adding ovens to expand our capacity,” Maestretti says.

In fact, the company plans to add three more oven zones this summer to boost production by 30% for the fall. The makeup line, he adds, can run three times faster than it’s operating at this time.

   Following baking and a short cooling period, the individual square crackers are lifted by bucket conveyors up to automatic scales that feed a precise weight of product to the form/fill/seal bagging system and through metal detection. During SF&WB’s visit, line operators were hand placing two bags into boxes for a warehouse club customer. Those boxes are cartoned, palletized and automatically shrinkwrapped before being wheeled to the facility’s warehouse staging area.

   PARTNERS presently has preliminary plans to double the size of its plant either through moving into adjacent leased space or a second facility, if need be.

For now, Figgins notes, the company has the production capacity to meet existing demand from its customers. However, if history has taught them any lessons, they now know how to better predict what the future holds in store for them.