A sandwich might be great, but it’s possible to make it even greater with the right bread. When Pickleman’s Gourmet Café, a popular sandwich chain, sought to elevate the quality of the buns that serve as the foundation of its menu items, they turned to Companion Baking, which specializes in helping restaurants and other outfits create custom bread programs, craft standout new items, improve the quality of existing breads, and more. Companion Baking experts worked closely with the restaurant representatives to come up with bread items that fit the chain’s needs, as well as its exacting quality standards.

To learn more about the Pickleman’s partnership with Companion Baking, Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery spoke with Josh Allen, owner of Companion Baking.

Jenni Spinner: Could you please share a brief description of Companion Baking—your history, your key products and services offered to the industry, and what sets CB apart from others in the same space? 

Josh Allen: Companion is a 30+ year old baked goods manufacturer in St. Louis, MO that produces artisan breads, sandwich breads, buns, rolls and sweet goods for both grocery and foodservice operations. Companion works primarily with multi-unit operators with five to 150 locations who are looking to differentiate themselves with high quality, custom made baked goods. 

JS: Some people might believe that the meat and other fillings make the sandwich—but experts in the bakery field know it’s all about the bread. Could you please talk about why the quality of sandwich bread is vitally important in making or breaking the sandwich? 

JA: Crust and crumb. Crispness and chew. More and more sandwich artists are realizing that the bread makes that super important first impression for the eater. Color, texture, bite, softness, toastiness—all are huge factors in how the sandwich presents itself and how it eats. As more and more food is consumed outside of the traditional restaurant, it’s becoming increasingly more important for restauranteurs to differentiate themselves and bread is a great vehicle to do that. 

JS: Pickleman’s Gourmet Café seems to get the importance of the perfect bread—could you please tell us a bit about that sandwich chain and how you came to work with them?

JA: Pickleman’s is a nearly 20-year-old high quality, privately held sandwich chain with locations across the Midwest and into Texas. The owner, Douglas Stritzel, spent 15 years working for legacy brands before embarking on his own to create a sandwich chain focused on artisan bread, whole muscle meats, anti-biotic free chicken and freshly prepped vegetables. Always looking to make things better, Doug reached out to Companion in 2017 in an effort to craft a better sandwich bun for Pickleman’s. After well over a year of development, and creating a custom formulation, Companion has been the exclusive baker for the Pickleman’s team since 2018 baking almost 3 million sandwich buns annually for the growing chain.  

JS: What was Pickleman’s hoping to improve about its sandwich offerings, namely the bread, in engaging your expertise? 

JA: Pickleman’s was hoping to improve all aspects of their bun when they approached Companion, most specifically looking for a clean-label, simple ingredient declaration and better crust characteristics after toasting that would hold hot or cold ingredients without having the sandwich fall apart. 

The partnership didn’t come up with Pickleman’s dream bread overnight—in fact, it took a year and a half to get to where the resulting bread met both teams’ exacting standards.

JS: Could you please tell us about that meticulous process, what all the back and forth entailed, and then the ‘eureka’ moment? 

JA: Doug and the Pickleman’s team wanted the perfect bun to marry with their other high-quality ingredients and exacting standards. They went all-in on looking to improve everything. They wanted a light crumb and crisp crust in a bun that also held up to their quick service operation. Some of the initial tests failed on the line during a busy lunch rush. It took many tests to develop all the necessary handling characteristics in a bun that also toasted beautifully and tasted great. 

JS: Was either the white or the wheat bread you helped create for Pickleman’s more difficult to perfect? 

JA: Companion gave equal attention to both items, but the white bun represents nearly 70% of the volume, so the focus was most definitely on figuring out that one first. 

JS: What has the client’s response been like since the bread has landed in its locations? 

JA: Given that we still produce the same bun six years later for nearly double the number of locations, is a testament to its success for the Pickleman’s team. 

Related: Companion Baking helps producers forge a recipe for bread success