Highland Baking Co., a 25-year-old bakery located in Northbrook, Ill., prides itself on creating custom, artisan quality breads and rolls in large volumes, but with the care and craftsmanship of the family that it is.

Lauren R. Hartman, Editor-in-Chief

At Highland Baking, bread is the passion, and service is the specialty. Quality of product is number one. It’s been that way for more than 25 years, as the family-owned and operated bakery in Northbrook, Ill., continues to build long-lasting relationships and meet the total bread needs of its customers.

Founded by Jim and Gail Rosen in 1984, Jim being the grandson of Sam Rosen of S. Rosen’s Bakery, a Chicagoland mainstay bakery since 1909, Highland delivers fresh breads to Chicagoland-area restaurants and caterers and frozen products to all 50 states and Puerto Rico via national chain restaurants and manufacturers. It also co-packs for regional and national groceries, bakeries and other food manufacturers, matching their specifications, including flavor profile and packaging or in the easiest way for the next stage of production.

Being a third-generation Chicagoland bread baker with more than 35 years experience as a manager of baking operations, Jim Rosen, together with his wife, dove right into the bread-baking business. Son Stu Rosen, vice president and general manager, grew up in the family business and always knew he wanted to be in the bakery business. Daughter Cheryl Rosen-Wedyck is the director of human resources and officially joined the company as part of the customer service department in 2002.

With just five employees, the Rosens grew their company right out of its original Highland Park, Ill., location and moved to Lincolnwood, Ill., and then to its current 250,000-sq.-ft. facility in Northbrook, an existing plant that was operated earlier by a snack manufacturer and then by a top ketchup producer. “We’ve been in Northbrook since 2007,” says Jim Rosen.

Thousands of products
Today, Highland is an $80-85-million company that produces an amazing 1,000 stock-keeping units (about 200 of which are designated for frozen distribution), including hamburger buns, mini loaves, 2- and 3-lb. solid and sliced breads, pretzel rolls and buns, onion rolls, hearth and Irish soda breads, rye bread, dinner rolls, hamburger buns, Vienna bread, sour baguettes, fruit-filled breads, multigrain breads and more.

The large bakery is truly impressive, generating 400,000-450,000 lb. of dough each day and as many as 2,700 pallet loads a week. Today, there are 550 employees.

Divided in half according to fresh (North) and frozen (South) production, the bakery features three tunnel ovens, four deck ovens, 16 rack ovens and a production team that’s baking, packing, freezing and shipping.

Receiving a Superior rating by the American Institute of Baking (AIB)’s Consolidated Standards for Food Safety Certificate, the company is audited annually by AIB (Superior) and Silliker and just passed Levels 1 and 2 of the Safe Quality Food (SQF) program certification. “Food safety is affecting everyone in food,” Stu Rosen says. “We went the SQF path because we find more of our customer base is in foodservice instead of retail, for example. So we’re trying to stay ahead of the curve on what customers are looking for and what’s needed.”

Equipment plays a major part of that process. In fact, the bakery helped design one of its pretzel lines to be easier and safer for the products and the line operators to work with. “We would like to see equipment designers create systems with regard to food safety that are easier to access, easier to clean with a deeper clean, that could be more flexible, more washable and with more easily removable components,” says director of operations Michael Galenson.

A quality assurance program is in place that uses planned and systematic procedures to provide the consistency, quality and safety that customers demand. The procedures combine product standards and testing, personnel oversight and communication checks throughout the production facility and processes.
“Our business has changed a lot,” Jim Rosen observes. “Ten years ago, we produced probably 80% fresh product and 20% frozen, where today it’s pretty much the opposite.”

By dollar count, the bakery has more than doubled its production in the past few years. “In 2006, we were at $30 million and by dollar volume, we are around $80 million now, so in this weak economy, that’s pretty amazing,” says Stu Rosen.

“We’ve done it with new opportunities more than anything else and establishing customers on the frozen side of our business,” adds Jim Rosen. “We are able to produce the quality these customers wanted when their secondary suppliers dropped by the wayside [in the weak economy] and were there to take the rest of it.”

Top-selling products include fresh and frozen hamburger buns, sliced pan breads, dinner rolls, breadsticks and pretzel products. The mix hasn’t really changed much, says Stu Rosen, though sub rolls are now made on the frozen side of the business. “That’s new, as well as our ability to make pretzel products quickly, but other than that, the mix of popular products remains pretty much the same,” he says.

Custom product development
Despite the high volume, Highland develops custom products based on flavor profiles, dimensions, scoring, slicing, bread strength, toppings (seeds, grains, cornmeal, etc.), inclusions and more. Made by experienced bread bakers who craft signature products, freeze them and ship them daily, the bakery’s breads include hundreds of varieties within different product categories, such as table breads, dinner rolls, pan breads, hamburger buns, rolls and subs.

A development team comprises certified master bakers and a research and development team, and analyzes challenges from a number of angles to determine the best solution. The extensive product list includes breads that match customers’ desired dough type, scoring, slices specs, toppings, dimensions and more.

But to the Rosens, the real meaning of “family business” is the bonds it makes with its customers, says Jim Rosen. “We want you to succeed, and will do whatever we can to help you achieve your goals.”
The bakery’s other main advantage is its ability to provide custom samples quickly. “On the frozen side of our business, our turnaround on samples is very quick,” Jim Rosen says. If samples are needed, the production facility moves right away to provide an expected time of arrival, often with a bread sample out the door within 24 hours.

Another factor that makes Highland successful on the frozen side is its focus, says John Updegraff, vice president of national sales. “We really focus on the chains or large accounts and are willing to customize products for them. For restaurant chains, that’s considered a pretty big deal. They want you to make something that builds a point of difference for them. And we deliver on that, day in and day out.”

Main trends
There are several bread and bakery item trends that Steve Barnhart, head of research and development, says Highland has been noticing. Among them, pretzel products, spicy, chipotle, which has been big for a few years, as well as multigrain, whole grain and natural.

“Natural products are catching on more and more, and people are looking at a lot of different flavors,” Barnhart says. “It’s not just wheat bread anymore; customers want tomato, mixed herb and garlic, onion and parmesan and sweet and savory or savory and spicy-perhaps sweet and spicy or a combination of all of that. We’re open to developing just about anything the customer is looking for. We don’t stock lots of spicy peppers, but we do carry them. So if a customer wants a certain pepper, based on demand, we’re happy to source it out and create a product with that.”

Keeping the TLC
Updegraff agrees: “We’re seeing more of the restaurant chains complementing their burgers with proprietary breads, butter flavor breads or brioche, savory breads and buns, a different kind of hamburger bun build, inclusions, jalapeño peppers, chipotle and toppings like sesame seeds. The pretzel products are also building a lot more traction as are different kinds of slider buns and minis and specialty sandwich builds like Ciabattas.”

The bakery will likely expand again, and may need to add another plant or two. “Our investment over the next number of years will be directed more to expanding our capacity and where that capacity will be located in the country versus further automating our plant,” explains Stu Rosen. “Given our demand and what we hear customers looking for, that’s the direction we will be heading. We’ll likely add a facility within the next four to five years in another part of the country, probably the West Coast would be the leading contender right now.”

Adds Updegraff, “If we were to further automate, we couldn’t meet all of the proprietary needs of these restaurant chains. We have a good balance between being efficient and still being able to put some TLC [tender loving care] in our products to give them what they want. It’s a good blend and plays well with our customer base.”

Highland also is about to delve into the in-store bakery arena and co-packs for some national retailers. As if this isn’t enough, the company has plans to open a new restaurant in Deerfield, Ill., specializing in sandwiches and burgers served on Highland’s breads and buns.

Yet with all of this, the company still never strays from the ideals of its modest beginnings: Provide a quality product and exceptional service and always treat customers and team members like family, points out Jim Rosen.

“We face challenges each day, though there are different challenges, but we love what we do,” he concludes. “We constantly push ourselves to continue to grow in size, in ability and with the people we have,” echoes Stu Rosen.