Gonnella Baking Co. celebrates the major milestone of 125 years in the bread baking business, mixing high technology with old world traditions. 

Lauren R. Hartman, Editor-in-Chief

Alessandro Gonnella made his “dough” like many Italian-Americans: He baked it. He founded Gonnella Baking Co. in 1886 in Chicago, and has enjoyed consistent success ever since. So successful in fact, that this year, the company is celebrating its 125th anniversary in business. And by combining traditional goodness and modern production techniques, Gonnella is ensuring its success for the next 125 years.

As the sole employee of his business, Alessandro Gonnella quickly learned his trade of mixing doughs, baking bread, delivering the products and keeping the books for the fledgling neighborhood enterprise. He began making fresh Italian- and French-style specialty breads, and his little bakery began to thrive, just as the large company still does today. Its meager beginnings in a tiny basement shop on the Windy City’s De Koven Street when Gonnella churned out a few hundred loaves a week hardly compare to the multi-product, multi-plant, high-speed operations of today (there are currently six production facilities total), which produce roughly three million pounds of product a week.

But even after an incredible 125 years, the breads continue to rival the quality of Gonnella’s traditional Old World Italian flair. “We’re planning to celebrate and have some parties, do some things for our employees, the city and our stockholders,” says Ron Lucchesi, company secretary and a director of Gonnella’s board. “Being in business this long is quite an accomplishment.”

The event means a great deal to the company, adds Thomas Mazukelli, treasurer and another director of the board. “It is a testament to the hard work of all our employees over the years. Not many companies reach this milestone of 125 years of service.”

Too numerous to mention
By 1896, Alessandro Gonnella moved to a larger building and brought his wife, Marianna Marcucci, over from the northern Italian village of Barga. In the early 1900s, his brothers-in-law, Lawrence, Nicholas and Luigi Marcucci, joined him in the United States to assist in the growing business. By 1915, the three brothers moved to a location on Erie Street, which is now the company’s corporate headquarters.

Today, Gonnella is still all in the family and is owned by the family descendants, who make hundreds of types of bread-so many, that pages and pages of stock-keeping units fill the company’s catalogs, making it almost impossible for the owners to count all of the SKUs. But the families maintain tight bonds and established traditions that allow the luscious bread to emerge from the ovens with the same quality that Alessandro Gonnella produced in his small, wood-burning oven more than a century ago.

“We incorporated in 1923,” notes president Nicholas Marcucci, the third of the company’s board of directors. “There were seven company principles. Now, we have 150 stockholders, all descendants, so the base of the pyramid is getting a lot bigger, and depending on the family you’re in, you’re either fourth or fifth generation.”

The families operate the bakeries much like their grandfathers and great-grandfather did all those years ago, using centuries-old methods to create rustic breads and rolls with a European hearth oven. There are approximately 33 family members who work for the company today.

Their breads include Italian, Vienna, French and Tuscan, as well as soft rolls, sub rolls, Kaiser and sandwich rolls, buns and many others, and are available to grocers and restaurants in the Midwest. The company’s route distribution covers Milwaukee to Indianapolis.

Gonnella also produces fresh products, including hearth items for grocers, restaurants and contract customers out of its Chicago and Aurora, Ill., locations. It makes fresh-baked frozen breads, rolls, pan breads, ryes in numerous sizes, flavors and shapes, including Traditional and Wheat “families” for distribution to Midwestern in-store bakeries and restaurants. In the 1980s, the company expanded even further, establishing a frozen dough plant in Schaumburg, Ill., which ships in-store bakery and foodservice products throughout the United States. The company also offers a variety of bread crumbs, rolls and breadsticks for retail sales.

It has a national distribution footprint in frozen products and in its contract business. Its overall business consists of one-third in frozen products, one-third in fresh and one-third in contract business. And it has expanded on both coasts over at least the last 20 years. “We started producing frozen dough [today totally some 150 different varieties] in the 1980s,” recalls Nick Marcucci.

“That was really the birth of the frozen business,” he says. “We then began expanding our boundaries. Prior to that, we were geographically located in the Chicago market because the fresh product had a one-day shelf life. But the frozen market was our first foray into the national market, and that allowed us to expand our horizons and our sales.”

A recently introduced Thaw ‘N Sell bakery solution gives retailers an easy, freshly baked option. “The Thaw ’N Sell program was created out of market demand for retailers who wanted more flexibility,” Tom Mazukelli points out. “The program caters to retailers who don’t have a bakery or chains that don’t have bakeries in every store. Even if they have a bakery, Thaw ‘N Sell helps them rotate stock, offer a wider variety and keep up with demand on busy days. The program also helps us expand distribution to new areas, such as convenient stores, club stores and grocery stores.”

Gonnella also has opened a second, state-of-the-art, frozen products manufacturing facility in 2008, located in Hazle Township, Pa. The 100,000-sq.-ft. operation boasts highly efficient production and warehousing capabilities.

“We’re very excited to have the modern Hazle Township facility online,” says Ron Lucchesi, company secretary and another board director. “It allows Gonnella Frozen Products to meet the rising demand for the highest quality frozen dough items for which we are known. We are now centrally located to customers on the Atlantic Sea Board, where Gonnella products have been very well received.”

There’s also a fresh-bread production plant in Chicago that produces baguettes and French bread and artisan products, known as Plant Two.

Keeping up with demand
To say that business is rising as quickly as Gonnella’s bread is an understatement. “We’re undergoing a resurgence in our brand,” Tom Mazukelli adds. For Chicago bread connoisseurs, the Gonnella name is quite familiar, conjuring up visions of freshly baked, aromatic, crisp-crusted, hearth-baked bread that could be found fresh baked every day of the year. But the six sophisticated and extensive facilities are producing bread that has quickly gained enormous popularity nationwide.

“Things over the last five years have become more competitive,” admits Tom Mazukelli. “Consumers have become more health-, cost- and value-conscious, and we are baking fewer product varieties in our frozen division on the store level and see a greater demand for technical support. Demand for Hispanic items has also grown tremendously.”

Despite increased demands from customers and consumers, as well as having to face increases in regulations and other issues, the company somehow manages to balance its fast-paced production with staying flexible.

“We bring a lot to the table,” points out Michael Lucchesi, vice president of operations, Fresh Division, who tookSnack Food & Wholesale Bakery on the tour of the Aurora facility. “We balance the needs of our customers with our production capacities and run a lot of volume each day at most of the facilities to foresee the needs of our customers. We’re at the leading edge of anything we need to be.”

As the world has changed, so has Gonnella. The company is also enlarging its route distribution for fresh-baked/frozen products for both foodservice and retail customers, says Paul Gonnella, vice president of contract sales, and “the oldest” of the fourth-generation of the family. “Some of our retail customers are really taking us on in a big way. But we have been expanding nationally for some time. Our fresh breads are finding a national market, whether for restaurant chains or fresh-baked/frozen retail. And we’re working with two of the biggest food distributors in the country. So our Chicagoland distribution base has spread out.”

The company has been in the route business a long time, he says. “We have made sure that all of the states around Illinois know Gonnella very well. Now, we’re heading down to Kentucky, Arizona, Arkansas and several other places. I think we’re also moving into Las Vegas, New Mexico and California. Since I started working in the family business 28 years ago, the growth in the company has been amazing. What we’re doing in terms of expanding our fresh-baked/frozen and frozen dough businesses is great.”

Inspected regularly, the 60,000-plus-sq.-ft. Aurora plant recently earned a superior rating from the AIB. There are several quality control points located throughout the facility and one Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) validation.

“We’re working toward the GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative), and one of our plants just became certified in that area,” Mike Lucchesi points out. “Two more plants are working on this as we speak and a third will come online shortly. It’s exceptional that we’re at that level already.”

Delivering product six days a week, the five facilities accommodate sustaining orders and can take orders by phone or the Internet. Orders are processed for the next day starting at 4 p.m.

A dedicated team
Operating all of the plants, balancing customer demands and daily deliveries and staying competitive with the vast amount of products Gonnella makes every day could be a logistical nightmare for any company. But it works, Mike Lucchesi says. “It’s amazing how we get everything out the door everyday. And we’re in a super-competitive-crazy competitive-market. But there are a lot of foundational building blocks here that employees should have their names carved in. We have a tremendous group of dedicated, loyal employees.”

Lots of family members work at the manufacturing sties in Aurora, Schaumburg and at the other plants as well as the downtown Chicago headquarters location. Some of the employees have generations of family who have worked for Gonnella, Mike Lucchesi adds. “It speaks volumes about the company that we inherited from our family. The loyalty is wonderful. Times change and things change, but we’re still a very tight-knit group. I started working here in my teens. We have one gentleman who worked here for 70 years.”

While many bakers talk about trends such as different product types hitting the market, Ron Lucchesi says Gonnella has seen many businesses consolidate. “Our customers continue to consolidate,” he says. “There are more and more demands. Now we’re dealing with customers that buy millions of dollars worth of product-that demand and rightly so-to be our partner in this situation.”

Keeping things going
The company can also say that it has seen it all. “Just working in the company-it’s inbred in us how important the family business is and how important it is to continue,” Ron Lucchesi explains. “That’s the challenge we have is to grow the business with the future generations coming up. We’re doing that by making major investments in plants here and in Pennsylvania to be able to compete in the marketplaces we’re in.”

Ron Lucchesi, Tom Mazukelli and Nick Marcucci say that over the decades, the original bakery of course has gone from being a “hand operation” to a mechanized one, and then to multiple production production facilities, and that means challenges. “We face challenges, as any other baker does today, regarding financing, commodity costs and labor-it’s a much more complicated, hard-to-understand business,” says Ron Lucchesi.

Sustainabilty plays a role at the company, and it hopes to save energy by changing its plant lighting. It’s also looking at harnessing wind energy at its plant in Hazle Township. Robotics for some of its packaging operations are also being considered, and updated packaging graphics unify the enormous line of items with a contemporary, consistent and unified message.

“We hope to expand our frozen dough division and put a facility on the West Coast in the near future,” adds Tom Mazukelli. “We also want to expand our frozen and fresh product lines.”

The current economic crisis doesn’t exactly sway the many generations of employees. The ups and downs of the economy haven’t been as much of an issue as the gyrations of the commodity pricing, says Ron Lucchesi. “Over the last 10 years, it has gotten to the point that commodity pricing is totally unpredictable. That has really changed the business for us. We’re dealing with things overseas that control the commodity markets–that part of the business has changed dramatically.”

Paul Gonnella says it’s sad to see how many of the little bakeries and great restaurants have closed. “But we always remember that you’re never a big shot here. You do what you have to do for the business, even if that means delivering buns at 3 a.m. in a van to make this as successful as we can.”

The trends
The core consumers the company targets have also changed, which is why Gonnella continues to develop a variety of products that appeal to them, such as different types of rolls and breads. “It’s what has taken us nationally,” says Nick Marcucci.

“We see a greater demand for quality products and are targeting different ethnic groups with bolito rolls, telera rolls, ciabiatta bread and artisan-type breads,” adds Tom Mazukelli. “Our goal is to make good quality products at a reasonable price. We’re trying to broaden our sales base by giving the consumers what they want. Families are smaller, so they’re looking for smaller package sizes. They’re also looking for healthy-conscious products, so we bake more whole grain loaves of bread. Our top sellers in the fresh group are baguettes and rolls but in the frozen division, it’s French and Italian breads, mini French bread and ethnic-style rolls.”

What is the family’s secret to keeping it all together? Ron Lucchesi says that each individual has an expertise. “As a whole, all of this bolsters the company to move forward. We’re in this boat together and we succeed together.”

Nothing comes easy, adds Tom Mazukelli. Success comes only from hard work and sacrifice. “You get out of the business what you put into it. We have good people and have to invest in the business with updated equipment to become a better manufacturer.”

But as the world changes, so do we, says Nick Marcucci. “It’s not our grandfathers’ company. But it has been a gift handed down, and we’re kind of like the stewards now. We’d like to keep it going, and I would love to see it last at least another 50 years.” Paul Gonnella smiles, adding, “My son is 10 years old and recently asked me if he could work in the bakery someday. So we hope things keep on going.”