A small but impressive operation with big plans, Gabby’s Bagels stays ahead of the curve by combining craftsmanship, quality ingredients and artisan techniques with more automation to produce big flavors and much sought-after breads and bagels.

Lauren R. Hartman, Editor-in-Chief

When you think of artisan bread, you think of hand craftsmanship. An artisan baker is usually trained to mix, shape and hand-craft a loaf of bread. But in today’s complicated world, artisans go beyond the norm in understanding how ingredients perform and how to provide the best products for customers.

Gabby’s Bagels, Inc. (a.k.a. Gabby’s Bakery) is more than a bagel maker, though it did start out that way. It’s now an artisan bakery that began operating in 1996, making bagels with its purchase of the Great American Bagel Co., as in the acronym GAB, from which Gabby’s gets its name. At that time, the company saw an opportunity in the Chicagoland market to bake artisan products with wholesome, top-quality ingredients. It now bakes classic ciabatta bread, hearty pretzel bread, earthy hearth breads, rustic baguettes, apple crumb Vienna bread, buttery dinner rolls and more, as well as hearty and enormous bagels that incorporate the freshest of ingredients for restaurants and fresh-bake/frozen customers. Specialty products include fruit-filled breads with crumb toppings, savory olive baguettes, sesame-seeded items, multigrain rolls and much more.

The private, $6-million company located in Franklin Park, Ill., currently produces about 65% of its products fresh for restaurants and foodservice customers and 35% frozen for in-store bakeries and foodservice customers predominantly. Gabby’s has about 60 employees and appears on first glance to be what one would expect of an artisan operation: The 39,000-sq.-ft. facility, which is smaller by comparison to most of the plantsSnack Food & Wholesale Bakery visits, is unassuming. A closer look reveals five production lines and three different types of ovens that all churn out a whopping 30,000 lb. of product each day. “It’s automated, yes, but our processing methods and fermentation steps makes it artisan,” explains president Michael Conti.

Gabby’s is quite popular and has a long list of product offerings-some 300 varieties, which it is trying to streamline to gain more efficiencies. The top sellers, or most customer-requested of its products, are pretzel dinner rolls, brioche-style upscale hamburger buns, pretzel hamburger buns, 2-lb. Tuscan breads, assorted artisan rolls, ciabattas, baguettes and bolos. It has a combination of fresh products that are distributed throughout the Midwest region and fresh-baked frozen items that are distributed nationally.

“What makes us an artisan bakery is that we combine artisan talent and experience,” Conti says. “The business has changed from just being a bagel producer originally to one with a lot of different types of bread and rolls. In 2001, or so, we began focusing on artisan breads, more upscale breads, using a starter (a sour dough-type) handed down to us that we developed, and to more traditional methods of baking, slower methods. We’re not the kind of place that uses no-time-dough ingredients.”

Keeping ahead of the trends is a philosophy at Gabby’s. It has a clean-label approach to ingredients and bakes lots of whole-grain and low-sodium products. “We’re trying to appeal to sophisticated customers who want clean-label products for health-conscious consumers,” Conti says. “Many of the pubs and taverns are hiring chefs. The sophistication level has increased with regard to nutrition and taste, so really high-quality, gourmet hamburger buns are preferred. Our pretzel rolls are becoming a very popular item because even though pretzels have been around for thousands of years in hard form, the soft rolls are really gaining steam because they add a lot of dimension to a sandwich and have a lot of eye appeal.”

Clean labels and natural products also happen to be Gabby’s backbone, says Daniel Garcia, vice president of operations. “We were doing natural, multigrain products before the trends-that has been a great win-win situation for us. Other things like reduced sodium are big. We have been playing around with some new formulations that are low-sodium to meet our customers’ demands and needs. That’s not an easy task when you start reducing sodium because you have to be careful with the yeast you’re using. You can have adverse effects, so we try to adjust our systems here and manipulate them to accommodate without using artificial flavor enhancers.”

Slow and careful but also nimble
While other bakeries use quick dough conditioners and mix and process dough in as little as 18 minutes, Gabby’s takes its time and uses plenty of care. “We take it slowly,” affirms Garcia. “We take maybe two hours to process our dough, and let it sit a while during production. It takes a long time to ferment our dough. We want it to develop naturally occurring acids, such as lactic acids, and at that point, once we hit a targeted pH and other parameters, we know we can start the product and get something we’re looking for. We believe that taking our time to do all of this is most beneficial.”

Still, Gabby’s is also very nimble. “We have to stay flexible,” Conti points out. “We’re still relatively small compared with a lot of the major bakeries out there, but we can react quickly and even come out with a new product quickly. We react fast.”

The plant maintains a recycling program for paper, paperboard and corrugated and collects its floor scrap and scrap dough and donates it to a pig farm in central Illinois through a contracted recycler, says Garcia. “So instead of throwing the scrap dough in landfills, we try to discard as little as possible.”

Steady sales despite economy
The recent economic downturn has had an impact on the bakery, Conti admits, but hasn’t been as damaging as he expected. “The economy has certainly affected us as it has affected others,” he says. “But our sales volumes have held steady and we actually saw some increases last year.” However, he has seen a number of restaurants fail. “It’s been a tough economy for restaurants and that has affected us. Yet, it seems there are always a few young entrepreneurs that will keep things going. It’s tough sometimes, but a lot of people who are new to the restaurant business want to give it a try, which is good for us.”

Gabby’s large list of fresh products usually carry a three-day shelf life, but depending on customer requirements and product formulations, can be developed to have a longer shelf life. The bakery also takes great pride in its research and development, he says. “We don’t say no to anything that customers want to try. We’ll produce prototypes for all kinds of things, and that’s what makes us different. It’s why we’ve been growing over the last two years. I’ve worked with some of the large corporations where I had a year to develop a project and complete it. Here, when we get an opportunity for sampling with a customer, we want to have samples to them as soon as possible.”

Sample requests are turned around more quickly, too, adds Garcia. “When we get a sample request, we can come up with samples and put a lot of R&D work into something usually to a customer within 48 to 72 hours. That’s one reason we’re unique. We have great customer service and flexibility.” The company has five truck routes in the Chicagoland area and beyond and distributes its fresh-baked frozen products nationally, which is proving more successful all the time, he says. The company is trying to capture more market share on the East and West coasts and is networking with associate producers and user distributors to get its products on the market in new locations. “Our sales network is more of a broker/distributor sales arm,” Conti says. “The products are being well received on the West coast and are getting a lot of compliments and high praise.”

Adds Garcia, “We have some serious competition for our pretzel rolls, but our soft pretzel rolls and breads consistently come out on top.”

Over the past several years, many white tablecloth restaurants have been looking to Gabby’s because of its quality, says Garcia. “We also have clean labels and we’ll accommodate these customers at midnight or noon. It’s our job to get product to them and we do it well.”

Gabby’s also stays on top of major issues in the baking industry, Conti says. The bakery is in the process of completing food safety programs as part of the Global Food Safety Initiative. “Right now, we’re about one year into completing a two-year-long process in the BRC [British Retail Consortium global standards] certification program,” he continues. “We have to revise some of the things we do to comply and need to update some of our procedures, but it will be worth it. We are really invested in a push for food safety and are doing it from a global standpoint. It’s very important for the success and the future of our business to be certified. We have been involved with AIB for a number of years and get audited by them annually.”

Gabby’s also received a Superior rating from the AIB the last two years, which climbed from 905 to 915. “We’re moving in the right direction,” Conti says. “These and the food safety programs are all based on the HACCP program but are steps beyond the HACCP. We want to be several steps ahead of competition in a lot of ways.” The bakery wants to make sure all of its procedures are up to date. “If there are any requirements that we’re missing, we have to rebuild new programs so that they will be accepted,” he says. “That kind of certification is the highest we can attain globally. Our customers are starting to require these things, so we’re taking these steps to be ahead of the game.”

Gabby’s is good at staying several steps in front.