Highland Baking Co.’s impressive 250,000-sq.-ft. operation in Northbrook, Ill., is home to 14 production lines and a penchant for perfection.

Lauren R. Hartman, Editor-in-Chief

Nearly three times the size of Highland’s last plant, the Northbrook, Ill., facility houses seven production lines in 250,000 sq. ft. Production is organized into North and South sections of the facility. North is predominantly used to bake fresh products (about 15% of the company’s overall business today) in smaller batches for local delivery. The South side is highly automated (there is still some manual labor, but less than for the fresh product) and produces frozen products almost exclusively (85%).

Ever automating
The frozen division provides hamburger buns, specialty pan breads and many other types of bread to foodservice customers nationwide as well as restaurants, such as Arby’s, Chili’s BJ’s Restaurant and Brew Pub and many more, while the fresh product is trucked throughout the Chicago area. There are 14 truck routes.

Operation is three shifts a day, five days a week on the frozen side of the business, but if a special promotion is needed or depending on the season, more shifts can be added. The smaller-batch fresh-product production lasts seven days a week, says Michael Galenson, director of operations. A USSR émigré and holder of a degree in food and restaurant management from a college in Moscow, Galenson has a long history in the foodservice industry. He joined Highland in 1996 as the plant manager.

Highland was able to install most of its existing equipment in the Northbrook plant, but bought a second tunnel oven and several rack ovens, a third stone hearth, a deck oven, a 2-pocket multipurpose divider, a 6-pocket roll line and, with demand escalating for frozen products, a 2,200-pallet freezer.

Today, the production facility features seven lines feeding four tunnel ovens for frozen products, seven dedicated lines feeding 16 rack ovens and 15 decks of hearth ovens on the fresh side of the plant. A second-story space over part of the building is not yet used, says Stu Rosen, general manager and vice president, but could be put into service in the future.

At the time ofSnack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s visit, the facility was producing pan breads, mini buns, hamburger buns and sliced breads, among other items.

Special ingredients
Allergen ingredients are kept in separate, clearly marked containers on rollers that can be moved if needed. These containers are sectioned off to the side of production.

“We use anything from spices to seeds to California raisins to chocolate chips,” says Steve Barnhart, head of research and development. “Depending on the inclusion, it can go into the mixer with the rest of the ingredients or at the end of mixing by folding in slowly.”

Barnhart says that some customers are starting to want real product inclusions in their breads instead of flavorings. “That may be because of the movement toward clean labels,” he says. “People want to know what’s in their bread, that they’re eating something that’s made of all-natural ingredients. That’s been a big trend.”

Water is metered to the lines and the flour is transferred from a silo distribution system to computerized individual weigh stations on the large mixer hoppers. Minor ingredients are carried over on pallets, bags or boxes, depending on the frequency of their use, and are scaled by hand.

Advanced computer controls provide flexibility with a variety of the products, though computerization isn’t plant-wide yet, says Galenson. “Order processing is computerized and individual machines have computerized controls,” he says.

A series of small mixers work on fresh dough in the North side of the plant, and four large-capacity horizontal mixers are used on the frozen South side. Primary ingredients and flours, bases, conditioners, coloring/flavoring, additives, eggs, butter, oil and spices are stored in an adjacent warehouse, but the majority of the primary ingredients for the frozen products, such as bulk flour, are stored in a set of bulk silos on the other side of the building that each hold 300,000 lb. That’s important, as the plant produces an astounding 400,000-450,000 lb. of dough daily or up to 2,700 pallet loads a week.

After the ingredients are mixed into dough, depending on the line, they are dumped into a hopper leading to a chunker that cuts individual pieces in a pocket divider. The dough is then formed into balls or another shape by various equipment, including conical rounders that rotate to form and shape the dough. Depending on the product, a dusting of flour or corn meal prevents sticking and adds flavor.

The pieces then are dropped into a basket maize system where the dough rests for about 10-15 minutes. This is done so that when it’s formed into its final shape, the dough won’t tear or fight the shape, Barnhart says. The dough can also be left round or curled up to form breadsticks, a submarine shape, loaves or various other products and then be placed in pans, on trays or on peel boards.

On the stress-free (Ciabatta) line, the dough travels on a series of conveyors to a sheeter, which gives it its final shape. A series of rollers reduce its thickness to ultimately produce all sorts of shapes-squares, rectangles and other forms with the right attachments. The pans are automatically pregreased to help the bread release from the pans after baking.

On another line, sheeted breadsticks, for example, are picked up by operators and are loaded into baking pans that feature grooves to hold the breadsticks in place. “We have very flexible, versatile machinery,” points out Stu Rosen. “Some of our systems can make multiple sizes and shapes of different products.”
Adds Barnhart: “If a customer wants a certain type of Ciabatta, but wants a lot of it, we can meet that demand because we have a line that can produce that quantity. The equipment produces a lot of volume and throughput.”

Next, the trays, peel boards or pans are manually placed on movable racks that are moved into one of the proofing boxes. The line staffers place 30 racks of 30 pans or trays per rack into one of four proofer boxes on the (frozen) South side of the plant. Each proofer is dedicated to an oven.

On to proofing
Proofing takes approximately 45 minutes to 1.5 hours at 90-105ºF and 75-85% RH, but this also varies with the product, weather conditions, size and shape. Just after proofing, the products receive toppings, such as sunflower/poppy seeds, crushed oats or sesame seeds in the case of hamburger buns, and are scored or docked.

When the racks of products are removed from the proofer, they’re moved to one of the four tunnel ovens fed by the seven lines making products for frozen distribution. There are two tunnel ovens in place, measuring 80-ft. long and two measuring 120-ft. long. The shorter ovens can handle 4,400 buns per bake while the longer ovens bake up to 6,700 buns at a time.

“The 80-footers predate the 120-footers,” Barnhart explains. “Certain lines produce enough product to feed the bigger ovens and others go to the shorter ovens. The reason that we have five mixers and four ovens on this side is because we do a sponge-and-dough method [a two-stage method of mixing] for some products.”

Products can bake at temperatures that range from 300-450ºF for eight minutes to one hour, depending on the application. In some cases, product is placed by hand on a conveyor leading to the tunnel oven. Hamburger buns are grouped in counts of seven, with each pan holding 24 pieces. Pans then travel on a conveyor heading toward one of the 120-ft.-long ovens, and are staged to slowly enter the 120-ft. tunnel oven. Scoring is performed automatically at this point, if necessary. A starch-based shine spray also is automatically applied to the tops of buns, rolls, breads, etc., after exiting the oven.

From the ovens, the baked items are automatically depanned as suction cups gently grip them and deposit them on the upper level of a conveyor while the pans travel onto a lower level of the conveyor and head back to the front of the line from where they started.

The products then move into one of several large ambient-temperature spiral cooling conveyors where they travel for anywhere from 40 minutes to 1.5 hours to cool. Each oven has its own dedicated spiral cooler.

Next, the products progress onto a four-lane conveyor and are checked for the proper weight, color and size, which is done in the nearby packaging area. The product needs to cool prior to packaging to remove any moisture that evaporates. At this point, a spot check is made. In fact, there are several quality control checks conducted throughout the facility, and Highland follows the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) program and there are inspection points all throughout production.

“We check quantity, quality of all incoming ingredients as well as the truck it comes in, and everyone who encounters the process is inspecting throughout the process,” Galenson points out.

Well-planned product flow
“The lines are arranged so that everything flows in one direction, so that there is no crossover between things or cross contamination,” says Barnhart. “Advanced automation has allowed us to provide a wider range of products to many more customers. Everyone asks for something different, so being able to meet their demands has really benefitted our market share.”

The conveyor can also take products through a slicer if necessary before they are wrapped in clear film or in bags, depending on the quantity and application. They also go through a metal detector that checks for minute contaminants. Packaging is performed mostly manually in clear film multipack wraps, individual bread bags and multipack bags, depending on customer requirements. Packaged products are placed in corrugated cases (erected automatically) that are lot-stamped and inkjet-coded with production codes. The cases are manually loaded onto pallets, which are automatically stretch-wrapped before they’re sent either to a pallet freezer in the building that maintains a -5ºF temperature or go directly to an outside cold storage facility with similar temperature settings. “We put 2,200 pallets into the freezer,” Galenson says.
“Our frozen products have a six-month shelf life.”

Production speeds vary by the line but average 2,150 per hour for pan bread and 21,000 pieces per hour for buns.

Most fresh orders are taken over the phone until 11 p.m. Customers can call at 3 a.m. that day and receive delivery the same day, says Jim Rosen, president/CEO and owner. Orders for frozen products are taken by fax, electronically by email or electronic data interchange (EDI). Frozen production lasts five days a week, from Sunday afternoon until Friday afternoon when the plant performs its cleaning procedures, maintenance and prepares for the next week.

Flexible equipment
Highland added several pieces of new equipment since it moved into the Northbrook facility and continues to add new systems, which it did recently, and upgrade as necessary, says Barnhart. “We have increased production by more than double, as well as the amount of product varieties we make,” he adds. “So we’ve added to the number of our makeup lines since we moved in, including a ‘stress-free’ Ciabatta line that is practically operator-less that mimics a lot of the hand work we do on the ‘fresh product’ side of the facility, a sub roll line and lines that can produce multiple types of product and equipment that takes up less floorspace.”

The lines can be changed over as much as a few times a day or once a week, Barnhart reports. “That depends on orders. It varies with our orders and what our customers want.”

Barnhart says that the bakery recycles various materials, including plastics and corrugated, and has a lot of its food waste repurposed as pig and cattle feed.

Balancing it all
How does Highland balance its strict quality control measures with being flexible and creating custom products at a faster pace, as well as meeting all of its food safety standards and more? “We have a lot of good team players and get everyone’s input,” Barnhart says. “Everyone here has a lot of great experience that they bring to the table. Quality of product is number-one. That’s the No. 1 thing that we strive for. After we develop the quality the customer looks for and we want, the next goal is to make the product as quickly and efficiently as possible without sacrificing the quality.”