As a co-packer of nationally branded natural and organic cookies, Fantasy Cookie strives to be versatile enough to produce unique, often hand-decorated products for clients ranging from legitimate start-up enterprises to the largest players in the industry.
By Dan Malovany
Fantasy Cookie isn’t the biggest in the industry, but that’s fine with Joe Semder, president of the Sylmar, Calif.-based company. Versatility remains its biggest strength.
In its 54,000-sq.-ft. plant in Southern California, the company produces more than 200 varieties of wire-cut, rotary and spritz cookies, as well as granola and crispy rice bars. The operation, which is certified organic by the Quality Assurance International, certified Kosher with Kof-K and third-party audited by Silliker Labs, specializes in contract manufacturing all-natural and organic products. In fact, Semder notes, 80% of its business comes from producing “healthier” products while conventional and holiday items make up the rest.
“We do not try to imitate products that are already marketed by much bigger firms,” he says. “If we do make a more ‘widespread’ known product, it usually has a more upscale twist. We are very good at formulating products that would be too difficult for the very large, output-minded manufacturers. We can automatically produce large quantities and then add some ‘hand work’ for finishing touches. Our lower minimums help us gain customers who do not have the volumes for most manufacturers.”
Joe Semder notes Fantasy Cookie will take clients with as little as 1,000 lb. in volume, provided that the concept has significant upside potential. Ideally, the bakery prefers customers who can provide enough volume to fill up an eight-hour shift.
“We look for clients who treat us like partners [and] whose common goal is to deliver the consumer the best product at the fairest price together,” he explains. “We like to see back and forth dialogue and idea sharing. We are a family-run business so our interactions with our customers are generally more relaxed, informal, friendly and respectful, but very professional as well. ‘No’ and ‘not possible’ are words hardly spoken at Fantasy. We give our customers 100%. We appreciate our customers and what they do for us and how they treat us, and we believe the feeling is mutual.”
Founded by his father, Hans, in 1980, Fantasy Cookie is run by Joe Semder and his brother Rich Semder, an executive vice president at the company. The bakery specializes in developing on-trend products for private label store brands and companies like Eco-Heaven LLC, the Santa Monica, Calif-based company that markets and sells products under the Eco-Planet and Heaven Scent names. In fact, Fantasy Cookie created those two brands before selling them to a Los Angeles venture capital firm so that it could focus on what it does best, which is producing baked goods for others. The partnership with Eco-Heaven remains as strong as it’s ever been, Semder says.
“Fantasy has and continues to do all of the formulating and R&D work for Eco-Heaven LLC when it comes to cookies,” Joe Semder explains. “It has been an ongoing, ever-changing process. We have created numerous different products, some of which never made it to market and some that did. Ideas for products come from all sides on a constant basis. We are always looking for the ‘newest’ ingredients and trends.”
Visitors just need to walk through the bakery’s outlet shop to see what Fantasy Cookie can produce. In addition to hand-assorted trays of holiday cookies, the company sells hand cut police cars that are manually decorated and individually wrapped that, in all, take four days to produce, Rich Semder notes.
“Everything we make is so unique,” he says. “We want it all to look handmade.”
Producing to OrderFor the most part, Fantasy Cookie doesn’t keep inventory, although it does keep some Eco-Planet and Heaven Scent products in stock due to the special historical relationship between the two companies. More often than not, it bakes to order. Once the product is produced and packaged, it is shipped out the door and becomes its customers’ responsibility.
Typically, Fantasy Cookie receives orders on a daily basis. After a customer places an order, the bakery creates a schedule based on the product type, the ingredients needed and the process that is required. Most schedules are made five days out, although the operation is nimble enough to complete rush orders if necessary.
Production runs on three shifts, six days a week. Because it produces so many products to order, the bakery brings in from the warehouse just enough ingredients for an eight-hour shift. Flour comes in 50-lb. bags. The only bulk ingredient handling systems are a 2,000-gallon tank of canola oil and a 1,000-gallon system for liquid sugar.
Rich Semder suggests this made-to-order system also allows the plant to produce organic products according to QAI regulations, or allergen-specific products, without any worry of contamination. Products containing peanuts may be made on one day while cookies made with milk or eggs are made on another day or on a specific line.
The facility houses four lines that can produce an assortment of products. Mixing of batters is done in one of the 500-lb. horizontal mixers. Fillings and icings are made in smaller 80-qt. spiral or paddle mixers.
Line 1 can crank out up to 400 lb. of wire-cut cookies an hour on its 60-ft. long, 39-in. wide band oven. Lines 2, 3 and 4 are outfitted to produce both wire-cut and rotary cookies. The band oven on Line 2 is 60-ft. long by 39-in. wide, while Line 3’s oven is 42-ft. long by 24-in. wide. Line 3 also has an enrober and cooling tunnel to make chocolate-coated products. Line 4’s oven is 30-ft. long by 24-in. wide. Because it’s the smallest, Rich Semder says, Line 4 is often used for new or smaller accounts.
“We like to start them out on Line 4 and then move them to Line 1 or Line 2 as their volume grows,” he says.
During SF&WB’s visit in March, the lines were producing a variety of products, including thumbprint cookies where line operators manually added a dollop of bakeable apricot or raspberry jelly. The bakery also made wire-cut butter cookies that are bulk packed in 7-lb. boxes for repackaging by a customer at a later date. On another line, graham crackers were cut into business card-size shapes before being hand packed in tubs.
“We have most packaging capabilities including horizontal wrappers, shrink wrap machines, vertical form, fill and seal, bags in a box, overwrapped trays and pouching,” Joe Semder explains.
The company continues to automate, although flexibility in production remains paramount. To boost capacity three years ago, the bakery added its fourth band oven with wire cutting and rotary moulders.
This year, he says, the bakery plans to install a new hardware and software system to keep track of production in real time.
“This includes all aspects of inventory, lot tracking, accounting, open orders, filled orders and the status of projects in R&D,” Joe Semder says. “We have upgraded our facilities and equipment, added some quality personnel and are now working to implement the last piece of the puzzle that will help Fantasy grow in an efficient and profitable manner.”
In the end, size isn’t everything. Rather, for Fantasy Cookie, it’s the ability to produce almost anything that its bakers, working with its customers, can dream up.
Editor’s Note: Go to www.snackandbakery.com to read more features on production equipment.