Pineridge Foods is taking no chances. In the face of unexpected obstacles, the Canadian company relies on patience, perseverance and the foresight to prepare for the long run.

By Dan Malovany

Shortly after purchasing Oakrun Farm Bakery in 2007, Roger Dickhout and Pineridge Foods discovered that sometimes bad things really do happen in threes.

First, there was the fire that destroyed two English muffin lines and a crumpet line that together make up a large part of the business at the bakery located in Ancaster, Ont., which is about an hour’s drive west from Toronto. Apparently, an ember from one of the English muffin griddles flew in to a cornmeal dust collector, shooting flames up through a false ceiling and burning down about 27,000 sq. ft. of the facility.
But that was only the beginning. As the bakery began to rebuild, Pineridge Foods discovered that the business would face other challenges in the days to come.

“As bad luck would have it, immediately after we began ramping up production, we got hit with the commodity spikes the following year,” recalls Dickhout, president and CEO of Pineridge Foods, headquartered in Brampton, Ont. “Following that, changes in the U.S/Canadian dollar exchange rate went against us.”

Today, the bakery platform of Pineridge Foods, which includes a rebuilt Oakrun Farm Bakery and its Gourmet Baker frozen baked goods business with bakeries in Winnipeg and Vancouver, expects its business throughout North America to blossom this year.

It’s not just a matter of luck that’s prompted this change in fortune. Rather, the company’s baking business has launched a wide range of operational improvements and market initiatives. For example, it is launching a major branding and marketing campaign that leverages the bakeries’ operational strengths and complementary product platforms in the foodservice, retail and in-store bakery channels. Additionally, with its core businesses operating at full strength, the company is ramping up its plans to make further acquisitions in its baked goods business as they become available (See “Firing on all Cylinders”).

Since purchasing Oakrun Farm Bakery and Gourmet Baker three years ago, Dickhout discovered that patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish, as former U.S. President John Quincy Adams once observed.

“The long process of rebuilding was a lot more about persistence in a challenging situation than running on adrenaline as we did during the first week of the crisis,” Dickhout notes. “With that persistence, we were able to rearrange our plant so as to find space in our existing facility and put in some new lines.”

Specifically, the company put in two upgraded English muffin lines and rebuilt its crumpet lines adding significant capacity as well as improved product quality, says Tony Tristani, senior vice president and general manager, operations for Oakrun Farm Bakery.

To make room for these lines, the bakery shoehorned the crumpet line where existing warehouse space had once stood. It also removed a pie line and transferred pie production to a co-packer. The latter was an easy decision because Oakrun Farm Bakery had been debating whether to shut down its marginal pie line when the fire struck.

In the end, Oakrun Farm Bakery is actually more productive on a square footage basis. In fact, the operation now has the same amount of annual sales coming out of 70% of the space than it had in the past.

Moreover, in the bakery’s bigger and more efficient facility, the recently opened 40,000-sq.-ft. addition houses new business offices, quality assurance, product development and an additional area for yet-to-be announced production lines during the next year.

Bigger and Better
At Oakrun Farm Bakery, Tristani says, just more than 500 employees work three shifts, six days a week on 11 production lines in the 240,000-sq.-ft. facility. In addition to crumpets and English muffins, the bakery produces bagels, ring Danish, angel food cake, bagels and pre-deposited frozen muffins, cookies and tea biscuits. Except for the end-of-the-year holiday season when several lines run seven days a week, one day is reserved for sanitation and preventive maintenance. The plant is currently Hazardous Analysis of Critical Control Point (HACCP) compliant and is working toward accreditation under the Global Food Safety Initiative, Tristani says.

At the bakery, different blends of flour are stored in six, 100,000-lb. silos plus a 40,000-lb. silo holding whole wheat flour. The plant is outfitted with a central, liquid cream yeast system, which has two, 40,000-lb. clean-in-place tanks. The facility also has a 50,000-lb. tank for high-fructose corn syrup, a liquid glucose system, an 80,000-lb. sugar silo and bulk holding tanks for vegetable and/or soy oil.

The bakery’s twin English muffin lines are the workhorse of the operation, Tristani says. One of the product lines is allergen-free, meaning that it doesn’t produce English muffins made with dairy ingredients, such as the company’s new buttermilk blueberry English muffins. Both of these lines, he adds, are high speed and fully competitive with other automated English muffin lines in North America. Pineridge Foods declined to offer line speeds for competitive reasons.

In the separate mixing room, a 5,000-lb. tank holds a liquid yeast brew at 40˚F that is pumped into two large horizontal mixers that feed into each English muffin line. After mixing, the dough dumps and pumps into a six-pocket divider after which dough pieces roll along six, 5-ft. rounder bars before dropping into a 12-across intermediate proofer.

After cornmeal dusting, the English muffins are baked. To keep the area clean and prevent another disaster from happening, the state-of-the-art dust collectors remove any excess airborne cornmeal prior to baking.

“When we rebuilt the line, it’s virtually dust-free now,” Tristani says. “About 99% of the corn flour is captured by the two systems.”

The recaptured cornmeal, he adds, is later recycled in the process.

Following a run on an ambient cooling conveyor, the English muffins travel down through an aligner, which gathers them into a single file that leads to a forker/splitter and pass a vision system that monitors them for size, uniformity and the color of the bake, says Darren Gallant, production manager. Those products that fail to meet the bakery’s specifications are rejected.

Afterward, the English muffins go through a diverter that sends them to six individual lanes heading into a robotic stacker. After the robot stacks the English muffins atop one another, six English muffins then travel through metal detection before entering an automatic stacker and bag closer before being case packed.

Diverse Production Lines
DuringSnack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s visit, the predeposit line was cranking out blueberry muffins. After blending in a high-speed mixer, the batter is pumped into the hopper feeding two depositors on the line. To minimize damage, bleeding or streaking, the whole blueberries are incorporated into the batter at the end of the mixing cycle. Twin depositors fill the trays, which then travel to a spiral blast freezer prior to casepacking.

Tristani notes the bakery has changeovers down to a science on this line. For instance, makeup equipment is assembled prior to the end of the pre-deposited muffin shift and is then wheeled in and out to produce preformed frozen cookies or tea biscuits. During that 10-minute changeover, operators also wash down the mixer and depositors, which are then ready to go for another eight-hour shift.

The cookie dough pieces are then deposited onto parchment paper to provide portion control and so they won’t stick together when the customer takes them out to bake. A typical sheet holds 20 conventional-sized or 36 mini cookies. Six sheets are then stacked atop one another in a case.
In a separate room, the rebuilt crumpet line has 15% more throughput than before the fire. Here, crumpet batter is created in a high-speed mixer. After pumping from the mixer to the hopper, the dough is deposited into an eight-across griddle oven for a short proprietary bake time.

Overall, about 15% of the products produced in the bakery are delivered fresh to retailers by 37 independent distributors throughout Ontario.  The bulk of the products are frozen and shipped to distributors, foodservice outlets or quick-service restaurants throughout North America and even into several new accounts in Central America.

If luck will allow it, Dickhout notes, both Oakrun Farm Bakery and Gourmet Baker will have a good year building on the major improvements made post fire and the strong momentum experienced in 2009.