Lantmännen Unibake USA can tap into a wealth of resources from its parent company to boost capacity, enhance food safety and strike a delicate balance in automating the art of baking at its St. Petersburg, Fla., operation.

By Dan Malovany

When one company buys another, all too often it’s my way or the highway. If that happens, the acquired company can become out of touch with its loyal customers because its parent company forces the new kid on the block to change its formula for success to a corporate template that’s just not relevant to the local market.

With today’s shifting product trends, pending government regulations and advances in automation, however, companies need to constantly react to change and cannot afford to have every rule written in stone. Deciding what’s black and white doesn’t cut it in a market that’s a sea of gray.

That’s why Lantmännen Unibake USA didn’t transform acquired Euro-Bake into a clone of its sister companies after it acquired the specialty bread producer, which is located in St. Petersburg, Fla. Rather, the company took the road less traveled by following tradition and adapting Euro-Bake’s process of producing its distinctive breads and rolls along with the Unibake way of improving production and quality control standards.

“Having Lantmännen as our parent company helped us with the acquisition, but the benefit of Lantmännan is that they do have - more or less - a hands-off approach to running the operation. That is certainly true from a sales and marketing standpoint,” says Scott Kolinski, president of Lantmännan Unibake USA, based in Lisle, Ill.

“Lantmännan’s expertise is operational, and one of the things that we’re benefitting from is that we can contact some of our colleagues in Europe and find out what the best practice is on some process or get answers on various operational issues that we might have,” he adds. “I think that’s a strong benefit of having Lantmännen as our parent.”

Today, the former Euro-Bake operation creates products like it did prior to being purchased by relying on all-natural starters, no preservatives and long fermentation and proofing times to create its signature, high-moisture products that have a delicate crispy crust, says Mike Gerhard, whose father Harty started Euro-Bake in 1993 and sold it to Lantmännen Unibake in 2008.

Instead of adjusting key processes that compromise on Euro-Bake’s reputation for product quality, Lantmännen Unibake allowed its St. Petersburg bakery to tap into its vast corporate resources to enhance production processes in a way that would increase capacity, improve quality control and better serve its U.S. customers.

To assist in purchasing, for instance, the Swedish conglomerate can provide valuable insights into the global outlook for flour for the next six months, Kolinski says. To enhance operating efficiencies, Lantmännen Unibake has strict standards on handling allergens and finding ways to reduce waste using key performance indicators based on historical data from its sister bakeries.

“These guidelines are set by corporate, and they give us something to shoot for that maybe we didn’t think about before,” he notes.

DuringSF&WB’s visit, for instance, Lantmännen’s corporate quality director paid a visit to the St. Petersburg facility, which is in the process of being accredited with British Retail Consortium (BRC) food safety standard.

“We’re hoping there are resources at corporate to help us implement BRC faster because we don’t have to use outside consultants,” Gerhard says. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel by starting from zero. You have resources throughout the corporation not only at corporate headquarters. We can call up our friends at a large bakery in the [United Kingdom] and ask them about the implementation of these standards.”

Gerhard travels to Europe about every four months for an operations meeting where directors from Lantmännen Unibake’s 25 bakeries meet for three days to exchange advice, tips and other information.

In the area of sanitation, Lantmännen Unibake’s standards reflect more of a U.S. Department of Agriculture approach where employees must follow more detailed rules and regulations down to the uniforms they wear. On the other hand, Gerhard says, the corporate office showed the St. Petersburg bakery how to boost the throughput by 15% on its main ciabatta line by adapting best practices at its facility.

Additionally, the bakery installed a new automatic, pick-and-place system in its holding freezer that freed up space and raised capacity to 2,200 pallets from 1,600 pallets. Currently, the St. Petersburg bakery is looking at how to reconfigure its case packing and palletizing to place more products on each pallet, thus reducing overall shipping costs. Such attention to details can pay big dividends without having to look for savings in other vital areas such as the quality of ingredients that’s used in its products.

“Before, the focus was on how much we can put into a box,” Gerhard says. “Today, it’s how much we can fit on the pallet.”

Flexible Specialty Baking
Overall, the St. Petersburg bakery has 45,000 sq. ft. of production space and 10,000 sq. ft. of warehousing and houses three production lines that can produce everything from classic Italian and French bread and rolls to hand-crafted artisan breads with two to three hours of proof time.

“We are more artisan than what other industrial bakers are,” Kolinski says. “It allows us to have the flexibility to do all types of products. If we only had a fully automated bread line, we would be stuck.”

The bakery’s unique formulas allow it to produce breads with a delicate, crisp crust and a moist interior and differentiate its line of products from its competitors.

“We actually use more water than most operations do, which creates some challenges from a production standpoint,” Kolinski notes. “The machinery doesn’t like a really wet product, but in the end, it gives you a product that is much moister inside and doesn’t stick to the roof of our mouth. It is delicious.”

About 150 to 180 people work three shifts, five days a week producing about 250 stock-keeping units (SKUs), although many of them are the same basic product except in multiple weights and shapes or with different toppings.

“We naturally do a lot of different doughs,” Gerhard notes. “We can do up to 10 products on one dough. Overall, we have about 50 live recipes that we can choose from at this time.”

Three 77,000-lb. silos supply the production lines along with 2,200-lb. totes of olive oil that it incorporates into its premium products. Instead of commercial yeast, most products are made using one of five different types of mild-flavored starters such as sourdough, biga and other European starters that ferment up to 24 hours to give its sponge-and-dough breads and rolls their full-bodied premium flavor.

The makeup room is temperature-controlled at 75˚F to provide front-end controls and prevent over-proofing in the hot and humid Florida weather. Here, Line 1 produces about 2,200 lb. of French baguettes and rolls per hour while Line 2 is a semi-automated line where production personnel handcraft artisan breads at a rate of about 1,750 lb. per hour. Line 3, the bakery’s largest and most automated line, cranks out about 4,000 lb. of ciabatta bread and rolls per hour.

Seven spiral mixers feed makeup lines. In addition to one 440-lb. mixer for sponges, the bakery uses four 440-lb. mixers dedicated to Line 1 and Line 2. Because of its capacity, Line 3 requires two 880-lb. mixers to keep it running.

Production on Line 1 is a classic baguette line featuring a cross-roller, multiroller and high-speed stretcher to create French bread and rolls. The versatile line can produce anything from mini, 1-oz. rolls to 20-oz. baguettes. After the dough pieces are placed on peelboards, many of them are proofed at low temperatures from 1.5 to 2 hours or more in a modular French system before they travel through automatic scoring and bake up to 18 minutes in a modular oven prior to cooling and entering through an ammonia blast freezer. They then travel through a vibrating channel where employees visually check each product before being counted and case packed.

For artisan breads, Line 2 has a stress-free system that creates a uniform sheet of dough that’s divided into pieces to create 17-oz. oval loaves, many of which are hand-formed to give them their Old World texture and appearance. The line is versatile enough to apply a variety of toppings from dry cheese to seeds and multigrains and can produce products ranging from small batches of ciabatta and gourmet hamburger buns to test products for new customers.

The dough pieces are placed on 800 mm. by 600 mm. trays and racked before they travel along a chain and rail through a semi-automated proofbox for a long, slow proof of up to four hours and 30 minutes at temperatures as cool as 50˚F prior to baking in a battery of 10 rack ovens for about 30 minutes. After cooling, the bread and rolls go through a mechanical blast freezer before being hand placed in cases prior to palletizing.

Line 3 is a larger version of Line 2 with ciabatta bread and rolls placed via a reciprocating conveyor on 2,000 mm. by 900 mm. trays or peelboards covered with a parchment paper to minimize allergens.

DuringSF&WB’s visit, the bakery was making ciabatta rolls. After the dough is sheeted out using a
stress-free system, it receives a light flour dusting before going through a cross roller and spreader belt system and through a cross cutter and guillotine to produce the individual pieces.

After proofing and baking in modular systems and traveling in a spiral blast freezer, the rolls pass through metal detection to a virtual quality control system with a camera-counting system that automatically counts the rolls and checks them against predetermined parameters to ensure they’re the correct size.

“If they’re too small, they’re not counted,” Gerhard says. “We have the option if they’re too big, they’re not counted as well. The system provides us with accurate quality control and accountability.”

After counting and gathering in a containment area, a finger gate releases the rolls down a discharge funnel into plastic packs that drop down into already automatically erected cases that hold 50 rolls each and are routinely closed and labeled.

Following palletizing, the products are stored in the plant’s holding freezer, which can store about three week’s worth of inventory. Because it freezes its bread and rolls, the bakery can make longer runs of products, consolidate short-run items and produce breads and rolls containing allergens on one or two days a week for food safety, Gerhard says.

Moreover, the flexible operation allows Lantmännen Unibake to pursue new business that it hadn’t been able to do in the past, says Ralph Hoffmann, director of sales.

“Because of the synergies and the capability of the equipment to make certain new products, we’re now more diversified and able to react more quickly to changes in the market,” he says.

In the end, the bakery is able to improve its operations’ efficiency while still creating products in respect with Old World tradition.