Looks are deceiving at Gabby’s Bagels. The “small” artisan bakery may first appear unassuming, but it has plenty of big programs that keep it ahead of the competition and regulations.

Lauren R. Hartman, Editor-in-Chief

In 1996, when Gabby’s Bagels, Inc. began operating in a small facility in Westmont, Ill., it had just been purchased from the Great American Bagel Co., or GAB, from which it got its name. Later, the company moved to larger quarters in Franklin Park, Ill., and by 2007, was “on a roll,” expanding again and relocating to a larger facility in the same town just outside of Chicago.

“We’ve been growing by leaps and bounds in the last several years,” observes Daniel Garcia, vice president of operations. “What makes us different from a lot of other artisan bakeries-and other bakeries in general-is great customer service and great flexibility.”

Gabby’s also is special because it has come from being a baker that just makes bagels to an artisan facility with a high-quality philosophy that is stronger today than ever. And it won’t turn down a request to create even the most unusual combination of bread, roll or bagel ingredients. In fact, it will turn samples around within two to three days. “If a customer wants a special sea salt-topped, seaweed-containing hamburger bun, we can do it,” Garcia states. “We may not be a big fan of the taste, but we’re going to make it. In Chicago, it’s very easy to find special ingredients locally, so we’re quite fortunate.”

Yet with hundreds of product varieties, the bakery still takes things slowly in its baking operation so that it can get just the right type of artisan product. The bakery is full of contradictions. Equipped with five production lines and about 60 employees, the 39,000-sq.-ft. facility houses five makeup lines that generate fresh and fresh-baked/frozen breads, bagels and other delicious creations at improved outputs averaging 30,000 lb. a day. That’s quite a task when you’re doing things carefully and thoughtfully. “We take our time,” Garcia says. “But we’re nimble. We can switch off from working on one product line to another, depending on what’s resting.” The dough has to sit and rest, he says, and isn’t hurried along to proof or ferment.”

The majority of Gabby’s breads, rolls, buns, bagels and baguettes-about 65%-are delivered fresh to restaurant customers and foodservice mainly in the Chicago area, while the other 35% is distributed nationally as fresh-baked frozen, primarily for foodservice customers.

Lines are dedicated
While Gabby’s started out just producing bagels, it now creates some 300 bread varieties, including pretzel rolls and buns, Tuscan breads, hamburger buns, bagels in various sizes and flavors, boules, apple crumble, focaccia, Vienna breads, olive loaves, baguettes, sesame seed buns, long baguettes, dinner rolls, Panini, hand-made, preservative-free pizza crust, submarine rolls, raisin loaves and, of course, bagels. Each of the five production lines is dedicated to a particular type of product and consists of a bagel line, one for rolls, another for sliced bread or Pullman loaves, an artisan bread line and a ciabatta line. Individual quantities range from 1.5 oz. up to 3 lb. Depending on the product and product formulation, the shelf life of the fresh items is usually three days but can be extended per customer requests.

Production begins at midnight for the first of two 8-hour shifts, seven days a week. Orders are taken by phone and online and daily route orders are taken by phone. The second shift starts by noon to accommodate a washdown and sanitization procedure, explains Luis Tenesaca, the operations manager who leads the plant. “Everything has to be cleaned and set up for the second shift. Machinery is sanitized and we have created a two-hour window for this.”

Allergen products are kept separate from the rest of the facility so that they don’t come in contact with other ingredients, says president Michael Conti. “We store seeds, herbs, milk, soy, rosemary and many other things in bulk bags, sacks and cases away from everything. We’re in the process of completing a two-year-long global food safety certification program and have learned a lot about managing allergens. They must also be clearly marked. All of our products contain wheat, but these particular allergens are separated.”

The newest equipment in the facility is a bulk flour delivery system that was added about six months ago, which Garcia says has really cut labor. “We used to have to deal with 50- and 100-lb. sacks of flour, which were heavy and labor-intensive,” he notes.

Several items were being made at the time ofSnack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s visit, such as raisin bagels, pizza crusts and multigrain submarine rolls. Primary ingredients, such as flour, are stored in a 100,000-lb. bulk flour silo outside of the building that is linked to a transparent pump placed inside the plant that transports the flour to sifters and up and into a set of flour hoppers that lead to a weigh scale. After they’re weighed, the sifted ingredients are transported to a series of mixers. Secondary ingredients are usually added by hand and water is metered into a mixer. Gabby’s uses one vertical and three spiral mixers that each hold 300 lb., depending on what type of product is being made, Conti explains. “The spiral mixers are gentler, so we use them to mix dough for artisan breads. The vertical mixer is for bagels and other products that can handle a more rigorous system.”

One batch at a time
As one batch of dough is mixed, it rests for about an hour or two, depending on the product, Conti adds. The round mixing bowls are lifted and lowered automatically and the dough is placed into a trough to sit. Next, the mixed dough is cut, divided and sent through a rounder or can be formed and portioned by hand, depending on what it will become. The portioned product is then manually placed on trays, peel boards or pans that are transported to a large proofer. There is also a separator on the bread line. Other items such as the pizza crust can be dusted by hand with flour or corn meal at this point.

There are several quality control checks performed throughout the plant, including a Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) using sifter screens, says Tenesaca.

The steam-based proof box holds approximately 40 racks of panned product that remains in the proofer anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours at 103ºF and 88% relative humidity (RH), again depending on what is being made. Once proofed, the pans of dough emerge and head to a retarder for different lengths of time. The retarder refrigerates or cools the dough at temperatures of 38-41ºF.

“I guess you could call ours a semi-automated artisan facility,” says Conti. “It’s more automated than you would think, however. You can automate an artisan program with equipment that’s a little gentler, so that it replicates the hand motions needed, but we’re not totally there yet. We still do a lot of hand work, especially with our ciabatta line of products.”

Computerized controls and software are equipped on about half of the equipment, such as the proofers, refrigeration units, bag clip applicators and date coders.

Despite the automation, operators are the ones who remove the trays of product from racks in the retarder and transport them to one of three ovens. Both fresh and fresh-frozen product is handled this way. At this point, operators might split certain loaves of bread on the top for venting and then prep the loaves for the oven. Here, a baker arranges loaves of bread, or rolls, buns, etc., on an automatic conveyorized loader.

The three oven types include a revolving oven for bread and rolls; rack ovens for bagels dinner rolls and
pretzel rolls; and a hearth oven for breads. The deck oven has a stone floor.

“We bake baguettes and Panini at 420ºF for 22 minutes to an hour, 2-lb. bread loaves take longer,” Garcia says. Many of the breads and rolls are also hand-loaded into the ovens using the peel boards. The hearth oven has four decks with four chambers per deck, with each deck holding up to 70 loaves. The revolving oven has eight shelves that can hold eight pans per shelf. There are six double-rack ovens that can 32 pans per oven.

“We are working on a tagging process to keep track of what’s ready for the next process,” Tenesaca says. “Currently, we eyeball things and take written notes.” A quality control check for temperature takes place at this time. Breads that need to be sliced are also checked for temperature.

After the products are baked, they are moved to a cooler on conveyors or are manually moved on racks.
After cooling, the product goes to a quality assurance station where it’s inspected and checked for the proper size and weight. At this point, it can be sliced, if called for. Several slicers are in place for bread loaves that produce ½ to ¾-in. thick slices. “What comes out of the oven first is usually what’s packaged first,” says Tenesaca. We have some routes that leave here in the morning for foodservice, so we plan what we need to send out and what’s packed before we start production.”

Once transferred to the packing room, the baked products are bagged in clear film bags imprinted with the Gabby’s logo. The bags are then clip-closed using a clip applicator and locking clips imprinted with a date code. Products are bagged in various multiples depending on the order by operators who then place the bags on racks or in film-lined corrugated shipping cases and later transport the cases further into the packaging area for shipment or into a freezer for warehouse storage.

“There are certain specifications that we check for at this point,” Conti adds. “Sometimes the product is hand-cut to fit a certain size and we cut the product, check weights of products on standalone scales. If something doesn’t meet spec, it’s put on a quality hold and management determines what to do with it.”
If frozen, the baked products are sent through a liquid nitrogen tunnel freezer for a few minutes before they’re packed in clear film bags and corrugated cases. The cases are automatically tape-sealed and stamped with a lot number, production code, manufacturing time and an expiration date for traceability. Both fresh and fresh-baked frozen products are sent through a metal detector after packaging.

Production improvements
Probably the most important aspect of making artisan bread is not rushing the process, Garcia says. “We don’t rush. We let nature take its course,” Garcia points out. “Automatic systems help us out, but we also have a lot of hands-on processes. At the same time, Luis [Tenesaca] and his team are very flexible. We run custom products and allow them their own time, but also use automation wherever possible.”

Yet the “slow pace” is anything but. The bakery has doubled its production since Tenesaca and Garcia joined the company about six months ago, and believe that the improvement is due to cross-training the staff. “Sanitation employees, for example, are trained in quality assurance, and the QA folks are trained in production in case an issue comes up,” Garcia says.

“Today, we’re running 25 batches on same product per day versus two. Our yield before was about 60% and now it’s about 98%,” adds Tenesaca.

Gabby’s is making other strides by becoming certified for food safety with the British Retail Consortium’s global standards program. “We have more paperwork, documentation and follow-up but it’s worth it,” Garcia says. “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.”

He also credits the conscientious, talented and experienced staff. “Our team here deserve so much credit. Finding good employees that are passionate about what they do makes all the difference in the world.”

Gabby’s products have become so popular that another expansion may be possible. “We’re looking at adding new roll lines or Ciabatta lines to further our production efficiency without sacrificing product quality,” Garcia says, smiling. “We are always keeping an eye out for a bigger facility, but we’re not going to make any changes until new business starts rolling in.”