Rocky Mountain High
By Molly Strzelecki
Simultaneously Bringing Service and Innovation to the Bread Market Isn’t Easy, but Gerard’s French Bakery has Managed to do Just That Over the Years, and What was Once a Small Business is now Riding a…
Long ago, in a place that would eventually become part of the “Wild, Wild West,” the rush was on to discover the gold that was reputedly lying beneath the surrounding land. In time, the gold diggers and gun slingers settled down to become cattle ranchers and cow hands. Land developers later moved in to put the surrounding mountains to use, drawing visitors from around the world to strap on a pair of skis and swish down snow-packed slopes.
With a mile-high city and a giant play-land for outdoorsy types, it’s no wonder that the Rocky Mountain State is admired mostly for its breathtaking views of snow-covered peaks in winter and lush green meadows in summer.
But let’s not forget the sprawling wheat fields that cover much of the area east of the Rockies. Wheat fields? In Colorado?
That’s right. Vast wheat fields. Come on down off that mountain and there’s a whole other part of the state that doesn’t immediately fit into people’s perceptions of Colorado. For one group of Colorado farmers, however, vast wheat fields was precisely what filled their mind’s-eye, and there was nothing especially romantic about this perception.
This group of Colorado wheat farmers got together and had the ingenuity to take a vertical look at the wheat business, and see where it could go up and out, rather than down and out. They named themselves the Mountain View Harvest Co-op and what they saw was an opportunity to grow their own wheat, process it, then source it to a bakery. And what better bakery to source it to than to sell it to a bakery they own?
With that in mind, about eight years ago, the co-op bought a small French bakery in Longmont, Colorado, named Gerard’s. The co-op’s original idea, says Hank Haer, vice president of sales and marketing for Gerard’s, was to expand the current production of Gerard’s facility to include the entire front range of Colorado, rather than the limited circumference of foodservice and retail accounts the bakery previously supplied.
Like a molehill can turn into a mountain, the boulangerie petite quickly grew up and out, and it is now taking its products – and co-op – to a national level.
Just a decade ago, the bread market in North America was dominated by large players like Maple Leaf Bakery and Maplehurst, which, at the time, were buying up smaller bakeries left and right and integrating them into their own.
These huge wholesalers, while offering vast quantities of products, were lacking in two things that differentiated Gerard’s from them.
“They didn’t offer much service,” Haer says, “and they didn’t offer new products. And when I say they didn’t offer it, I mean they didn’t offer it as rapidly as the small, entrepreneurial bakeries that they acquired did.
“In the bakery business, product development has traditionally always come from the small entrepreneur, the regional bakery and such,” he adds. “So we said, ’Ah-ha! There’s a niche there that we think we can fill.’”
Producing specialty breads and offering its customers top-notch service has become Gerard’s niche. “That’s what we’ve hung our reputation on, especially over the last three years,” Haer notes.
Spicing it Up
Six years ago, when Hank Haer and Gary Hoerner, vice president of operations for Gerard’s, came on board with the co-op of Colorado wheat farmers, Gerard’s was a bakery that did $5 million in sales producing basic baguettes and sourdough breads, mainly for foodservice accounts, with a slight presence in retail.
“What we did,” Hoerner says, “was we came in here and looked at the core products and then basically said, ’We can do some variations on these.’”
And did they ever. Gerard’s is known as a veritable new product wonderland, passionately offering its customers the option to customize their bread in just about any way, shape or form.
“We started thinking to ourselves, ’What if we took and added some spice to a hoagie, what happens?’” Hoerner recalls. “What happens when you add potato-onion-dill to a hamburger bun? So that’s what we started doing. And we started expanding on that idea.”
Gerard’s offers its customers the option to customize breads with just about every ingredient imaginable. Lately, Haer says, customers are looking for “anything with flavor,” and anything that will set them apart from other breads and rolls.
Spices like Chipotle or rosemary or ingredients like kalamata olives are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the innovative combinations Gerard’s can add to breads and rolls. The new variations on classic products like baguettes or focaccia or rustic breads, Hoerner admits, “were accepted relatively well. It didn’t go anywhere [at first], but it was accepted well.”
As acceptance grew, so did the market that Gerard’s serves. Haer, from experience with companies like Country Home and Quaker, and Hoerner, who came from working with companies like Gai’s Bakery in Seattle and San Francisco French Bread, saw the national level coming into focus for Gerard’s, and took that idea to their owners.
“Gary and I were brought in because we had the national exposure, and we thought the board of directors was really on board with the [idea to take Gerard’s national],” Haer recalls. “So the first time I addressed the board, I said, ’I think we can get this company to $50 million dollars in five years, and we’re going to be selling across the country.’ They were kind of taken aback. The farmers’ view was that the company wouldn’t sell products past the Colorado boarder on both sides.”
The co-op was surprised by such a lofty view, but today there is no question that Gerard’s was up to the challenge. This year, the company stands to make between $28 and $30 million.
“You have to understand,” Hoerner explains, “from the initial investment the farmers made, that was the last one they made. We have grown this from a $5 million company to a $28 million company with no capital investment at all in six-and-a-half years.” Gerard’s now has a second plant in Livermore, Calif., and plans to set up shop in North Carolina and either the Dallas or Rust Belt areas with in the next five years for fuller coverage of the United States. The $50 million mark is no longer a farmer’s dream, Haer notes. It’s quickly becoming a reality.
Gerard’s serves about 40 states with most of the business remaining in the foodservice channel. For a bakery like Gerard’s, it hasn’t been easy, Hoerner says. However, staying on course while keeping true to traditional baking processes, such as the two-hour fermentation time needed for some of its French breads, or 20- to 26-hour start-to-finish process on traditional Italian breads, has kept Gerard’s blossoming.
“We’re committed to the quality of our product,” Hoerner states.
At the same time, Gerard’s has been using the latest food technology to keep up with the big boys in getting its product to market – and making it last. The company incorporated extended shelf life (ESL) enzymes into some of its baked goods. That’s especially critical as Gerard’s extends itself beyond the foodservice channel and occasional retail outlets.
“When I first started calling on the convenience store business, I went in and made my presentation,” Haer explains. Typically, the bread baked for C-stores is used to make sandwiches. It’s delivered frozen, thawed overnight under refrigeration, then made into sandwiches into under refrigeration, over-wrapped and finally shipped off to sit under refrigeration for up to another three days. “And in the bakery business, what’s the worst thing you can do to bread? Freeze it, and then hold it under refrigeration,” Haer says. But Gerard’s saw the huge opportunity in blossoming C-store delis and mini-bakeries.
“That’s when we started to do a lot of research on the enzymes for ESL, and we’ve developed a product that does stand up to those situations and still yields a great product, which is what our customers are looking for – longer shelf life and greater quality,” Haer says.
Mixing it Up
Despite being a smaller niche player, Gerard’s keeps up with the big boys not only by offering a vast array of adaptable products but by keeping its operations flexible as well. While large wholesalers won’t run a product unless they can run it all day, Gerard’s has the option to make limited runs on specialty baked goods that suit customers’ needs.
“They’re coming to us and they’re asking if we can tweak this or fix that,” Haer says.
Gerard’s customers are also asking for custom-designed products that would be used on a limited-time only basis.
“And yes, we can do that type of situation. And yes, we can do that and still have the flexibility in our plant to be able to sell the product at a decent price,” Haer finishes.
Customers looking for signature, baked products that differentiate them from their competitors are exactly the type of clientele that Gerard’s takes on, and they are the customers that have made Gerard’s the dominant player that it is.
About 120 people work in production, which runs for six days, 24 hours a day. Much of the process is labor intensive. Gerard’s produces 80,000 to 100,000 lbs. of finished product daily about 25,000 to 30,000-lbs. of baked goods per day just six years ago.
The bakery has a 100,000-lb. flour silo and about 250,000 to 350,000-lbs. of flour weekly. Deliveries come in about five to seven times per week.
Overall, ingredient handling is not automated, partly because Gerard’s product development process is nothing less than prolific. Since January, for example, the bakery has developed about 140 new products for its customers. Some of the items created included a flavored breads like mesquite flavored, coffee flavored, and roasted garlic flavored, low-carb products, and “rustic” –style breads.
Granted, not all were used, Hoerner notes, but many were asked for, tested and tried out by its customers.
To maintain such a vast product portfolio and the number of different spices and ingredients, the turnaround on ingredients is no more than five days. Partly, there is not much by way of ingredient storage, simply because there is no room in the 25,000-sq.-ft. facility.
“We’re not very automated,” Hoerner says. “We’re just a little bakery trying to play in the national market with a multitude of products. And the product list is growing all the time.”
To bake the flavorful and inventive breads that Gerard’s is known for, the process starts in the mixing room where six mixers can crank out up to 400-lbs. of dough each. It’s a flexible operation because the mixers can produce a variety of batches at varying times and speeds, depending on the bread baked that day.
From the mixing room, the dough is moved to one of five lines. Specifically, the facility houses roll line, a bread line, two string lines and a sheeting line, which keep the bakery hopping with an array of baked goods daily.
After traveling through the line, the breads are panned, racked and placed in a proofing room. “It’s Miami-like heat,” Hoerner jokes about the temperature in the proofing room, which ranges from 90° to 95°F.
While every loaf of bread goes through a proofing process, Hoerner says, the quality of the final product is often determine by how the proofing is done, and in some cases, on how long the proofing is.
At Gerard’s, proofing can last anywhere from an hour to 10 hours, depending on the variety. Most proofboxes in other bakeries use steam, and end up having a lot of condensation, Hoerner says. However, Gerard’s proofer does not use live steam. Instead, air comes out of PVC pipes and heated floors, giving off the optimum temperature for yeast activation and for the dough to rise
Once proofing is complete, the racks head to one of 18 rack ovens in the Colorado facility. The California plant houses 10 rack ovens and has room to add six to eight more units.
After baking, the bread goes into a spacious cooling and packaging room. However, as the bakery expands, the space packaging area is getting tighter.
“As we’ve grown, the [Colorado] facility hasn’t grown,” Hoerner acknowledges. Because the in-house freezer, which is set at -10°F, is only about 2,500-sq.-ft., a good portion of the finished product gets sent to an offsite cold storage facility located about 12 miles north of Longmont.
While an ever-growing product line and new facilities on the horizon continually change and grow, one thing will always remain the same:
“We consider ourselves a French bakery that is versatile and creative in the type of products we take to market,” Hoerner explains. “We pride ourselves on keeping true to making breads the way they should be made.”
And with the hook of innovation combined with a powerful commitment to quality service, Gerard’s is steadily climbing the mountain.