Model of Consistency
By Dan Malovany
At Fresh Start’s Stockton, Calif., facility, the goal is not to strive for perfection, but to attain it time after time.
Year after year, Mike Ward’s job involved setting the standard for producing hamburger buns across the world for the nation’s largest restaurant chain. Over time, the lead baker at Fresh Start Bakeries has gotten pretty good at it. He should be, since he’s been perfecting the production of hamburger buns for nearly a half a century.
Ward’s workday routine took a dramatic change last year when McDonald’s Corp. rolled out its new premium chicken sandwiches served on a honey wheat roll. Producing the hard roll involves new equipment, different processes, a more complex formulation and an entirely separate set of specifications as to what makes up the perfect product.
“That was probably the biggest change at McDonald’s during my lifetime,” says Ward, Fresh Start’s senior vice president and chief manufacturing officer.
For a little more than six months before the roll’s debut last June, McDonald’s and its bakery suppliers met to define the product’s baking characteristics, physical attributes and process. About a month before the rollout, the company installed new makeup equipment, and began making adjustments to the bun line in its Stockton, Calif., plant to accommodate production of the new product, notes Scott Parker, general manager for the facility.
Today, the 71,000-sq.-ft. bakery produces premium chicken rolls for 1,500 stores throughout California as well as units in Hawaii and the Pacific Rim. Additionally, Fresh Start provides hamburger buns for more than 500 restaurants in its northern California market, which includes parts of western Nevada.
Maximizing Space
Built in 1987, the Stockton plant operates three shifts, six days a week. The main line is actually a combination bun and hard roll operation, with separate makeup systems alternately feeding into a common proofer and oven. The plant also has the capacity to produce English muffins on a second line. Space throughout the plant, however, is pretty tight, so Fresh Start makes the most out of its footprint by using vertical hoppers, ceiling-mounted conveyors and other systems.
“We try to maximize the use of cubic footage in the facility as best as possible,” Parker says.
Each week, the bakery uses about 400,000 lb. of flour, which are stored in two 110,000-lb. silos. Bulk shortening and high-fructose corn syrup are stored in 60,000-lb. tanks, while 25,000-lb. batches of cream yeast are stored in a separate system. Fresh Start plans to install a bag dump handling system that will vacuum transfer minor and micro ingredients directly into the mixer. Currently, for some products, those ingredients are scaled by hand.
For bun production, Fresh Start uses a liquid sponge system. Flour, water, yeast and shortening are added to a sponge set tank, then pumped into a fermentation tank for a fixed period of time before passing through a heat exchanger that cools down the batch before it’s pumped into a holding tank. Honey wheat rolls use a different process.
“We have to be a little more careful with producing the premium chicken rolls,” Parker notes. “That process is a little trickier to handle and has less tolerance than the process for our buns.”
Both bun and hard roll doughs are mixed in a 2,000-lb. horizontal mixer. For the premium chicken roll makeup, the dough is dumped into a trough that’s automatically elevated to the divider’s hopper. The eight-pocket, European-style divider cuts, rounds and moulds the dough pieces, which are allowed a short rest before being placed on an extra-large pan. Generally, the hard roll makeup line produces up to 1,700 dozen rolls per hour.
The separate bun makeup system, however, can produce 3,000 to 3,300 dozen pieces an hour, depending on the size of the product. After mixing, the bun dough flows through a dough pump, which also degasses and further develops it. The dough enters a six-pocket extrusion divider and passes along a bar moulder before being flour dusted and receiving a 45-second intermediate proof.
Once relaxed, the dough pieces pass through a series of sheeter rollers that flatten them into round patties for making hamburger buns. A flour reclamation system vacuums up excess flour from the pans prior to proofing.
In general, all products receive a consistent proof time at about 110°F and about 70-75% relative humidity. Once proofed, buns may be topped with sesame seeds by a new system that uses programmable controls and photo sensors to accurately place the seeds on each bun, minimize waste and eliminate unnecessary cleanup, Parker explains. At this point, hard rolls are automatically scored prior to baking.
Protecting Product Integrity
After going under a blow-off station that loosens the buns from the pans for automatic depanning, product travels along a ceiling-mounted cooler for 20 minutes, through metal detection and into a six-lane feeder to one of two slicer/bulk packers. If there’s a jam in packaging, product can be diverted to an accumulator, which can hold about four minutes worth of production from its high-speed line.
Following slicing, product is bulk-packed including a 6-in wide, colored plastic strip that helps the distributor know what type of buns are in the package. For example, a red strip indicates that the package contains rolls, while a lack of a strip signifies regular hamburger buns.
Just prior to the heat-sealing process, air is vacuumed out to help extend shelf life and protect product integrity. A center heat seal down the center of the 24-pack allows foodservice operators to use only 12 buns at a time, thus extending freshness to the last possible moment, Parker explains.
Stacks of buns are rolled to the facility’s ammonia-chilled freezer, which can hold about 1,200 stacks or 120,000 pieces of product. Freezing the product allows the bakery to have longer runs on some products, thus eliminating the number of changeovers and improving plant efficiency. Fresh Start then shuttles products via tractor trailer to a McDonald’s distributor located about five miles from the bakery for further distribution.
To ensure product quality and food safety, Fresh Start has had a hazardous analysis critical control point (HACCP) program in place for about a decade, notes Brent Minardi, plant manager. Every hour, for instance, the foreman takes products as they’re leaving the oven and logs their internal temperature, seeding, shape, height, color and other parameters as a part of its statistical process control (SPC) system. The plant’s quality assurance manager also monitors products, swabs the bakery for microbial analysis, and sends out incoming ingredients to an outside lab for monthly testing.
Moreover, prior to entering the cooler, random buns and rolls pass under a product evaluation system that snaps an image of the product and compares the product color, shape and size to parameters already programmed into the computer. Fresh Start is looking to install an upgraded monitoring system with an automatic product rejector as well, Parker says.
A second monitoring system is located in the packaging area where operators take sliced products and run them under the system on an hourly basis. Here, operators measure not only the product’s shape and color, but also the dimensions of the heel and the crown to make sure they’re within predetermined specifications.
“These systems have been a big addition to the facility, even though they’ve been here for more than five years,” Parker notes. “They allow us to monitor all physical attributes of the bun.”
To monitor plant efficiency, the Stockton plant is linked to a central database that tracks all ingredients and finished goods. It also has a complete accounting system that monitors payables, receivables and other financial and administrative functions. Reports are sent to the Brea, Calif., headquarters on a weekly basis. Fresh Start also has a computerized preventive maintenance system that tracks parts and automatically generates work orders for equipment.
Future Improvements
To improve production, the bakery also is replacing the heat exchangers in its ferment system with higher capacity ones that will transfer the sponge more quickly and with lower pounds-per-square-inch. That will cause a lot less stress and will improve the quality of the final product.
The bakery may also start looking to automate the stacking and un-stacking of its new honey wheat roll pans, which are too large for its existing system. Currently, pans have to be manually loaded and unloaded onto conveyors.
Many ongoing improvements, Parker says, will come from the bakery’s “opportunity for improvement” (OFI) system. Specifically, that’s a terminal in the break room where employees can suggest ways to improve the plant’s operations. The OFI team then reviews ideas on a monthly basis. If it elects to implement them, employees are awarded prizes or gift certificates.
It’s just another way in which the Stockton plant improves on its model of consistency. SF&WB
Plant at a Glance
Company: Fresh Start Bakeries
Plant location: Stockton, Calif.
Size: 71,000 sq. ft.
Products: Hamburger buns, honey wheat rolls, English muffins.
Market: Northern California for buns. All of California, Hawaii and Pacific Rim for honey wheat rolls.
No. of lines: Two. Combination hamburger bun and hard roll line. English muffin line.
No. of Employees: 67
Key Personnel:
General Mgr.: Scott Parker
Plant Mgr.: Brent Minardi
Chief Engineer: John Slater
QA/Customer Service Manager: Virginia Taylor

Dough Doctor on Call
If the bun has lost its golden glow or the English muffin isn’t toasting right, Fresh Start calls on the Dough Doctor to nurse everything back to health. That was the nickname given to Mike Ward back in 1997, when he visited Hong Kong working to standardize the production of buns at a new plant, and it stuck with him ever since.
As senior vice president and chief manufacturing officer, Ward serves as the manufacturing expert in Fresh Start’s three-member Office of the President. In 1958, he began baking buns and other products at a wholesale bakery. Nine years later, Harold Freund in California hired him to bake hamburger buns for McDonald’s.
“I took the challenge and never regretted it,” Ward says. “I have 47 years of baking experience, mostly bun baking.”
Over the years, Ward has traveled the world with his wife, setting up Fresh Start bakeries throughout Europe and working with its partners in Central America, South America and Australia to ensure that the products produced in Malmo, Sweden, and Duisburg, Germany, taste the same as those baked in Juiz de Fora, Brazil and Melbourne, Australia.
Moreover, McDonald’s has sent the Dough Doctor as a consultant to standardize operations in Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Moscow and Singapore, just to name a few.
“Going into new countries is tough work, but we always met the challenge no matter what our customers asked us to do,” Ward says. “We have to work with language barriers, understanding culture differences and different standards for food safety, sanitation and so on. Ingredient differences always make it tough. Equipment differences are a challenge, but we’ve worked really hard and made sacrifices to get things done for them.”
In addition to standardizing bun production, Ward had to work on a variety of different products. In South America, for instance, Fresh Start and its partners are leading suppliers of ice cream cones, specialty cakes and other local products for both its core restaurant customers and others as well. In most cases, Fresh Start sends new managers from its international plants to its U.S. operations to familiarize them with its operational practices and expose them to the company’s values and culture.
As it diversifies its business, Fresh Start is hiring regional food scientists to spearhead new product development. For example, it recently hired Jeanny Zimeri, a former food scientist at Kraft’s Nabisco operation, to head up product development at Fresh Start’s venture in Guatemala.
In the United States, the Dough Doctor has helped improved the shelf life and softness of hamburger buns, and reformulated the English muffin to enhance its flavor, refine its shape and eliminate excess cornmeal that can make a mess on a drive-thru diner’s lap.
“Over the years, we helped established the target for the world’s production of McDonald’s bun products. We kind of helped write the book on these products,” Ward says.
Working with McDonald’s has made Fresh Start a better baking company, he adds.
“McDonald’s has been a good partner. They’ve helped us set and strive for higher standards,” he notes. “It’s been a two-way street all the way on that. We’re both looking for excellence.”
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