Artists At Work

By Dan Malovany

Lawler Foods, Ltd.’s new expansion will feature state-of-the-art automation. Its existing production facilities, however, combine mass production with the art of baking to create homemade-style desserts with that handmade look.

Building a masterpiece takes a lot of talent. That’s why Lawler Foods, Ltd. spends a lot of time training its employees on the fine art of cake decorating.
“We do a lot of hand work here to create complex, multi-layer cakes and other products that are difficult to do, but they separate ourselves from the competition,” notes Mike Lawler, vice president of operations at the Humble, Texas-based operation.
“We put in the extra effort that gives our premium products an artistic look,” he adds. “We do not sell value products. We produce quality products that our customers buy over and over again.”
Even though Lawler’s original bakery has been remodeled within the last five years, little has changed, especially when it comes to creating desserts that look like pieces of art. Although the 57,000-sq-ft. building has new coolers, mixers, wall paneling and a dishwasher room, the operation is designed for versatility because it produces anywhere from 12 to 25 different products a day. Some specialty desserts contain so many components that they take multiple stages and more than a dozen people to produce them en masse.
During Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s visit, for instance, a team of bakers and cake decorators lined up to create a double-layer chocolate cake with chocolate mousse and chocolate chips in the filling, chocolate ganache icing, a chocolate drizzle topping and chocolate bits that had recently been shaved from a large chocolate block. Later that day, an afternoon crew would package the product in boxes, apply code dates and seals, and build pallets before tagging them and sending the items for storage in the bakery’s holding freezer.
Currently, Lawler Foods operates two semi-automated bakeries and is installing state-of-the-art production lines in a third building that will open in June to streamline its operations and allow the company to more efficiently produce some of its less complex products and portion-controlled items.
Although automation is on the horizon in Building 3, the first two buildings will continue to operate as “hybrid” bakeries, where the art of baking is practiced on a large scale.
“Some products are more automated than others,” Lawler explains. “Cheese-cakes, for instance, are more automated than our layer cakes because they have fewer components and fewer steps to produce. Where in our original building we may produce dozens of products a day, we may produce only four or five different ones in Building 2, which is more straight-lined and automated.”
Super-size Retail Shop
Like a lot of family bakeries, Lawler Foods’ original facility is a reflection of the company’s history. As it expanded over the past 30 years, the bakery added additional production space until the landlocked facility ran out of room, and the company had to build a second facility to meet growing demand for its products.
As a result, the original operation consists of a hodgepodge of interconnected production rooms, each dedicated to creating the various components for its specialty desserts or for assembling and packaging the finished products. The building also houses a warehouse for packaging materials and ingredients, as well as offices for the company’s headquarters and its in-house research and development facility.
Production runs on a day-long staggered scheduled, with initial shifts coming in to prepare batters, icings and fillings from scratch and bake layers that are cooled before being sliced, assembled and packaged by later crews of employees.
In all, 400 people work at the company.
“In this building, we have such a veteran workforce,” Lawler explains. “They take a lot of pride in their work. We don’t have a lot of turnover because as they gain experience, we give them more artistic and rewarding jobs. Many of them came to us as unskilled laborers that have learned the trade and graduated to what I call the ‘artistic’ or cake decorating positions.”
To streamline things, daily production is scheduled around a specific product category. On any given day, employees will create everything from individual desserts and 7- or 9-in. layer cakes to quarter- and half-sheet cakes or “colossal” cheesecakes that weigh up to 7 lb. Because the company supplies the foodservice industry and does contract manufacturing for others, many of the products are made to order, custom-designed to specific formulas or contain a slight variation on one of Lawler’s existing lines to create a signature dessert sold exclusively by a specific customer.
“We group all of our cheesecakes on one day, all of our key lime pies on another and all of the chocolate items on yet another day,” Lawler says. “That allows us to have quicker changeovers, and it helps with sanitation and minimizes allergens. When working with chocolate, for instance, we can mix and match ingredients — everything from layers to ganache — to make a wide assortment of products.”
Many of the products are elegant, if not indulgent. In addition to its signature cheesecakes, the bakery produces turtle cakes, carrot cakes, layer cakes, pies and more. All icings and fillings are prepped in a separate room that’s free from whole eggs and other allergens because such ingredients typically don’t have the “kill step” that most baked goods go through as they pass through the oven. In all, the bakery uses 11, 140-qt. mixers to create a continuous batching system that allows a steady flow of ingredients to the depositors on its various makeup lines. Cake layers are baked in revolving tray ovens.
“If there is any guesswork,” Lawler says, “it’s in the mixing room were our most experienced employees work. They have more leeway to adjust mix time or tweak a formula so that it comes out right.”
The facility has separate temperature-controlled storage rooms for ingredients such as butter, milk and cream cheese, and for cooling cheesecakes or cake layers prior to slicing or holding products prior to packaging. It also has separate areas for dry goods such as flour, sugar and packaging. Overall, most ingredients are delivered in real time, mainly because the bakery is able to plan the bulk of production up to a week in advance to restore its inventory that it keeps on hand. All finished products are labeled and tagged with production dates and times. A select number of products are held for five days for microbial and other food safety testing.
Expanding For the Future
In 1991, Lawler Foods purchased 21 acres of land and built its second plant, a 55,000-sq.-ft. facility that houses a 1,000-pallet holding freezer. From a production standpoint, this bakery contains much of the same type of equipment as the original bakery.
“When we built this plant, we took the attitude ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.’” Lawler says. “We didn’t change our operation significantly from Building 1 to Building 2, but Building 3’s equipment is so much more advanced that we went with the changes. We are just a bit more automated in Building 2.”
The operation also is much more streamlined. Instead of producing dozens of items, this bakery cranks out just three to four varieties of desserts a day, and most of them are cheesecakes made on a semi-automated line. Because of the volume produced at this plant, Building 2 has a 100,000-lb. sugar silo. The company’s adding another silo for future expansion.
“Typically, we don’t have bulk handling or totes in our two older bakeries, Lawler says. “That’s because those systems are more conducive to continuous mixing instead of batch production, which is what we do here. Batch production allows us to be more flexible and to produce a wider variety of products.”
Overall, the cheesecake production process in Building 2 is fairly straightforward. After mixing batter in one of 20, 140-qt. mixers, batches are pumped to depositors controlled by individual computer controls. After the cookie or graham cracker crust is deposited and automatically spread throughout, the pans pass under two depositors, each with six pistons that evenly deposit the cheesecake batter. If producing a strawberry swirl variety, another depositor will be rolled into the line to add the additional flavor. There also is room to add chocolate chips and other inclusions manually on the line prior to baking the products in one of 13 revolving tray ovens. Typically, the line can produce 25 to 30 cheesecakes a minute, depending on their size.
The bakery houses an ammonia-fueled, spiral blast freezer set at -20ºF for setting and chilling the cheesecakes prior to packaging and palletizing. Customers generally pick up their products, or they are shipped via common carrier.
To prepare for future expansion, the bakery built a hallway or “spine,” which houses the generators, chilling equipment and other support systems for both Building 2 and the new bakery, which opens in June.
Back when founders Bill and Carol Lawler purchased the property more than a decade ago, they thought they had enough land to support the company well into the future. However, with years of consecutive double-digit growth, the new expansion might just be yet another step in the company’s growth as it expands nationally and even internationally.
“We thought we had more than enough land here,” says Mike Lawler, who is Bill’s and Carol’s son. “But the way we’ve been growing, I’m not so sure about that anymore.”
Humble Beginnings
Climbing the corporate latter isn’t for everybody. That’s why Bill and Carol Lawler decided in 1976 to go out on their own and create desserts with butter, real cream cheese and other natural ingredients that can be purchased at the local grocery store.
Instead of working in a fancy office, the Lawlers leased a small space near downtown Houston. There, they housed one mixer, a small oven and one employee, and began baking and selling desserts to restaurant establishments throughout the city. They did everything from keeping the books to cleaning the floors and eventually producing up to 125 cases a week.
By luck, they ran into buyers for a burgeoning wholesale club at a local restaurant show who decided to try selling the Lawlers’ turtle cheesecake for the Christmas season. Sales were so brisk that the dessert became a mainstay year-round, forcing the Lawlers to move into a new 9.600-sq.-ft. space in Humble, Texas, just a stone’s throw away from the George W. Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Today, the Lawlers have 400 employees, operate two bakeries and are building a state-of-the-art facility that should go online in June. In addition to supplying local restaurants and the “small wholesale club” that has since become one of the nation’s largest retailers, Lawler Foods, Ltd. supplies foodservice and in-store bakeries nationwide with more than 400 desserts.
“They’re still the bosses,” notes Mike Lawler, vice president of operations, who oversees the business with a management team. “They still know what’s going on around here, but the day-to-day operations, they don’t bother with — only the major decisions.”
Although the bakery has grown up over the years, experiencing double-digit growth over the last decade as it expanded nationally, the operation still is a family-run business with few of the pretenses of big business. In fact, being the little guy that can make decisions on a dime is one of Lawler’s strengths.
“We can react more quickly than a lot of other people because we are a privately-owned and family-owned business,” notes Bill Lawler. “That’s what makes us different from almost everyone else.”
Johnny On the SPOT
Many companies brag about customer service. Lawler Foods, Ltd. simply delivers. That’s because the Humble, Texas-based producer of premium desserts maintains a significant inventory of products in its freezer at all times. As the saying goes, if a customer needs something yesterday, Lawler’s can deliver it tomorrow.
Providing such service, however, doesn’t come without a cost.
“The key advantage that we have is that we provide great service to our customers,” notes Mike Lawler, vice president of operations. “The disadvantage we have is that we carry a lot of inventory.”
Ideally, Lawler requests a 10-day lead-time for orders from its customers. Production schedules typically are created two weeks in advance based on current sales and a reduction in inventory levels.
In reality, however, the business climate often is anything but predictable. As a result, just-in-time production doesn’t work in today’s competitive environment. The last thing Lawler’s wants to be is short on service.
“We can be ‘Johnny on the spot’ and take cake inventory and fill orders A.S.A.P. and then scramble to rebuild inventory if we need to,” Lawler says. “If a customer absolutely needs the product for one reason or another, we can take the next day’s inventory and work one extra shift to rebuild it.”
Holding inventory can pay off in some cases, he says.
“Inventory allows us to go long on ingredients if, for example, there is a spike in pecan prices or some other ingredient,” Lawler notes. “If we see that happening, we can shift production and build inventory if the price of pecans looks like it’s going to jump in price. That way we can keep our prices down for both ourselves and our customers.”