Purists At Heart

By Dan Malovany

How does Labriola Baking Co. automate the production of artisan breads and rolls? At the Alsip, Ill., facility, it’s done very carefully, often slowly and — for some parts of the process — not at all.

Rich Labriola doesn’t like to take shortcuts because that’s the easiest way for his company to lose its direction. Sure, the owner of Labriola Baking Co. has felt the pressure to automate the production of certain artisan breads. All businesses, when they get to a certain size, begin looking at ways to operate more efficiently.
 However, Labriola Baking’s map to success often involves taking the road less traveled, especially when it comes to baking traditional, quality breads. There are just some things Rich won’t change — unless, of course, he is totally convinced that they’re the right things to do.
As Gina Errico, vice president of production, says, “Rich won’t automate a bread line unless he is 100% sure that it’s the same quality as it was being made by hand on a makeup table.”
Since the Alsip, Ill.-based bakery was founded in 1993, business has grown at double-digit rates annually, and the production area has expanded from 10,000 to 30,000 to 60,000 sq. ft. Not surprisingly, a lot has changed at the semi-automated operation. Then again, a lot hasn’t.
Take, for example, the two 65,000-lb. flour silos that were installed in 2004. Certainly, the system replaces dozens of pallets and 50-lb. bags of flour that the bakery used each day. However, automating bulk ingredient handling didn’t impact product quality. Labriola Baking’s flour still is aged 14 to 21 days after milling to enhance the bakery’s products’ flavor and provide greater consistency.
“When flour is milled and green, the enzyme activity is up and down,” Rich explains. “The aging process allows it to mellow out a bit.” All other ingredients, including a variety of whole and wheat whole grains, still come in bags.
Likewise, the bakery houses five lines, including a makeup line that cranks out baguettes and French rolls. However, when it comes to makeup, Labriola Baking’s employees don’t just put it on automatic and run. Rather, with the exception of a few conventional breads, the bakers there have the Old World of baking in their hands.
Because of the handwork on many products, line speeds as posted by the equipment manufacturers often are irrelevant. Sometimes, the line is only as fast as the bakers can mould the product.
In addition, Labriola Baking custom makes many of its rolls and bread varieties. Production can be described as frantically slow because the $19 million company produces large volumes of products, but it often takes extra steps to add a special touch.
“Externally, we appear fast-paced if you look at our volume. However, inside the bakery, we’re still working at a very slow pace to pay attention to detail,” Errico says.
Labriola Baking’s signature 14-oz. baguettes, for instance, are aligned and given a final stretch by hand along with a pinch on the ends to give them their signature appeal. Similarly, Tuscan breads are divided mechanically, but then are hand-folded before being placed on a rack.
 “A lot of time is required to get the quality we want in our products,” Errico says. “It’s not only Rich and myself who care about the quality. Everyone does. Even though the products may come off a makeup line, we add a lot of detail to produce them right.”
With more than 600 stock-keeping units, changeovers are a reality. In fact, there are so many different products being produced that most of the breads and rolls are racked and wheeled into proof boxes strategically placed throughout the plant. Automating proofing? That’s not possible at this versatile operation. Depending on the time of day, in fact, some of the proof boxes are transformed into retarders to properly ferment products such as San Francisco-style sourdough bread and rolls. Overall, the bakery can proof about 100 racks at a time.
Typically, all orders for fresh delivery must be set by noon the day prior to delivery. Managing scheduling can be tricky, especially when a valued customer begs for a last-minute favor. The company even brought in a consultant recently to suggest ways in which it can streamline the operation without compromising on quality.
Monitoring the actual production of so many products also requires a well-trained, if not veteran, workforce. New hires receive video training on safety, hygiene and other basic procedures, and then are expected to work their way up the ranks, learning their trade.
Those bakers who are selected as potential supervisors often are sent to technical schools such as the San Francisco Baking Institute. Because of the complexity of the business, supervisors at Labriola Baking need bakery experience. They must understand everything from good manufacturing practices and certified organic requirements to dough fermentation times and temperatures, or how to make ciabatta, pugliese and a pretzel ficelle roll.
“We don’t want operators,” Errico says. “We want bakers who can operate a machine. Our new managers also need to understand baking. They may be a great manager at some other place. Here, you have to be a great baker as well.”
Hurry Up, But Wait
Overall, the plant runs 24/7, but that doesn’t necessarily mean all the lines run around the clock. The peak production periods are evenings and during the overnight shift. That’s because the bakery operates 26 routes that distribute time-sensitive fresh baked goods before the crack of dawn to mostly high-end foodservice customers throughout parts of Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan. Some larger restaurants and hotels also receive a second delivery in the afternoon.
To produce such products, the bakery uses the autolyse method where dough batches are allowed to relax after initial mixing of flour and water. This method allows for greater absorption of water without force, and for the gluten and starches to align. Additionally, Rich says, breads and rolls made using the autolyse method don’t need dough conditioners to make moulding easier, especially with the production of baguettes. This natural process also creates full-bodied breads and rolls with improved cell structures.
“We’re not into big puffy loaves,” Rich notes. “We want something with an open-dell structure. If it doesn’t look consistent, that doesn’t bother us.”
The four-bowl spiral mixing department runs pretty much non-stop feeding the various lines. Organic ingredients are stored in a separate area and mixed separately according to guidelines set by the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) International Organic Certification program. The bakery also has a specific vendor program to document and source organic ingredients. Organic breads and rolls also are made up on a single line that is cleaned and purged nightly following special cleaning instructions, Errico says.
After mixing, the dough batches are chunked and placed in 25-lb. tubs that feed the smaller lines or are dumped in a larger trough for the higher speed, automated line. Fermentation times for products can range from 20 minutes for more straight-line doughs to up to 5 hours for some sourdough and artisan products. The facility also has a cooler to hold perishable ingredients and starters for its various European-style and San Franciscan sourdoughs.
In addition to a French baguette and roll makeup line, the plant houses low-stress makeup machines for making artisan breads and rolls. Although Labriola Baking produces custom-designed baked goods, the company continues to automate in areas where product quality isn’t compromised or to meet customers’ demands.
“Part of our business is machine-made products,” Rich says. “We’re not afraid to say that, but when we make machine made-products, we do them right.”
After makeup, many breads and rolls are placed on wooden peelboards dusted with cornmeal. However, the plant also cranks out sliced panned breads for its customers.
For most of Labriola Baking’s products, proof times usually are longer and temperatures are lower than the industry standards for conventional items.
“We don’t proof at high-temperatures,” Rich says. “Usually, the proof temperatures are 105°F for sandwich rolls. Typically, we proof at 80-85°F.”
The plant uses a variety of ovens to crank out its myriad products, including par-baked breads and rolls that are blast frozen, case-packed, palletized and shipped to nationwide accounts. Besides its original two revolving tray ovens, the plant has a battery of single-rack ovens, eight four-deck ovens with stone plates and a 45-ft. tunnel oven with steam capacity and two zones for its heartier artisan products.
That tunnel oven also has a stone bottom belt, but it’s covered in steel so that the stone doesn’t chip off, Rich says. To streamline production, the bakery also has installed an automatic deck loader and unloader system that serves four of the four-deck ovens.
Focus on the Little Things
To become a full-service bakery, Labriola Baking purchased a small sweet goods operation and moved production into its Alsip facility. The hand shop makes everything from cookies, muffins and cakes to Danish, doughnuts and tea biscuits.
During Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s visit to the plant, the department was rolling raspberry rugulach.
Rich and the company management team concentrate on the little things that differentiate their products from the rest. For example, the company cooks all its onion toppings and toasts its nuts and seeds in-house.
To help the bakery operate more smoothly in the future, Rich says the company is exploring a move to a new facility over the next two years or so. Then again, even a new plant won’t be a silver bullet for the complexity of the business.
Additionally, no amount of technology is a substitute for Rich’s passion for baking. That’s because taking the high road in the baking industry requires a personal investment in the business.
As Rich explains, “Artisan comes from your heart. It’s something that you love more than making just money.”