There’s something to be said about artisan craftsmanship. Hudson Bread, North Bergen, N.J., knows that quite well. With a view of New York City’s skyline, the bakery uses only the best ingredients to produce a wealth of fresh bread creations daily, and top sellers including French baguettes, seven-grain loaves and hand-cut loaves Francaise, which are signature rustic items. The bakery also crafts assorted country boules, brioche, whole wheat, pumpernickel boules and rolls, submarine rolls, Pullman breads, Ciabattas, pretzel rolls, raisin walnut loaves, Tuscan loaves, olive, semolina, sourdough loaves, small and long baguettes and various other custom artisan breads.

All told, Hudson Bread offers about 250 stock-keeping units (SKUs) and delivers fresh breads daily to a growing list of customers. Even a whopping 10-lb. country boule is a specialty item ordered by select customers. Hudson also produces a limited amount of organic products. Many of the breads are still made by hand. Thus, maintaining centuries-old traditions and the passion of skilled craftsmen is what this bakery is all about.

In fact, traditional artisan processes are engrained in owner/president/chief executive Mariusz (Mark) Kolodziej. Exposed to the fine art of bread making in his father’s bakery in Poland, Kolodziej got a passion for and an understanding of artisan bread craftsmanship at a very young age.

As a kid, Kolodziej’s enthusiasm for baking grew each year, as did the desire to start a bakery of his own, and did so in 1994 on the shore of the Hudson River in New York City. “Doing business as Prestige Baking was the original corporate structure [for the company] and Hudson Bread is our trade name,” Kolodziej explains. As Hudson Bread was set into motion, it wasn’t long until his bakery gained plenty of momentum. The bakery quickly gained respect and praises for its distinctive products as well as for reliable service.

With time, the bakery became the sole supplier of bread to many upscale restaurants and hotels in New York City. Kolodziej made sure that his products remained true to the artisan ways that inspired him to enter the business in the first place. He says he’s proud to admit that fulfilling this promise is the secret to his continuing success.

Technology turnaround

But Kolodziej is also enamored with sophisticated high-tech production equipment and combines it with artisan techniques. Because of growing demand, many of his bakery’s breads, rolls and other delectable creations are now produced with the help of advanced bakery equipment.

Just a sampling of the high-tech systems it uses includes computerized mixing systems, climate controlled rooms, automatic macro and micro ingredient discharging/dispensing systems, a new vacuum chamber for cooling products down to packing temperatures, a pick-to-light case packing system, an automatic bread loading and unloading system that feeds the ovens and gleaming stress-free production lines that include a new fifth line installed in mid-2011.

“The most important thing for artisan bread is not to stress the dough,” explains Ray Million, vice president of operations. “So we installed all stress-free makeup lines.

The bakery’s core values are Dedication, Artisan, Tradition. “Our image is that of a Tuscan village in Italy,” Kolodziej explains. “A meal shared with family at a winery and in the center of the table is a beautiful rustic bread, simple in form, is just waiting to be eaten. We’re offering that type of country bread on a wooden table. Even with all of the technology we use, our bread evokes the origins of bread as a staple of life.”

He says this is why the bakery and his business have really changed in the last five years. “In fact they have changed completely,” he admits.

“Technology has brought us to new heights,” Kolodziej adds. “We are equipped with the best equipment in the industry. All of our dough processes are controlled, and we have automatic ingredient handling and sophisticated ovens and retarder/proofers. The relationship we have developed with our equipment suppliers is second to none, so we couldn’t be happier with their products. Our customers understand that the art of making bread can be copied but never duplicated,” he says. “The artisan rebirth took place about 15 years ago in this area. Most of the producers had a mixer, a work table, a bunch of people hand scaling, shaping and forming the product. But the need for more efficient production with the demand we were experiencing prompted installation of the equipment we have here.”

Evolved artisan

Million mentions that the particular makeup equipment in place on the plant floor, the majority of which is from one supplier, more closely resembles true artisan bread making (by hand) than anything else Hudson has tried. “We’ve tested other pieces [of equipment] and found that this equipment resembles more of a hand motion,” he says.

But he also points out that several of the breads are still made by hand and several processes at the plant are still semi-automatic or manual. Small rolls and breads are made by hand on tables next to the production lines. All of the mixed dough is hand-scored and is adjusted by hand if need be. “We do that because it gives the product a more natural look,” says Million. “We know how to control the scoring. It’s an art. We have a balance of automation and hand crafting. This is an artisan bakery, yet we look at how we can produce more without compromising product quality,” he says.

“So it’s a constant battle on how to make more product, yet maintain the quality we want, ensure quality control and comply with regulations,” Million continues. “There are some things that we can automate to expedite and facilitate production and some things we cannot or choose not to automate.”

The bakery also plans ahead, per Million’s bake schedules. “I figured that if we produce dough ahead of time and inventory raw dough in our retarder boxes, then next-day production is easy,” he says. “If we need something extra, we have it on hand all ready. If we have to replace something during that day, it’s not a problem—we’re not chasing our tails. So this helps our line operators and our hand-work people to be very relaxed when they make bread. ”

Demand is such that the bakery had to automate. Million says the original argument was that artisans only did things by hand. “A bakery like ours would need 50 to 60 people to create artisan bread by hand, where we do it now with 20 in a more automated way. Customer attitudes are changing too—customers want an artisan product, but one that can be sized consistently to work with their packaging. So not only do we have to satisfy customer requirements and meet equipment guidelines, we also want to make a certain kind of product. So it gets complicated.”

On average, Hudson goes through 150,000 lb. of white flour each week and 10,000 to 15,000 lb. of wheat flour. “We use as much as 40,000 lb of dough a day, or anywhere from 240,000 to 270,000 lb. a week,” says Million. It also uses sours and preferments faithfully.

“When I brought Ray on as our vice president of operations (he has 25 years in the industry), I realized that growth without stability is pointless,” Kolodziej adds. “So Ray handles all of the growing pains while ensuring that we are moving steadily into the future.”

Café crowd builds

To accommodate its growing demand without sacrificing the quality of its products, Hudson Bread relocated to North Bergen in 2003, relocating from West New York and Jersey City, N.J., before that. Today, the bakery supplies such upscale hotels as Manhattan’s Ritz Carlton, the Waldorf-Astoria and the Atlantic City casinos. The popular retail destination, the Breadman café sandwich/bake shop, was renovated recently. In back of the Breadman Café is Kolodziej’s Global Boxing business, which is headed by his son, Dan.

“The Breadman Cafe developed out of a rather funny situation that started occurring daily at our loading docks,” Kolodziej says. “At the beginning of our distribution, we were met with neighbors who wanted to buy our fresh baked products, and after a while, we had people lining up daily. We were spending more time servicing them, so the solution was to give them a retail store so that they too could enjoy our breads. Over the years, we added great coffee, sandwiches, pastries and desserts.”

Running for about two years, the café has doubled in capacity. Despite all of the delectable pastries and sandwiches available from the shop, approximately 60% of the wholesale bakery’s business is in dinner rolls, sandwich rolls and buns. About 15% of all of the products are sold through distributors while the remaining 85% is sold in-house to customers such as hotels, restaurants, upscale sandwich shops, casinos, caterers and farmers’ markets in New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey and parts of Connecticut.

“We deliver product to some 800 customers a day,” states Million. “We send a trailer of product to different customers each day, so our logistics are different than other bakeries. We have so many routes—there are three baking shifts that cater to the needs and wants of the close proximity of Manhattan.”

The bakery makes three deliveries a day to Manhattan: One leaves at midnight for early customers; a second leaves at 5 a.m. for the “late morning bake;” and the third leaves at 10 a.m., for what’s called the “p.m. bake.” Hudson bakes three times a day, also delivering twice a day to New Jersey and Philadelphia and once to Atlantic City.

“In the course of an evening, we have three different bake shifts, but we bake throughout the day,” Million says. “That’s because we’re preparing pan breads, sliced breads and large loaves that bake for an hour or two and need to be cooled and sliced.”

Traditional taste over trendy

The trends seem to be cyclic. “Everyone wanted flatbreads and Middle Eastern breads for a while, but we don’t make them,” observes Million. “We make basic good-quality bread and rolls. We get asked for different sizes of Pullman loaves and different weights. Or we get asked for traditional breads with a different twist to them, such as whole-grain varieties, but that’s not our biggest volume, perhaps 20% of the total. Our French and Italian loaves and semolina breads are the most popular.”

Everyone wants something different, but aside from quirky flavors, the artfully scored and shaped breads and rolls should be of good quality, Million says. The bakery offers plenty of variety, but doesn’t go overboard. “Breads should be produced properly so that they have a flavor you would want to have again,” he points out. “Bread is a supporting structure for sandwiches or accompaniment to foods and salads. It doesn’t have to be overly crazy. Everyone wants something different—the no-carb, low-carb, gluten-free, all kinds of flavors, and after a while, a lot of these can end up with no taste. If I’m going to eat bread, it has to have taste.”

Here for the customers

Adds Kolodziej, “Our products are enjoyed from Connecticut and New York to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. There are special requests from different cultural embassies for product, which we are pleased to send. Sometimes we have people visiting New York who try our bread and then call from different states, asking if we could send them our bread; we really get a kick out of that.”

Since 2010, the bakery has enjoyed a consistent 9 to 10% sales increase, and this year is up another 9.5%, Million estimates. “Slowly, we’re inching upward from the slumping economy back in 2008.”

Besides its many tasty bread varieties, Hudson’s main strategic advantage is that it works diligently with customers in terms of service and sales, Million points out. “We provide better customer service than any other bakery in this area. If you called us up at 2 p.m. and need a product, one of our sales reps will be right there getting it for you. We’re also here on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. You can call and you’ll reach us. That’s what has helped us increase our sales, because we really stand behind what we do. We’re here for our customers.”

Growing pains

Hudson has flourished as a mid-sized production facility from its start as a small artisan bakery, and has revamped most of its processes over the last five years. Audited annually by Silliker and monthly by an independent firm that checks its quality assurance standards and procedures, Hudson relies on employee training to hone its quality control techniques, maintenance, extensive standards of operation and food safety procedures. Its most recent Silliker rating, which was just weeks after presstime, was a 94.

“We truly want to produce the safest food,” Million adds. “We want to do the right thing, so we’re well run, clean and organized. It is a challenge, though, because so many procedures can change from year to year. It’s expensive to follow all of the guidelines, stay in compliance with everything and be on top of it all.”

Hudson understands that, he says, but it’s tough when many of the regulations, inspection procedures and guidelines change constantly. “Sometimes you feel all of it can put a cramp in the artisan style and almost prohibit the artisan from being able to make really terrific bread,” he continues. “But as big as we are now, we still have to be very flexible. But the best-run companies are run with good communication, well–trained people and true professionals in every area. We see each other every day—we know what each other’s thinking.”

The bakery teams meet once a week and discuss issues and what can be improved or needs to be changed. “We ask questions, discuss all of our situations and what more we can do to make customers happy and look at what packaging we need, so we’re all over flexibility,” says Patrick Mizinski, customer service manger and facility supervisor responsible for inspection and building conditions. “We have to be very flexible, and we really rely on our people to get the job done.”

Carbon footprint, commodities

Environmentally speaking, the bakery recycles its corrugated, paper and plastic and replaced all of its lighting in the plant with a more energy efficient version to reduce its carbon footprint. “That cut our monthly electric bills by about $2,500,” Million notes. “One upcoming project we hope to tackle is to recirculate some of the heat from the ovens back into the production area. We also don’t have any raw dough waste. We separate our waste and it’s all processed through. Nothing gets thrown away. Our overruns are given to farms for food banks, and we donate to local churches when they need products.”

With commodity prices soaring every day, Hudson’s ingredient costs have increased to a point where it’s painful, and the immediate response would be to increase pricing. But Million says his firm has to make up the differences.

“We have a good opportunity because we can buy in bulk so that provides a slight discount,” he notes. “We select purveyors that we’ve done business with for years and can talk to them about all of this and buy at the best times. Efficiencies are the only way to really compensate for increasing prices. We also focus on the amount of labor we expend, our productivity and other efficiencies to offset the rising costs of ingredients. In the longrun, we’ve actually brought in more loyal customers. But it’s been difficult to deal with commodity prices lately.” 

What’s ahead?

The bakery’s upcoming projects and initiatives include installing its new vacuum chamber for cooling down some of its breads, adding spiral mixers, replacing some of its ovens and possibly adding another production line if demand requires. “We are maintaining what we are doing at this time,” says Kolodziej.  “I don’t want to jeopardize what we have accomplished over the past 16 years. But we’re not standing still either. We are always improving the bakery. We have a lot of projects in the works and we’re thinking about developing a multiple-unit Breadman in the coming year.”

There are no immediate plans to expand the bakery, Million adds, because there is still some production floor space available for another line. “One thing that’s quite important is to satisfy existing customers with the quality and consistency they’ve come to know. We probably wouldn’t go into making frozen products or start distributing to supermarkets. I think that you should do what you do well and always do it well. That way, you’ll have a customer base that will follow you and you’ll always stay true to what you do.”

When everything is all said and done, Kolodziej says he looks at his bakery and its philosophy thusly: “There’s no secret to what I do. This [work] is my life, my hobby, my family and my world. We give of ourselves until there’s almost nothing left and do it again and again. Tomorrow and the next day and so on. That is what we do. Bread is what we do.”  SF&WB