Popular Labriola Baking Co. recently relocated to a spacious, 175,000-sq.-ft. plant in Alsip, Ill., that it remodeled and outfitted with six production lines, high-tech equipment, sophisticated conveying and picking/ordering stations and more, to prepare for future growth. Yet parts of the operation are strictly manual, to maintain traditional artisan quality.

Three times the size of its former bakery in Alsip, Ill., and much more complex, Labriola Baking Co.’s new production facility across town certainly demonstrates the organization’s come-uppance as one of Chicagoland’s premier artisan bakeries.

Moving to a new location in 2010, Labriola Baking installed new and existing production equipment and trained its bakers on how to operate the new systems, while still running its mix of fresh and frozen products 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Currently, there are six programmable logic-controlled (PLC) production lines, all arranged in a straightline format.

 “We’re even packaging inline because it’s more efficient,” states chief operating officer Rob Burch. “Having everything in a straight line improves the flow, prevents cross contamination and optimizes labor so that we’re not double-handling things and creating voids.”

Room to grow

“For the time being, we have plenty of extra space to install more lines,” adds Burch. “We have the physical space and capabilities here to more than double, possibly triple, our business. But it really depends on how things evolve geographically. Who knows? We may need to add another production site. Right now, though, we have a lot of runway space. It was a pretty flawless move.”

 Training the staff to operate a range of new equipment, including ovens and a roll makeup line that accommodates the increase in pretzel bread demand, gave the bakery some growing pains, according to Burch. “In the old place, we were very cramped; here, we need Walkie Talkies to talk to someone, so that’s been a big change. Two years ago, we went from an artisan craft business to a brand-new building three times the size we had before. Most of the lines are low-stress or stress-free except for one of the roll lines. And we also have manual production of pastries, cakes and cookies, so we still do a lot by hand.”

 In fact, the manual way of making artisan bread isn’t going away any time soon at Labriola Baking. “We have a real mix of things going on at any one time,” Burch adds. “Our approach to makeup is that we deploy both automatic and hand-shaping of dough.”

 What is changing are customer requirements around food safety. “We are being audited much more frequently, now that we took our brand to larger stores,” he says. “The standards kept growing, and we had to demonstrate that we have a strong food-safety program. The environment for this has been changing and continues to accelerate.”

 To ensure its designation of superior food safety to customers and partners, Labriola Baking became certified with the British Retail Consortium (BRC) a few months ago and is audited annually by the American Institute of Baking (AIB) International. The bakery is also frequently audited internally and by customers, receiving superior ratings. “Still,” adds Burch, “Our artisan culture remains, even though some of the production has become much more automated.”   

 Some of the bakery’s artisan methods have actually been automated to accommodate larger volumes, but others haven’t been automated at all, explains John DeVriendt, senior director of operations. “Part of the production floor is allotted to manual pastry production, complete with a cold room for croissant dough and a ‘sours’ room. The pastry department is where we make a lot of things by hand. It’s like an expanded retail operation. Much of it is hand-scooped scones and cookies. We also do small butter croissants and a unique item called a pretzel croissant.

 “People who work in the pastry department have the skill and affinity for it. Labriola Baking is different than other bakeries that want to be big players because they might cut corners to achieve better throughputs, which can sacrifice quality. We’re not like that. Rich Labriola told me the first time we talked that sacrificing quality is not an option.”

 There’s no secret weapon to making quality artisan bread, says owner, president and “Chief Dough Boy,” Rich Labriola, other than aging the flour. “We abide by long fermentation and take care in everything we do. The flavor-of-the-month isn’t our thing. If you really know how to bake, what you do with flour, water, yeast and salt makes a difference. Everyone’s baguette may not taste the same. There’s a talent needed to make a fantastic baguette or sourdough. That’s a true mark of a good baker. Pretzel is our next big thing, though. We’re only beginning with pretzel [bread] in terms of shapes and sizes, etc.” 

Various baking platforms

On the day of Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s visit, the smell of dark rye was prevalent in the air and one of the low-stress lines was making pretzel dinner rolls. The six makeup lines can run at speeds of anywhere from 16 to 500 items/min. “There are windows of time where we’re producing primarily frozen product and then, other times,  the fresh business fills in, but the machinery works around the clock,” DeVriendt says.

 Deliveries take place at 4 a.m. and sometimes in the afternoon to restaurants in Chicago.

 In the mixing area, an inline automatic metering system pumps flour from one of two silos that each holds 100,000 lb. of flour. The rest of the ingredients are hand-scaled and transferred with the flour to the bowl of one of seven standalone spiral mixers. The water is metered in electronically at the proper temperature for the mix and the dough is made in 500-lb. batches.

 Five of the mixers were brought in from the former plant, and two are new. Assorted starters can be incorporated into the mixture, including a combination starter for baguettes, which is what Rich says is “a little Italian and a little French. That same starter is used for ciabattas. Some of the big bakeries use a liquid starter for everything and then everything tastes the same. We also use different types of flour for our starters and different preferments, so that things have a distinct taste.”

 The lagging economy and rising commodity costs have definitely affected business, Rich adds. “When flour goes up by 30%, you can’t take a 30% price increase. If the public knew how many increases we don’t pass along, they’d be surprised. When costs are up this high, we can’t recover very easily. All of this forces us to become more efficient and more creative. So we hope that when costs come down, we’ll make up for what we’ve lost over the last few years.”

Hurry up to wait

After mixing, the batches of dough are also allowed to relax after initial mixing, and the flour sits for a time, too. “We put a lot of care and attention into the proofing of the bread and one of the most critical segments of the process is mixing,” adds Rich. “If mixing isn’t done just right, you can overdevelop the dough. We have a different approach to that. We use the autolyze process to develop the flavor and reduce mix time. We also age our flour to allow enzyme activity to stabilize and improve the product's consistency. I learned that through classes and books. It’s a big task to start and isn’t easy.”  

 As far as makeup and production go, the artisan bread’s starter has to be right, Rich continues. “If the starter’s wrong, then you’ve really got a problem,” he explains. “It has to be consistent every day. Then, the extra steps we take in the mixing of dough to the bulk fermentation and the makeup are critical.

With artisan bread, makeup has to be stress-free, so that we don’t overwork the dough. The secondary fermentation, which is the proofing, is also important.”

 The new facility produces more than 100,000 lb. of dough a day, for both its own customers and for its café/bakery in Oak Brook, Ill. “We run two shifts to make the frozen products and three shifts for the fresh,” DeVriendt says.

 When the dough is ready, the batches are rolled over to a spot near the makeup lines. First, the dough sits for a time before it’s transferred to the hopper of a chunker and then a divider/molder that makes it into balls. “We also make hamburger buns and bread sticks on this equipment,” DeVriendt adds. “Each product has a different amount of floor time. The pretzel dough has a brief bulk fermentation. One of the unique characteristics of artisan bread is that it can take two to four hours to sit at ambient temperature. The batches are marked with the time, temperature and variety as they sit and relax.”

 The pretzel dough, now rolled into the right size for dinner rolls, emerges from the molder and the dough balls convey nine-across on a reciprocating conveyor into a flour duster that dusts them to prevent sticking. Next, they deposit onto proofing boards covered with a canvas material that also helps prevent sticking and helps the dough transition from one piece of equipment to another, says DeVriendt. The boards are then placed manually onto racks that are moved by the staff into one of several walk-in proofing boxes.

 Proofing at proprietary temperatures and times, the dough balls next move to the back of the box, which transitions into a retarder. “We do that to give the rolls full fermentation and slow things down, so we don’t lose control of the roll size or overferment the rolls,” DeVriendt says. The retarder is perhaps 20 deg. cooler. The rolls of dough sit again for more than an hour in this area.

 “We don’t rush anything,” DeVriendt notes. “We hurry up to wait. Bread takes time to deal with. It can be a slow process. The racks are then brought out of the retarder when the time is up and moved to the oven area.”

Variety of oven technology

A variety of different oven systems are used at the new facility. There are two thermal-oil tunnel ovens (for pretzel bread), thermal-oil deck ovens, at least eight rack ovens, a rotary carousel oven (for pastries) and a traditional tunnel oven for many of the breads. “We bake using a thermal-oil oven or a big deck oven for most of our breads,” DeVriendt points out.

 The racks are brought over to a lye bath area, and are automatically unloaded from the pans and fed through a conveyor system to the continuous waterfall lye bath while the pans are removed. After they’re drenched in the lye, the rolls convey to a platform where each roll is scored by hand. “This is an area where future automation is a potential,” DeVriendt points out. “We’re looking at scoring the rolls robotically.” The conveyor next leads the rolls to an automatic oven loader.

 The new oven technology is really sophisticated, Burch notes. “The oven-loading device and the oven itself are very efficient and robust,” he explains. “This speeds up a lot of the transport and cuts labor. The goal is to automate as much as we can without compromising quality. We’re doing a lot of work with sophisticated European technology. We went to a thermal-oil oven on this line because it provides incredibly even temperature heating. Under a conventional, direct-fired natural gas oven, there can be a lot of heat buildup on the framework and the sides, so you’d see greater coloration on the sides of the rolls, and the center is lighter in color. That’s not the case with this system. We get more even coloration because the oil is heated evenly throughout the tunnel. You get even coloration all around.”

 DeVriendt mentions that the oil is heated in a boiler and pumped through tubes above and below each of the decks. Next, the rolls transition from a narrow conveyor to a much wider one, so that groups of rolls can feed into the oven. An elevator raises the rolls to whichever deck requires rolls. The pretzel rolls bake at about 390 deg. F for 15-17 minutes, depending on their size. Baking times vary depending on the product. When baking is complete, the rolls exit and drop onto a wide conveyor that leads them to a series of spiral cooling conveyors. One series of rolls makes a turn to a narrower conveyor as line operators check all of the rolls for quality and upright them, evening them out before they merge onto the cooling spiral.

 “We have two spiral cooling conveyors—the shorter spiral handles the output from the bottom deck of the oven and the taller one handles output of the two upper decks,” explains DeVriendt. The rolls cool through the conveyors for about an hour, down to about 90 deg. F. “Two separate cooling conveyors are easier to work with than one big spiral that would be too wide and end up conveying a much heavier load.”

Freezing and packaging

As the cooled rolls transfer over to the packaging station, they pass a large, three-rack warehouse area in the facility with plenty of available storage space. The rolls divert to one of three separate packaging lines on a conveyor and are led to one of two nitrogen blast tunnel freezers that takes 10 minutes to bring them to a frigid -150 deg. F.

 The frozen rolls won’t dry out this way and stay as cold as possible, according to DeVriendt. “Freezing the rolls ensures integrity and puts a solid IQF [individually quick frozen] freeze on the crusts,” he explains.

 The rolls then convey into a temperature-controlled packaging room to the side of the main plant floor where they pass through a metal detector. They’re next case-packed by hand, 180 rolls per case, and the cases are weighed before passing through a semi-automatic case taper. The cases are currently palletized and stretch-wrapped by hand, but DeVriendt says the pallet loads will soon be stretch-wrapped automatically. The cases are then warehoused in a freezer room adjoining the packaging area and are ready to go.

 “In the new year, we hope to automate the palletizing process over here with a spiral stretch wrapper,” DeVriendt adds. “We could add at least three more production lines in this area; maybe more, there’s so much room.”

 The bakery follows full Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) procedures and uses metal detection as the main control, but has several other control points across the production floor, such as weighing and counting as well as a point where the dough relaxes on the production floor to a visual inspection at the scoring station and before the rolls go into the IQF freezer tunnel. The products are also inspected on the packaging line.

 A new dispatching process has also streamlined order picking and packing. Replacing a cumbersome, paper-based order and dispatch method, the computerized, software-driven setup affords better on-time service for the truck route drivers, improved inventory control and increased productivity. The products come off the production lines and are staged in the inventory area so that dispatchers can follow a procedure where a touchscreen highlights specific product types. Overhead displays for each truck route indicate what products are designated for each route and the quantities to be picked.

 “We now have what’s called an intralogistics system for order picking and packing and filling the routes,” relates Burch. “Two years ago, we didn’t have EDI (electronic data interchange) capabilities to receive an order electronically. We were in the paper world. Now, our drivers get a hand-held computer and we’re using more technology. That has made us very efficient. The supply chain impact had to be factored into our growth and how we were going to respond. Our IT systems were also updated and next year, we’ll go through assessing their scalability again. With the next wave of growth, we have to test them to ensure they’re scalable for the future.”

 “The good thing about the smaller production lines is that we can make quick changeovers in a matter of seconds instead of minutes,” DeVriendt says.

 Nearby, hand molding is performed at the end of the artisan lines and cake and cookie production is all done by hand. “We use Tahitian vanilla in our cookies and other products,” he says. “The quality can’t be compromised. It’s one thing to say you use real vanilla, but it’s another to say you use vanilla that can cost $100 a pound.”

Pretzel power

Rich just smiles. “On our next pretzel [production] line, we’d like to integrate steps to make things easier, but we’re never going to be a super-automatic place for pretzel bread. Pretzel [products] are the next big thing, we feel, so certain things have to be done by hand.”

 What is Rich most proud of, after these 19 years? “Besides the acceptance and recognition of the pretzel breads?” he asks. “Well, first, we had to believe in [our products] before everyone else did. We kept our pretzel-making methods the same and they’ve paid off. Some products out there have come and gone, but for us, the pretzel breads and rolls are a real validation. The other thing is our people. It’s a challenge to find the right people who are on the same page as you are. It’s painful to maintain the quality we do, but we’re trying to maintain a certain standard and find the right people who can help us with that. Those things really count.”