Unibake USA builds strategy for artisan bread success
Europe continually provides fertile inspiration for the bakery industry, and Lantmännen Unibake USA Inc., Lisle, IL, is a direct beneficiary of centuries of Old World bakery inspiration through its diversified corporate roots. Through an astute balance of heritage and efficiency, Unibake USA has seen strong artisan bread growth through the years, meeting the baked goods needs of a growing base of retail and foodservice customers.
Lantmännen Group, based in Stockholm, is one of Europe’s largest grain cooperatives, owned by 29,000 Swedish farmers, with origins dating back to the second half of the 18th century. This $4.5 million business maintains a common thread of grain throughout its pursuits, spanning food, bioenergy, machinery and agriculture, and employing approximately 10,500 individuals across 21 countries.
Lantmännen Group’s bakery business, the wholly owned subsidiary Lantmännen Unibake, is headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark. This specialist in breads and pastries employs approximately 6,000 people at 35 bakeries in 21 countries, including Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Poland, Russia, Spain, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. Lantmännen Unibake nets $1.3 billion in annual sales and maintains a strong degree of expertise in frozen bakery products.
Unibake USA, the American arm of this business, has operated in the U.S. for 20 years, importing European pastries via Schulstad Bakery Solutions. Today, Unibake USA also offers its retail and foodservice customers a wide range of breads, buns and rolls that retain a strong artisan sensibility and are baked in its St. Petersburg, FL, bakery, which opened in 2000.
Over the years, the business grew and expansion became necessary. “We saw double-digit growth every year, with 30–40 percent growth every year, and by 2013 had enough business to expand into a much bigger bakery across the street,” says Scott Kolinski, president.
More recently, the bakery has added a new line as well as plans for continued equipment updates, market expansion and possibly even an additional bakery.
Unibake USA has strong competency in frozen bakery, including par-baked and fully baked artisan breads, as well as pre-proofed Danish pastry and premium croissants. Its products are primarily sold into the in-store bakery (ISB) at retail and to foodservice customers. Over the last few years, the bakery has seen a significant increase in retail business, both in convenience stores and supermarket ISB. Unibake USA also maintains a strong private label business, including custom innovation work on unique store-brand lines.
The bakery distributes across the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and—thanks to the location of its St. Petersburg bakery—into the Caribbean and Central America. Its customer range includes:
- Full-service hotels
- Cruise lines and airlines
- College and university foodservice
- Corporate foodservice
- Healthcare foodservice
- Convenience stores
- Retail ISB
- Frozen retail
While Scott Rosenberg, director of marketing and customer service, notes that approximately 75–80 percent of Unibake USA’s business is in foodservice, ISB is growing. “The ISB side of the business is a key growth area and certainly growing much faster for us than foodservice,” he says. Much of the bakery’s ISB product is shipped to retailers par-baked and finished in the store.
The bakery also assists with some category management. “Retailers are really looking for trend information, as well as merchandising and planogram-type support,” says Rosenberg. “We’re also working on point-of-sale (POS) display material that can help support that program.”
Rosenberg notes that providing POS tips on suggested uses can help encourage purchase by consumers. “One of my favorite products is our artisan olive loaf,” he says. “It’s a fairly large product—it’s a pound. Consumers might wonder what they’re going to do with it when they take it home. If you provide recipe inspiration in terms of how to top or use it, maybe with some goat cheese and a little drizzle of olive oil for an appetizer, it helps the consumer.
“I’ve also just launched a ‘Top Toast’ campaign,” continues Rosenberg, “which, again, takes these loaves and tops them in different ways for either a breakfast or lunch application so that you have usage inspiration.”
Unibake USA has a strong artisanal focus, and this comes into play with packaging as well. Shoppers want to see the uniqueness of the product. “We recently launched a line of artisan loaves with packaging included in the case—windowed bread bags featuring a flavor-descriptor sticker—since retailers are looking for merchandising support to help products stand out on the shelf and aid shopper decision-making,” says Kolinski.
Rosenberg notes that convenience store dynamics have changed in recent years. “There’s a greater interest in food quality there,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of growth on our pastry side, bringing pre-proofed gourmet croissants into the c-store environment.”
Improved sandwich quality is also part of today’s c-store plan. “The c-store trade in the U.S. is finally catching up with where Europe has been for years,” says Rosenberg. “If you go into any European convenience store, you find beautiful-looking breads, with sandwiches fully made, ready to wrap-up and take for lunch or dinner. U.S. c-store companies have seen that and are starting to tool-up their operations to be able accommodate making more fresh sandwiches, or even baking out breads or pastries in the store. We have a very nice line of pre-proofed Danishes and croissants that would fit perfectly in those types of situations.”
One of Unibake USA’s current best-sellers is its Schulstad Mini Signature Selections range of miniature pastries—Cherry Chocolate Coronet, Toasted Coconut Swirl, Salted Caramel Braid, Strawberry Shortcake Crown and Lemon Cheesecake Lattice. The line launched in 2015 to meet increasing demand for bite-sized sweet baked goods.
Rosenberg notes that about half of Unibake USA’s revenue comes from pre-proofed frozen pastry, imported from various Lantmännen Unibake bakeries in Europe.
“We have a passion for pastry that is experienced when you bite into one of our Danish pastries or croissants,” says Kolinski. “Our international breadth also gives us access to insights and trends from across global markets.”
The Unibake USA team has also concentrated its focus on clean-label and all-natural formulation tactics. Its all-natural breads are baked without artificial colors or preservatives.
This falls in line with the increased drive to create more premium, artisanal products. “Consumers are trading up on their bread, both when shopping in retail and when eating out,” says Kolinski. “ISB is gaining share from packaged bread, and gourmet sandwiches and burgers are winning over low-quality alternatives.”
Another current best-selling product is the Euro-Bake brioche bun. “We’ve seen growing interest in artisan-style breads and rolls, not only loaves, but also gourmet hamburger buns, like brioche and pretzel buns,” says Kolinski.
Today’s gourmet sandwich and burger trend aligns nicely with Unibake USA’s recent drive to offer more gourmet buns, part of a “True Burgers” campaign that offers brioche burger buns, pretzel buns, mini slider buns and ciabatta sandwich rolls.
After all, better burgers call for better buns. “We have a line of gourmet pretzel buns that can stand up to those larger, juicier burgers,” says Rosenberg.
Much of Unibake USA’s business aligns with today’s renewed emphasis on artisan baking. “We have a vision of offering European-style breads—a nice crusty outside with a good moisture content,” says Kolinski. “One approach we take that is more American is adding inclusions to some of our breads, like olives, nuts and fruits—to really help the bread stand out.”
Sustainability has factored strongly into the bakery’s business. “Together with Lantmännen Group, we focus on sustainable development by taking responsibility for the entire value chain from field to fork,” says Kolinski. “For us, it is all about transforming good ingredients with care and expertise into superior baked goods. It drives us forward to explore new corners of our profession every day, and it adds to our proud culture of always seeking solutions for our customers.”
The company has committed to several key responsible business practices:
- At the end of 2014, Lantmännen Group reached its 2020 target for carbon dioxide emissions reduction with a carbon footprint that has dropped more than 40 percent since 2009.
- By January 2016, Lantmännen Unibake had either switched to palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) or removed palm oil completely.
- In 2015, Lantmännen joined The Earth Statement (www.earthstatement.org), an initiative to support a global climate agreement at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, which includes a target for a carbon-free society by 2050.
Other initiatives hit closer to home. Kolinski notes that he is considering the possibility of installing solar panels onto the roof of the St. Petersburg bakery to reduce reliance on non-renewable energy sources.
Unibake USA production
Unibake USA runs three lines in its St. Petersburg plant, which is certified by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) audit process. All of its lines are highly automated, but with enough flexibility to permit hands-on and specialized attention as dictated by the product run:
- Line one: baguettes and dinner rolls
- Line two: artisan loaves and brioche buns
- Line three: artisan rolls, ciabatta rolls and baguettes
The bakery completely replaced line two, running artisan loaves and brioche buns, in 2014 to improve product consistency and quality, increase efficiency, and improve working conditions and employee welfare. Plans are in the works to replace line one, which runs baguettes and dinner rolls. Targeted improvements to that line will include improved throughput and quality—but without significantly adding to the existing footprint.
The new line two provided multiple improvements on the old one. “It’s more than double the size of the previous line,” says Kolinski. “So that had a big impact on improving throughput. Previously, we couldn’t supply some customers because we didn’t have the capability. Installing that line allowed for more production, but also it allows us to do it in a more-consistent way.” This involved shifting from using several rack ovens to a modern tier oven.
The new mixers installed for line two replaced the bakery’s old single-spiral mixers, effectively reducing mixing time by approximately 50 percent.
Efficiency is tightly managed in the bakery. “We have a key performance indicator that keeps track of data by the hour,” says Carlos Hernandez, director of operations. “So anyone who comes onto the floor can look at the key performance indicator, and they can tell you exactly if you’re hitting your target—or if you did not hit the target the reason why the target was not hit.” The system tracks each line and provides explanations for downtime.
But the bakery’s focus isn’t solely on throughput, notes Rosenberg. Longer proofing times could be seen as time lost on the line, but not for a bakery with an artisan sensibility. “We’re investing in flavor,” he says. “It’s more about the craftsmanship.”
Hernandez notes that cold proofing for some bread products can take as long as five hours. “We don’t like to rush the process,” he says.
Unibake USA regularly invests in its employees. Team members are periodically sent to participate in AIB International courses and to training at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP). Training on best practices and operational strategy is also conducted by Lantmännen Unibake in Europe.
An eye on the future
Unibake USA combines the key aspects of efficiency and artisan sensibility to build its business. “At the end of the day, I think the most-important thing is to have very high-quality products,” says Kolinski. “It’s easy to taste the difference when you do a side-by-side sampling with other breads.”
The bakery has seen strong growth over the past few years. “We see continued expansion, including an additional bakery,” says Kolinski. “We’re working actively to try and find a place for possibly an acquisition that would give us more bread opportunities, but also to install a pastry line as well.”
Unibake USA will also continue to deepen its relationship with retailers. “From a marketing perspective, we see the continued development of category-management expertise, as well as using customer and consumer insights to drive new products and programs,” says Kolinski.
Considering the smart alignment with the rising interest in artisan baked goods in the U.S., along with the strong European efficiencies Unibake USA brings to the table, the bakery finds itself strategically poised for continued growth.
In fact, notes Kolinski, “We expect to double our size.”