by Keith Seiz
Evolution often is illustrated by a series of drawings showing the gradual progress of a primate's transformation into a man. Labriola Baking Co. has stolen a page from this theory and applied it to the 43,000-sq.-ft. bakery the company operates in Alsip, Ill. For the past 11 years, the company has evolved from a small artisan bread bakery, to a specialty wholesale operation, to a regional supplier of quality artisan bread and commercial products. To accommodate this evolution, the company's plant expanded multiple times, slowly taking over a building that once housed multiple businesses.
Inside the plant, the evolution process continues. Labriola Baking's short history is exhibited through its equipment. A stress-free divider marks the company's first foray into automation. Across from this divider sits an automated line that uses the same stress-free technology, but also automates the makeup of French and Italian breads.
Labriola Baking's roll production systems also have evolved from their humble beginnings. The company recently replaced its standard roll line with a system that uses no-stress technology to create artisan rolls. This evolution marks advancements in equipment technology that allow the company to grow without sacrificing quality for automation.
"Things haven't changed as we've grown," Rich Labriola, the bakery's founder, says. "Our brioche still sits overnight and our sourdough rests for five hours before it's made up."
More importantly, the company has controlled this evolution by never growing too big, too fast. "We have to be able to control growth," Rich Labriola says. "That's the only way we can control quality."
Labriola Baking's automated stress-free production line produces a variety of baguettes. The line accommodates doughs with high hydration levels.
Labriola Baking manufactures a variety of products including artisan breads and upscale pan breads.
Labriola Baking recently installed an automated artisan roll line that uses no-stress technology.
Labriola Baking's oven system consists of four deck ovens and an automatic loader and unloader.
Labriola Baking achieved its current success by emphasizing quality. Many times, the company has been tempted by promises and efficiencies of automated systems that produce good breads—but not great breads. And the company insists on producing great breads.
Labriola Baking made its name in the baking industry supplying highquality artisan breads to foodservice outlets throughout the metropolitan Chicago area. In a city known for its extraordinary cuisine, Labriola Baking is under pressure to produce bread and roll products that match the quality of the items on the menu.
"We can't compete with bigger bakeries on price, but they can't compete with us on quality," Rich Labriola says. "People who focus on price don't buy bread from here, but people who care about quality and value will buy our bread."
Labriola Baking's ability to massproduce artisan breads with impeccable quality is attributed to two factors: advancements in equipment technology and the company's unwillingness to compromise.
"Our product does not have to change because of the way equipment is built today," Rich Labriola says. "If we can use a piece of equipment and retain the integrity of the dough, we'll do it, and if we can't, then we won't. The moment you compromise, then you start drifting further and further away from what you started out doing."
Rich Labriola founded Labriola Baking for the sole purpose of producing upscale artisan breads. The company distributes these products to restaurants throughout the Chicago area. Recently, the company branched into other product areas, such as private label premium pan breads, frozen commercial baguettes and sweet goods. This evolution ensures the company's profitability even if a specific segment faces a recession. Today, artisan breads account for 60% of the company's business, but commercial products are posting impressive sales growth and may soon draw even in terms of sales.
Aged to perfection
Evolution indicates change. However, Labriola Baking's artisan breads remain unchanged despite the evolving nature of the bakery. The company retains many of the same baking techniques it used when artisan breads were still made by hand.
For example, the company still ages its winter wheat despite the installation of a silo system in 2003. Before this time, the company used bag flour, which was stored until it aged properly. As the company's volumes increased, bagged flour became impractical. The company realized it needed a bulk flour system, but delayed this move until the company devised a way to age its winter wheat flour.
The bakery worked with its flour supplier and concocted a system that ages the flour from 14 to 21 days. Under this system, General Mills Inc., the company's winter wheat flour supplier, transports a rail car filled with flour to a distribution point. The rail car takes seven to 10 days to get to the distribution point. After arriving at the distribution center, the flour sits at least a week before a truck transports it to the company's bakery.
Although complicated, the aging process produces better bread, Rich Labriola says. "Aged flour produces better baking flour in terms of loaf volume and absorption," Labriola says. "The enzymatic activity also is more even."
The bakery stores its winter wheat in a 65,000-lb. fiberglass silo. Spring wheat is stored in an identical silo. The company installed fiberglass silos because they provide better insulation from Chicago's temperature extremes, Rich Labriola says. The company's flour transportation system uses screw conveyors to control flour temperature and to minimize the plant's noise level.
Labriola Baking mixes its doughs with five spiral mixers: three with removable bowls and two with fixed bowls. Although the company has the capacity to consolidate its mixers into a large horizontal mixer, Rich Labriola says that this evolution is unlikely to take place.
"You have to be careful about too much automation at the front end of the line," Rich Labriola says. "If you remove the mixer operator from the job, then you're not getting a feel for the product."
Labriola Baking's mixer operators play a starring role in the success of the bakery. These employees are culled from the production line once they have proven their understanding of the baking process. After reassignment to the mixing department, these employees undergo a month-long apprenticeship program with an experienced mixer.
"These guys really know what they're doing," Rich Labriola says. "They don't just press a button at a certain time and temperature and come out with dough."
Instead, these mixer operators manage a complicated mixing procedure that uses the autolyze process. As part of this process, the company gently blends together flour and water "until it comes together as a dough, but does not develop," Rich Labriola says. Next, the company lets the dough sit anywhere-from 20 to 40 minutes. This allows the flour to absorb the water, which hydrates the gluten, without any mechanical force.
After the dough rests, the company adds the remaining ingredients and continues mixing. The autolyze process reduces mixing times and enables the bakery to manufacture artisan breads on automated production lines without adding dough conditioners or reducers.
"It's not that you can't make good bread without the autolyze process, it's just easier to make great bread with it," Rich Labriola says.
Make and bake
Labriola Baking's evolution is most evident on the production floor. Despite the company's rapid growth, it still uses many of the systems it purchased when the bakery first started automating its process.
The company produces 550-lb. batches that each contain 30% natural starter. The company uses both liquid and solid starters. The dough ferments between two to five hours in a temperature-controlled room set to 78°F.
The company's first step toward automating artisan bread makeup was installing a Rheon stress-free divider. This divider allowed the company to increase production without sacrificing quality. The company still operates this divider, and according to Rich Labriola, this piece of equipment is the "workhorse of the bakery."
With growth, however, comes greater needs, and the company installed another Rheon stress-free line to process various types of baguettes. Unlike the company's first divider, this line contains makeup equipment that automatically moulds a variety of breads. For roll production, Labriola Baking recently installed a Rollequip line that also uses no-stress technology.
The company bakes its products in a $600,000 baking system that includes four deck ovens and a loading and unloading system. The completely automated system transports unbaked loaves to one of four deck ovens using a robotic system that moves between the four ovens. When a deck of products is finished baking, the unloader pulls the loaves out of the oven and conveys them to the packaging department.
"If we had a smaller product line, we would have bought a tunnel oven," Labriola says. "But, the variety of our offerings makes us use deck ovens with automatic loading and unloading."
Variety is the future
The variety of Labriola Baking's offerings allows the company to remain profitable during recessions in the restaurant industry. "There are peaks and valleys in all of the restaurant business," Rich Labriola says. "But because I sell commercial bread, I can ride out all of the trends."
Recently, the company expanded its product line by purchasing Sweet Mysteries, a small bakery operation that sells sweet goods in the Chicago area. With a sweet good line on board, Rich Labriola says the bakery is in the position to be a single-source supplier for Chicago restaurants.
"As long as everything we do is high quality, I don't see a reason why we shouldn't do it," Labriola says. "We're not trying to be a big commercial baker, we're just trying to be a huge artisan baker."