Chicago Specialty Bakers customizes breads for
foodservice operations and plans a new multi-million dollar plant to meet growing demand for its true
specialty–Eastern European rye breads.
Some might call him fanatical, maybe even obsessed. At the very least, Felix Barats, owner of Chicago Specialty Bakers, is an evangelist for Eastern European rye bread. He produces Russian rye bread, called Borodinsky, the only way it can be made to be authentic, he says. Barats uses 100 percent rye flour and a 15-year-old rye levain in his Borodinsky, noted for its dark color, coriander spice topping and sweet-sour flavor. The bread was the most popular bread in Russia, Barats says, and he believes artisan rye breads are experiencing a revival in the United States.
While his heart is in rye breads, his business was built on supplying a wide variety of breads and rolls to foodservice operations; airlines are his biggest customers. Based in Bensenville, Ill., Chicago Specialty Bakers is located near Chicago O’Hare International Airport where the bakery supplies breads and rolls to 36 European airlines for in-flight foodservice. Bread supplied to airlines needs to stay fresh and moist for a long period of time, says Barats, who uses long fermentation and natural enzymes to achieve breads that stand up to demanding airline conditions. Special requests like this are the norm for Chicago Specialty Bakers, which customizes high-quality bread products for the varied demands of its foodservice clients.
“Always make sure you have quality in your products,” Barats says. “No matter how much you charge for it, make sure quality always wins.”
Currently, bakery throughput averages about 25,000 lbs. of dough daily out of an 18,000-sq.-ft. facility. Drawings are complete and construction is set to begin soon on a new fully-conveyorized 60,000-sq.-ft. bakery production plant to open by 2013. The new plant will house an artisan bread line with automated fermentation system, dinner roll line, rye bread line and tunnel oven with spiral cooling system.
Ahead of the trends
More than tripling the size of bakery operations to accommodate the next phase of business is no small feat. But considering how Chicago Specialty Bakers began, Barats’ ability to anticipate bakery trends and adapt to new opportunities in the market is key to his longevity in the business. The company was founded in 1982 as a retail bagel bakery chain, Bagel King, and grew to seven retail locations at the height of the bagel boom.
“During this period we had many requests from other restaurants to supply them with higher quality product,” Barats says. The retail side of the business became difficult to maintain as demand for its wholesale business grew. By 1997, the company closed its bagel restaurants, and Chicago Specialty Bakers focused strictly on private wholesale baking, operating from its current location since 2004.
Adapting to new situations is a way of life for Barats who was born in the former Soviet Union and left the country in 1976 to immigrate to Germany. He moved to the United States in 1980 and started the bagel business two years later. Barats learned artisan baking while living in Germany, but has studied the craft all over Europe. He still travels to Europe regularly to visit bakeries and trade shows, honing his artisan baking skills and learning about the latest equipment technology.
As an artisan baker, Barats has high standards for his products and understands the labor-intensive steps required to get there. He strives to find the right balance between the bakery automation necessary for volume baking and the human touch demanded in artisan baking.
Four automated production lines are dedicated to ciabatta/baguettes, rolls/buns, bagels and artisan rye breads. Hand production remains essential, particularly for mixing and shaping rye doughs. A production staff of 30 handles most of the manual labor, and equipment is selected to manufacture doughs efficiently, yet gently. Barats shopped around for three years and traveled to Spain to see his ciabatta/baguette line operating in a bakery before purchasing it. “I like to look at the line in production. Without seeing it in operation, I wouldn’t do it,” he says.
The bakery’s busiest automated line produces buns and rolls, its top-selling products. The combination line handles dough gently and features interchangeable stamping and forming units adaptable for a wide range of products. The line automatically divides the dough, moves rolls through an intermediate proofer, stamps or forms the rolls to desired specifications and moves rolls down a conveyor for panning. “This is the latest version, and it is absolutely wonderful,” he says. “It is very adjustable and comes with so many options. Some of them I haven’t even used yet.”
One piece of equipment purposely absent from the bakery is a proofer. Barats prefers to use a cooler or to proof racks of product at room temperature in the mixing/shaping area of the bakery. “What might take 30 minutes in a proofer takes three or four hours at room temperature, but in exchange you get more flavor,” he says.
Flavor differentiates Chicago Specialty Bakers’ European-style breads from other wholesale bread products. Along with baguettes, ciabatta and other French and Italian-style breads, the bakery produces about twenty varieties of rye breads, both German and Russian styles. German ryes are more firm and less sour, Barats says. “They use a lighter version of rye levain,” he says. Russian ryes use more sweeteners, such as malt, molasses and treacle, have a sweet-and-sour flavor, and are usually darker in appearance.
Compared to American ryes, which use only 5 to 15 percent rye flour in their formulations, German and Russian ryes have a much higher concentration of rye flour, even as much as 100 percent as in the Borodinsky bread. Chicago Specialty’s breads are produced using sourdough starters over a three-day process.
Long fermentation process
“You can’t make a good rye bread without levain or sourdough starter,” Barats insists. On day one, dough is mixed using the rye levain. On day two, breads are shaped and panned to ferment for 12 to 24 hours in the retarder/cooler overnight. They are baked, packaged and shipped on the third day.
Barats personally monitors the sour cultures daily. Bakery team managers are trained to maintain sours as well, but Barats takes the sourdough process personally.
“I really like to be hands on, especially when it comes to the sours,” he says. “They are living organisms, and I’ve learned through years of experience what to watch for.”
In the new plant, equipment will be installed to maintain sours automatically, but Barats plans to continue his daily checks. “Sourdoughs always require your attention even in an automated system,” he says.
The challenges in rye bread production are many, especially for high-volume bakers. Along with sourdough maintenance, rye bread dough is highly hydrated, requiring a special divider that can handle wet doughs. The mixing process is shorter because bakers do not need to develop the gluten in dough mixed from rye flour compared to wheat flour. Barats’ rye breads also bake at a much higher temperature, and some require two or three different temperature levels during the baking process.
Keep it lean
The bakery’s production staff is organized into teams responsible for specific products. Each team typically includes two full-time team members to manage the production and one or two temporary workers, depending on the need.
“We don’t produce anything without orders,” he says. “When orders come in, we figure out how much labor we’ll need to produce it. Then, we hire what we need.”
Barats prefers to keep a lean labor force to ensure the company can keep full-time employees in down times. Money saved on labor is reinvested in quality ingredients and equipment to help the company grow. This strategy proved worthwhile during the 9/11 disaster when the airline business came to a halt. “I didn’t have to let anybody go. Sure, we lost a lot of business, but when the business came back we had a trained crew and a more dedicated one,” he says.
The bakery uses foodservice distributors to deliver product, so it does not need to maintain a large fleet of trucks. Some products are shipped nationally via UPS, and Barats is in discussion with distributors on the West and East Coasts, and Sysco nationally to carry his breads.
Barats considers distributors key partners in getting his breads to foodservice customers on time and in good order. “You make sure in your price structure that distributors make money too,” Barats says. “Then they take care of you.”
He assigns sales and marketing obligations to a broker, who handles most initial sales. Once customers are on board, Barats personally meets with them to maintain the relationship and consult on product development.
Focus on product development
Barats outsources these areas of the business, so he can focus on new product development. “That’s my favorite part of the business,” he says. Most new products begin by customer request. Barats meets with clients to determine their goals with the product, such as flavor profile, how it is to be used and price range. Then, he tests formulations in the bakery to meet desired specs. Everything from ingredients to packaging is considered.
He even installed a custom packaging line that sorts and bags small rolls for one particular client. The line automatically combines as many as six different varieties of rolls in one bag, which can be baked up to 450°F. Foodservice operators finish baking multiple varieties of rolls directly in the self-ventilating bag.
Currently about one third of Chicago Specialty’s breads are par-baked products, but Barats would like to see nearly all his line move that direction. He feels par-baking is the best way to keep his breads’ crisp crust and authentic flavor intact for the end consumer. Plans for the new plant include greatly expanded freezer capacity to store par-baked products.
As for product trends, French-style baguettes, ciabatta and focaccia are the stars at the moment, Barats says. “Pretzels also are in really big demand. Everybody is asking for pretzels,” he adds. Chicago Specialty Bakers produces pretzels using the traditional process with lye specially imported from Germany. The shapes, however, are nontraditional with the biggest demand for pretzel hamburger buns, dinner rolls and sandwich buns.
“I like to dream the next hottest product is rye bread, but it is not yet,” he says. Barats points to the booming popularity of Italian ciabatta bread, a product few people knew until a few years ago. He believes the same may happen one day for his beloved Russian ryes. When it does, Chicago Specialty Bakers is ramped up and ready for action.