Company Profile Ecce Panis
Headquarters: East Brunswick, N.J.
As products exit the proofer, Ecce Panis' employees manually score each bread before it enters the oven.
Ecce Panis' stone-surface tunnel oven contains multiple heating zones that allow the company to manipulate the temperature and humidity at various points in the baking process.
First row, left to right: Matthew Rini, director of quality assurance and research and development; Alicia Corral, director of human resources.
Despite installing an automated line, Ecce Panis still handcrafts each loaf of bread to preserve the dough's integrity.
Despite being located about 45 minutes from its old facility, all of Ecce Panis' employees made the transition to the new bakery in East Brunswick, N.J.
After exiting the blast freezer, employees package breads and prepare to ship them to supermarkets throughout the country.
From the outside, the building resembles most high-volume bakeries: Stark, concrete walls peppered with loading docks and a roof adorned with scattered exhaust pipes and chimneys that distinctively inform passerbys that there is some serious bread baking going on within these walls.
Moving inside, one notices the modest, and somewhat cramped, office spaces of the executive and administrative staff of the bakery. As with most bakeries, this minimal space is used for important decision making, but everyone knows the real action takes place on the other side of the wall.
Stepping onto the plant's floor, an informed visitor would note the streamlined production line. However, as the eyes scan the makeup line, one usually does a double-take at a group of employees sandwiched between highlyautomated pieces of equipment. Scanning further down the line, another group of similarly-dressed employees appear busy between the hulking proofer and tunnel oven.
These groups of employees positioned amid a sea of the latest technological advancements in baking equipment distinguish this bakery from almost every other high-volume bakery in the country. Instead of lubricating machines or monitoring processes, these employees are actually crafting breads in the tradition of master bakers in out-of-the-way artisan bread shoppes throughout the world.
Upon further review, it appears that this is not an ordinary bakery after all. This is Ecce Panis.
From retail to wholesale
Ecce Panis is a major player in the burgeoning par-baked artisan bread market. However, unlike most of its competitors, Ecce Panis is not content to sell boxes of unbranded baguettes and let supermarkets take all the credit. "Our focus is on branded sales," Angelo Fraggos, Ecce Panis' president, says. "We want to be known as the best artisan bread producer, and branded is the name of the game for us."
As a result, consumers throughout the country are becoming familiar with the Ecce Panis brand name and its extensive line of artisan breads. The company's products can be purchased in most major markets in the United States, but have a strong foothold on the East Coast.
Ecce Panis first started baking bread in a small store in Manhattan in 1989. The bakery supplied various restaurants in the New York City area with everything from pastries to bread. As business grew, so did the need for a new facility, and the company moved its operations to Carlstadt, N.J. With this move, Ecce Panis threw its hat in the wholesale arena, and started offering its products to supermarket customers in the New York metropolitan area.
Although a significant step, the company's biggest step came about four years ago when it decided to start manufacturing par-baked breads. The company purchased a blast freezer, reduced its bake times and started selling its par-baked artisan breads to a growing distribution area.
Because the company's main concern is quality, the move to par-baked bread was only executed once the company was convinced that product quality would not be compromised. Because the company was still using a significant amount of manual labor, the jump to par-baked was not as difficult as one might expect. However, the company's next step would be monumental, both in scope and in significance.
Moving on up
With capacity bursting at the seams, Ecce Panis' Carlstadt facility could no longer meet the demands of the company's customers. The facility also was lacking control, something that Ecce Panis needed if they were to excel in the competitive par-baked market. "At the Carlstadt facility, we had many deck ovens and 45 bakers working at our bakery," Joseph Mancini, Ecce Panis' director of production, says. "Our quality was very good, but we wanted to improve consistency and control."
In lieu of expanding the Carlstadt facility or building a similar facility, the company opted to build a 78,000-sq.ft. plant and stock it with some of the most technologically advanced equipment the industry has to offer. This was a major departure for the company, which had previously maintained its quality standards by training its employees to manually handcraft the company's products. "It took us a good year and a half to investigate our equipment selections," Mancini says.
While still operating its Carlstadt facility, Mancini and other management staff conducted an intensive investigation and testing process to determine what type of equipment would allow the company to automate artisan bread production without sacrificing quality.
Another major requirement in the equipment search was control. At its old facility, a baking standard could not be set because the facility was heavily influenced by its environment. Whether it was the individual ovens or weather fluctuations, the company had a difficult time obtaining complete control and consistency of its product.
Ecce Panis broke ground on its East Brunswick, N.J. plant in April 2002, and the plant went online in October 2003. The company purchased equipment from various suppliers, then customized the equipment and integrated it into one automated line. The company's streamlined production line is managed through a series of PLC controls that dictate multiple control measures, such as time and temperature.
These controls allow the company to manage every step of the manufacturing process, something that was absent at its old facility. "There's a lot more process control and no more manual racking," Mancini says. "In the old facility, a board was touched at least a half a dozen times."
Although the company's new plant contains the latest in artisan bread technology, two areas of the production line were impossible to automate while still maintaining the company's quality standards, says Mancini.
After being divided and sheeted in a stress-free divider, Ecce Panis' bakers take individual dough pieces and manually give them an initial rounding. After this rounding, another cluster of bakers hovering over a conveyor belt give the dough pieces their final shape.
Although equipment exists that could perform these tasks, Mancini says that the bakery was not confident that machines could form multiple artisan breads without damaging the dough structure. Plus, the handcrafting of breads allows each product to be distinctive, yet still maintain consistency in quality. "Each bread is unique due to the handcrafting, but we maintain the quality standards of the important elements—the crust, the texture and the score—as consistently as anybody," Mancini says.
Ecce Panis also carries the handcrafted-style of production to its scoring area. After proofing, artisan breads are manually scored before entering the oven. "If you look at our products, each one has a different scoring pattern," Mancini says. "There were too many variables in scoring, and we wanted to preserve the uniqueness of each bread."
Although Ecce Panis still relies on manual labor to craft and score its products, the remaining aspects of its production line are highly-automated and feature some of the latest baking technologies.
The company stores its flours in three indoor silos. Two of the silos hold unbleached, unbromated white flour, and the other silo holds durum flour. For its specialty flours, such as organic flour, the company uses bagged flour that's stored in three small silos on the plant's mezzanine. Each of these silos holds a pallet of flour.
The plant's mezzanine also houses four jacketed tanks that hold the company's natural sour. A small percentage of the sour, which is 14 years old, is fed into each batch of dough. Each tank has heating and refrigeration controls, which gives the company complete command of the development of its sours. At its old plant, the company had to react to environmental changes and continually tinker with the sour.
The mezzanine also stores the company's liquid ingredients, such as malt, honey and olive oil, in stainless-steel totes that pneumatically convey the ingredients to the mixers.
The company's mixing department resides directly below the mezzanine. All the raw ingredients from the mezzanine feed into one central unit through three manifolds, which convey bulk and bagged flour, yeast, and liquid ingredients. Spiral mixer bowls are wheeled to the central unit to receive the ingredients, then wheeled back to the mixer where an operator adds prescaled minor ingredients. As part of its quality control program, the company tracks the lot numbers of every ingredient throughout the process. "With this facility, lot tracking is easier because the first loaf going through is the first loaf coming out," Mancini says. "At the old facility, racks came out at different times due to the environment."
After fermenting, batches of dough enter a stress-free divider that sheets the dough into a manageable form for handcrafting. "It's essential to create a stress-free dough," Mancini says. Besides preserving the integrity of the dough, the stress-free divider also has allowed the company to eliminate an overhead proofer because the dough is not degassed or compressed.
To shape the dough into its final form, Ecce Panis' employees handcraft each piece of dough. After handcrafting, dough pieces are automatically loaded onto boards and travel through a four-stack serpentine-style proofer. Between the oven and proofer, the company installed a rack storage system that has three towers. "If we didn't have this system, we would have to take the excess boards out of the system when we did a changeover," Mancini says.
After proofing, products are manually scored before entering a 90-ft. tunnel oven with a stone baking surface. At its old facility, the company baked on stones, and was not willing to compromise on this process. "We wanted to be true to what we originally started with, which was stone deck ovens," Matthew Rini, Ecce Panis' director of quality assurance and research and development, says. "Without the stone oven, we could not produce the same consistent style of crust."
Despite bringing the stone baking to the new facility, the company still had a significant learning curve going from deck ovens to a tunnel oven. "We had to retest everything, but the one thing we have with the new oven is much more control with time and temperature," Mancini says. This control has allowed Ecce Panis to preserve its Old Worldstyle of baking in a highly-technical tunnel oven. "We created the moisture and heat arcs bread goes through in traditional hearth ovens by moving loaves through different zones, each set for a specific humidity and temperature level," Mancini says.
For example, upon entering the oven, the products traverse through a steam chamber that gives the dough its initial spring. "You don't want an initial heat to dry out your products. You want to give it a little bit of time to get a sheen on the crust," Rini says. Conversely, at the tail end of the oven, the products are exposed to more heat to finish the crust.
Once baking is completed, the products are cooled on spiral conveyors in a climate controlled room. "All of the heat and moisture migrate to the center of the product after baking, and you have to let it equilibrate out before freezing," Mancini says.
Although moving into a new plant, installing an automated production line and learning how to bake in this setting gave Ecce Panis more than its fair share of work, the company also underwent a strategic change. "We have transformed our vision to a consumer-driven company," Fraggos states. "That means that we talk directly to the consumer, and everything we do is done by direction of the consumer or by the validation of the consumer."
Before this strategy shift, Fraggos says the company was driven by its competitors and trends. "We followed trends from more of a retail standpoint than the standpoint of a consumer," Fraggos says.
Despite this strategy, Ecce Panis' sales were continually growing and its position in the par-baked market was gaining prominence. Why then, would the company shift strategies if the existing plan was working? "The answer is you have to evolve over time and show continuous improvements," Fraggos says. "Sometimes, everything around you is changing, and even if you maintain your quality standards, everyone else could pass you by."
To make sure it provides an example instead of following the leader, Ecce Panis has invested in product testing and consumer research. All of these measures are aimed at gaining a complete understanding of how consumers perceive Ecce Panis' breads. The results so far appear positive. "The message from our consumers to us has been that our breads have provided a great way to make an ordinary meal extraordinary," Fraggos says.
This bodes well for the future of Ecce Panis and the entire par-baked category. "The future is bright for our type of products. The future is bright for our company," Fraggos says. "Although we're not the largest bakery out there, we certainly want to become the strongest through leadership and our understanding of the consumer."