Pittsfield Rye and Specialty Breads' new business model may seem like a complete 180. But, that implies a lack of planning and potential loss of key elements that made the bakery successful in the first place, which is not the case for Pittsfield co-owners Rick and Renee Robbins. When the husband and wife team purchased the bakery six years ago, the couple knew the business needed to change — and change big. The Robbins researched new market potential, invested heavily in new equipment and infrastructure and overhauled the bakery's production process with new focus on frozen and par-baked specialty breads. All the planning not only set up the bakery for future growth, but the company also has maintained the history and product integrity with which it was founded.
In 1929, Charlie and Tillie Robbins opened a full-line retail bakery in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. Particularly popular was the rye bread made from a recipe Charlie had brought from Brooklyn. In fact, the bread earned such a widespread following, the Robbins named their bakery after it.
When third generation baker Rick and his wife bought Pittsfield Rye from his parents, Arnie and Linda, the couple almost immediately eliminated all of the pastry items to focus on fewer and unique types of breads and rolls, and renamed the bakery Pittsfield Rye and Specialty Breads Co. to emphasize its core product line.
Pittsfield Rye generates more than $2 million annually, but with the new production facility recently in full operation, the Robbins expect annual sales to more than double by the end of this year. The company also maintains a small retail storefront, which accounts for about 10 percent of sales. Product mix for the bakery is about 60 percent frozen dough and 40 percent par-baked and fully-baked artisan breads.
Expanding market reach
|At a Glance: Pittsfield Rye and Specialty Breads Co.|
|Pittsfield’s conical rounder uses oil instead of flour to prevent dough from sticking to the chute.|
Making the move from retail to wholesale first required researching the market area. The company saw potential in supplying breads to supermarkets, restaurants, delis and other wholesale accounts, but Berkshire County has a limited number of these types of operations. Becoming a frozen dough and par-baked bread manufacturer allowed the company to expand its reach.
Its sales area has expanded further into Massachusetts and Connecticut. And, by partnering with a bakery distributor, the bakery's market recently has grown to include New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.
“It wasn't like one day we said we were going to get into frozen products, and the next day we were fully ready to go,” Robbins says. “We spent a lot of time training, product developing and researching the frozen dough process — how to implement it, what types of products could or couldn't be used and where the market place was.”
To ramp up for expansion, the Robbins moved their operation from its original 8,000-sq.-ft. Pittsfield facility to a 10,000-sq.-ft. building on 14 acres, less than three miles away, and invested about $2.5 million in the new property and equipment.
Instead of the two-story, twisting floor plan of the first bakery, the new one is designed for better production flow and incorporates additional freezing technology. The more spacious facility allowed them to construct a linear bread line with an automatic divider, moulder, conical rounder and overhead proofer system that turns out 1,500 loaves per day compared to the 1,200 produced by their original bread line. A new silo holds and aerates 75,000 lb. of flour.
In place of the old revolving oven, which took more than seven hours to heat up and had to be left on 24 hours per day, the bakery installed a five-deck stone oven that requires less than one hour to heat and has a separate steam function for each deck for more consistent baking. As a result, the bakery's monthly gas bill has been reduced by 40 percent. Fruit breads, such as apple-cinnamon-raisin and pecan, are baked in rotary rack ovens. Robbins prefers the rack ovens for breads with softer crusts because the rack ovens' temperature is easier to control.
To implement frozen production, the bakery installed a separate blast freezer and storage freezer that has shelving capacity to hold more than 100 pallets. “Our dough production room is environmentally controlled. We have a dough production area separate from the baking area. This enables us to keep the dough temperatures closer to what we like,” Robbins says.
The mixing stage is a critical step in Pittsfield's production process. Before mixing begins, about 20 bowls of specialty ingredients, except for flour, water and yeast, are scaled and ready to incorporate. An overturnable spiral mixer handles 500 lb. of dough at a time. Robbins prefers a spiral mixer because its gentle motion is the closest to hand-mixing, and it is able to handle the higher hydration artisan doughs.
“It adds life to the dough and allows our breads to develop their distinctive textures,” he notes.
Pittsfield keeps temperatures for its frozen doughs below 63°F (17°C) during the mixing stage. Temperatures for doughs to be proofed and baked range from 75°F to 80°F (24°C to 27°C) in the mixing stage. “There are different reasons for doing this. First of all, you want a lower dough temperature for your frozen dough because you want your yeast to remain dormant, and you want it activated when it gets to the end user,” Robbins says. “Whereas, if you proof and bake, you want the opposite. You want your yeast activity and your fermentation process to work; you want your gasses to build and create your flavor.”
Before the breads are placed in the cooler, one loaf from every batch is placed on a separate tray and labeled with a number and date to signify the batch from which it came. The date and number also are recorded in a notebook, and the racks are clearly labeled. If a proofing problem with a particular sample arises, the batch can be easily identified and the issue examined.
This practice comes in handy, particularly when dealing with supermarket in-store bakeries. Robbins sites one supermarket bakery that was having trouble proofing its Italian breads, which were selling out. “The store manager told the employee to put extra in the cooler on Friday so they'd have it for Sunday. Product was fine on Saturday. On Sunday, there was no yeast activity left,” Robbins says.
“Direction was coming from the store manager, who's not a baker, because he wanted the shelf to be full all the time.”
Whatever the issues are, Pittsfield usually can pinpoint the problem, whether it is in its process, at the distributor stage or the end user. And, Pittsfield is counting on supermarkets as key customers for the bakery's distinctive line of breads. Robbins believes a major selling point for his products is their flavor profiles and the bakery's ability to customize products for specific customers. Bases and proprietary blends of natural flavor enhancers help him to create breads that are consistent and cannot be easily duplicated by other bakeries, he explains.
Cinnamon chips replace swirls to more evenly distribute bursts of flavor in his breakfast breads. Rye chops and coarse pumpernickel flour give the bakery's black Russian pumpernickel extra textural complexity.
Other best sellers include the bakery's signature Jewish-style rye (available in original, seeded, onion and marble varieties); 12-grain; three-seed farmers bread (also called Berkshire Bread), topped with rolled oats and sunflower seeds; Tucsan Italian; Kalamata olive and rosemary; and breakfast/dessert breads: apple-cinnamon-raisin and pecan; Cinnamon Burst and Death by Chocolate. A recent addition, Tex Mex, also has been well received, Robbins adds. The new loaf features bold flavors, such as crushed red pepper, jalapeño peppers, chili powder, garlic and cumin.
With its renewed focus on the breads that gave Pittsfield Rye and Specialty Bread Co. its name, the company is primed and ready for more growth. The bakery has room for more freezer space and an additional 14 acres for potential facility expansion.
Robbins is getting a positive response to the bakery's changes both locally and in new territory. “[Berkshire-area customers] have always liked what we were, but they're happy that we've evolved into more,” Robbins says. “In Manhattan, we've been pleasantly surprised how well our product is received because Manhattan has some really nice bakeries as well. It's a big city, and they probably have the best of everything. For us to come in from Pittsfield, only time will tell how far we'll go. We're at the beginning stages of this, and it's a work in progress. But, we can see the writing on the wall.” •
Energy-efficiency is a priority for the Pittsfield Rye and Specialty Breads Co. owners Rick and Renee Robbins, for both ecological and financial reasons. A few months ago, they had an independent energy audit of their new bakery facility and, since then, they have made changes to make their operation more “green” and reduce energy costs.
For example, rack compressors automatically adjust the blast and storage freezers' cooling levels as the loads inside and outside increase and decrease. Instead of escaping into the atmosphere, a portion of the heat generated by the compressors is reclaimed by being piped through two large condensing units back into the production area, Rick Robbins says. This provides a green and free source of heat for that part of the building, Robbins adds.
The rest of the building uses hydronic radiant heat from tubes filled with circulating hot water. Robbins explains that this system holds heat better than traditional heating systems. Light bulbs with minimal amounts of mercury use only 10 percent of the energy of regular bulbs and require changing less frequently.
Location: Pittsfield, Mass.
Primary business: wholesale
Market served: Northeastern United States
Number of locations: 1
Key personnel titles: Rick and Renee Robbins, owners
Web site: www.pittsfieldrye.com
Product line: frozen dough, par- and fully-baked artisan breads and rolls
Facility size: 10,000 sq. ft. and attached 1,000-sq.-ft. freezer
Production methods: starters, scratch and bases
Major equipment: spiral and horizontal mixers, water meter, water chiller, bread line, flour silo, bread divider, manual bun divider/rounder, automatic divider/rounder, baguette moulder, cooler, freezer, blast freezer, roll divider/rounder, deck and rotary rack ovens, proofer, lift oven loader, bread line with divider, rounder, overhead proofer, long and round moulders, bread slicer, bread bag tier, tape sealing machine