This specialty wholesale bakery is planning a third expansion, and sales have more than tripled in two years. Growth is fueled by its focus on retaining traditional artisan techniques while relying on new technology to keep up with demand.
Make great-tasting, authentic artisan bread on a large scale in Arizona's Sonoran Desert? What about its hostile environment: the low humidity, high temperatures and alkaline water? “Next to impossible,” naysayers told Harold Back.
That was four years ago. Today, Back's Simply Bread, a specialty wholesale bakery in Phoenix, generates as much as 5,500 lbs. of dough daily for nearly 100 different bread and roll products. Accounts include destination resorts and hotels in metropolitan Phoenix and some 30 upscale food stores and supermarkets in Phoenix and Tucson.
After the bakery opened in February 2006, customer acceptance of Simply Bread's offerings was immediate. “We went into the first day having made a significant investment in our facilities. We knew we could make good bread. Nevertheless, we were apprehensive,” Back says. “We did not fully comprehend the consumers' embracing really good bread. The second day, we realized our bakery was too small.”
Sales grew at a rapid clip from $800,000 in 2006 to $3 million in 2007 and are expected to reach $6 million this year. To cope with the growth, Simply Bread currently is expanding its 14,000-sq.-ft. bakery to increase oven capacity and improve efficiency. Concurrently, Back, president, and co-founder Jeffrey Yankellow, executive vice president and executive chef, are constructing a $5 million, 100,000-sq.-ft. bakery.
Avocation to vocation
Creating Simply Bread was Back's vision to turn an avocation into a vocation. In 1976, he arrived penniless in Chicago from South Africa and pursued a successful career in real estate development and financing. Back moved to Scottsdale, Ariz. in 1998, and began dabbling in culinary interests.
His longing for good bread and a week-long seminar at the Culinary Institute of America, near Hyde Park, N.Y., (a gift from his wife) spurred Back to craft sour starters and make bread in the couple's kitchen. Back's tests convinced him that good — he eschews the word artisan because he says it has been abused — bread could be made in large volume in Phoenix.
In 2005, he attended the International Fancy Food Show in San Francisco and enrolled in classes at the San Francisco Baking Institute (SFBI).
His instructor at SFBI was Yankellow, a member of Team USA 2005, which captured first place at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie (World Baking Cup). Yankellow's specialty was the baguette and specialty breads category.
Prior to joining the SFBI, he had been an instructor at the former National Baking Center, Minneapolis and had worked in high-end restaurants and bakeries in Chicago and Baltimore after graduating from Johnson & Wales University, Providence, R.I.
Yankellow learned that his student had more than a pedestrian curiosity about the bread business, and Back, who had identified Phoenix as a market for world-class bread, recognized his instructor's champion-level skills. The two decided to pool their talents and resources to open a bakery.
In spring 2005, Back purchased equipment, formed his team — including Yankellow — and hired architects, but had yet to secure a building. Meanwhile, Yankellow began test baking in Back's home. “We weren't sure of exactly which products we would produce, but we knew what we would do in terms of product quality and integrity,” Back recalls.
He inspected more than 200 facilities before learning of a vacant 14,000-sq.-ft. building in June. Contractors began installation the day after Thanksgiving, and the bakery opened in February 2006.
During construction, Back sent letters to prospective accounts to introduce Yankellow, showcasing him as a gold medal winner of the World Baking Cup. “We wanted to let the business community know about how serious we were about introducing truly authentic, traditional bread of the highest quality,” Back says.
They chose to focus on high-end destination resorts, hotels, restaurants and food markets. “Businesses that recognize the value that we offer,” he explains. “From the beginning, we've invested a huge amount of money in branding our product. This is important because we are not selling a commodity product. We want to ensure that people tie together the quality of our product and our brand.”
Back adds that they plan not to go deep into the marketplace “because all bread is not created equal. We don't want to see our bread put into a store or resort where the consumer does not recognize the value of our product.”
Of nearly 200 available bread and roll products, baguettes, Rustica (ciabatta) and challah sell best. Simply Bread introduced challah because Phoenix's ethnic food markets were buying most kosher-certified bread from Los Angeles bakeries, Back says. “By securing these accounts from the beginning, we were able to be up and running while going after the resort business.”
Other examples include Down Home (contains 10 varieties of grains and seeds), The Champ (wheat, rye and oat dough with sesame, flax and toasted sunflower seeds), Pain de Mie (white bread from long-fermented dough) and The Masterpiece (features jumbo organic raisins and toasted walnut halves).
Simply Bread is steadily gaining a reputation for creating custom products.
“Resort chefs want special products that stand out, that complement their restaurants' themes and formats,” Back explains. “Instead of just adding flavors to a dough, we create a flavorful bread with its unique formula that retains its artisanal characteristics.”
For example, walnut raisin cranberry bread is not walnut raisin bread with cranberries added. Its sourdough formula calls for a rye levain, instead of a wheat levain, which bakers use for raisin walnut bread. Walnut raisin is less dense and is used as table bread, while customers use walnut raisin cranberry for breakfast, Yankellow says.
“Before a sales call, we spend time to learn what the potential customer is doing — the theme, the menu — to identify how we can add value to the product line,” Back says. “Then we set up a time when the contact can experience — taste — our product. We leave product for them to experiment with their food. Our job is to meet their needs so that they can meet the needs of their customers.”
The Four Seasons Resort in Scottsdale epitomizes Simply Bread's approach, he says. The resort purchases product from a list of 33 different bread and roll items. Executive Pastry Chef Anthony Patafio says Yankellow studied the resort's menus, tasted the food, and then developed more than a dozen candidates for tasting. The resort selected four, among them fresh jalapeño corn bread for the resort's southwestern theme restaurant.
Yankellow attributes the bread products' good flavor, texture and appearance to the use of fresh, high-quality ingredients and production methods that maintain dough integrity. “To get the best raisins, Harold [Back] at first drove to Sacramento to pick up raisins and walnuts,” Yankellow says. “After the suppliers understood we would be a regular customer, they began shipping their products.”
Bakers prepare the fresh ingredients. For example, they roast garlic, onions and chili, chipotle and jalapeño peppers, and process sweet potatoes for potato bread. “Fresh ingredients often require adjusting our formulas to account for added moisture, but we do this to produce the freshest possible product,” he explains.
Properly aged flour also contributes to the bread and rolls' quality, Yankellow adds. Flour with 12 percent protein will have aged two weeks prior to delivery and ages another three to four weeks in the bakery's refrigerated storage unit. Bakers pull pallets two days in advance of use to allow the flour to warm to a climate-controlled 72°F to 74°F.
The bakery operates seven days a week, producing 3,500 to 5,500 lbs. of 25 different doughs daily, excluding holidays, to yield 6,000 to 11,000 pieces.
Keys to production
Production begins at 7 a.m. with preparation of poolish and levain starters, feeding sourdough starters and scaling raw ingredients, such as dried fruit, nuts, whole grains, eggs, vegetable oil and honey, for the next day's production. “We feed the starters at the same time every day and use the same water temperature,” Yankellow says. “This is where good bread flavor begins.”
Mixer operators draw water from the bakery's water treatment system. Initial bread tests revealed that Phoenix water has high pH, or alkaline, levels, which yield sourdoughs lacking needed acidity. “More frustrating, the levels change, becoming more acidic after heavy rains during the monsoon season in August and September,” Yankellow adds. High mineral content also would clog water lines in the proofers and ovens.
The treatment system first removes chlorine. One line goes to a softener and then to a water heater; another line carries water to a reverse osmosis unit to eliminate minerals. That water goes to proofers and the deck oven.
A water meter portions volume and adjusts temperature to accommodate the desert's seasons. To achieve a targeted 75°F dough temperature, bakers add 55°F water during summer and 75°F water during winter. Mixed doughs ferment in tubs for two to three hours in the climate-controlled conditions.
Investment in equipment
Bakers divide bread doughs with pneumatic dividers, which minimize abuse of the dough. Divided pieces rest 20 minutes before the bakers shape them by hand. “Both methods help to maintain the desired interior texture of the finished product,” Yankellow observes.
The bakery installed a four-pocket roll divider after sales of challah twists took off. “We can run doughs with tight crumb, like challah and hamburger buns, and this divider won't abuse the dough,” he says. “It paid for itself within three or four months.”
Yankellow selected two one-belt baguette moulders that roll pieces along a stationary plate. They simulate rolling dough pieces by hand on a bench, he says, and thus are gentle to the dough.
Bakers place shaped floured loaves into wood bannetons, or bentwood willow baskets, for proofing. Wood baskets impart superior crust patterns because the dough surface dries sufficiently to allow flour to uniformly adhere to the loaf, Yankellow notes.
Nine out of 10 different loaves pass through a retarder/proofer, proofing at 62°F and 85 percent to 90 percent humidity. Much trial and error went into identifying the proper settings, he says. Sourdough items proof from five to eight hours; yeasted loaves proof from one to three hours.
Bakers also use the retarder/proofer to help control production. Baking capacity is limited to a four-deck, eight-door oven for crusty products and two double-rack ovens for pan breads, challah, hamburger buns, focaccia and other products. When the ovens become backed up, bakers hold proofing product as needed.
Lack of sufficient oven capacity largely precipitated the current remodeling project, which will add nearly 8,000 sq. ft. This will increase the mixing room, add proofing and retarding capacity, accommodate a second deck oven and third rack oven, and relocate the shipping dock. In addition, a detached refrigerated storage facility, constructed in 2006, will be expanded. The project is scheduled for completion no later than September.
The expansion will allow the bakery to keep up with demand, Back says, as he and Yankellow pursue their plan to construct the 100,000-sq.-ft. facility by June 2009.
The facility will produce frozen par-baked products and expand Simply Bread's reach, Back says. Target markets will continue to be upscale resorts and hotels located within a six-hour distribution radius of Phoenix. “That will put us within reach of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego and Flagstaff,” he explains. “Destination properties there attract educated, affluent, sophisticated clientele who appreciate what we offer.”
The existing facility will continue to operate, producing shorter-run fully baked items, such as custom items and special products for special needs, Back adds. “Time will be our biggest challenge — to expand quickly without disrupting production,” Back says. “We've developed a very delicate ballet of a schedule to ensure this.”
Observers have told Back that building such a large plant will take away from the high quality that Simply Bread has established. To that he responds, “We have a simple mission: to produce great bread. And, we will do this most effective way we can.”
AT A GLANCE
Founded: February 2006
Web site: www.simplybread.com
Management: Harold Back, president/co-founder; Jeffrey Yankellow, executive vice president/executive chef/co-founder; Robin Olson, vice president/general manager; Colin Friedman, chief financial officer; Terry Enloe, production manager; Troy Klock, distribution manager
Primary business: wholesale, 95 percent; retail, 5 percent
Market served: metropolitan Phoenix and Tucson
2008 sales: $6 million (est.)
Number of bakeries/stores: 1/1
Bakery/store sizes: 14,000 sq. ft./800 sq. ft.
Number of employees: 53
Product line: Some 220 different kosher-certified products, mostly naturally fermented breads and rolls, and limited varieties of biscotti, cookies, mandel bread, honey cakes and lavosch
Production methods: all scratch
Major equipment: water treatment system, water conditioner/meter, three spiral mixers, bowl hoist, two pneumatic bread dividers, four-pocket roll divider, manual bun divider, automatic divider/rounder, two baguette moulders, reversible sheeter, cookie depositor, roll-in retarder/proofer, roll-in proofer, two dual-rack ovens, semi-automatic oven loader, eight-door four-deck oven, bread slicer, bun slicer, bag closure unit, panwasher, walk-in refrigerator/freezer
Plans: remodel bakery to increase production capacity, construct additional 100,000-sq.-ft. facility to produce par-baked products, expand market territory beyond Arizona
Bakery supply distributors: Food Source International, Giusto's, European Imports
A SAMPLING OF WHOLESALE PRICES
|Baguette, 9 ozs.||$1.69|
|Rustica (ciabatta), 16 ozs.||$2.70|
|Down Home (multi-grain), 16 ozs.||$2.95|
|New York, New York (seeded rye), 16 ozs.||$2.73|
|Pain de Mie (white sandwich), 24 ozs.||$3.40|
|The Don (rustic olive), 16 ozs.||$4.00|
|Il Napolitano (focaccia), 6 lbs.||$9.99|
|The Masterpiece (raisin walnut), 16 ozs.||$4.00|
|The Sicilian (crunchy sesame), 16 ozs.||$2.70|
|Ooh La La (cranberry walnut raisin), 16 ozs.||$4.00|
|Challah, 16 ozs.||$3.00|
|Hamburger bun, 4.5 ozs.||$0.45|