“When I started working for New Seasons Market, the bread was one of the first things that impressed me so much. It was the real deal,” says Helen Neville, marketing director.
And the bread should impress. Using artisan baking methods, the Europeanstyle breads’ basic ingredient list includes only organic flour, water, salt and yeast, when needed. New Seasons’ bakeries were the first supermarket in-store bakeries in the country to be certified organic.
The commitment to organic extends to all 10 stores located throughout the Portland, Ore., area. The first location opened in 1999, and an eleventh location will open later this year. Store sizes range from 14,000 sq. ft. to almost 50,000 sq. ft. About two-thirds of the stores’ product line are natural or organic, but unlike other natural food store chains, New Seasons also offers a twin line of conventional brands. “We have Cool Ranch Doritos, because sometimes those taste good,” Neville says. “But in our fresh departments, like the bakery, we have a complete and total emphasis on the very finest ingredients.”
“Portland is a good bread town, and it has a lot of high-quality artisan bakeries,” says Jesse Dodson, bakery merchandiser. “So there’s already a support base for what we’re doing.” All the bakeries’ products are certified organic, and about 98 percent of them are 100 percent organic; the remaining are classified as made with organic.
The bakeries offer almost 100 varieties of artisan breads, with 80 SKUs available at any time. All are made from eight basic doughs. For example, Dodson uses the classic sourdough to produce an artisan loaf, baguettes, a sandwich loaf and a mini loaf.
“The bakery is really known for its sourdough,” Dodson adds. It was inspired by the artisan version at San Francisco’s Boudin’s Bakery, and the starter dates back to 1849.
Some sourdoughs get their flavor from vinegar or ascorbic acid, but New Seasons’ sourdough flavor is achieved strictly through fermentation. The sourdough starter lives at a cooler temperature than other bread varieties’ starters, and the final dough is retarded for 18 to 20 hours before being brought back up to room temperature for baking. For every loaf of sourdough sold, New Seasons donates 50 cents to Loaves & Fishes, the local Meals on Wheals program.
Organic Sicilian loaves are made with organic semolina and leavened with pate fermente. The divided dough is then rolled in sesame seeds and rests overnight in wicker baskets. Seven-grain bread is made with organic red and white wheat, barley, rye, oats, sunflower seed and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye), and it is sweetened with organic honey. Wheat levain features whole wheat and wild yeast and has a nutty flavor. The wheat nut loaf, made with wild yeast, is loaded with whole wheat, walnut chunks, flax and millet.
The olive ciabatta, a top seller at the bakeries, is characterized by an open crumb and chewy crust. The loaves feature Greek Kalamata olives and are one of the products certified as made with organic.
“The olives aren’t organic, but they are clean,” Dodson says. He could use organic olives from California, however, they do not have the same flavor and cost three times as much. “Sometimes it’s actually better for quality to use something that is not necessarily organic,” he adds.
“Our customers on some level trust us to select quality ingredients and trust us to make the best decisions for them,” Neville says.
New Seasons uses Oregon Tilth for organic certification, which guarantees that the bakeries don’t use any ingredients that are genetically modified, exposed to pesticides or herbicides and are not irradiated. Maintaining the organic certification requires additional documentation, and when introducing a new bakery product, Dodson must first submit a product formulation sheet for approval. The approval time is usually two weeks, and once Oregon Tilth adds the new product to its list of certified items, New Seasons can put it on the shelves.
The core product line sells well, but the bakeries introduce about four to six new items every year. The new items are usually seasonal and often feature local ingredients. Last year the bakery introduced a line of seasonal flatbreads, which were cross-merchandised with cheese. Dodson worked with the cheese manager to develop the best pairings.
Dodson, who has 20 years of baking experience, came on board with New Seasons in 2005 and has already made his mark. Almost 90 percent of the products are his formulations. “We’ve added quite a few products and revamped our procedures and methods. It’s all to make the bread as good as it can be,” he says.
One of the biggest changes he made was in production procedures. Production used to start at 10 p.m., but by reevaluating the preferments, he was able to have the bakers come in four hours later. He extended the prefermentation process, which allowed for a shorter final fermentation while providing the same flavor and texture.
Mixers start the day’s production between midnight and 3:30 a.m., then another staffer comes in to start shaping the dough. Another staffer joins them two hours later to begin baking. Every two hours a new staffer comes in, and production runs until 8 p.m. Afternoon and evening production focuses on whole grain varieties, which are made with natural starters and need to rest for better flavor and texture.
“I think we’ve done a lot to improve the flavor, texture and shelf life of the bread without using any preservatives or dough conditioners. It was just reevaluating the fermentation process for each specific dough,” Dodson says. The retarder is used to slow down the fermentation process if the ambient temperature or humidity in the bakery is too high. The French dough isn’t retarded, but the challah and sourdough doughs are. Almost all products ferment at 77°F.
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The proofer is generally used to control the doughs’ environment and not necessarily to cool or warm them. It is usually set at 77°F and 50 percent humidity. The artisan breads are almost never proofed because the warmer temperature will adversely affect the flavor, but items such as hamburger buns are proofed. “But sometimes we do use the proofer to give some products a kick in the pants,” Dodson adds.
All bakeries have upright and spiral mixers, usually a 75-kg size, which is a good medium size, he says. A water meter distributes water directly into the mixing bowl. “Every bakery has it because it’s essential,” Dodson says. “At this volume, we couldn’t do without it.”
A hearth oven also is found in all seven production bakeries. Three stores are too small to include a production bakery, but they do feature a bakery display. Two of the larger footprint bakeries produce items that are then delivered to those three stores.
Some of the bakeries also feature convection ovens, which work well for shortcakes, croutons and crostini. The ovens also are good for pastry items, which Dodson would like to incorporate into the in-store bakeries. Currently, pastry items are displayed in the coffee bar and are mostly brought in from area bakeries.
Dodson has designed three bakeries from the ground up, making some changes to improve production flow. Ingredients are stored at one side of the bakery with the dishwashing station and mixers. “One of the things I changed, which seemed really obvious to me, was that the dish area should be near the mixing area,” Dodson says. “In some of the first stores, the dish area was across the bakery from the mixers, so you had bowls criss-crossing all the time, and it wasn’t very efficient.”
Now, doughs begin mixing at one side of the production area, then move to the retarder/proofers positioned next to the mixers. Dividers and a shaping table sit next the proofer, and the oven and bread slicer are at the far end of the bakery.
Dodson also reevaluated ingredient selection. One of the biggest changes was the flour, which the bakeries use 35,000 lbs. of every week. “We were looking for consistency in the flour, and it has be certified organic, which narrows our selection down a little bit,” he says. In the past, the flour fluctuated greatly in moisture and protein content as well as absorption rate, which caused a ripple effect of problems through all the bakeries.
“If there is a change in flour, it may hit one store on Tuesday and another on Thursday. And it’s Saturday before we figure out how to adjust for it,” Dodson says. Now he has found flour where all specifications are guaranteed to be within 0.2 percent consistency, removing the variables in moisture, protein and absorption.
Consistent ingredients are key when you’re operating seven different bakeries with different personnel. The bakery department employs about 80 people in total; the smallest bakery has eight employees, but most have between 11 and 16. Each bakery features a department manager and an assistant manager, and for those that produce for multiple locations, they also have a lead manager to help with the production schedule and help maintain product quality and consistency. Two floaters also work in all the bakery departments, so in addition to Dodson, three sets of eyes make sure all bakeries follow New Seasons’ production protocol.
To help ensure product consistency across the chain, the bakery managers and Dodson meet about six times a year, and they select two to four products for analysis. The products are numbered to disassociate them from the bakery of origin, and then the managers go through a list of criteria to check for consistency.
“We do allow for a little nuance from store to store,” Dodson says. “We try to keep it pretty consistent, but I think it’s OK for a bakery to have a little personality, as long as the flavor, volume and texture are all very similar.”
As New Seasons continues to grow (Dodson expects two new stores every year), the subject of opening a bakery commissary has been raised. “I think one of the biggest benefits of having the bakeries in the stores is the freshness. And, customers also get to interact with the people who actually make the bread,” Dodson says. “They [the customers] can actually see it come out of the oven. In a separate facility where it would have to be shipped to stores, the freshness would be compromised.”
However, if pastries come under the bakery umbrella, he would be amiable to having a separate commissary for them, since the shelf life of pastry products is longer than it is for bread. And once the chain gets large enough, Dodson may reevaluate his stance. “But I think it says a lot for the customers to walk in and see that we’re doing this every day. There’s a long tradition of craft in baking, and we’re preserving that. So, I will hang on to it by tooth and nail to keep it going as long as possible.”
New Seasons at a glance
Headquarters: Portland, Ore.
Founded: 1999 by Brian Rohter, Stan Amy and Chuck Eggert
Market served: greater Portland area
Management: Lisa Sedlar, C.E.O.; Jesse Dodson, bakery merchandiser
Number of stores/production bakeries: 10/7
Number of bakery employees: 80 total, average 11 to 16 per store
Store sizes: 14,000 sq. ft. to 50,000 sq. ft.
Product line: 98 SKUs of artisan breads made from eight doughs
Major equipment: spiral mixers, upright mixers, retarder/proofer, hydraulic divider, manual divider, hearth oven, bread slicer
Major competitors: Whole Foods Markets, QFC, Zupan’s Markets, Trader Joe’s Co., Fred Meyer Stores
Bakery supply distributors: Puratos, GloryBee Foods
New Seasons sampling of prices
Kaiser roll $0.99
Ciabatta roll $0.89
Cranberry walnut roll $1.29
sourdough roll $0.89
Three-seed baguette $3.29
French baguette $2.99
Olive ciabatta loaf $4.99
Cinnamon swirl bread $5.99
Hamburger buns, 4-count $1.49
Wheat nut bread $4.49
Caraway rye bread $3.99
sandwich bread $2.99
White sandwich bread $2.99
Garlic romano bread $4.99
Seven-grain bread $3.99