Ongoing collaboration between suppliers and bakers can be an effective weapon to streamline operations and be a tool in the fight against labor shortages.

Equipment suppliers and retailers are facing unprecedented challenges. Historic inflation, supply chain disruptions, labor challenges and an ongoing economic downturn have created a range of business challenges for bakers.

The 2023 Capital Spending Insights report from Sosland, BEMA and Cypress Research found some of the biggest business challenges include an increase in raw material costs, inflationary challenges and attracting and retaining labor. The confluence of so many factors is keeping bakers on the lookout for new ways to combat these challenges.

Ongoing labor pressures

But the issue of labor shows fewer signs of abetting. The ever-present elephant in the room was cited as one of the biggest issues for the baking industry at IBIE 2022. The “Workforce Recruitment Trends and Best Practices in U.S. Commercial Baking” study (2021) from the American Baking Association and the American Society of Baking found two-thirds of baking employers anticipate workforce gap issues to be significant for the next five years. This includes a shortage of machine operators and a lack of salaried engineering/maintenance employees.

Sandy Ryan, vice president of operations, Ryan Slicer, Hillsboro, Ore., agreed.

“The availability of labor is something every business is dealing with as demographics change. It’s just a fact that there are fewer younger people to take the place of older workers as they retire.”

Increasing automation

Ongoing labor shortages mean instore bakeries are looking for ways to be more efficient in their use of time and labor. An effective solution is critical because bakery retail is still going strong. A Top Trends in Fresh report from Circana, Chicago, reported double-digit dollar growth in the bakery. And even though prices continue to rise, people are still purchasing.

An Ask-A-Baker panel at BEMA’s Convention 2023 found bakers are striving to meet customer demands with an attitude of continuous improvement. This means bakeries need equipment designed to produce consistent, quality results that will meet evolving customer and consumer needs. This includes partnering with equipment suppliers to source solutions that will not only improve efficiencies but also be cost-effective.

One of those trends within the North American market is the movement away from a softer bread toward crustier artisan breads with more grains, botanicals and seeds, according to Tom Ranc, vice president, general manager, JAC, Andover, Mass.

“The ‘soft white bread-designed’ gravity feed machines are not the appropriate slicing solution that they once were,” he continued. “Machines that incorporate an automatic mechanical pusher will become the necessity as they can cut more loaves faster and more consistently, utilizing fewer skilled workers.”

JAC’s patented ISC – Intelligent Slicing Concept pusher system senses the density and crust of the bread and adjusts the slicer performance to produce consistent slices.

Boosting automation

Bakery slicers are a known solution for producing reliable and timely results. Slicer manufacturers look to find a balance of speed and productivity to make labor as efficient as possible. Instore-based slicers should be robust, simple, intuitive and safe to operate. The choice of a slicer should also reflect labor/time (batch slicing or sliced-to-order), self-service, customer base (multiple slice thickness), quantity and the types of breads.

Incorporating increased automation can also be beneficial as consumers begin to ask direct questions about big topics such as sustainability and food waste. Waste can erode already thin margins, but the efficiencies of a slicer might be another way to help a bakery directly cut down on food waste by generating upcycled items such as croutons, bread cubes and breadcrumbs to boost the bakery portfolio.

Mattson, a Foster City, Calif.-based food innovator, found consumers are embracing upcycled foods with some companies even opting for an upcycled material certification.

Waste in bakery production can take several forms: lost hours, equipment malfunctions and breakdowns, cost of materials, and damage that occurs during slicing. When looking for a bakery slicer, Ryan recommends looking at three things: 1) volume, 2) the type of products that will be sliced, and 3) the types of slice desired. Ryan Slicer specializes in horizontal slicing of products such as buns, bagels, hoagies and croissants and its slicers cut with a side-hinge, butterfly or center hinge or both on the same machine.

Considering size

The footprint of the bakery and products produced will also dictate the kind of slicer needed. Wholesale bakeries that sell product instore usually produce far higher volumes than smaller, instore bakeries. For instance, companies that ship par-baked and pre-sliced product might lean toward the use of larger machines.

Over the past year, JAC has added improvements to its slicers that assist with controlling labor and improving customer focus. Its SWIFT slicer uses a set of infeed rollers to offer single-user slicing and bagging. Its VARIA slicer is designed to cut almost any bread and any slice thickness, and the new SELF slicer allows customers to choose, slice and bag their own loaves for the freshest customer experience.

Self-service slicers allow a customer to pick and slice their loaf at time of purchase. One side benefit of a self-service program is that the store can re-task the time spent cutting and bagging bread while also controlling shrink, according to Ranc. In supermarkets such as Publix and Wegmans, visible instore slicers allow customers to see the bread sliced directly in front of them, providing an artisan bakery feel.

Conversely, casters allow a bakery to roll a slicer where it’s needed in the moment. Depending how much bread is sliced daily, a slicer equipped with casters could remain in the production area to help with restocking shelves or as an integration to the overall bakery customer experience.

Keep it simple

The hallmark of a clean slice necessitates high-quality, sharp, well-protected blades. A bakery slicer should also feature good ergonomics and a safe entry point. Oliver, Walker, Mich., produces a variety of bakery slicers for the commercial bakery. These include continuous feed, gravity feed, front-load slicers and a variety slicer. In business since 1932, Oliver understands ease-of-use goes a long way with slicing equipment.

“This kind of equipment doesn’t need to have a lot of bells and whistles,” said Yvonne Johnson, senior communications and brand manager, Oliver. “Sometimes simplicity is best.”

A simple design can also make maintenance and repair easier. To keep its slicers functioning optimally, Oliver recommends changing the blades twice a year. A consistent approach is an investment in safety and can help avoid a ripple effect. Johnson compares this regular slicer maintenance to changing the oil in your car. Last year at IBIE, Oliver introduced its Select slicer series that makes blade changes even easier. Rather than handling blades individually, Oliver Select slicers features a cartridge system with an intuitive, easy-loading process.

“For anyone who is put off by changing blades, it’s important to remember how fresh, sharp blades impact the overall use of the machine,” she continued.

Ryan slicers feature guarding, safety interlock switches and brakes on blade motors to ensure safety. Part of that safety feature is keeping the machine clean. Frequent cleaning becomes even more important when slicing stickier loaves of specialty breads such as keto and gluten-free varieties. Daily cleaning and inspection are also necessary for identifying issues before they become a bigger problem, according to Ryan.

“Slice quality diminishes with a dirty blade,” she continued. “A conveyor belt not running centered could create excessive ware, as could a loose screw or fitting. These issues can all be caught and addressed with daily inspections during cleaning.”

Working in collaboration

The right bakery equipment should help bakers level up, whether that’s automating to speed up processes, expanding operations or as a labor-saving tool. This is why equipment suppliers want to help customers find solutions that enable them to move to the next level of business. While this is a process that can take many twists and turns, it often starts simply – with a conversation and some questions.

Some of these questions include identifying production needs and knowing the focus of the bakery to determine how the right equipment can improve the focus on the core product category. Johnson recommends choosing a bakery slicer based on what the baker hopes to accomplish with the slicer. Then, consider the space where the slicer will be used and where the slicing will take place. For instance, is the slicer meant to be out-of-sight in the production area or will the slicing be part of the bakery experience where a consumer can choose a loaf, and have it sliced in front of them?

In Baker’s Insight, a digital resource for the modern baker, Erika Record Baking Equipment, West Caldwell, N.J. offered some additional advice on how bakers and suppliers can work together to create optimal outcomes. This includes identifying the business goals as a way to reduce costly overspending and ensure equipment is the best fit for the production flow.

Streamline the approach

Bread is a staple food and bakery slicers are staple equipment in the bakery. Working closely with a bakery equipment supplier can help determine the right slicer for your bakery, one that’s easy to use and easy to clean and maintain that will also help combat labor shortages.

“We want this to be a collaborative conversation,” Johnson said. “Tell us about your bakery and who you serve in your community. We want to know what’s working and what’s not working. By understanding your evolving challenges and pain points, we can introduce solutions that can help you meet your needs.” 

This article is an excerpt from the November 2023 issue of Supermarket Perimeter. You can read the entire Bakery Slicers feature and more in the digital edition here.