Maintaining the quality standards your customers have come to expect, while at the same time growing your company — it’s a balancing act many if not most businesses have to deal with at some point, and it requires skill, patience and hard work to pull it off.
Josh Allen, award-winning baker and owner of Maryland Heights, Missouri-based Companion Bakery, which supplies grocery and foodservice clients as well as operating its own on-site retail bakery, knows his company has to grow if it wants to thrive. His quest is to grow it wisely, to bring what he calls “intention” to a process that, at his company, yields 30,000 pounds of fresh, frozen and par-baked product daily.
“I’ve always defined artisan bread as bread made with intention, recognizing that probably as soon as we’ve turned on a mechanical mixer we’ve walked away from ‘artisan’ in the true sense of the word,” Allen says.
Turning out 30,000 pounds a day, Companion, which was founded in 1993, can’t shape and mix its doughs by hand or bake them in a wood-fired oven, as some of Allen’s fellow master bakers still do. Some tasks at the company are still done manually, but that’s due more to economics than to a desire to be artisanal, Allen says. If he could, he’d automate more processes and increase his volumes. The business owner in him knows it’s a necessity.
“I’m a huge believer that you either grow or you die,” he says. “We’re certainly interested in growth and would love to grow out of this facility. We have a very competitive group of people that work with us, for us, who are interested in that growth.”
Change is the rule, he says. When your business reaches a certain level that you’re happy with, you get to enjoy it for about a month and a half, on average, before you have to start asking the “what’s next?” question. So how do you grow while still maintaining “intention”?
“Thinking about the process at every step,” for starters, Allen says. Using only the best equipment also helps. On the Companion floor are San Cassiano mixers, MIWE roll-in e+ ovens and proof boxes, makeup equipment from Rheon and Bloemhof and a Contemar indoor flour silo. Companion uses a multi-deck instead of a tunnel oven to handle the big variety of products the company makes, and it ages its dough two or three days in the silo; “green” flour doesn’t handle hydration as well as flour that’s been aged, Allen says. In addition, because the silo is made of fabric, it allows product to breathe.
Companion measures success by “the three A’s”, Allen says: accessibility, affordability and approachability. Accessibility means distributing through as many channels as possible. Affordability is understanding the local market and selling product at a price that “makes sense.” And approachability is baking breads that work well as one of many components in a meal — a fairly simple sourdough or whole grain, for instance, rather than something complicated with lots of bells and whistles.
“We’re selling a lot in the middle of the country. It’s not L.A. or San Francisco or New York. Bread is just bread, and that’s OK,” Allen says.
Companion’s growth has extended its geographical reach to Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Montana, Wyoming and other far-flung locales. The West, Southwest and Northeast are the only regions left largely untapped. But despite the company’s production and reach, Allen still considers Companion to be a small-batch operation, with the flexibility and nimbleness larger wholesale bakers don’t have. For instance, Companion typically turns out 300 different fresh-market products alone per day, and it’s nimble enough to do private-label programs for its grocery customers.
“We embrace that nimbleness and try our best to leverage it to be successful. I’ll let you know in a few years whether it’s successful.”
That mentality extends also to Companion’s grocery customer mix. The company’s sweet spot is stores with 5 to 75 units — some too small to bake their own breads in-house, others who “can’t get the attention” of other suppliers, Allen says. Focusing on customers that size allows Companion to cultivate relationships they may not be able to have with bigger clients, Allen says. It’s those relationships, like the ones the company has with St. Louis-based chains Dierbergs, Schnucks and Straub’s, that can help guarantee business success.
It’s not just small and medium sized chains that are a good fit for Companion, which Allen considers to be in the “middle space” between small and big bakers that supply instore grocery. Natural-food and other smaller footprint stores are also a good target market. “For them, it’s all about the fresh perimeter,” Allen says. “We sell more bread in a store like that than we do in a major grocery store. Artisan bread is more a part of the basket mix in that environment.”
Fortunately, he says, the stores that favor artisan bakers like Companion also happen to be thriving, thanks to the increasingly rapid evolution of the retail grocery world. “Grocery is changing so dramatically. I can’t even fathom being a grocer, because they’re getting hit from all sides.” The quality of food at QuikTrip, for instance, has increased dramatically, Allen points out. At the same time, drugstores like Walgreen’s are selling huge amounts of milk and eggs. And many big chains are “getting hammered” by 20,000-square-foot natural food stores and 10,000 square foot Trader Joe’s, Allen says, because younger shoppers prefer a smaller, more “curated” experience.
“The hope is that that curated mix can include us and other artisan bakers, that what we do is unique enough, we can play a role. The footprint of the store is small enough, the scale doesn’t work for them (to produce baked goods instore). The question is, how far can we take this and still do things with intention. I believe that good quality bread is still in demand and I believe the dietary changes in the country have been beneficial to us. When people choose a carb now they choose a ‘better’ carb — sourdough that’s good for digestion, or whole-grain bread.”
Take-and-bake takes off
One trend in grocery that’s starting to affect instore bakery, Allen says, is the adoption of a “component” model of meal preparation by people who may not have time to cook a whole meal from scratch, but who at least want to do some of the preparation themselves. In instore deli, it’s the shopper who buys a rotisserie chicken but makes a side or two at home to go with it. In instore bakery, it may be a twin bag baguette that you bake off at home for dinner.
“It goes with the semi-homemade mentality you’re seeing throughout grocery,” he says. “Bread is moving more and more in that direction.” With applications like that in mind, Companion will soon install machinery that can create twin-bag and other take-and-bake packaging.
About 40 percent of Companion’s business is grocery, 60 percent foodservice. The top two sellers at grocery, by a clear margin, are French baguettes and pretzels, Allen says. They are followed by hearth and sandwich breads. In the frozen category, the mix is closer to 70/30 in favor of grocery. Whether a store buys frozen or par-baked depends on the store, its size and its mentality, Allen says. “If they want to sell baguettes, maybe as a loss leader, for 99 cents or $1.49, they’re going to buy a 50-cent frozen, not a $1.50 par-bake.”
About half of the grocery instore product Companion ships is fresh, half frozen, Allen says. Geography determines whether product is shipped fresh or frozen: everything that travels an hour or more outside the St. Louis metro area is frozen. And since St. Louis is a mature market, the main opportunity for growth in instore, Allen says, is in frozen. Companion partners on frozen distribution with US Foods, PFG Performance Food Group and Kuna Foodservice.
Companion’s $5 million, 41,000-square-foot, two-year-old facility is modeled on a manufactory that baker Lionel Poilane created in suburban Paris in 1983. The open floor plan of Companion is designed so that wherever workers are, they can not only see the outdoors but see grass. A glass wall is all that separates bakery from retail café — something that not only customers, but also workers like, Allen says. Employees love to see people enjoying the things they make, he says. “The open kitchen concept works both ways.”
Two years after the move, Allen is happy with his decision to move, especially when he thinks about Companion’s former home, of which he notes drily, “Other than having one bathroom and no windows, it was a great place to work.”