Companion Bakery plays to the artisan category's strengths: flavor.

This is Part 2 of our special report on the rise of artisan bread and the bakeries that manufacture it.

Click here for Part 1.

Maryland Heights, Missouri-based Companion Bakery got its start in 1993. In 2015, the company moved into a $5 million, 41,000-square-foot facility modeled on a manufactory that baker Lionel Poilane created in suburban Paris in 1983.

Like others in the artisan bakery world, Companion, located in the St. Louis suburbs, has embraced growth. The company typically produces about 300 fresh-market products alone per day. Daily volume turnout is around 30,000 pounds of fresh, frozen and par-baked. Companion ships fresh within the St. Louis metro area, and frozen to customers as far away as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Montana and Wyoming.

And it’s not just Companion that has spread its wings in recent years, says Josh Allen, the company’s founder and president. Growth is strong throughout the artisan bread industry, driven by several factors. For one, millennials and other shoppers are taking more of their business to smaller-footprint stores, Allen says. “There are a higher percentage of perishables in those stores, and bread plays a bigger role.” 

Josh Allen

Also, he says, more consumers are learning about the health benefits of whole grains, fermentation and other things artisan excels in. Still, it all comes back to flavor, Allen says — which, for artisan bakers like Companion, plays to the category’s strengths. “In the end, flavor is everything. The experience of eating it is the driver. It doesn’t matter how healthy it is if it’s not enjoyable.”

There are, however, challenges artisan bread bakers face as they seek to gain a greater share of the retail pie, Allen says. He’s unsure, for instance, how bread — particularly fresh, crusty artisan bread that’s best experienced in person — will translate to the online retail world. “I don’t know if that’s part of your mentality if you’re shopping online.” 

In addition, expanding beyond the traditional artisan sweet spot of natural foods and other smaller-footprint specialty grocers isn’t easy, given the limitations faced by traditional retailers, who are getting squeezed by labor and other issues as they face stiff competition from a variety of other channels, Allen says. 

What works for one part of the store, may not work for another. Stocking artisan bread, he says, isn’t the same as stocking center-store bread that can be put on the shelf and forgotten for a few days. “Artisan takes more energy, and it’s difficult for them to do that right now.”

There’s also, of course, the little matter of doing business in an era when millions of consumers are watching their carb intake. Allen cites a recent study which found that just 15% of the total calories Americans consume comes from grains. 

Companion's Josh Allen says private label is the clearest path forward for artisan merchandising. 
“That’s down dramatically,” he says. But Allen has found that if people cut back on carbs, they’re not making their cuts at the high end of the carb chain. “If they do, they trade up to better quality, and that’s a saving grace for our industry.”

When it comes to merchandising, Allen believes private label, not branding, is the clearest path forward — at least for Companion. “La Brea has obviously done a fantastic job with branding, and we commend them.  There’s more value and equity in brands, but it’s expensive. I’m not sure we’re in a position to do that.” Private label, on the other hand, is an appealing choice for Companion and its retail partners, particularly smaller-footprint ones. 

“More stores want to take ownership and do more private label. That’s where we see growth.”

Allen says Companion has been able to grow while still bringing what he calls “intention” to the baking process, thereby maintaining artisan standards. You can’t produce 30,000 pounds of baked goods a day if you mix by hand or bake in a wood-fired oven, he says. But having trained bakers on the floor monitoring every step of the process helps guarantee standards are met. 

The right equipment doesn’t hurt, either, Allen says. Companion uses San Cassiano mixers, MIWE roll-in e+ ovens and proof boxes, makeup equipment from Rheon and Bloemhof and a Contemar indoor flour silo.