Detroit’s own Achatz Pies celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2018, and the family business is growing in a multitude of directions: wholesaling to supermarkets, retail, mail order, and third-party vendor Goldbelly.com. Retail sales are brisk (Achatz Pies six retail stores sold 35,000 fresh pies in three days Thanksgiving 2018), and their mail-order business is up 5% since a year ago. And Achatz Pies have been available on Goldbelly.com (a curated online marketplace for regional and artisanal foods) for the past three years.
“There’s so much competition today,” says Wendy Achatz, who founded Achatz Handmade Pie Co. with her husband, Dave, in 1993. “We are always willing to try new things.”
It is for this reason retail bakeries and intermediate wholesale bakeries are scaling up operations to meet the growing demand for unique or super-premium products that cater to a specific niche of the ever-changing consumer marketplace. It is no secret that today’s consumers are hungry for higher-quality products that are convenient and have cleaner ingredient labels.
“It is wonderful that the American public is starting to understand high quality,” Achatz says. “We source ingredients locally wherever we can, and we use unbleached pastry flour. We feel a responsibility to do the right thing.”
Westborn Market, a four-store gourmet grocer in the Detroit metro, features prominent displays of Achatz Pies (6-inch and 8-inch pies for $6.99 and $11.99, respectively) in such flavors as Achatz signature Michigan 4-Berry (blackberry, blueberry, cherry, and raspberry). A similar scene can be found at more than a dozen other supermarkets and grocery stores in the city, and Achatz Pies are carried at prominent local restaurants, as well.
“The gourmet markets in Detroit stand out,” says David Yono, director of operations. “These are where we got our foothold.”
Inside the 20,000-square-foot Achatz Pies bakehouse in Chesterfield, Michigan, where they make thousands of pies in small batches each week, the production cycle begins in the dough room, where they pre-process different sizes of pie shells. The doughs are rested for several hours. An automated depositor drops fruit filling into each pie as product moves along the conveyor belt while workers carefully place a top crust onto the double-crust pies being made this particular day. Achatz fruit pies are made with double crusts or crumb crusts, all of which are vegan.
“What is great about doing so many pies at once is the consistent quality control,” says Zack Achatz, who is Dave’s and Wendy’s son and helps manage the bakehouse and the overall business.
The art of semi-automation
In similar fashion, the owners of wholesaler Rubicon Bakers credit improved efficiency and transparency to their new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system that touches every aspect of business: ingredient ordering, billing, inventory, tracking, and more. Every ingredient package is assigned an internal lot number and barcode to track it through the warehouse. Rubicon receives weekly truckload shipments of whole ingredients.
“It allows us to know in much more real time where we stand financially at any moment,” says Leslie Crary, who bought the business in 2009 with her husband, Andrew Stoloff.
Overall, the wholesale production facility will go through about 200 (140-quart) bowls per day for its cupcakes and cakes. During holidays, the bakery runs three shifts a day. One customized production line — including Unifiller and FoodTools equipment — enables workers to pipe icing hearts and lines by hand while the machinery handles the filling and topping process. This is the type of semi-automation that Rubicon Bakers prides itself on, by integrating automation to improve efficiency and human touch points to offer creative customization.
“We have automated the easy stuff and kept the harder decoration work for the hand work,” Stoloff says. “We were able to speed production up by automating this portion (filling and topping), and now we have four people at the end of the line decorating by hand.”
Each ingredient is measured and portioned in bags to ensure recipes are followed to exacting standards. Everything gets a lot code and goes through X-ray and metal detection. Looking back at when the owners bought the wholesale bakery, there were two mixers, two ovens, and not a single conveyor belt. Now there are eight Baxter rotating rack ovens, Hinds-Bock cake depositing machines, Unifiller Cake-O-Matic cake icing and decorating machines, Mettler Toledo weigh scales and metal detectors. On order is a new Italian 400-liter mixer that will weigh out oil and water automatically for each recipe.
All products are baked under one roof and made from scratch. Every single treat is finished by hand.
“When we started, every cupcake was scooped and decorated by hand,” Stoloff says. “We have streamlined and automated to a point that we are still a bakery and not a factory. We have nine people on the cupcake line who are filling and icing, decorating and putting them in the box. There is a human touch at every point in the production line.”