Knowing that a one-size-fits-all approach would not work in a culinary world that values ingenuity and customization, bakery owner Josh Allen set out to help his clients build their bread programs from the ground up, with a belief that the collaborative process is as important as the loaf itself. 

His company, Companion, based in St. Louis, Mo., is a trusted partner for James Beard Award winners such as Gerard Craft and Kevin Nashan, fast-casual start-ups, and established, multi-unit grocers, creating affordable and accessible bread programs for a variety of needs.

Ongoing projects include technical aspects of the bread itself, including crust, crumb, and flavor development – undergoing multiple rounds of experimentation and testing until the bread is exactly right; distribution logistics; leveraging Companion’s nimble supply chain to support small growers and producers while encouraging sustainability; pushing culinary limits; and fostering friendships among its dedicated clients. Key considerations are finding solutions to clients’ pain points and problems, with the ultimate goal of elevating their offerings and providing a superior bread product for their customers

Standout results have ranged from the perfect po’boy loaf for Peacemaker Café in Tulsa and St. Louis, sandwich breads and pizza dough for all 29 locations of Pickleman’s Deli throughout five states, a crisp pretzel bun for Grace Meat + Three in St. Louis, and so many more.

“Our customers are much more accepting of change right now,” Allen explains. “We have to leverage that opportunity. We are uniquely positioned to do these types of things – certainly by design. Given our scale, we are in position to stop or start a line to handle customers with a couple units to one hundred units. We are able to make something custom. We really get a kick out of it.”

Companion’s standard biz is down dramatically year over year, he adds, yet where they have kept their head above water involves the customers who are “super challenged” by labor or capacity. Companion develops special products for them, satisfying their need to differentiate their concept.

“Our energies now are to get the word out. There is somebody out there that can do these things for you,” Allen says “We have a facility to do the capacity, and the knowledge to do this type of service. A lot of folks can do some of that, but not all of that.”

A different approach

Having the tools to embrace change certainly helps Companion’s cause. Allen explains the “complexity of oven to customer is far greater than that of mixer to oven,” and they have embraced the challenge with zeal and determination. They solve problems working through the network to alleviate supply chain shortages and other issues that add up to the challenges aspects after they make the bread. This challenge continues to keep Companion’s staff motivated and excited about producing and delivering a custom curated product.

“A lot of what we are doing involves very specific characteristics for customer: crumb, shelf life, pack size and all the logistics associated with that,” Allen points out. “Most manufacturers are not in the business of listening. We take a totally different tact. We make what they’re looking for.”

Companion is already established for quick changeovers, putting their operations in good position and having the right equipment to play in that space.

Customers include Imo’s Pizza, a St. Louis-based concept of 102 stores. They have been making their own bread for 50 years. But with so many people homebound during the COVID-19 pandemic, the pizza company could not keep up with demand. So, they reached out to Companion for assistance to produce their garlic bread. And the caveat was it needed to have 7-day shelf life, at a specific capacity. And they needed a solution as fast as possible.

“This business has been lifeline for us during this pandemic,” Allen says. “Now Imo’s believes they have a partner who can grow with them. That business never would have presented itself if pandemic had not occurred. How do you make this Italian bread (made with a no-time dough) and learn how to make it on a stress-free line?”

It took a little time, but Companion delivered as promised, creating a new opportunity of business.

They have learned – from experiences with a range of customers – that customers (right now) are not buying bread with 1-day shelf life. They need seven days. Another customer, a Midwest grocer, needed help because the pandemic has accelerated this challenge. Companion solved the problem.

“This is another opportunity that we probably would not have been in line to do. It is business that is long term that we will be able to absorb. This business has taught us about clean label shelf life, and expanded our skill set.”

Allen credits AB Mauri as a “tremendous resource for us, as we transition to product that has a little longer shelf life. Clean label is important to Imo’s future. Our ability to do that with AB Mauri has been hugely important.”

Priorities and solutions

Nicole Rees, product director for AB Mauri North America, explains that since March 2020, a vast majority of meals have been consumed at home, changing food preparation drastically. This has led to a resurgence of bakery sales, as consumers returned to simple breakfast and lunches featuring bread products. Many shoppers are trying to make fewer trips to grocery and club stores, which means stale-free and mold-free shelf life of baked goods are becoming even more important factors than usual.

“Although consumers have returned to bakery products at a higher rate, they are still seeking products that fit their nutrition profiles, such as Keto, low carb, high fiber or even complete protein,” Rees shares. “AB Mauri currently supplies a full line of products that meet those requirements, as well as enzymatic anti-staling solutions for extending mold-free shelf life. Additionally, we are continuing to work toward improving other options to meet label-friendly demand as well as efficient cost-in-use needs.”

In the bakery sector, plant-based nutrition continues to be key. Specialized fibers and proteins that are minimally processed are central to new product development. As consumer expectations around clean label have not changed, this creates a new challenge as processing and sensory characteristics cannot change. This is where next generation enzyme solutions come in.

With the ongoing push toward cleaner label ingredients, enzymes have really become indispensable within industrial bakeries. Enzymes greatly increase stale-free shelf life and help bakers manage dough consistency, volume, crust color and other important attributes.

Also, lecithin has become an important ingredient in the last few years as synthetic emulsifiers have lost popularity. Ascorbic acid, for example, has long been an important tool for strengthening dough, but since potassium bromate/iodate and azodicarbonamide (ADA) are now seldomly used, ascorbic acid has become very critical for dough conditioning. Both ascorbic acid and lecithin have true synergistic relationships with enzymes.

Finally, of course, yeast is a key functional ingredient that should not be forgotten. “Since many ingredients are no longer acceptable, we may be able to utilize yeast to replace some of these functionalities in the future,” Rees says. “Inactive dry yeast, as one example, is already used as an effective dough relaxing agent.”

Safety concerns

Corbion spokesperson Kathy Sargent, director of global market strategy, explains that safety concerns around the coronavirus pandemic continue to have a significant influence on bakery shoppers and their purchasing decisions. Due to economic challenge, many shoppers are looking for more value in the items and baked goods they purchase.

Additionally, logistical concerns around ecommerce continues to play a role in how consumers shop – some consider shopping for groceries online to be the more convenient and safer option, while others may struggle with technology related issues and general frustration of online grocery shopping.

“At Corbion, we remain focused on understanding our customers and their needs to help ensure they have the right solutions to keep their business up and running,” Sargent says. “As shopping habits continue to evolve, we are here to help provide consistent support to our customers.”

Bakeries are currently placing a high priority on freshness and extended shelf life, which helps them stay relevant to consumers who are looking to keep their pantries stocked for longer periods of time – ultimately reducing the number of trips to the grocery store each month.

“Our Ultra Fresh portfolio offers a comprehensive freshness solution, which helps ensure finished products stay fresher, longer,” Sargent says.

Consumers continue to focus on health, and informed, health-conscious consumers are notably spending more time reading labels and searching for healthy solutions that won’t compromise their desired eating experience. Corbion’s Verdad and Pristine blends help bakers tackle this growing trend by providing relevant clean label solutions that won’t sacrifice taste or quality.

Positioning center store practices to more of an artisan bakery can support growth for bakeries. By incorporating messaging around products being “hand crafted and authentic” but will last can help instill confidence in consumers, Sargent explains. “They can feel good about what they are purchasing and consuming.”