On any normal workday at craft bread wholesaler Companion in St. Louis, the days they don’t hear any bells, “that’s not a good day.”

There’s an important piece of equipment affixed to a center post of this bustling bakery operation where thousands of pieces of bread dough are flowing through the production lines every day with the precision of a polished symphony orchestra.

A worker rings the bell on the floor whenever it’s 5 minutes before or after the next step on the line is completed. It’s important to note that being too early is just as bad as being too late.

Precision is the ultimate goal here. It’s confirmed every morning with a quick 10-minute review meeting with all staff, including management, on the production floor.

The saying at progressive-minded Companion goes that their workers perform duties with the “help of the machine,” not that the machine does the work for them. This is a crucial distinction that matters enormously to company founder Josh Allen and the Companion crew.

Experiencing continual sales growth based on a sharper strategy to pursue more multi-unit wholesale accounts across the country, Companion plans to bring in more bakery machinery; tasks that are done by two or three people now will be performed by a single employee.

“We want to make sure the machines are there to make our work better and easier,” stresses Josh Galliano, innovation leader at Companion.

Amanda Unnerstall, assistant quality assurance and innovation leader, cites other benefits of the “semi-automation” approach to bread baking. A fourth Rheon machine will soon be in use for dividing dough at the wholesale facility.

“As our volume increases and we gain more customers, it is important for us to have fewer injuries and less stress on our workers,” she points out. “We made a decision to go after more wholesale.”

Indeed, the Covid pandemic that nearly sank a lot of business is now subsiding to the point that bakery wholesalers are figuring out who needs what and how to make it all happen.

Josh Allen is clear in identifying clear paths to growth. “We are seeing continued new opportunities to work with new customers. Certainly, there is activity because customers feel the need to differentiate. We have no shortage of things in the pipeline.”

Higher fill rates

For supermarket customers, fulfillment rates are the ticket. Fill rates are defined as dividing the number of orders you are able to fulfill completely by the number of total orders that customers place.

“Our fill rate (96%) is one of the things we talk most about,” Allen explains. “Because we are smaller (that a number of large wholesale bakeries), we are able to fill some of those voids.”

Multi-unit foodservice operations – those with 15 to 150 units – are their bread and butter and a clear point of differentiation.

Allen points out that their business has only now returned to 2019 total revenue levels, “with an entirely different world of costs.” Operational costs are through the roof.

“It’s without precedent in every category,” Allen says. “We have never gone through anything like this at the same time.”

Government support provided an important cushion for the survival of many independent companies. “Now that’s all gone since September 2021.”

Still, Allen remains optimistic moving forward. At least, “tempered” optimism.

“We haven’t had any pushback to any price increases,” he says, “but we are seeing reduced volume of the same customers because of inflationary pressures. That pressure is not going down.

“Those folks who have either emerging brands or legacy brands need to continue to differentiate. They want something special made for them (size, crust characteristics, etc.). That is where our innovation team rises. We are nimble and flexible enough. We deal directly with these customers (no brokers).”

Where automation benefits

Prior to returning to the company in August 2022 in her current position, Unnerstall worked in baking for Companion prior to moving to Kansas City several years ago. Things have changed, but there is still a lot of hand work such as scoring bread dough and loading loaves by hand into the ovens.

“From a 30,000-foot view, we will still touch the dough,” Galliano says, citing the importance of the human factor to maximize quality and performance.

Where automation comes in starts with record-keeping and repetitive tasks. Software analysis. Ensuring the weights are correct on every piece of dough. “That is a lot of work for one person to be writing down all that information,” Galliano points out.

Companion continues to work toward reducing repetitive-stress injuries and risk. One example is they are expecting soon a new bun line from Sottoriva.

“Now we are putting in better placements of machines, so we are more efficient,” Allen explains. “We started with five rack ovens, and the next five we brought in have touch-screen controls. This allows us to make on-the-spot changes in a better way. Now, we have a lot more capability for change – when we need to make a change.”

In essence, the operational managers of Companion are asking simple questions to make better decisions to make better bread.

“We all come in with different perspectives, and that’s our strength,” Unnerstall points out.

New technologies

As a part of her role in overseeing and training new team members, operations manager Suman Shekar has strived to make it a goal to bring new technologies and production processes to the bakery floor. She has found that semi-automation allows for members of the Companion team to have personal interaction with the greater production process, all while making their lives easier and safer. A few of the key technologies that are changing the game at Companion include:

Redzone: As one of the biggest, fastest growing manufacturing technology companies in frontline teamwork and productivity, Redzone has fully opened the eyes of Companion team to the need for updated production processes. Now, Suman is able to track Companion’s efficiency against the standard. Each time dough is made, cut, or put in an oven, Redzone tracks timing and provides ways for the team to improve. In addition, it has served as a communication tool for employee onboarding and professional development. 

One of Companion’s largest accomplishments through Redzone was noticing over-production. Since this realization, Companion has reduced its annual waste by over 1 million pounds in just 2.5 years and is making strides to go to zero waste-to-landfill by 2025.

Points of differentiation

An immense source of pride – and differentiation – is Companion’s continued focus on staying true to its philosophy of producing bread and baked goods with a craft mentality. Since 1993 the bakery has helped James Beard winners, fast-casual start-ups, and established, multi-unit grocers create affordable and accessible bread programs. Allen points out their hands-on operation is “semi-automated.” There are no conveyors moving bread between stages.

At Companion, it’s all about the people.

“We have a tremendous leadership team,” Allen says. “We are super passionate about helping our customers be successful. We believe, very personally, that our job is to tell the customers’ story.”