In December of 2022, Companion Baking, a St. Louis-based distributor of breads and pastries that services restaurants and retail chains across the Midwest in addition to running a café, announced that it would be providing bread for all Chicken-N-Pickle (CNP) locations.

Started in Kansas City, Missouri, CNP is an indoor/outdoor entertainment complex that includes a casual, chef-driven restaurant and sports bar that boasts pickleball courts, a variety of yard games and enough space for visitors to relax. Think of it as the backyard cookout version of Dave and Buster’s.

Companion’s bread is served in more than hundreds of restaurants, grocery stores and businesses around the country, and now offers its famous Potato Buns and Rolls across multiple states at Chicken-N-Pickle locations.

The enterprising leader of Companion Baking is Josh Allen, a St. Louis native who started his wholesale baking business in 1993 at the age of 24. Following his schooling in California, Allen gained valuable experience in the baking world in the Bay Area working in several restaurants and as a bread baker at Whole Foods. From there, he decided to return to his hometown and create his own baking legacy.

Companion does this by focusing on the Four C’s – its Companions, Customers, Community and Company. Working with customers is essential to the bakery’s success, scaling and tailoring products exactly to what each business needs. It’s a hands-on approach that helped the Companion brand grow from local to regional, and eventually, national.

“The majority of our focus has been on really developing relationships with brands we respect, and that are emerging, growing and looking for partnerships with all kinds of vendors,” Allen says. “The custom curated programs or special products, depending on what they’re looking for, is a big piece of what we’re doing. We really enjoy that aspect of it. What really continues to rise to the top for me and where our passion is helping our customers tell their story.”

Take its partnership with Chicken-N-Pickle, for example. When Companion started collaborating with the multi-unit (and growing) business, they worked hand-in-hand with their foodservice distributer to modify a potato bun tailor-made to hold up to the wait times and rigors of delivery food services, an important element for the business.

The Bun Pub Potato Sliced 96CT is the main bun, created primarily for chicken sandwiches. It is a 4-inch potato bun, comes 12 8-packs to a case, and is tender with the perfect hint of potato flavor. The Roll Potato Pullapart Sliced 192CT comes 16 12-packs to a case and is a tender potato roll measuring 2.75-3-inch in diameter, perfect for a slider or kids burger.

“The potato bun is formulated to deal with the fact that you’re putting fried chicken on it, so sort of the percentage of fat changes in the bun when you’re bringing a lot of fat into the sandwich itself,” Allen says. “And the portability of it, so it needs to be able to travel throughout the facility and sit outside. They do a lot of food to-go, even internally, because folks get food that they take to the court. So, it has to live in a lot of different ways. The bun has really worked well for that.”

Since partnering, Companion Baking has scaled with Chicken-N-Pickle as it expands its nationwide presence, opening additional concepts across the US in Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and St. Louis, along with more openings in Colorado, Nevada and Indiana in the works.

The importance of portability

Companion_ChickennPickleSandwich.jpgSource: Aaron Segall

According to Statista, the revenue in the Online Food Delivery market in the United States is projected to reach $353.30 billion in 2024. This is expected to show an annual growth rate of 10.05 percent, resulting in a projected market volume of $570.40 billion by 2029.

The pandemic trend that has stuck around is the importance of food delivery to many businesses. With that comes concerns about maintaining the quality of the food throughout the process, from creation to delivery. Companion works with its partners in the foodservice industry to ensure they maintain quality in their bread products.

“If we look at foodservice, it’s really the portability that’s changed,” Allen says. “The volume of food that’s being sold to-go just continues to grow. That really wasn’t the case before. Not that people didn’t want to-go food or that there weren’t drive-thrus before the pandemic, but it’s really changed.”

One of Companion’s customers in recent years was a burger concept that needed a new bun that would travel. It was a great smash burger for sit-down customers, but it’s now an average of 45 minutes from the time the burger is ordered, if it’s for delivery. The order is received, the burger is prepped, it comes off the grill, sits in a hot box, gets picked up, is driven to the location and finally arrives at the customer’s door.

The restaurant required a bun that will survive being wrapped in aluminum foil for 45 minutes. Will it disintegrate? Will it fall apart? Is it still the quality that they want? These are the questions Companion worked with its partner to answer in testing. In starting that relationship, they made a burger with the new bun, sat for that time frame and then ate it.

“Atmosphere, service, cleanliness. All the things that people were focused on to create differentiation of their brand inside of four walls, now has to be focused inside that bag,” Allen says. “All of that food has to be uniquely better. The game has changed, and your walls have expanded all the way to the consumer’s home.”

Scaling up to meet customer needs

Companion_ScalingUp.jpgSource: Companion Baking

Companion works with a unique variety of customers, including a home subscription service, a deli chain in central Missouri and an Italian restaurant concept in Illinois. This means a varying degree of product creation and production. Right now, it’s focused on smaller, emerging businesses with 15-150 units. It’s big enough to service those needs while small enough to want to be able to service those needs.

“If you’re making one run of product that goes 24-36 hours, you’re not going to stop that line to make somebody something special very often, unless they need an awful lot of product,” Allen says. “But for us, our runs are 30 minutes long, so we spend our day making a lot of different things for a lot of different people. We’ve built our business around that, and that’s really where we can compete, in that niche opportunity.”

With the challenge of finding skilled labor always present, Companion is constantly looking for solutions. Mechanization has been key to the business’s success as it scales up.

Companion Baking’s palletizing robot – affectionately called Bruce Banner (aka The Incredible Hulk) by the staff – enables the bakery the ability to achieve a higher level of production efficiency and equipment sophistication.

Shipping to 400-plus restaurants, grocery stores and partners is no small feat. The green Companion robot assists with palletizing and heavy lifting, working around the clock so that labor can be dispersed to other areas of the bakery floor.

Companion’s projects have allowed them to carve out a unique niche as a mid-sized bread distributor with vast customization capabilities. Through semi-automation and tools such as Redzone, the baking company is able to produce around 150 different SKUs, five days a week, in an organized and efficient manner – all in a floor space of 42,000 square feet.

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. Since this realization, Companion has reduced its annual waste by well over one million pounds in just a few years and is making strides to go to zero waste-to-landfill by 2025.

Not only does equipment and technology play a part in easing labor concerns, but they also help in consistency.

“When we’re dealing with multi-unit operators, if they’re selling an eight-ounce hamburger and the bun’s supposed to be four inches, the bun should really be four inches,” Allen says. “I think it used to be, 20 or 25 years ago, we could say, ‘We’re an artisan bakery so all of our buns aren’t the same. We bake them all by hand and so one might be three and half and one might be four and half. You’ll just sort of have to live with that.’ That’s not the case anymore. When we start to grow and develop these relationships, quality is about flavor and texture, but it’s also about consistently giving them a product that makes sense within an acceptable range. We need some equipment to help us do that.”