St. Louis is known as the Gateway to the West, but specific to the retail/wholesale baking universe, this city can now be known as the gateway to innovation.
That is because artisan bread baker Companion recently opened its shiny new headquarters in Maryland Heights, Missouri, where a new $5 million facility houses the company’s impressive baking operations, a new cafe, a baking school and private event space. The company first announced it would be moving from its St. Louis headquarters into the new 41,000-square-foot facility in Maryland Heights last year.
Founded in 1993 with a vision to create wholesome European bread with simple ingredients, Companion has expanded into a multi-dimensional baking company with a growing wholesale grocery business, delivering bread locally, regionally, and as far as Montana and Florida. The company’s sales expected to reach $10 million in 2015.
“We are excited about this next chapter for Companion,” says Josh Allen, founder and owner of 23-year-old company. “We were bursting at the seams where we were. We reached a maturation point where our newest oven was 15 or 16 years old.”
Bakery equipment manufacturer MIWE played an instrumental role in the new facility, says Allen, adding “they are a big part of this expansion.” The new facility features two MIWE cyclothermic deck ovens, four MIWE roll-in e+ rack ovens and a MIWE robotic loading system. “This has forced our hand upstream to be dramatically more efficient,” he says. “That’s been our primary focus here.”
Until recently, Companion had only dabbled in baking and distributing frozen par-baked breads and rolls on a regional basis. “It’s been the national grocer piece that changed that,” Allen says, adding they do business now with a national and regional grocery chain. “That whole industry is fascinating. We have formed some great relationships. Now we are big enough to take care of their needs. We are doing par-baked breads, rolls, sandwich rolls and limited pastries. We are not in the Southwest or Northeast, but we are pretty much everywhere else.”
Other modern equipment includes a MIWE low-velocity proof box (where they maintain 75° F with 70-75 percent humidity environment), two Rheon makeup lines for hoagies, torpedo rolls, baguettes and sandwich breads, and a Koenig line for 1-ounce to 4-ounce rounds. They also invested in a blast freezer running at 30° below zero and a holding freezer (5° F) with 190 pallet position capacity. Using a blast freezer ensures that product stays frozen throughout distribution to grocery customers.
They continue to use spiral mixers, but added a Genesi orbital mixer from San Cassiano, “which allows us to mix to a certain resistance and respond to that,” Allen says. Instead of stopping when a timer goes off, mixers mix until they reach desired dough strength. “It’s been efficient,” Companion’s owner adds.
In addition, Companion installed an indoor silo from Contemar. This system utilizes both standardized and standard-sized components that are specifically designed for bulk flour.
Follow the Business
Companion is doing what many in the bakery business aspire to do, respond to an ever-changing end market and competitive environment.
“St. Louis is a wonderful city, but it is not growing,” Allen says of his home city. “For every new restaurant opening, another is closing. We began to work with aggressively growing business with natural foods stores.”
This change in business focus forced some tough decisions. Companion’s previous facility was not set up to handle frozen par-baked bread production. It housed one freezer with 20-pallet capacity, and they used Thermo King trailers to expand freezer space, as needed.
So two years ago, Allen decided it was time to move. A long and arduous process followed over the next 18 months, as they planned and thought outside the box, analyzing what type of equipment they needed and imagining how the production facility should be laid out.
Taking a page from the most celebrated bread bakery in Paris, France, Allen pondered the possibility of creating a work environment similar to what Poilâne did in 1983 when acclaimed baker Lionel Poilâne built a “manufactory” for bread production in the Paris suburb of Bièvres. Poilâne sought to create an atmosphere that married modern production with traditional techniques. Bakers in the manufactory could see out banks of windows as they worked alone, and in harmony with other bakers. It made them happy.
Allen set out to follow similar guidelines in constructing the new bakehouse with the most modern equipment, an efficient design flow, plenty of open space and even windows to the public. “The new facility will not only be a terrific place for our staff to work but also one that provides us the means to truly respect our craft,” Allen adds. “If we can build a place our companions are proud and excited to come to work at, imagine how much better our breads and our company can be? Bread responds to the temperament of the baker — and happy bakers do make better bread.”
Window to the World
In one unique design feature, customers in the retail cafe can relax and enjoy fresh bread and coffee while watching Companion’s bakers handle their daily tasks through the large open windows. The 70-seat, 2,500-square-foot cafe serves breakfast and lunch daily.
A sign on one window between the café and the production facility provides these details: “Our ovens use conductive (bottom-up) heat which bakes the breads with our signature chewy crusts and open interior cell structure. Steam is injected into the oven which condenses on the surface of the bread to allow for expansion of the dough piece during its oven spring (final step of fermentation). We bake directly on a stone hearth at nearly 500 degrees to create a thicker crust and soft, moist crumb. The robotic loading system assists us in placing the loaves inside the oven and removing them after baking. Our bakers score each bread by hand and control steam, temperature and duration of bake.”
For visitors, it is akin to touring a modern baking museum (only this one really works).
“Pretty much the whole process is visible from our cafe. We really wanted to invite people into our process,” Allen says, adding the design of the baking facility is two-fold. “We also know there is a new generation of bakers coming in to our industry, and we want to stay relevant. These small one-person shops popping up across the country can achieve a level of creativity and ingenuity that we want to keep pace with. We want to be part of the conversation still, and now we have a physical facility to do that.”
A Teaching Environment
Another purpose is to create a space that incorporates a teaching environment. The new baking school is set to open in late April, and chef Cassy Vires has been hired to head up the school, which features a combination of baking and cooking classes. “Community is a big piece of what we are,” Allen says. Classes will be scheduled five days/nights a week with curriculum for the serious home baker, professionals, children and families.
“Cassy brings an incredible level of professionalism along with an easy, approachable demeanor — exactly the kind of culinary talent we wanted to find to lead our teaching kitchen,” Allen says. “She joins a team that already includes nationally acclaimed chef Josh Galliano, and culinary instructors Price Barrett and George Guthier.”
The 16-person classroom features a small MIWE oven and a Globe mixer, work stations and a blackboard. Allen says he is confident people will want to come here to learn. “And they can leave here with up to a dozen baguettes per person or during the holidays they can leave with dozens of cookies. This will be a real school.”
Looking to the Future
Companion employs a staff of about 75, but by the end of the year, Allen expects the number to grow to nearly 100.
Looking ahead, Companion’s owner says they built the new facility with growth in mind. “We could easily double our capacity with more equipment in the same space. Today, fresh is still 70 percent of our business. We hope in a couple of years that percentage will be flipped.”