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On The Rise

Gonnella Baking Company’s new kosher certification and product line expansions are leading the contract manufacturer toward increased growth and success.

This article originally ran in the July/August 2012 issue of Food Manufacturing.

Gonnella Baking Company’s new kosher certification and product line expansions are leading the contract manufacturer toward increased growth and success.

Mixed dough is conveyed toward the dough rounder for forming.

Founded in 1886 by an Italian immigrant, Gonnella Baking Company can trace its roots back to a humble beginning on DeKoven Street in what is now Chicago’s famed Loop neighborhood.

The company began as a one-man shop that Alessandro Gonnella operated on his own. After he returned from a trip to Italy with a new bride, also bakery-trained, the company doubled in size.  After a couple of moves, first to the Sangamon Street in Chicago and later to Eerie Street in 1915, the bakery began expanding into the large contract baker it is today. As soldiers returned from Europe after World War II, many suddenly demanded the high-quality bread to which they had grown accustomed. This new demand meant big growth for Gonnella.

Still family-owned, Gonnella Baking Company now employs the family’s fourth generation. The company provides all major Chicago grocery chains with daily fresh bread deliveries, but the company’s real bread and butter is its contract baking business.

After purchasing a frozen pizza facility from H. J. Heinz Company in 1983, Gonnella expanded its product line beyond baked bread. In addition to its fresh bakery lines, the company provides what many grocers call “proof and bake” frozen dough to supplement in-house grocery store bakeries. Now, processing frozen product for these and other applications takes up a full 70 percent of Gonnella’s business.

The company currently employs 520 people, about 30 of whom are members of the original family. The company’s Chicago Avenue and Aurora, Ill., facilities are responsible for the company’s baked product lines, and the Schaumburg, Ill., facility and another location in Hazel Township, Penn., produce frozen product for Gonnella’s contract manufacturing customers.

The source of innovation

Thomas Marcucci, Gonnella’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing, says that the company’s new product innovation “starts at the buying desk.” This customer-driven approach means that when customers (or potential customers) approach Gonnella with a problem or request the company responds by analyzing its processes for a potential solution.

This approach is what led the company toward its British Retail Consortium (BRC) certification as well as various food safety protocol implemented across Gonnella Baking Company facilities. Marcucci sees these endeavors as part of an effort of continuous improvement necessary to protecting his clients’ brands and “responding to the demands of the national marketplace.”

It was, in fact, a customer inquiry that led Gonnella to bring its production processes in line with kosher standards at its Aurora facility.

Kosher means quality

Gonnella Baking Company’s Aurora baking facility boasts over 60,000 square feet of production, wrapping and shipping space, and as of the fall of 2011, it also boasts kosher certification.

When approached by one of its contract manufacturing clients about kosher certification, Gonnella jumped at the chance to expand its business into this growing market. Daniel Herzog, the company’s Vice President of Corporate Compliance and Food Safety, says that kosher certification was a natural fit for Gonnella.

“[Kosher food production] is about quality; it’s about cleanliness. But more importantly for us, it is an important part of religious observance. We take that very seriously,” he says.

Molded dough is placed in pans in which it will rise before being sent to the tunnel oven.

For Gonnella, kosher certification affects not only the kosher products it produces but also every aspect of the production facility itself. Certain non-kosher ingredients are no longer allowed into the facility, and every ingredient purchased must be approved by a rabbinical board that oversees international kosher certifications.

Particular pans are designated for use in the kosher process, and all must be washed and stored according to kosher specifications.

The Gonnella team hopes that this certification will open new doors for their contract manufacturing business. “Now that we’ve gone through this process, we show other potential clients that we know how this is done, that we’re doing it,” says Marcucci.

A bun in the oven

Gonnella’s baking process in its Aurora facility is similar for all its baked products.

The process begins in the scaling area, where dry ingredients — including flour and minor ingredients — are measured according to client-set recipe specifications before being blown through a dry hopper.

The dry ingredients are then added to a mixer along with the recipe’s wet ingredients. Refrigerated jackets help to maintain dough temperature as dough is pumped onto a belt and conveyed to a dough rounder, which portions the dough into the appropriate size for the process application underway.

An intermediate proofing step allows the dough to relax before it is sent to the molder, which shapes the dough before baking.

The molded pieces of dough are put on pans, which are allowed to accumulate before being sent into a tray proofer for about an hour. The proofer has 120 shelves and provides a warm, moist environment in which the dough can rise.

After completing a proofing cycle, the pans of risen dough are sent to a water cutter, which makes rapid, precise cuts and is used to cut slices into buns or patterns into bread.

Pans are again accumulated and conveyed into a tunnel oven, which holds approximately 1,200 trays of buns at a time.

After completing the baking process, the trays are conveyed to a depanner, which uses suction to lift the bread from the pans. After the pans and bread are separated, the pans are “blown out” — a process used to remove any bread remnants from the pans — and sent to be cleaned and sanitized.

Wrapped buns pass along a conveyor in the packaging area of Gonnella Baking Company's Aurora Ill., facility.

The newly freed bread is conveyed to a spiral chiller, which lowers the temperature of the product and stops the internal baking process. Gonnella’s Quality Assurance team checks the sizes of all finished rolls to ensure that any misshapen product is discarded. Data from this step allows the Gonnella team to determine whether tweaks to the recipe or process may be necessary.

After cooling, the products are conveyed through a metal detector in order to ensure product safety and are conveyed to three packing lines. Buns are sliced if client specifications call for it, and they are then sent to be wrapped. Before being wrapped, however, heels are often separated from sliced loaves if customer specifications require heelless loaves. The heels are sold for animal feed.

Gonnella recently added an individual bun wrapper, which allows the company to meet customer demands for single serving packages. Product is either packaged with this machine or with another of Gonnella’s baggers, and bagged product is loaded onto pallet-like trays.

These trays are color-coded for customer specifications.  After trays are converged, Quality Assurance checks the slices for width, and the trays are loaded onto dollies where they are time-stamped, labeled, shrink-wrapped and loaded onto trailers for distribution. All retuning trays are sent through a washer for sanitization before being reused.

Food safety for the future

As Gonnella Baking Company continues to grow, the company distinguishes itself through its sustained commitment to food safety and security.

In addition to industry-standard HACCP planning and company-wide food safety protocols, Gonnella undergoes audits by the National Sanitation Foundation and the American Institute of Baking. In 2008, the company was first certified as a BRC-compliant facility.

Like much of Gonnella’s process, this certification was customer-driven. Herzog says that while Gonnella has a commitment to providing safe, quality product to its customers, these food safety achievements have another benefit for the company.

With every new certification, “we’re able to say to new customers, ‘look we have this too,’” says Herzog. The company is hoping, in this regard, that the quality of their product speaks for itself.