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How to increase volume and maintain product integrity

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GRAND RAPIDS, MI — For many artisan retail bakeries, automation is practically unheard of. Some might think it’s counter to what makes carefully crafted baked goods what they are.

But for some bakers whose businesses are growing, automation has become the key to increasing their output and still maintaining the quality their products are known for.

In Grand Rapids, MI, Nantucket Baking Company has experienced exponential growth in its volume over the past two decades. When it first opened its doors in 2006, it had one location and seven employees. Today, the bakery has two locations and 50 employees and generates more than $5 million in sales.

Although this full-service, all-organic bakery remains flexible and creates a variety of baked goods from bread to cookies to decorated cakes, demand for its signature artisan bread has grown to a point where the bakery needs just a little help.

“It’s very important that our customers know we still make our products by hand,” said Brian Lussier, general manager of Nantucket Bakery. “But when you’re doing the amount of volume we are, we need to incorporate automation while maintaining the handmade, artisan process.”

The key is reinvesting back into the bakery.

“We’ve always reinvested back into our bakeries to make them better with things like better equipment,” Lussier said.

Machines like a Rondo reversable dough sheeter for croissants help the staff sheet quickly and focus on hand-pinching the product. Meanwhile, a Ram dough divider can quickly cut the pieces and still allow bakers to roll every loaf of artisan bread by hand.

Introducing equipment into a retail bakery can feel a little like flying blind. But thanks to strong supplier relationships and the collegial nature of the baking industry, bakers don’t have to enter into change alone.

For example, Nantucket was able to lean on Sprinkles Donut Shop — based in Hudsonville, MI, with six shops around the Grand Rapids area (with one right around the corner from Nantucket) — for advice on scaling up.

“I asked if I could visit Sprinkles and tour their facility,” Lussier said. “They have an impressive operation.”

Building relationships with and supporting other bakers are also important values for the team at Sprinkles, as well. In fact, the relationship factor was a big part of what drew Russ Crawford, Sprinkles COO, to the bakery after spending several years in Indiana working in operations for Rise and Roll Bakery before his Michigan roots eventually called him back.

“I love this industry, and I love making connections,” Crawford said. “It’s about putting people together and knowing what somebody else is working on to say, ‘That’s not really our area, but I know someone you could talk to.’ It’s good for them, and if it helps their business, great. That’s good for the industry.”

Sprinkles recently moved into a nearly 11,000-sq.-ft. facility where it makes product on a Rondo makeup line and a Belshaw automated frying system and delivers to all six of its locations.

“The biggest challenge in the past was that, with labor challenges, it was really hard to make the volume we were making,” said Gary Vanderstelt Jr., owner of Sprinkles Donut Shop.

With more growth on the horizon — two more shops opening this year, for starters — automation is definitely what will keep the donuts coming. But it’s not just about volume for this second-generation baker. It’s also about producing high-quality donuts that the brand is known for.

As consumers in the Grand Rapids area crave a donut or croissant in the morning, an after-school treat or a loaf of artisan bread, these bakers will deliver their high-quality crafted baked goods while they allow machines to help, not hinder, their process.

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