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How fresh is your bread?

Updated: May 24, 2023

Ever wonder how small stores can offer fresh baked bread throughout the day?

Running an instore bakery is expensive with high energy costs and the need for experienced bakers through the day. Modern processes allow supermarkets to offer "fresh" bread either by baking from scratch i.e. from flour and water in large stores or by stocking part bake loaves which just require heating in smaller stores.

Baking bread from scratch shows off the fresh food credentials and skills of the store. Often the smell of fresh bread is vented through the front door to draw people in. However scratch baking involves a lot of labour and energy in the form of ovens and provers and packaging costs, on top of the regular lighting, heating etc.

As you add in more processes like doughnut and confectionery production, the requirements and skills increase further.

As the store size decreases, it is uneconomical to run a scratch operation, so part baked pre-formed loaves are ordered in from third party factories. These are loaves that have been three quarters baked and cooled to an ambient temperature or blast frozen.

The store simply has to heat them up which takes just a few minutes and requires fewer skills. It allows freshly heated bread to be offered right up to close of trade.

Large stores also sell part of their range from frozen or part baked product, which allows them to sell specialist or artisan product that it would be uneconomical to offer otherwise.

The first trials of part baked loaves weren’t very successful. After two hours and once cool the loaves became so hard, you could stop a shoplifter at 50 yards with one. Today the loaves are much better quality, more consistent and harder to tell from the scratch baked lines.

Much of the confectionery, doughnuts, and morning goods are laid out and stored in chillers overnight and then baked off in the morning, but some stores retain skilled confectioners, producing pastries and cake from scratch.

Large stores have separate doughnut production areas as these are high volume, high profit lines, but are labour intensive with the dough making, frying, jamming and packing processes.

In the larger stores scratch baking is mainly for the white doughs which make the core loaves, French sticks, rolls, doughnut and bun products. There will likely be a granary and wholemeal batch production, but these tend to be smaller and fitted in ad-hoc.

Supermarkets use what is known as a no time dough process or the Chorleywood method. This is a way of speeding up the process so that you can go from flour and water to a packed cooled loaf in 2.5 hours. It adds in concentrates and vitamin C to help develop the dough.

A key difference working in a bakery is that it is no longer retail, but a manufacturing process. You start the day with nothing and sell what you make. Your customers are your critics and if you make poor quality product, it won't sell. Bakeries can have a separate profit and loss account with responsibility of manging their own running costs and waste.

Two big concerns for bakery managers is equipment failure and running out of raw materials and packaging. Flour is delivered on pallet boards, or in the largest stores may have its own silo. There is nothing more frustrating for a Bakery Manager to find they have run out of flour. The other huge frustration is when the equipment breaks, it can be weeks or months to get a replacement as the kit could well be made in Germany or elsewhere abroad, so parts have to be shipped or robbed off other spare plant.

As a bakery manager you are the conductor of the orchestra. The different bakery processes include bread production, stick and roll production, morning goods (croissants, pain aux choc, pain aux raisins etc.), bun and doughnut production, cream cake and confectionery production.

Everything must flow through the system efficiently. You cannot put a dough mix on unless you have a prover ready and then you must have a free oven available once the dough has risen. Once baked you need racks to tip the fresh hot bread onto. You need to allow time for that to cool and then have people to pack it (although that is being left to the customer increasingly, putting unwrapped bread on show (ugh!)

To manage this we worked to a production plan. Everything ought to be timed to go through and be out before the next process needs the equipment, but it could be "fairly relaxed" and there were many "conversations" about people's ability when you had a risen dough, but someone had just filled the ovens.

In terms of the rest of the store, bakeries are often seen as the dark arts and no one knows what goes on. You were free to be your own boss. The Bakery manager's delight was always when the Grocery manager informed you, they had run out of sliced bread. The very next thing is people turn to the instore bakery which gets stripped and it is 2.5 hours until you can get any more bread out. You simply cannot rush bread production. Today, bakery managers often manage the whole Bakery operation which can be 12% of the entire store trade.

Seasonal products can be a pain, especially Hot Cross buns where the quality can be lost by not piping the crosses straight on a tray of 40 buns. Yule logs now come in pre-prepared but used to be a Sunday job. You would bring the whole team in and split them up into tasks of opening boxes, sticking Swiss rolls on base boards, piping ganache up and down the Swiss rolls, dusting the logs, applying holly and packing sometimes 1000 logs in one day.

I spent 2-3 rewarding years in a scratch bakery. Hours were long and the work hard, but producing fresh bread every day was a great thrill. I went in to "manage the process" of selling part bake bread, but it was soon decided to revert to scratch bakery. Most of my other erstwhile bakery managers chose to go back to normal store roles, but I decided to stick it out and learn how to bake. I had a great crew of experienced bakers and we significantly increased the sales in my time there. The cream cake counter could save a store when the district manager came round. After a tense walk around the store, a well presented cake counter could calm the mood!

Disclaimer: I hope to monetise this blog with an affiliate program to support my costs and time involved. I am NOT sponsored and nor do I speak for any of the employers I have worked for. This is my own content based on my knowledge and opinions.

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