Huge success and rapid growth is what every small business owner dreams of when they open their doors, but when it happens, these companies can find themselves suddenly faced with an overwhelming docket of food safety and quality control challenges that they may not be ready to tackle.

In 1994, New French Bakery started out as a small bakery attached to a café in the trendy warehouse district of Minneapolis, MN. Peter Kelsey, owner and head baker, attended the Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Paris, leaving later to study as an apprentice with a Parisian baker who taught him the importance of using real ingredients and a skilled craftsman’s approach to production baking.

When he opened his shop in Minneapolis, it quickly gained a reputation for offering delectable baked breads and sweets, with hip staff and a cool atmosphere. Kelsey expanded with a delivery service a few years later that brought fresh baked goods to local markets and restaurants, but, it wasn’t until he added a frozen foods division that business skyrocketed. Today, New French Bakery is an $11 million wholesale enterprise, producing fresh, frozen and par-baked artisan breads and sweets on a mass scale. The product line includes more than 700 different varieties, roughly 80 percent of which are their signature artisan baguettes, rolls, boules and loaves sold direct to consumers, in grocery stores and in restaurants around the country.

With an 18% increase in sales in 2004 alone, the company is continually facing the challenge of investing for growth as it runs at top speed to keep up with current demand. In 2003, the New French Bakery production facility was in the midst of serious growing pains. Housed in a converted nightclub near downtown, the staff was expanding to accommodate increasing nationwide sales, but there were few controls in place to manage how products were being made. It had graduated to a large-scale production facility but was still operating under low-volume production techniques.

There was no quality control staff, and Kelsey, who is committed to quality and taste above all else and had been planning for a quality assurance (QA) program for some time, knew that he needed a food safety expert on staff to streamline the production processes.

Kelsey hired Imme Fernandez as the quality assurance director with the directive to create complete food safety and quality control programs and ensure that as New French Bakery grew, it would continue to produce the highest quality products that its customers had come to expect. Fernandez also needed to get the facility ready for an official American Institute of Baking (AIB) food safety audit, which was requested by a large customer. The company had conducted mock audits in the past but had gone through the process with a third-party auditor.

A Clean Slate
When Fernandez arrived, there was not a single formal written process control or standard operating procedure; there was no allergen control program, no written specs for products, and no tracking systems. “In a way it was nice. There was nothing there and no one else on the QA team, so I could do it any way I wanted,” she says of her early days at New French Bakery. “I started at ground zero, using AIB guidelines as my template.”

Fernandez, who was certified in Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) by Silliker, Inc. for a previous job, began with the basics. No one at the plant had received training in Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) protocols, the minimum requirements for quality, safety and purity set forth by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for manufacturers of food and pharmaceutical products. “Many of them didn’t even know what GMPs were,” she says. So she found some GMP training videos, created a PowerPoint presentation and trained all 150 employees herself. ”It was an important first step,” she says. “I wanted everyone to understand that things were changing, that there would be new rules and processes. The training helped them get used to the idea.”

The GMP training was reasonably well-received, and has become standard for any new employee and New French Bakery before they are allowed near the manufacturing floor.

Once the training was completed, Fernandez began work on defining formal sanitation and Material Systems Data Sheets (MSDS) programs. She assessed every sanitation process step and found the manuals for each piece of equipment to learn how and how frequently it needed to be cleaned and sanitized. “Fortunately, we are a dry plant, so our biggest cleaning tool is a vacuum,” she says. But there were some chemicals being used in spray bottles on key pieces of equipment. She identified which chemicals were being used, collected all the MSDS documents from the vendors and highlighted important facts relating to handling and mixing. She also installed a chemical premeasuring system, which dispenses the chemicals, premixed into labeled bottles, in an effort to eliminate the mess and guesswork associated with manual mixing. “It works like a soda machine,” she says. “It’s a no-brainer to use and it provides much more control.”

Then she wrote the Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs) for each step and trained the sanitation staff on how to do it. Of course, it did take the cleaning team some time to adjust to Fernandez’s new procedures and equipment, especially since few of them had ever had formal training on how to properly handle and use chemicals. But the training and constant, gentle reminders have helped to slowly change the attitude of the whole staff toward a more controlled approach to doing things.

Rising to the HACCP Challenge
With the sanitation program written, Fernandez decided to tackle HACCP. “No one here had ever heard of HACCP and nothing was recorded,” she says. Fortunately, she discovered the facility had only one critical control point—metal detection. Just before hiring Fernandez, Kelsey had purchased a Safeline metal detector, which the new QA manager promptly installed and learned how to use. After endless trial-and-error with each product, Fernandez defined 20 different settings that would allow the company to get accurate readings on the smallest metal particles for all of its 700 products. Along the way she learned an interesting fact: “If we let the bread cool, we can get much better results and can sense smaller particles than we can with bread fresh from the oven.” Now every product goes through the metal detector, most before packaging, as part of New French’s HACCP program.

Along with the CCP, Fernandez generated “a phenomenal amount of paperwork,” to support every aspect of HACCP in the plant, including SSOPs, GMPs and procedures for every step of every production process for every product, from mixing times to baking temperatures, to packaging.

She also created a lot tracking number system to trace every ingredient to its finished product. Before she arrived, the raw ingredients were located in a separate area of the plant and bakers took what they needed when they needed it. Nothing was tracked or recorded. Although New French Bakery had never had a food safety recall in all its years of operation, the lack of a formal tracking procedure meant that if a recall-level problem ever did occur, all of the company’s products might have to be taken off the market since no records existed to identify specific problem lots. For New French’s frozen products, which can have a four- to six-month shelf life, the tracking system was considered critical for traceback procedures. Now, every product gets a 10-digit lot number that includes the date and shift, packing and ship dates, and a product code.

“It’s a fabulous code to have,” she says. Even though they’ve never had to recall a batch, they can also use the number to trace complaints to specific shifts or equipment. “A customer could call about an underbaked batch of frozen breads made four months ago and the paperwork tells us exactly who made it,” she says. “We never would have been able to figure that out otherwise.”

It took awhile for Fernandez to get everyone on board with all of the new paperwork and food safety process controls, especially since the existing staff had never worked under those conditions before. “It took months to get everyone to file the paperwork the right way every time, and to get supervisors to sign off on things in the appropriate color of ink,” she says. “It’s a continuing challenge.”

Fernandez is pleased with the results, however. “Everything we’re doing is about control,” she says. “The more control we have over our processes, the more assurance we have that we are meeting our standards for safety and quality.”

It took Fernandez about seven months to get the food safety and QA programs in place and running smoothly. When the facility was ready, auditors were invited in to do a mock audit to judge how prepared the facility was and what she still needed to do. The auditors were so impressed by what they saw, they suggested that it be considered an official audit. Fernandez agreed, and the facility passed with flying colors.

Technology for The Right Reason
Once Fernandez had established the foundation of her food safety and quality assurance programs, she was able to focus on improving processes and streamlining production. Every time New French Bakery adds a new product to its line, she documents the specifications for the production process and makes it available to the production staff so they know what is expected to make every batch to defined specifications.

For now, most of the quality and food safety processes are still paper-based. Fernandez believes that there should be a clear and specific need that technology can fill before she will pursue it. “We aren’t going to use a software program just for technology’s sake. It has to help us streamline our processes.”

Along this line, she has added a few key pieces of software and technology in complex areas where greater organization is needed. She’s in the process of purchasing and implementing a system that will incorporate management of her preventative maintenance plus sanitation program, called MP2 from Datastream. MP2 is a comprehensive, off-the-shelf program that Fernandez will customize with production information, including inventory, cleaning timetables and procedures, and production maintenance for equipment. Every morning the program spits out a list of tasks for the production team that they can use as a to-do list.

Her decision to use this MP2 software was about adding more control, she says. “I just wasn’t happy enough with the overall manual approach to monitoring our processes.” Because of New French Bakery’s continued growth, there were too many individual elements to monitor, from overseeing whether equipment cleaning, sanitizing maintenance was being conducted on schedule, to tracking and ordering inventory before ingredients ran out. “There are so many ways we need to control what’s going on, especially as we continue to grow. When things get too complicated, we will use software to our advantage.”

She’s also implementing a comprehensive production management software program, called cabTool from the German software company, Toolbox. The program monitors the entire product process from mixing to packaging. “It will dictate what is supposed to happen on the floor and give employees information about what they are expected to do,” she says. The software is especially useful in the mixing station. The software brings up each recipe on a computer linked to a scale. The ingredients are highlighted one-at-a-time. The production staff must weigh the highlighted ingredient to the exact amount before the software allows them to move to the next ingredient, creating consistency and control in the mixing process. “It makes it much more difficult to miss the smaller ingredients, such as salt or yeast,” she says.

To add further control to processes and lower production costs, Fernandez also implemented FreshLoc Technologies’ temperature control sensors throughout the production facility. Because temperature is so critical to safety and quality—from the time a product spends at a high temperature during baking to its constant preservation at under 41F in coolers—temperature monitoring for all 700 products is an ongoing and time-consuming task in the New French Bakery production process. “Significant fluctuations in temperature can have serious implications,” she says. “If a semi-truck carrying frozen goods breaks down overnight, we can lose thousands of dollars worth of product because you can’t refreeze it.”

The monitoring system allows Fernandez and her crew to keep track of temperatures automatically via computer, cell phone and text messaging. Sensors monitor the facility’s coolers, blast freezers, the retarder room and the proof box. Outside in the truck yard, reefers are used as temporary cold storage, with a sensor placed in the trailer to alert the plant in the event that a truck’s refrigerator goes down. If the temperature changes, an automatic alert is sent, causing staff members to check and make adjustments before product is lost.

Fernandez also can check the sensors at any time online. If she gets an alert at home, she can pull up the map view and track temperatures over time to look for inconsistencies. Along with monitoring temperatures for food safety reasons, she uses the sensors to make sure employees aren’t changing the temperatures in the cold-pack room where workers package the product at 40F to 45F. “The temptation to raise the thermostat is hard to resist,” she says, so she monitors the room to keep chilly employees honest.

Fernandez will continue to consider new technologies and new processes as the facility grows and as the need for increased streamlining is required to meet and exceed New French’s commitment to food safety and quality. But in the end, she knows that the most important part of the company’s QA program is its people. It took awhile to get all of the bakery’s employees adjusted to a more stringent approach to production but they are beginning to embrace it. Regular weekly supervisor meetings in which food safety issues are discussed and then shared with employees have gone a long way toward spreading the word and creating buy-in.

“Our employees now know how important it is to be consistent and they take the rules seriously,” she says. “With continuous training and coaching, even as we have more growth, we will be able to keep control. That’s what it’s all about.”

Sarah Fister Gale is Associate Editor of Food Safety Magazine.