The demand for buns to make bratwurst sandwiches -- practically a staple here where there's a preponderance of people of German descent -- exceeded the supply that supermarket operator Quillin's here could produce.
That, and not being able to keep high-profit cookies coming off the line fast enough, helped push the nine-unit retailer into a $1 million-plus bakery expansion that directly addresses the challenges of controlling labor costs and productivity levels faced by many supermarket chains in the bakery business.
Quillin's has just completed work on a 9,000-square-foot central bakery facility that's more than triple the size of its former central facility, and more than doubles its baking capacity.
But even with such increased capacity, only 10 employees have been added to the former production staff of 38, thanks to built-in efficiencies in the streamlined quarters.
One of the top benefits of the new baking plant is that it consolidates so much talent in one place, said Phil Quillin, president of Quillin's. As a result, Quillin's has all bases covered, he said.
"We have tremendous flexibility at this one location. Bakers are very scarce these days, and yet we have somebody who knows how to bake just about anything anyone could think of," Quillin said.
The facility is running at only 50% of capacity at this point. "We have lots of room to increase our sales volume," Quillin said in an interview with SN. He projected store-level sales to rise 7% to 8% as a direct result of the new facility's production capacity.
The expanded central bakery provides numerous benefits, but high on that list is the capacity to produce an unending supply of big-profit, top sellers like bratwurst buns, cookies and such specialty items as bread-dough baskets filled with dinner rolls, Quillin said.
Since Quillin's first central bakery got in gear in 1972, the company steadily increased sales until its selling capacity had greatly outstripped its production capacity, Quillin added. "We were so crowded and were running out of products all the time."
The problem became so acute at one point that, in the midst of OctoberFest here last fall, Quillin's ran out of bratwurst buns. "In Wisconsin, that's bad. Brat buns are a big deal," Quillin said.
Bratwurst -- a German sausage that's dear to Wisconsin residents -- and the buns for brat sandwiches, become an even bigger deal than usual during October, when La Crosse has its own OctoberFest. Quillin said festival draws upwards of 100,000 people.
Now, production lines at the new bakery facility, which is three miles from the former one, should keep brat buns, as well as all other bakery products, in ready supply as the stores need them, Quillin said.
Quarters had been cramped at the 2,800-square-foot former bakery plant, a situation that hindered efficiency and put a crimp in production because there wasn't enough space for needed equipment, he said.
The company decided to buy an existing larger building "and then just completely renovated it. We put in a new ceiling and we also installed a new floor that's very easy to clean."
Quillin added that even though the bakery is now more than three times the size of the former plant, it takes no longer to clean it than the first one did.
Additional rack ovens and conventional ovens have been installed, as well as a new automatic doughnut maker, a new bread-making system and a larger pan washer. The layout of the plant, too, makes for more efficient production, Quillin pointed out. The addition of a loading dock at this facility is another big plus, Quillin said.
"Previously, we had to load product on carts and take them down to the trucks. This saves a lot of time. We can just back the trucks up to the dock. It's cut loading time from 30 minutes to 7.5 minutes," he noted.
Not counting the building or the land, the investment in the new facility tops $700,000, Quillin said. "So, including everything, it's more than a $1 million deal."
It is expected to take one-and-a-half to two years for the bakery to pay for itself. The facility will provide multiple benefits that Quillin said he expects will boost profits, as well as sales, for all nine stores.
The advantages include enabling Quillin's to consolidate labor, expand its product mix, produce items that will be consistent from store to store, create signature products with relative ease -- and do all of it faster.
While some retailers have told SN that increased central capacity allows them to do more from-scratch baking, that's not a goal behind Quillin's decision to expand. The retailer has been baking about 75% of its product from scratch, and may actually decrease that percentage at the new facility.
"That's because mixes for a lot of products have been improved so much that the quality is there. It's not necessary to do it from scratch," Quillin said.
Particular attention has been paid to accommodating the high-profit cake category, Quillin said. A feature at the new facility is a 14-foot-by-14-foot, refrigerated cake-decorating room.
Cake sales are 25% of Quillin's bakery business and the retailer now relishes the opportunity to add products within the category, Quillin said.
Quillin's newest addition to the cake category since it moved it production into the new facility is an individual "Hercules" cake, which is a chocolate sponge cake with a custard filling, Quillin said. A phone number is posted in each in-store bakery for customers' convenience in ordering decorated cakes. The cake department also just finished a featured run on Quillin's five billboards scattered around their marketing area here.
The cakes were featured on the billboards just prior to "cake season," Quillin said. The outdoor advertising is used to feature high-profit and seasonal items. In October, it's bratwurst. In March, it's Quillin's signature Blarney bars which presently are made to specifications for Quillin's by another bakery.
Production of several products, such as coffee cakes and minidoughnuts, previously sourced from outside, will now be brought into the central facility.
"The items that have high profitability -- like those and cakes and cookies -- we want to make those ourselves," Quillin said.
There are some disadvantages to doing all the cake decorating at the central facility, however, some of them labor-related. And lack of communication can be the most troublesome one, Quillin said.
For instance, when the decorators aren't at the stores, but at the central bakery, there's the danger of the associates at store-level not knowing enough about all the capabilities of the staff at the central bakery, Quillin explained.
To help guard against the problems created by misinformation, when Quillin's got the new central facility up and running a little over a month ago, it took all the store-level employees on a tour of the plant.
In addition, bringing all production under one roof can have its disadvantages, Quillin admitted. "When you have a problem, it's a central problem."
But the pros heavily outweigh the cons, according to Quillin. "Just in production capacity, we've got a big advantage. We'll even be able to make our own bagels in this facility," he said, adding that such a project is, indeed, next on the agenda.