Bimbo Bakeries better than sliced bread?

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If you've ever bitten into a Ball Park bun, toasted a Thomas' English muffin or dunked an Entenmann's doughnut, you are already intimately familiar with the latest baker coming to town.

But there's much more to Bimbo Bakeries USA than gut reaction. Bimbo, pronounced BEEM-bo, owns more than a dozen popular brands of breads, buns and baked goods. It is the largest commercial bakery in the country, and its Mexican parent, Grupo Bimbo, one of the largest in the world.

Bimbo supplies bread to the U.S. Olympic Team, many grocery chains and (thanks to a recent $49 million contract) federal prisons.

That's a lot of bread for a 19-year-old baker also known to put money back into its plants, products and people. "We strive to be a highly productive and deeply humane company," Bimbo's website boasts.

When Bimbo opens its 240,000-square-foot plant on Boulder Drive in Upper Macungie Township, don't expect rows of apron-clad bakers tossing and kneading dough by hand.

The company is rolling out a fully automated bread-and-bun-making factory with the most advanced, energy-efficient machines doing the mixing, shaping and baking. The plant will include 95 to 100 new hires.

Precisely which brands of bread and buns will be made, Bimbo isn't saying. They also aren't saying whether job applicants will need experience, special skills or training, or how the opening of the new plant will affect existing plants in Wilson and Reading. However, if Bimbo accepts $4.5 million in state incentives to build here, the company must retain its 2,595 jobs, and can spend up to $42,750 on workforce training.

Company officials expect the plant to open this fall, months sooner than originally announced, spokesman David Margulies said. Job openings and job fairs will be posted on the Bimbo Bakeries USA Web page — http://www.bimbobakeriesusa.com/join_our_team/careers.html — about three months earlier.

Local officials are pleased as pie to welcome a company that will not just store and distribute products here, but also make them.

"It's a production facility," Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. President Don Cunningham said. "It fits into the sector of employment we want to continue to grow."

Cunningham considers Bimbo's $75 million investment a "huge" addition to the virtual buffet of food and beverage producers establishing a foothold in western Lehigh County, especially in Upper Macungie. Those companies include Kraft Foods, Samuel Adams brewer Boston Beer Co., Nestle Waters and the under-construction Ocean Spray Cranberries.

"It only reinforces to the outside world that the Lehigh Valley is a good place to make products," he said.

Wages will be competitive with other production jobs, probably around $15 an hour, according to Labor and industry statistics. Many who work in the industry are members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers' and Grain Millers or Teamsters unions.

Bimbo took its name from a cuddly white bear cub in a baker's hat that became the icon for Grupo Bimbo and synonymous with soft, white Mexican bread. Founders later learned that Bimbo also meant "small child" in Italian, "bud" in Hungarian and a word that sounds like "bread" in Chinese. What better name could there be for a startup bakery set on worldwide production?

Grupo Bimbo entered the U.S. market in 1994 with a California tortilla company. It purchased its first U.S. bread company, Pacific Pride Bakeries of San Diego, in 1997. And, a year later, Grupo bought Mrs. Baird's Bakeries of Texas, then the largest family-owned bakery in the country. It renamed the combined operations Bimbo Bakeries USA and established the U.S. headquarters in Fort Worth.

Bimbo's US headquarters moved to Horsham, Montgomery County, in 2009, after the company acquired the multi-state operations of George Weston Ltd., and iconic brands such as Entenmann's sweet baked goods, Thomas' English muffins and Boboli pizza crusts. Weston's offices had been in Horsham.

Today, Bimbo commands more than 70 bakeries, 27,000 workers and 13,500 sales routes in the United States, according to its website. In a side business, it owns Entenmann's Bakery Outlets, including one on Emmaus Avenue in Allentown. Bimbo reported consolidated net sales of $6.2 billion in 2012, a 45.6 percent increase over 2011.

Bimbo's reputation is top shelf, according to L. Joshua Sosland, editor of Milling & Baking News, Kansas City, Mo.

"They are the largest U.S. baker and there's no close second," he said, having visited Grupo Bimbo in Mexico last year and interviewed its CEO for a series in the magazine. "Although 15 years ago it was a modest company in the United States, the most recent Sara Lee [Fresh Bakery] acquisition catapulted them to a solid No. 1."

Bimbo also is not afraid to spend money to improve its plants and products, said Sosland, who has written about the industry for 30 years. The company steadily modernized its production base in Mexico into automated, sanitary and efficient baking plants, he said, and declared a commitment to make sure the U.S. baking industry meets such standards as well.

The Upper Macungie plant promises to be LEED-certified, which means compliance with U.S. Green Building Council standards for design, construction and operation.

Keeping up with America's ever-changing appetite and dietary demands is no easy task for the nation's makers of bread and baked goods.

Small, artisan bakeries are on the rise as more Americans want to support locally made whole grain foods, said Susan Roth, former Nazareth caterer and now a professor at Northampton Community College's culinary program.

Yet, some large manufacturers are feeling the pinch of a sagging economy, and shifting business elsewhere. Flower Foods, another leading U.S. bakery, for example, recently purchased Tastykake for $165 million and Wonder Bread from Hostess for $360 million, said Karen Britt, assistant professor of business administration at NCC. The end result, she said, is a shift in employment levels to other parts of the country. "Unfortunately, Tastykake, one of Philadelphia's landmarks, will lose jobs."

News reports show Bimbo Bakeries also experienced fluctuations in the market. The baker closed five thrift stores in California in April 2011, and laid off 30 employees in Sunbury in September.

Yet this year, Bimbo Bakeries USA celebrated the production of its 400 millionth rich-frosted Entenmann's doughnut, and the construction of another $75 million automated plant in Rockwall, Texas.

Reacting to Americans' demands for more nutritious whole grain breads, Bimbo removed high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, flavors and preservatives from some recipes after acquiring Sara Lee's North American Fresh Bakery business in November 2011. The company also has expanded the distribution of Sara Lee's whole wheat, honey wheat, "Soft and Smooth," 45-calorie and "Iron Kids" brands into the Northeast.

To help entice Bimbo to build its plant, Pennsylvania offered the company $4.5 million in grants and low-interest loans — a relatively small amount of financing on a $75 million investment, state and local officials say. The figure includes low-interest loans of up to $2 million from the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority for land and building acquisition, construction and renovation, resulting in the creation or retention of jobs, and another $2 million for equipment and machinery. The rest is tax credits of $285,000 for job creation and $42,750 for employee training.

Some of that dough — an estimated $230,000 — will come back in the form of tax revenues: $8,000 a year to the township, $50,000 to Lehigh county, and $172,000 to Parkland School District. That's based on a Lehigh County assessment of $13 million for the 30-acre tract and new building.

Although a study suggests traffic will be minimal for Bimbo and its neighbor Ocean Spray, Bimbo Bakeries is helping to pay for the widening of Industrial Boulevard, and the installation of a traffic light at the road's intersection with Boulder, according to Upper Macungie officials.

Bimbo's website suggests the bakery and its parent company give back to their communities in other ways as well, including contributions to charities and tours for schoolchildren.

"Corporate citizenship is important to this company," editor Sosland noted. "It's part of their heritage."

Their stated mission: To nourish, delight and serve America — every meal, every day.

Ann Wlazelek is a freelance writer.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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