LENEXA, KAS. — You can smell the Wonder Bread in Lenexa, Kas., again. And it’s been joined by the aromas of Nature’s Own, Sunbeam and Cobblestone Bread Co. breads and buns. After a two-year period of inactivity and an intense four-month renovation by new owner Flowers Foods, Inc., the 137,000-square-foot Wonder Bread bakery in a western suburb of Kansas City is busy once more supplying the central Midwest.

“We are pleased to announce the startup of the bakery, and hiring is underway,” said Paul Frankum, president of Flowers Baking Co. of Lenexa, when news of the opening became official in April 2015. “Over the past few months, we’ve been making significant improvements to the facility, including the installation of state-of-the-art baking equipment.”

Lenexa was one of 20 closed bread and bun production sites and 36 depots acquired by Thomasville, GA.-based Flowers Foods through the 2013 bankruptcy-forced auction of the assets of Hostess Brands (formerly Interstate Bakeries Corp.). The $355 million deal included five bread brands, including Wonder Bread. Flowers has been strategic about reopening the shuttered sites to build out its coverage by expanding from its core markets. First was the Henderson, Nev., bakery in 2013, followed by Knoxville, Tenn. a year later. Now, it is Lenexa’s turn.

“It happened fast once the decision was made,” said Robert Benton, Flowers’ senior vice-president and chief manufacturing officer. “We went through a construction phase and an equipment phase. We started January 2015 with a 90-day timetable to rebuild and restart the equipment. The plan grew a bit, so we extended it by an extra 30 days. We started the bread line up in early summer 2015 and the bun line 60 days later.”

Location, capacity, markets

It's no secret why Flowers was interested in Lenexa.

“We saw a great location with numerous transportation and product quality synergies,” Mr. Benton said. “Additionally, we saw future market expansion and production capabilities.”

Establishing a new bakery hub in metropolitan Kansas City made sense. A distribution network was already established in the region.

“Flowers products were already in the market, but it was a far reach from our Batesville, Ark.; Atlanta; Bardstown, Ky.; and Denton, Texas, bakeries that were supplying goods here,” Mr. Frankum said.

This involved “burning a lot of fuel and driving a lot of miles,” according to Mr. Benton.

“Lenexa gives us the ability to get the pans close to the shoppers, in other words, to be freshest to the market, and we are having a lot of success here,” Mr. Frankum said.

The bakery’s independent distributor partners currently supply grocery stores and supermarkets primarily, with limited service to private label and food service customers. The Lenexa site sits adjacent to I-35, which links the central region of the U.S. from north to southwest. Goods baked here move on tractor trailers and through a DSD network of independent distributors reaching west to Topeka and Wichita, Kas.; north to Lincoln and Omaha, Neb.; south to Springfield and Joplin, Mo.; and east to St. Louis and eastern Illinois.

“A lot of our market didn’t exist until we opened this bakery,” Mr. Frankum said.

Now, a year after startup, Flowers’ decision has paid off, especially the choice to maximize output of buns.

“Our distributor partners could not have served the market over the Fourth of July holiday without this bakery,” Mr. Frankum said. “And we’re able to supplement product to Denton to fill a temporary production gap there.”

Flowers sifted through the Hostess assets carefully, selling some locations and transferring equipment to its other bakeries as needed.

“We knew that Lenexa was one of the best plants Hostess had as far as equipment and location,” Mr. Benton said. “That’s why we chose it.”

Mr. Frankum’s management team at Flowers Baking Co. of Lenexa includes Todd Hamann, vice-­president of sales; Amber Mangiaracino, director of manufacturing; Brian Rutecki, director of engineering; and Damien Butler, director of human resources.

With a total of 137,354 square feet under roof on 10.2 acres, the facility uses 50,190 square feet for processing, 13,776 square feet for packaging and 54,360 square feet for warehousing. The office and ancillary facilities cover 19,028 square feet. The bakery employs 160 company staff members and has 142 outsourced associates, including sanitation through Ambassador Services. Approximately 125 independent distributor partners sell fresh bakery foods to retail customers in the market every day.

Lenexa houses two processing lines, one for bread, the other for buns, and it has seven packaging lines, four for bread and three for buns. Packaging will soon expand with the addition of two bulk bun packers. Product styles comprise round-top bread, giant and king sandwich loaves, cluster and individual hamburger buns, and cluster hot dog buns. Bread is offered as single loaves and in 2-packs, while buns go out in 8-, 12- and 16-packs.

Four exterior silos, with more than 400,000 lbs total capacity, supply flour needs at Lenexa.

“The wheat is grown in Kansas, milled in Kansas and baked in Kansas," Mr. Frankum said. "We like it that this bakery’s supply chain is so close to the farmer’s field.”

Brownfield investment extended

Flowers’ original plan for reviving Lenexa was to invest $10 million in modernization. But that changed, and so did the timetable.

“For the most part, we stayed on schedule,” Mr. Benton said. “Although we have exceeded the projected cost, we also expanded the scope of the project, including the addition of a $1 million tray washer project.”

That project, which included both a tray washer and installation in a room separated from the production area, was completed during July.

Mr. Benton and his colleagues readily acknowledged the effort that went into Hostess’ design and layout of the original plant, a brownfield site that previously served as an English muffin processor and before that as an automotive parts supply facility.

“They put together a great plant,” he said, “but we made a lot of changes to make it ours.”

Ken Buxton, vice-president of project management for Flowers Foods, agreed.

“Every project involves some curve balls," he said. "We learned that from Henderson.”

“We got good value for what we spent on the bakery and the renovation," Mr. Frankum said.

Flowers renovated several systems to match technologies at the company’s other bakeries. The bread oven, for example, was fully refurbished, and packaging operations were increased. Further developments included the addition of an in-floor conveying system and the redesign of the existing tray stacking system to handle a common basket size. In other situations, such as the mixing and batching system, engineers completely replaced the existing setup and also redid the mixer room with a new foundation and mounting pads and mixers repurposed from the Biddeford, Maine, bakery, acquired in the Hostess deal and sold later.

The company operates a proprietary batching system developed and maintained by Higgins Electric. It synchronizes with the company-wide SAP enterprise resources planning system and is implemented in every other Flowers Foods bakery.

“This plant was SAP from day one,” Mr. Frankum said.

Being a brownfield project with the existing processing equipment left in good shape made Lenexa somewhat different from the typical Flowers bakery project.

“Since we were not partnering with the equipment manufacturers to build new technology equipment, we used the best solutions from our existing bakeries,” Mr. Benton said. “Cost and speed-to-market are usually the biggest advantages to brownfield sites. However, retooling and adding automation to an existing bakery to meet our current operating standards is still expensive. Perhaps a better question might be, ‘What is the difference from when the plant closed to today?' The answer, of course, is that we invested the necessary capital to fully modernize the plant, making it much more efficient and a better place to work.”

What would he do differently on the next such project?

“In future projects, we should consider bringing the people on earlier in the project to allow them to train, develop and create a greater pride of ownership,” Mr. Benton said.

Revive and update

When Tim Gentry, vice-president of compliance and field service, Mr. Buxton and Mr. Benton sat down with the Flowers engineering and operations teams, they knew Lenexa would present a few challenges.

“You have to deal with what’s in front of you and deal with it fast," Mr. Benton said. "What we had at Lenexa was four months to restart the equipment, not 18."

Earlier projects with existing buildings, notably Newton, N.C., and Denton, had land available to extend out the walls. Lenexa did not. The company prefers straight-line layouts with processing lines installed in parallel and separated by a wide aisle, usually painted red. This building, however, is more square than rectangular, so lines are shoe-horned in. Still, a large red aisle runs between them, though it follows a slightly zig-zag path.

Flowers dramatically revamped the mixing area that supplies sponges and dough for bread and buns. Four of the five original mixers were changed out for ETMW (now AMF Bakery Systems) horizontal systems — each capable of turning out 2,500 lbs of dough. Flowers completely rebuilt these mixers.

The original layout installed mixers in a deep, ­below-grade pit to give operators better access to the tops of bowls for hand-adds, but maintenance access to motors and gear boxes was difficult. Flowers pulled out the old mixers and completely replaced the foundation so that the new mixers sit on sturdy, reinforced concrete footings.

“We poured a lot of concrete,” Mr. Frankum said.

Engineers also moved the mixers forward and away from the wall that separates the mixing area from the fermentation room. This vastly improved access to the mixers for preventive maintenance and servicing, as well as the inevitable replacement.

Additionally, Flowers brought in Workhorse Automation to update the existing Woodson multi-tier fermentation room located immediately behind the mixer battery. Another project doubled the size of the glycol cooling system that served the mixers. Workhorse also refurbished the existing Emtrol multi-tier pan ­storage-and-retrieval system and redid its controls.

Reworking, automating

Changes for the bread line were simpler, although Mr. Buxton said that Flowers took care to rebuild the APV Baker 175-foot tunnel oven with new chains and drives.

To supplement the MAC and Shick bulk flour set-up, the company added a large Laramore dust reclaim system to the bread line, one of many steps to improve the work environment and plant sanitation.

The APV Baker (now Baker Perkins) proofer, Sasib (now Stewart Systems) depanner and pan stacker/unstacker machines along with Newsmith pan cleaner were also repaired and updated. The overhead bread and bun coolers were rebuilt.

“Basically, we went through the bakery as if we were doing a major PM,” Mr. Benton explained. “And the time to do that was when we were still down.”

Bun operations here put two AMF AccuPan systems to work.

“This dual line layout is typical of other Hostess plants we have redone,” Mr. Benton said, noting that for new installations, Flowers prefers single, larger capacity lines.

Metal detection, using Fortress Technology systems, was replaced or updated in both wrapping departments.

The big changes here involved much more automation for packaging of bread and buns.

“Matt Stanford and the team from Bettendorf Stanford provided great support and were key to getting both our bread and bun wrapping departments going again,” Mr. Benton said.

Bringing up the output speeds for both lines meant adding extra capacity for backup and to avoid slowing during changeovers. Two new AMF bulk bun baggers have been recently installed in response to anticipated growth in the food service market.

Post-packaging operations, however, got a substantial upgrade with installation of a Cannon in-floor basket stack conveying system. Micro-loaders at the end of the wrappers mechanically fill waiting delivery baskets, which move into AMF automatic basket stackers and out onto the in-floor conveyor. Each stack gets a date- and time-stamped bar-coded tag that displays the run information, as well as distribution information.

“The tray handling system makes this operation much more efficient,” Mr. Buxton said.

In Lenexa’s shipping department, a Pcdata Distrib Put to Light paperless dispatch system now manages order assembly. The in-floor conveyor moves stacked baskets to the distribution department, where distribution employees arrange the stacks in the pack-out square, customer trailers or inventory, based on the pcdata tag information.

“We know exactly where every product is, in here, in the truck, in the distribution location and at the customer,” Mr. Frankum said. “This is all done in real time. We can see at any moment where we are. The distribution system is tied into the production system. Together with the basket loading, stacking and conveying system, this drives labor efficiencies. It also helps our independent distributor partners maximize their sales and service.”

This is possible because Flowers uses a common tray size throughout its 49-plant system. Hostess operated with multiple basket sizes and flat tray configurations. With the addition of tray washing in the immediate future, basket handling will become a closed loop. Some aspects, such as automatic basket loading, had been done in this bakery before.

Fortunately, this bakery is not located in an environmental containment area, so no oxidizers are required for the oven stacks. However, it does operate a wastewater treatment system, which Flowers started up again when it took possession of the plant. No water or air permitting issues were involved.

A ‘technician labor’ plant

Behind all this effort was the need to bring Lenexa into the Flowers’ system of “technician labor” plants. This operating philosophy emphasizes automation that wrings out manpower costs and speeds up output, but in turn, requires a technically knowledgeable staff capable of working with the HMI control terminals and other advanced systems.

“The upgrades we put in here meant that we needed a more technical level of staffing,” Mr. Benton said.

Flowers has an active internship program that helps it recruit individuals educated at Kansas State University (K.S.U.) and AIB International, Inc.. Ms. Mangiaracino, Lenexa’s director of manufacturing, joined the company after graduating from K.S.U. and began working during the startup at Denton and other new Flowers bakeries. She interned at the company as an undergrad. Drew Ladd, a superintendent at Lenexa, was a K.S.U. freshman when he landed a Flowers internship after attending an American Society of Baking meeting. Following graduation, he worked at both the company’s Denton and Oxford, PA., sites.

For operators, the technician labor approach starts with the recruiting effort. At Lenexa, initial recruiting efforts were, in large part, managed by Ambassador Services. Technical expertise, whether in the food industry or not, was particularly valued. The bakery works with local technical schools and community colleges to recruit mechanics, electricians and engineers, a project directed by Larry Brewer, Flowers’ vice-president of engineering.

“The Kansas City region has a very low unemployment rate, so we had to work extra hard to make sure we offered competitive pay and benefits programs,” 
Mr. Frankum said. “And we have a unique culture in Flowers that we work to instill in our associates.”

To support this quality of staff, Flowers manages the bakery environment to make it as comfortable as possible. Nothing can alter the 100°F outside temperatures of a Kansas summer day, but Flowers bakery engineers radically improved the air handling system within the plant, completely replacing the ventilation and opting for an environmentally friendly AC system for the sales and administrative offices. Flour dust collection was another priority, to mitigate sanitation problems and potential airborne health hazards. Plant lighting now uses LEDs to markedly brighten the interior.

“Baking is a tough, hot business. We made the effort to improve and increase the airflow in the plant,” Mr. Benton said.

The bakery set up hydration stations consisting of a water cooler and supply of cups at each work station.

Adding to employee amenities, the company converted the thrift shop into a break room. Large exterior windows let in plenty of daylight, something the old break area lacked. The human resources office is conveniently located just down the hall. Even the old break room, now used for training (and as a tornado shelter), was upgraded with a new coat of paint, better lighting and a kitchen.

“There was a lot of focus on making Lenexa a good place to work,” Mr. Benton said.

With a technology-savvy workforce in place, Flowers is getting ready to launch continuous improvement programs. It will extend 5S, a workplace organization method, to Lenexa. This is a corporate initiative with a methodology of sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain. Safety is also a critical component.

Regulations enforcing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) go into force in September, and Lenexa is ready with a new manager overseeing food safety. Charlie Moon, Flowers’ vice-president of technical service, QA and regulatory, has been working with the staff here and at other company bakeries to get them ready in time.

“This plant is in good shape with regard to FSMA,” Mr. Benton said.