Our Daily Bread
For over 70 years, Pepperidge Farm has been baking the bread we love right here in Connecticut.
”Pepperidge Farm remembers,” the folksy pitchman in the winsome commercials used to say. I remember the smell of Pepperidge Farm cinnamon raisin bread as it popped from the toaster, the perfect Saturday-morning complement to Scooby-Doo and Bugs Bunny. I had my preferred prep method—well toasted, buttered while hot, and then three minutes of waiting while the butter was properly melted and absorbed into the toast. I could demolish four slices in about 60 seconds back then, nearly choking myself with the swirled cinnamon, juicy raisins and butter. Mmm . . . .
Wait, where am I again? Oh yeah, in Bloomfield, at the home of Pepperidge Farm’s state-of-the-art bakery and production facility on Blue Hills Avenue. The company moved its Northeast baking operations here in May 2003 after outgrowing its Norwalk facility, and the 265,000-square-foot building is where they now turn out tasty breads, rolls, stuffing and croutons. (The ever-popular Goldfish are made in Denver, Penn., while other goodies are baked at the company’s six other plants across the country.) The bakery employs 275 full-timers who cover three shifts six days a week, producing 1.3 million loaves of bread a week.
“It’s a very, very long way from where we started,” says plant manager Michael Vallen. “If Margaret Rudkin could only see us now.”
If you didn’t know already, Rudkin was the 40-year-old Fairfield mother of three who, in 1937, started baking all-natural stone-ground wheat bread for her son, who was afflicted with severe allergies. As the vitamin- and nutrient-fortified loaves also happened to taste great, the word got out, and soon Rudkin launched “Pepperidge Farm” bread, named after the family farm. The little company continued to grow, eventually going national and joining the Campbell Soup Co. in 1961. Rudkin passed away in 1967, but like raw dough, Pepperidge Farm keeps rising, increasing sales and expanding its product line to include all sorts of baked treats.
Vallen is kind enough to show me around the Bloomfield plant, and quick to point out that unlike the way others make croutons and stuffing, Pepperidge Farm creates both only from fresh bread. “What we bake today is on the truck tomorrow and on the shelf the next day,” he says as we put on clean coats and hair nets and scrub up like surgeons before going out onto the production floor. We also have ear plugs as some of the large stainless-steel machinery on the baking line can get loud—good thing no soufflés are made here.
The process starts with fresh, all-natural ingredients such as flour, yeast, wheat and other whole grains, which come to Bloomfield from across the country. Dough is mixed together in large batches, parceled out in single loaf-sized portions and then starts out on a twisting, turning journey along a long production line that would make Rube Goldberg envious. Each loaf is kneaded, rolled and put into an individual tray, and then goes into a machine called “the poofer” (Vallen’s technical term, not mine), where the rising process is accelerated. From there, the conveyor belt brings the loaves into the oven, where they bake for various times, depending on the type of bread—for example, Italian bread is on the line this day, and it takes 21.5 minutes to bake. (And yes, it smells as delicious as you would imagine hundreds of baking loaves would.) After that, the baked loaves head into a cooler, where they will spend 80 minutes moving up through 40-foot-high carousels. Once cooled, loaves move down the line to be sliced and double-bagged; crouton and stuffing bread goes upstairs to be ground or diced, dehydrated, seasoned and packaged. Finally, it’s into the warehouse to await trucks that will deliver them to grocery stores from Maine to southern New Jersey.
Obviously, the amount of bread baked is determined by the number of orders Pepperidge Farm gets, although the plant is capable of churning out 135 loaves a minute. The newest facility in the company chain, it is the most automated, featuring robots along the baking line; as of 2008, it’s also powered by an ecologically friendly 1.2-megawatt fuel cell, which generates 70 percent of its electricity and makes it the largest commercial fuel-cell powered plant in the U.S. In addition, the company has been repeatedly named one of the “Best Places to Work” in Connecticut.
Adjacent to the bakery is an outlet store, open seven days a week and stocked full of Pepperidge Farm products and whatever bread is freshly baked, such as my slice of yesteryear, raisin cinnamon swirl. Clearly, something worth remembering.
For more info, visit pepperidgefarm.com.Our Daily Bread