During my recent visit to Better Baked Foods in North East, president and COO Joe Pacinelli told us the story behind the company’s claim to fame – the French bread pizza.
Bob Miller, one of the company’s co-founders, used to bake up pizzas on French bread loaves for his family to sell at local carnivals. One year when a carnival rained out, the Millers were left with a pile of pizza loaves – and no place to store them. They ended up freezing them, which led someone to comment that the frozen pizzas would make a good product for school lunches.
That spark of inspiration – along with a healthy dose of entrepreneurial spirit and no small amount of hard work – grew into the Better Baked Foods that we know today. Now, Better Baked Foods operates three facilities, employs about 425 workers, and churns out more than 400,000 French bread pizzas per day.
On the day I visited, I saw neat rows of French bread loaves go through the assembly line, receiving a dollop of sauce before being blanketed in freshly shredded cheese. They then were sent along a giant spiral track into an 18-minute deep freeze. These pizzas were for school lunches, so they weren’t individually wrapped, but instead were boxed up. All along the process, the pizzas were guided, checked, monitored, and packaged by employees.
I also took great interest in touring Better Baked Foods’ test kitchen, where food scientists were trying out new products. To me, the work in the kitchen signals that the entrepreneurial spirit that helped create those first French bread pizzas lives on in the modern-day company. I see the product development process as a sign that Better Baked Foods is dedicated to improving its foods and expanding its value to its customers, guaranteeing a stronger future for the company and for the Erie region.
About Better Baked Foods: The company, founded in 1964, has facilities in the City of Erie and in Westfield, N.Y., as well as in North East. The bread products are baked in Westfield, and the North East facility largely handles the pizza production. The City of Erie site, added just about a decade ago at the former Van de Kamp’s facility, produces some of the company’s other products, including frozen sandwiches and other hand-helds. There’s a good chance you’ve eaten their products – the company makes food for companies including Walmart, Wegmans, Aldi, Schwan’s, Kellogg’s, Pillsbury, Red Baron, and more.
Why Erie County? A simple answer is logistics, Pacinelli says. Access to highways and the ease of truck transit make it easier for Better Baked Foods to get products into the hands of customers. Also, the cost of living is reasonable compared to other metropolitan areas, he says, which means costs stay more manageable for the company as well.
Challenges of Erie County: Companies like Better Baked Foods can find state taxes a challenge, Pacinelli says, especially when taken along with costs for insurance. Another challenge comes from location: While many of the plant’s workers live in North East, not all do – and it can be difficult to find workers willing to make the drive to North East from other areas of the county.
Fun fact: The average length of service for a Better Baked Foods employee is 18 years.
Coming up next week: We’re checking out FishUSA in Fairview Township