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Rise Baking Company – Putting the customer first

When it comes to creating great food, as a rule it is almost always the case that the smaller independently-run outfits steal the show. No more is this true then with delicious artisan breads, crispy bars and cookies, as any discerning consumer of such treats will soon attest.

Local bakeries, as with most small food outlets, take great pride in their craft and bake their goods with great attention to detail. The art of creating unique breads, crispy bars and cookies, using meticulously sourced ingredients that are then baked to perfection, is as important as the bottom line. When a bakery emerges that is a cut above the best of the rest, people talk and word spreads over social media, and before you know it the bakery in question is the talk of town. And therein lies the problem: when a local bakery achieves success, more often than not it eventually hits a wall. Artisan indie-run bakeries can only spread their wings so far, and those that do grow and develop to the stage where they are bigtime, suddenly realise that while they are a national brand with branches in every city, they have lost the grassroots connection to their customers that provided the foundations for their success in the first place.

Finding a happy medium somewhere in between being a small, nimble artisan bakery with no more than a handful of outlets and a giant national and international baking brand to whom their customers are little more than numbers has proved to be a challenge. In fact, up until recently very few brands succeeded in developing a national footprint in the US without losing that bakery-next-door stardust that made customers sit-up and take notice in the first place. That is, until Rise Baking Company found a blueprint for operating a middle-ground business model that has succeeded where many in the industry have failed.

The Rise Baking Company story began in 1995 when New French Bakery, a Minneapolis-based artisan bread baker, first opened its doors for business. Over the course of the 20-years that followed, New French Bakery captured the region’s niche artisan bread market, before catching the attention of Arbor Investments – a Chicago-based private equity firm that was then seeking to acquire an artisan bread company of the New French Bakery mould. Through this acquisition, Arbor Investments gained a foothold into the bakery sector – the rest, as they say, is history.

“Rise Baking Company is a combination of 5 strategic acquisitions that have been merged under the Rise Baking Company umbrella. This process started with New French Bakery in 2013, then Best Maid Cookie Co. a year later in 2014, Hudson Baking in 2015, South Coast Baking in 2016, and then Choice Foods just this year,” explained Eric Ahlgren, Rise Baking Company’s Chief Operating Officer.

He continued, saying: “We put this platform together with the thought process that there’s a gap in the marketplace where the very large baking companies have lost the appropriate level of customer focus, and the small regional players haven’t got the reach or resources to serve national accounts. There’s an opportunity right in the middle where if you can create an organisation with a national scale that can remain nimble and customer-focused, you’re going to win in the marketplace.”

And won they have. Today, Rise Baking Company is a manufacturer with a portfolio of delicious, high-quality products, including innovative frozen cookie dough, fully baked cookies, crispy bars and artisan breads for the in-store bakery and food service markets. It’s range of customers is no less varied, including major national players spanning grocery, warehouse/club, convenience and mass merchandisers who demand business partners that are ready, able and willing to support them cross-functionally. With a distribution range that spans nationally across the United States, in addition to a small number of international markets, it is telling that Rise Baking Company is thriving in a highly competitive marketplace that is bursting at the seams with rivals and competitors.

With the backing of Arbor Investments and its considerable resources and expertise, Rise Baking Company has gained access to a strong network of food and beverage industry operators, which it has leveraged to increase sales. Internal processes have been streamlined, and they have successfully built on each of the legacy foundations by expanding resources in areas including innovation, technology, food safety, HR, and finance.  In addition, there is also the US $50 million that Arbor has invested into boosting Rise Baking Company’s production capacity and capabilities.

The union between Rise Baking Company and its component parts and Arbor Investments has undeniably been a successful one, but that isn’t to say that there haven’t been a few minor hurdles, as Eric pointed out:

Merging the companies together has posed its challenges, which is to be expected when you have different companies and cultures coming together, different product portfolios, different computer systems, and so forth. We’ve been working to merge these elements, and unite the legacy companies and their brands under the Rise Baking Company name. Rallying under the single name and working to create a unified culture and identity; making sure that everybody is speaking the same language, whether in IT or manufacturing, and working towards the same goal.”

Fortunately, this process of integrating the once-separate component companies that now make-up Rise Baking Company, whilst challenging, has been far from insurmountable. Rise Baking Company’s ethos is based around the tenets of being customer-focused, hard work, accountability, and passion – all values which align naturally with those of its original component companies. The acquisition of New French Bakery, along with Best Maid Cookie Company, Hudson Baking, South Coast Baking, and Choice Foods were strategic in nature, and occurred only because Arbor Investments had confidence that their cultures aligned with that of Rise Baking Company. As a business landscape littered with broken mergers and squandered billions show, an inability to integrate companies can be catastrophic, and Arbor has passed on a number of opportunities to acquire companies which initially looked promising because culturally they wouldn’t fit.

The success of this ‘journey to one’ is clear for all to see, but undoubtedly the key to Rise Baking Company’s rise to prominence is attributed to its commitment to customer focus and the ability to respond quickly to market demands.

“Having quality products, ensuring customer-focus, being nimble, and delivering to customers what they truly want is essential. Today, most of the customers from the retail segment are looking for some differentiation with their products or packaging.  By working with them, we can help provide them with tailored products to meet their needs,” explained Jeff Getzkin, Senior Vice President of Sales at Rise Baking Company. He went on to say: “We promote a team culture in that our environment is ‘find a way to make it work for the customer, and then do what it takes to get it done.’ This differentiates us from our larger competitors where they have what they want to sell and that is all they have to offer.”

This product tailoring can take any number of forms, be it offering to develop labels for customer in-house, or providing different types of artisan breads using different baking methods; it can be offering innovative, unique flavours of cookie dough and baked cookies. The artisan bread market is continuing to grow exponentially, while even mature product lines like cookies are still seeing demand increase year-on-year. Staying innovative and flexible, and staying ahead of the pack with regards to utilising the latest technological advancements is essential. So too, of course, is creating an environment and working culture in which Rise Baking Company’s employees feel valued, and are made central to the businesses’ success.

On this point, Eric stated: “We are a relationship-based company where the quality of our people is just as important as the quality of our products. Our environment encourages creativity, and we value an entrepreneurial and industrious approach to work. With over 1000+ employees across 7 manufacturing facilities we seek first-rate recruits to join our rapidly growing family. 

We take pride in working with creative individuals with a passion for what they do, and we’re always looking to expand our team. We continually seek to promote from within, over the years we’ve invested heavily in the recruiting, selection and training of our team members. In addition, we’ve made significant investments in wages and benefits to attract and retain world-class talent.”

These are exciting times for the company, which, following a fifth strategic acquisition this year and the award of several lucrative new customer contracts, has driven Rise Baking Company to invest heavily in expanding its facilities. Three major plant expansions within each of the business segments are underway which will support the growth of Rise Baking Company’s proprietary Fast Pan TM technology, and result in the further introduction of new varieties of delicious, European styled artisan breads, and allow us to expand our variety of crispy treats that evoke home-made appeal.

Eric concluded the interview on this point, explaining: “To support this growth, we are investing in several capital expansion/improvement projects. Our Springdale, AR cookie manufacturing facility is currently undergoing construction which will double in both the size and capacity.

We’ve nearly completed the installation of a new artisan bread line at our Minneapolis, MN Facility, guaranteeing the artisan breads that we provide stay true to the European techniques our customers have come to enjoy.  Additionally, we’ve added robotic automation and packaging lines to this facility.

Our most recent expansion is at our River Falls, WI facility where we are working to increase the capacity and improve efficiencies in our cookie lines as well as integrate our crispy bar manufacturing operations under one roof to maximise our workforce.

Continued organic growth of Rise Baking Company will be the flavour of choice over the medium to long-term. But while growth and corporate development will continue, what is certain is that the company’s commitment to delivering a superior customer experience will not waver with growth. The recipe to Rise Baking Company’s success is a winning one – why change it?