Flowers Foods may be a name that’s unfamiliar to you, but this is the company that markets Nature’s Own breads and owns bakery brands and products such as Tastykake, Cobblestone Bread Co., Wonder and Sunbeam bread, and the more recently acquired, Dave’s Killer Breads. In total, Flowers Foods owns more than 20 brands and operates 49 bakeries across the United States.
To learn more about the story of how Flowers Foods got their start in 1919 in Thomasville, Georgia and why they are still flourishing today, I drove to one of their recently acquired facilities in Knoxville, TN.
It was the day after a nail-biter football game between the University of Tennessee and the University of Georgia with a “miraculous” win by UT in the final 10 seconds of the game that featured a “Hail-Mary” pass. As we walked through the cubicles to meet with Jess Maggard, president of this division of Flowers Foods; I noticed many cubicles and desks were festooned with the Tennessee bright orange. When we sat down with Jess he spotted a FedEx package on his desk, opening it he discovered one of his business associates had sent him a small UT football. He laughed, explaining that, “They like to rub it in since I’m a Kentucky fan.”
We donned hairnets to walk through the production area that smelled of warm dough and watched as that dough was transformed by a series of machines into trays of hamburger and hot dog buns. The vice president of Operations at this facility, Mike Sileno, talked about the action of the yeast and the how crucial it is that the right conditions exist for the yeast to work. All the ingredients and factors like temperature contribute to making the best quality taste and texture of the bread. The yeast needs sugar to feed on, other ingredients contribute to taste, texture and structure, as Mike reminded me, “Bread making is all about chemistry”. I had various questions about the source of various ingredients and why some are used rather than others. Much like the personalities of children in a family, each brand owned by Flowers Foods, has it’s own unique recipe and specifications for baking. The recent trend of consumers looking for “clean” ingredients lists has caused Flowers Foods to simplify ingredient names and to remove or substitute others. While some consumers may think removing an ingredient is easy, if you bake you know that each ingredient serves a purpose, whether it provides taste, structure, color or increases shelf life. So removal of an ingredient and deciding what to change or substitute can require much work and experimentation in order to maintain a good quality product. It can also end up affecting the company’s costs and sometimes the cost to the consumer.
Breads and buns go through various quality control checks and are packaged and shipped out to customers throughout the Southeast. In many cases the breads will be transported directly from this facility and be on the shelf in your grocery store in under 48 hours.
The world of breads and pastries is constantly adapting to changing customers tastes and preferences. In order to meet those demands Flowers Foods recently acquired the organic brand, Dave’s Killer Breads, to expand their audience and appeal to different consumers. In some cases consumer tastes can be very regional. Jess Maggard explained that when Flowers Foods acquired Philadelphia-based Tastykake they had to rethink and offer different flavors, “In the North butterscotch was a favorite but not so much in the South.” The good news for Flowers Foods is that despite “low-carb” fads, people still buy bread.
The challenge for Flowers Foods as they move into their second century of business, is how to continue to appeal to and sell to a new audience for another one hundred years.