The baker's view of the miller

by Teresa Acklin
Share This:

   Although I am a professional miller, I also have had the fascinating opportunity to work in the baking industry. This was in a large group, which included in-store units, retail bakers and large plant or industrial bakeries. The experience allowed direct access to the unabridged views, opinions, wants and needs of several top-ranking craftsmen and professionals functioning at all levels.

   Clearly, there is a large vocational element in the baker's make-up, much as there is in the make-up of a miller. Those who are bakers by and large would not change. And those who are not, such as millers, have difficulty in ever seeing themselves as bakers, so different are the pressures.

   The baker's view of the miller covers a multitude of options, questions and difficulties. The baker not only must keep his eye on these issues, but also on his own problems.

   What are the pressures the baker faces? The first is the market; the baker must service his market to sell his products and to make a profit.

      THE BAKER'S MARKET.

   There are two types of markets, the small and the large, or multiple. The small baker typically could be a family-run enterprise employing a few people, whereas a multiple, or plant baker, may employ 300 persons or more on one site alone.

   The small baker is likely to have a very local market, perhaps with a small bulk flour system or even bagged flour only. He probably produces both bread and confectionery, most of it made on the spot. He may have a delivery van.

   The small baker's business essentially is one of cash over-the-counter, which results in a positive cashflow. Normally, he also can charge top prices to the individual customer who walks into his shop, as long as quality is maintained fully and consistently. A baker with a niche of this sort does not compete with the large baker.

   On the other hand, the large plant, or multiple baker, produces bread from 200 tonnes, or 4,000 cwt, of flour or more per week. He will need to transport his products to a mixture of smaller bakers, supermarkets and the like. For bakers of this size, competition often is fierce.

      PRESSURES OF THE BAKING INDUSTRY.

   Regardless of size, the baker must produce his goods on time, on cost and at a consistent and preferably high quality. Quality means taste, aroma and appearance, including packaging and freshness.

   Three major industries are prone to staling products: milk, newspapers and baking. Nothing is so out-of-date as yesterday's newspaper, and with baked goods, freshness is equally imperative.

   Accordingly, all of the baker's efforts are concentrated on these factors, and he must perform within these constraints every day. The baker works in a high-pressure atmosphere.

   Moreover, if his ingredients, staff or equipment do not perform, he may lose a sale, causing immediate damage to his business. An equipment breakdown, for example, can cost the baker part or all of a whole day's production, which means lost revenue, profit and goodwill.

   In the large bakery, a two-hour breakdown can cause the loss of 6,000 loaves, which, at a dollar each, represents $6,000 in lost revenue. The baker often cannot retrieve this loss because bread, unlike flour, cannot be stored.

   Inconsistent flour, or flour of the wrong type or specification, all too often has the same effect as an equipment breakdown. Quality problems with other ingredients, such as yeast and dough conditioners, can cause similar difficulties.

   The baker also must be concerned about legislation and regulations covering hygiene, employment, environment and safety. In his “real-time” business, it is extremely cumbersome for the baker to keep his eye on all of these elements.

      THE BAKER AND THE MILLER.

   The baker's time is at a premium. Additionally, he works in a hot, humid atmosphere during unsociable hours, including early in the morning. Under these conditions, the baker is not inclined toward sympathy for his suppliers — including the miller — in times of trouble.

   Unfortunately for the miller, flour is the largest single raw material supplied to the baker. As night follows day, the baker's immediate reaction when a fault occurs is to blame the miller, right or wrong.

   The baker looks for consistency of flour quality from the miller, most often at a rock-bottom price, with deliveries on time and with access to technical advice. In other words, the baker looks for highly geared, full service. If the miller falls down on any one of these points, the baker will be tempted to change suppliers.

   This situation raises the question, age-old but difficult, of communication. Because the baker tends to focus exclusively on his market, it is the miller's responsibility to maintain regular contact with the baker.

   Bakers welcome receipt of a few bags of trial flour for a new product. The miller also might offer newly harvested wheats or a change to a different wheat mixture or grist for supply or cost reasons.

   This interaction allows the baker to be ahead of the game, to feel consulted and to feed back invaluable advice to the miller. It also allows the baker, at his leisure, to process a few doughs, using his options of time, temperature, yeast and dough conditioner variations.

   One eminent baker from a large group told me of the “smash and grab” approach used by some millers. He illustrated this by telling the story of a child who accidentally breaks a neighbor's window with a ball and says nothing. The same child has a distinct chance of forgiveness if he approaches the neighbor to apologize before his mistake is discovered.

      THE MILLER'S ROLE.

   The baker's business is one of “just in time” and is seldom “just in case.” The baker looks for detailed support from the miller in a number of areas.

   Flour consistency is critical. The miller first should determine the type and quantity required by the baker.

   The best method, although it is not always possible, is for the baker to supply not only a suitable sample of flour to match, but also a detailed specification. The miller should analyze the flour sample and then compare it to the specification, if provided.

   The miller should watch such parameters as protein quality and quantity, wheat class and variety, water absorption, moisture and mineral content and alpha amylase activity. The miller also should note whether any flour treatment is requested or required. The treatment could include ascorbic acid or, in countries where permitted, potassium bromate.

   The miller should analyze and bake the trial flour — along with the original sample as a control — before it goes to the baker. The miller then should try to be present at the bakery trial, if at all possible. After the miller produces a trial flour, the baker should comment.

   If the trials are successful, the miller must maintain consistent quality with an acceptable price, continue to offer careful service and keep good communication with the baker.

   Essentially, the baker has little time to delve into the niceties of learning more about his suppliers, including the miller. Having been in the baking industry for a relatively short time, it is quite clear that the average miller knows far more about wheat, his principal raw material, than the baker does about flour, his largest single ingredient.

   Because the baker's product stales, his life is geared to putting new fresh goods into his market — daily. The baker's view of the miller is that the miller needs to communicate better than is the average practice. After all, the baker is king.

Partners