Having been in the baking business heir entire lives, the Madonia family had come to expect the unexpected. But no one can be prepared for a total, devastating loss, such as the one that occurred on March 20, 2007, when a fire completely gutted their bakery in Las Vegas. Tony Madonia Sr., C.E.O. and president of Great Buns Bakery; his wife Lynn, secretary and treasurer; and son Tony Jr., vice president and general manager, sat outside the bakery throughout the night and watched all they had worked for burn to the ground. The fire started in one of the small rack ovens. Apparently, the firebox had a small crack in it. Fire spread from the oven, up through the exhaust, eventually starting the ceiling on fire. Ceilings were low in the original bakery. “There were sprinklers throughout, even in the drop ceiling,” Tony Sr. says. “The sprinklers went off, but there was just no chance. Once the fire heated the wooden rafters, there was no turning back. The fire department said it was too hot inside. We're dry enough already in Las Vegas.”
Grateful for their employees' commitment throughout the years, one of the first things the Madonias did was pay each worker a full week's pay and retained about half the staff. Then, they agonized about whether to rebuild, a question that really didn't require any thought. “This is what we do,” Tony Jr. says. “We had been in business 26 years. So, we started drawing and figuring out how we could put the bakery back together.”
Great Buns Bakery opened for business 15 months later, all the while fighting an uphill battle to retain as many of its former customers as possible. When the bakery started back up in June, it literally had no customers. After three months, the bakery has regained 70 percent of its former customers, and has bids in to attain the remaining few, once the customers' current contracts expire. “In a very short time, we should be back to where we were,” Tony Sr. says.
Perhaps the Madonias can credit their perseverance to their family's history. Both father and son are hardcore bakers, having been born into the field. Augie Madonia, Tony Sr.'s grandfather, was a baker in Italy, until he moved his family to Buffalo, N.Y. There, he and his wife Linda owned and operated Royale Rolls Bakery, one of the country's first volume bakeries dedicated to supplying fast food operators, such as McDonald's, Burger King and other restaurants in New York. Augie retired and moved to Las Vegas in 1980.
Although Augie has since passed away, he was instrumental in starting Great Buns Bakery in Las Vegas, after he realized a market for high quality, European-style breads and rolls was rapidly developing in the area. After two years of retirement, Augie, Linda and Tony Sr. bought a retail bakery and started selling their crusty breads and sweetgoods, which eventually broadened into a wholesale business. Tony Sr. and Lynn moved west and joined the wholesale operation in 1983, followed by Tony Jr. in 1990, after the family purchased a 8,000-sq.-ft. facility that grew to 17,000 sq. ft.
(Left) A fire completely destroyed Great Buns Bakery in March 2007. (Right) Great Buns reopened for business in June, 15 months after the tragedy
Facing a total loss
The Madonias built their business throughout the years, providing a diversified portfolio of products to meet their customers' needs. “We try and be as diversified as the hotels are,” Tony Jr. says. “You have price-point buffets to fine dining restaurants with world-class chefs. But it's not just the hotels. There are restaurants, sports bar chains, bars and taverns.”
Aside from their own employees, the Madonias worried most about taking care of their customers immediately after the fire. “We take care of a majority of the hotels in Vegas,” Tony Sr. says. “At the time of the fire, there was no way we could take care of anyone. We contacted every single customer within the first 36 hours after the fire — from the guy who comes in from the sub shop to the biggest hotels. We were trying to help our competition take care of our customers. Supply came in from Utah, California, Arizona and everywhere. We did a lot of the ordering.”
Fortunately, the Madonias were able to save the computer's hard drive from the fire, which was located in the part of the building that suffered the least amount of damage. Tony Sr. broke the window, reached in and pulled the server out, which contained all of their customers' ordering history, complete with part numbers and quantities used.
However, the computer wasn't the only important item saved. Twelve hours after the fire, the Madonias entered the burned out facility and recovered a 30-lb. vat of sourdough starter that was 26 years old. “We saved just enough so we could keep feeding it and keep it going until we rebuilt,” Tony Jr. says. “We immediately put the starter on a refrigerated truck and brought it to our other retail store, where we continued to feed it for 15 months while the bakery was down. We were able to bring the starter back to the bakery after we started back up.”
About 50 percent of the bakery's employees were retained and paid while the bakery was rebuilt. These employees assisted with a variety of tasks, from working in the retail store, to helping with reconstruction.
Though the insurance company wanted to set up the bakery in another building temporarily, the Madonias couldn't see the feasibility in it. “How do you set up a fully automated line,” asks Tony Jr. “It's like setting up General Motors in a gas station. We have automatic scoring machines and automatic packing lines. By the time you get set up and go through all the proper licensing, it would take months. It was better to put our energies into rebuilding.”“After the fire, one company was instrumental in helping put the bakery back together,” adds Tony Sr. “We were able to put sections of the oven on a truck and send them to Cleveland where The Perfect Score Co. rebuilt them and added on to them, which increased our capacity by 25 percent. We would have had to send the oven sections back to Italy where they were originally purchased, which would have taken too long.”
In spite of the money paid out by the insurance company, the Madonias chose to upgrade with the best equipment available. All told, the family faced $10 million to $12 million in total losses, and put a lot of their own money into rebuilding.
Building a better bakery
Once Tony Sr. and his son began drawing the new bakery, they weren't sure which way to go. Still, they realized they had a golden opportunity to streamline their processes and product flow, after having spent years working in a facility that had been pieced together as their business grew. After consulting with a construction company, the new 25,000-sq.-ft. facility was designed with a metal infrastructure. All of the pre-fab exterior panels are stucco. “The panels have such a high R-value rating for insulation that we're actually more comfortable here than we've ever been,” Tony Jr. says The panels also are fire rated. “We don't want to go through this again,” he adds.
The bakery has a larger footprint than the previous facility, with higher ceilings to avoid any chance of heat build-up, and a second floor with offices overlooking the operation. Another lesson learned after the fire was the need for system backups. “Now we have backups to backups,” Tony Jr. says.
The new bakery has a redundant system for its refrigeration and freezer. It also has multiple rack ovens, boilers and a redundant computer system for its automated production line.
A new steam manifold was installed, with outdoor boilers on the roof — a suggestion made by a contractor to maximize space. Four boilers, soon to be five, feed into one manifold. If one boiler is down, the others serve as back-ups. A low volume of steam is injected into the bakery's walk-in cooler every two hours to add humidity and stop the dough from crusting — a means of retaining moisture in Las Vegas' dry climate. The building is pressurized with cell deck cooling, a form of mechanical cooling with water commonly used in areas of low humidity. Now, the temperature could reach 120°F in Las Vegas' desert climate, but never rises above 85°F near the ovens, notes Tony Jr.
The view from the second floor mezzanine allows visitors to observe the production floor.
The bakery is segmented by product make-up area — a necessary feature to accommodate multi-product requests from area hotels. Aside from the automated roll line, there's a secondary bread make-up area, where bread is baked in rack ovens. Bagels and ciabatta bread are produced in another section of the plant, and there's a separate area for pastries. Muffins, cakes and laminated doughs, such as Danish and puff pastries, are made in relatively small batches, typically 100-lb. doughs. Pastries are then baked in a deck oven.
The Madonias produce multiple types of doughs, including straight doughs, starter and sponge doughs. A sponge is used to make white and wheat breads in the traditional way. A little bit of starter is added to all products for a distinctive flavor, then placed in the retarder for 24 hours until they are baked. Rye breads are made with a rye sour, a high percentage of rye flour and caraway seeds, and then rolled in corn meal.
A 24 double-rack proofer is currently in use, with one additional proofer to come, giving the bakery a 34 double-rack capacity. Also on order is another double double-rack oven and a 300-sq.-ft. walk-in cooler for the pastry area. Two 400-lb. and one 350-lb. spiral mixers produce bagel and flatbread dough. Bagels are formed in a smaller, manual operation on two machines — both with the capability of producing large or small varieties.
Water and flour are auto-scaled into one of three refrigerated horizontal mixers, one at 1,000-lb. and two at 700-lb. capacity for the automated roll line. Dough passes through a six-pocket divider and rounder. After forming, they are dropped onto trays and into a final proofer for one hour at 115°F, 75 percent relative humidity. Product then travels onto a belt and into position for scoring. When the belt transfers product to the oven, it matches the oven's speed for gentle unloading. Rolls travel 75 ft. through a tunnel oven and into an ambient spiral cooling tower.Great Buns' automated, high-volume line is capable of producing 19,000 small dinner rolls per hour, or 15,000 medium rolls per hour. Rolls are automatically packaged, requiring minimal handling.
The Madonias tried to take advantage of every sq. ft. when rebuilding. Future plans include purchasing another spiral cooling tower and putting it on a mezzanine with an overhead conveyor loading bread into slicers, to save floor space. The process will be more efficient and the product higher quality, notes Tony Sr. The bread must go into the bag at the proper temperature.
The Phoenix rises
One of the most unique aspects of Great Buns Bakery is its ability to test market its products in its 2,000-sq.-ft. retail space, which has clear Plexiglas shelves that open directly into the wholesale bakery. “The retail store is a huge strength,” says Tony Jr. “We're in a commercial location, but we're a retail/wholesale operation, as opposed to being a wholesaler in an industrial park or a retailer in a retail park. It gives a real strength to be able to operate two businesses in one.”
While all of Great Buns' business is currently fueled by the Las Vegas strip, the Madonias are making inroads with some out-of-state foodservice and chain business. “We feel there's a good future in some of those products as we get longer production runs on certain items,” says Tony Jr.
Still, Great Buns Bakery's strength is its ability to react to emergencies. In Vegas, with the hotels, there always seems to be some sort of emergency, which requires quick action on the bakery's part. “A customer might need 500-dozen rolls immediately, and we'll try and get them out within a couple of hours,” says Tony Sr. “We'll do whatever we have to. We keep trucks and people on site just for those situations. I believe we react faster than anyone else.”
Although the Madonias faced several challenges during the months the bakery was down, the newly built bakery puts them in a position to move their business forward. No one wants to experience a tragedy, such as the one that devastated their original bakery, but the Madonias have taken every advantage of being given the opportunity to start over. Great Buns Bakery now is poised to service the Las Vegas strip and its surrounding environs better than ever before.
Great Buns Bakery at a glance
Headquarters: Las Vegas
Ownership: the Madonia family
Web site: www.greatbunsbakery.net
Management: Anthony Madonia Sr., C.E.O. and president; Anthony Madonia Jr., vice president and general manager and Lynn Madonia, secretary and treasurer
Product lines: More than 800 baked and par-baked products, including hearty baked artisan breads and rolls, sandwich and deli breads, gourmet hamburger buns, hot dog buns, subs, Kaiser, steak and dinner rolls, bagels, ciabatta, muffins, croissants and Danish
Marketing territory: Fresh-route business, metro Las Vegas and Laughlin, Nev.; European hamburger buns shipped frozen to Texas, Arizona and California
Customer base: More than 400 hotels, restaurants, bars and taverns in metro Las Vegas and Laughlin
Plant size: 25,000 sq. ft.
Production lines: One fully automated roll and bun line, and one semi-automatic bread line
Throughput: Presently 150,000 lb./week with a capacity to run 500,000 lb./week
Sales: About $6.5 million, since reopening three months ago after having been down for 15 months following a devastating fire
Number of employees: About 50