HERKIMER — In Deuteronomy, we learn that “man lives not by bread alone.” Boyd Bissell might disagree. Bissell is president, owner, and chief baker at Heidelberg Baking Co., better known by its d/b/a name: Heidelberg Bread. Since he opened his first bakery in 1983, the chief baker has focused on producing fresh, artisan breads that are handcrafted and devoid of chemicals and additives. Bissell’s philosophy is both simple and unchanged: “I want to offer the supermarket public a natural and tasty alternative to the mainstream breads available out there. The secret is using the highest quality, natural ingredients, and making every loaf by hand — from the mixing to the shaping to loading and unloading the ovens, to packaging.”
Growing consumer demand has necessitated moving the operation to a new facility. “We spent eight months trying to find a building that would suit our expansion needs, but were unsuccessful,” says Bissell. “We then contacted the [Herkimer County] Industrial Development Authority (IDA) to ask for their assistance, which resulted in our becoming the first tenant in the Route-5S South Industrial Park.” The site is Herkimer County’s newest industrial park.
Heidelberg Bread turned to Charles A. Gaetano Construction Corp. of Utica to construct the new building on a design-build basis that includes site, structural, architectural, and mechanical/electrical design and construction.
“The plan for the new 28,800-square-foot Butler building calls for separate production and packaging areas, a high-R value insulated metal wall and roof panels, staff offices, and support facilities,” notes Kevin Phillips, project manager for Heidelberg. “Anticipating expanded production, the building has a usable ceiling height of
25 feet, 6 inches to allow room for flour silos, and the building is sited on 6.6 acres, which allows for any future expansion. Currently, Heidelberg is baking 65,000 loaves [of bread] a week, running two shifts in a 7,800-square-foot building, part of which serves as a café and a retail bread outlet. The new building will easily let us grow by a factor of four, and it is located only 5 miles from our current production facility and just 5 miles from Utica.”
The groundbreaking ceremony was held on Aug. 13, and construction is projected to be completed by June 2016. The coffee shop will continue to operate at the Herkimer location after the move to the South Industrial Park, and Heidelberg Bread may continue to use the Herkimer plant for limited operations.
The Herkimer IDA approved a basket of incentives to Heidelberg Bread at its May meeting, including a 10-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (or PILOT) agreement, a sales-tax exemption, and a mortgage exemption. The mortgage-recording-tax exemption is anticipated to total about $52,000 and the sales-tax-exemption another $165,000. Bissell has committed to spending $52,000 for the property, $2.9 million to construct the plant, and another $1.3 million for machinery and equipment. Financing is provided by Adirondack Bank.
The 5S South Industrial Park project and the Herkimer plant are both owned by Cobblescote Associates, LLC., which was registered with New York State on Jan. 2, 2002. Bissell is the sole stockholder of both the real estate and operating companies.
Heidelberg Bread currently employs 50 people at the Herkimer plant and generates more than $6 million in annual sales.
“We’re focusing on expanding our distribution,” says Cheryl Phillips, the company’s chief operating officer and Bissell’s sister. “We ship daily to both supermarket chains and independents as far away as the Capital District, Hudson Valley, the Southern Tier, and Syracuse. You can find Heidelberg products in the bread section at Big M, Hannaford, BJs [Wholesale Club], Price Chopper, and many other outlets. Currently, we are focusing on expanding our geographical reach to New York City, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. The key is to get to the distribution people: That’s the … [avenue] for obtaining shelf space to display our breads.”
Boyd Bissell adds that “… New York City is a natural market. The customers are health conscious and read the labels to verify that the contents are natural. That’s why our ingredients and packaging should appeal to a number of independent outlets, such as bodegas and Korean stores.”
As Heidelberg’s leaders consider expanding its distribution geography, they are also studying flash freezing as a method for ensuring freshness to more distant locations.
Heidelberg Bread now boasts 15 varieties, including French peasant, marble rye, baguettes, Italian, sourdough, and Jewish rye. “Grain breads are popular today,” explains Bissell. “Our last few creations are grain breads, including the latest which is a 12-grain bread.” Bissell, as the chief baker, watches bread trends closely. “I never want to be a trend setter, but I am very conscious of what customers are choosing. I have spent years experimenting with different bread recipes. It takes a long time to get the perfect balance.”
How Bissell got started
Bissell, 71, grew up on the shores of Lake Otsego. His path to baking was serendipitous. “As a youngster growing up in Cooperstown, I was accustomed to working long hours,” he reminisces. “At age 14, I worked on a cauliflower farm for 40 cents an hour. I thought $16 a week was a lot of money. Later, I took a sabbatical from college and went to Paris, where I spent 2 1/2 years [collectively] over multiple visits. I worked in restaurants in Paris as well as in the states, where I started as a ‘kitchen utility’ at The Otesaga [Resort Hotel] and later became the chef at a local restaurant. My interest in cooking wasn’t a surprise, because I grew up in a food family; both parents were accomplished cooks.”
Bissell’s epiphany to become a bread baker came in 1982.
“I drove to Montpelier [Vermont] to visit the New England Culinary Institute about a staffing situation. The director of the institute asked me whether I was aware of the Upland Bakers, located in nearby Plainfield. He convinced me that a visit to this bakery was … [mandatory]. I tried the Upland sourdough bread and was simply astonished. It tasted just like the bread I ate in France.”
The owners of Upland Bakers were Jules and Helen Rabin. “The two [socialist communitarians] began baking bread in a wood-fired, brick oven,” recalls Bissell. “The only ingredients were flour, salt, water, and a sourdough starter. I was a … [convert] with the first bite: the bread was heavy, chewy, crusty, and nutritious; but best of all, delicious. Their bread was so good that the Rabins developed a cult following.”
Bissell wasted no time upon his return from Vermont. In 1983, he incorporated and opened his first bakery at King Cole Plaza on Genesee Street in Utica. “After my bread ‘awakening,’ I began experimenting with Pillsbury all-purpose flour. It was tough going in the beginning,” confesses Bissell. “We had one power account, a health-food store in Cooperstown. They bought $500 a week, which covered the rent for the bakery. I purchased [baking] pans at the Family Dollar store and used to ship unsliced loaves in flour sacks. We regularly put out-of-town shipments on the Trailways bus. After relocating in Utica two more times, we finally bought the plant in Herkimer in 1992. At the time, our annual sales were $350,000 and, in the beginning, we only utilized perhaps 15 percent of the new building.”
Heidelberg’s management team includes Bissell as president and chief baker, Cheryl Philips as the COO, Kevin Phillips as the head of manufacturing, and Salvatore Valente, as VP of sales and marketing. “We have a great team of employees,” intones the company COO. “Our challenge is to attract and retain employees as we grow into the new plant. Boyd is a perfectionist, and that means a great deal of training and attention to the quality of our breads. The training is done right on the baking floor. Boyd would like to be baking 24 hours a day. Our growth can come, in part, through automation, but we never want to lose the handcrafting that makes our breads distinct. That means we will have to hire more people to keep up with the demand. Training our staff is a priority focus.”
Bissell has set up a trust to ensure the continuity of the business. “My mission has been to bring delicious, healthful bread to the American public,” he posits. “The growing interest in natural foods is spurring our growth. I want to be sure my mission continues well into the future.”
Despite his long hours at work, Bissell finds time to pursue his favorite hobbies: preparing gourmet meals, cycling, playing the accordion, and collecting art and antiques. Not surprisingly, he specializes in collecting copper cooking utensils.