It’s impossible to predict the future. But with a new $30 million plant, the veteran staff at Hill Country Bakery, San Antonio, Texas, is doing its best to prepare for whatever their clients may want tomorrow. 

All bakery items processed at Hill Country Bakery’s new 110,000-square-foot plant pass through the bakery’s X-ray machines before they are cartoned.

Photo by Vito Palmisano

It’s impossible to predict the future. But with a new $30 million plant, the veteran staff at Hill Country Bakery, San Antonio, Texas, is doing its best to prepare for whatever their clients may want tomorrow. The company’s new 110,000-square-foot facility already houses a high-speed line that can create dozens of varieties of upscale layer cakes and other desserts. And this operation has the infrastructure to install a second line - and even up to two more - at a moment’s notice. 

For Managing Partners Steve O’Donnell and David Nolan, it’s all about anticipating the unanticipated. This means designing and building a facility that’s so flexible it can go anywhere the market goes and react to any trend that may pop up.

Hill Country already has a solid foundation - the company operates two smaller nearby bakeries - a 30,000-square foot facility and a larger sister building that spans 60,000 square feet. Since its 1998 start, Hill Country has grown its business by specializing in custom-designed cakes, muffins, cookies and other sweet goods. Today, it is a $100 to $200 million bakery with a total of 200,000-sqaure-feet of production space and distribution to foodservice customers in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Last year, Hill Country undertook a $30 million plan to grow further - through increased capacity and enhanced quality.

“What we learned from plant two is that we need ambient cooling, refrigerated cooling and then freezing to get the quality of product that we like,” O’Donnell explains. “We wanted to follow that process with the new bakery so we wouldn’t have any product quality issues.”

As business flourishes and the company automates even further, O’Donnell says Hill Country Bakery will move its employees into new positions, rather than make cuts.

“We’re getting more business so we do not reduce headcount, but rather, we add them on another shift,” he says.

In fact, O’Donnell cites plant workers as a particular source of pride for the company, adding that many of them live nearby. Located just a 15-minute drive from downtown San Antonio, all three Hill Country bakeries are situated in a neighborhood that was economically challenged when the company started a decade ago. However, as the business has expanded over the years, the neighborhood has come to life. With the help of incentives from the City of San Antonio, a number of new businesses and urban development projects followed Hill Country Bakery’s lead and moved or relocated into the area.

“We thought, ‘Why build a bakery in the country as a greenfield project when the people in the bakery live here?’” O’Donnell says. “In addition to supporting the city, we thought building the bakery here would bring something back to the community.”

In June 2008, the company started up production at the new plant. The new facility is equipped with a 175-foot tunnel oven, in-line pan washers, spiral coolers, a dual spiral blast freezer and an automated wrapper and cartoner. In addition, because it meets U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for certification, the bakery can produce almost any type of product.

“When we’re ready to expand, we just have to wait for the equipment to be delivered,” O’Donnell says. “We already have all of the pipes and fixtures in place.”

Once the new production line is running at full speed, Hill Country plans to transform its second bakery into more of a hands-on operation to make shorter run items or to create difficult-to-produce products that can’t be totally automated. Some of the equipment, such as the mechanical slicers from plant two, will move to the new plant, while equipment from plant one will be transferred to its second facility. Hill Country’s initial bakery will become a pilot plant.

And Hill Country still plans to grow more. O’Donnell admits, “We don’t know the unknown, but we want to be ready for it when it happens.” With their newest plant, chances are they will be.

Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery’sJuly 2008 story, “Third Time’s the Charm.” SF&WB is a sister publication to Refrigerated & Frozen Foods.

Just the Facts

Company:Hill Country Bakery

Food plant(s) honored:   San Antonio, Texas

Selection criteria:   Process/Packaging Innovation, Community Involvement

Employees:   275

Facility size:   110,000 square feet

Products:   Custom-designed cakes, muffins, cookies and a variety of desserts and other sweet goods