Local Oven rises to the occasion with a seasoning system for gluten-free croutons

Local oven has been making a name for itself in the gluten-free market since founder Linda Fitzerman started the company by baking gluten-free bread out of her kitchen in 2009. Over the last decade, the Farmers Branch, Texas-based manufacturer has been expanding slowly but surely, staking a claim in the niche market with its gluten-free baked products. To position the brand for nationwide growth, Local Oven moved into a larger commercial kitchen and manufacturing plant, investing in several pieces of equipment to ensure it can meet national demand for its products. That hefty investment includes installing a two-stage seasoning system for its croutons that automates Local Oven’s operations while enhancing throughput and ensuring consistency of its product. 

Local Oven has come a long way since its humble beginnings. Fitzerman created the company after being diagnosed with gluten intolerance. She cut foods with gluten from her diet, and her health quickly improved. But Fitzerman missed eating bread and other items that contained gluten. Dissatisfied with the gluten-free options on the market, Fitzerman went to her kitchen and began experimenting with recipes for gluten-free baked goods in 2009, spending a year and a half perfecting them. Local Oven initially made and sold gluten-free breads, such as pita bread, croutons, and hamburger and hotdog buns, to local Texas companies. The company moved out of Fitzerman’s kitchen to a 3,000-sq-ft commercial facility in 2012, later taking over the adjacent space for a total of 8,000-sq ft. Local Oven has since expanded its gluten-free product line with about 35 SKUs, including tortillas, pizza crusts, cookies and pasta, distributing them to thousands of restaurants, hotels, schools, sports venues, hospitals and grocery stores across the United States as well as co-packing for other gluten-free manufacturers. 

Creating consistency

In its transition from an upstart brand to a national player, Local Oven moved into a 30,000-sq-ft manufacturing plant in 2017 that could house the equipment the company needed to automate its operations and produce more product consistently. One piece of equipment the company installed was the Spray Dynamics Seasoning System from Heat and Control that is helping Local Oven manufacture at least 70,000 lb of gluten-free croutons a month.

The Spray Dynamics two-stage coating system uniformly applies liquid coatings and dry seasonings to the croutons. After baking loaves of gluten-free bread in Revent double rack ovens, the bread is cut into small pieces with Urschel DiversaCut dicers. They are then transferred to the Spray Dynamics coating unit via a vibratory infeed conveyor. The croutons enter the Soft Flight Coating Drum, which features a variable tilt frame assembly, adjustable speed and a custom-designed flight configuration that generates a gentle folding action that ensures every part of the crouton is exposed to the application of liquid and dry coatings while minimizing breakage. Micrometer pumps with nozzles spray oil on the croutons. Then a dry ingredient feeder dispenses the seasonings onto a scarf plate, which meters a controlled, even curtain of seasonings for uniform coverage of the croutons, inside the drum. Once the croutons are oiled and seasoned, they are conveyed back to the ovens for baking.  

Prior to using the Spray Dynamics seasoning system, Local Oven workers manually applied the oil and seasonings to the croutons. In fact, most of the production process for the croutons entailed manual labor. Workers made the dough and baked and diced the bread manually. They then dumped the bread pieces into a food-grade cement mixer, adding the seasonings and oil by hand. After applying the seasonings and oil, workers poured the bread pieces onto baking sheets and placed them back in the oven to create the croutons.

Advantages of automation

With the Spray Dynamics seasoning system in place, as well as other commercial equipment like the Urschel dicers, Revent ovens and CEIA metal detectors, Local Oven has been able to increase production of its croutons to 5,000 lb a day from 500 lb a day. “Automation changes the world,” says CEO Todd Fitzerman, who is Linda’s husband.

In addition, Local Oven is saving about 30 percent in oil and seasoning costs, according to Todd Fitzerman. Because workers can adjust the micrometer pumps and dry ingredient feeder to meter out precise amounts of oil and seasoning, Local Oven no longer has to rely on the subjective observations of workers gauging how much oil and seasoning to use. 

“Without the [seasoning] equipment, we could never have produced the volume that is required of us,” says Todd Fitzerman. “But just as importantly, we are getting a more consistent product. We are not wasting oil or seasoning because it’s dispersed at the proper amount.”

Automating the oil and seasoning process has also helped Local Oven reduce labor costs by half. Local Oven previously needed at least eight people to run the manufacturing line, which includes the oil and seasoning process. Today only four people work on the line.

While the Fitzermans appreciate how the spraying system has helped them lower operating costs and improve throughput, they also value the guidance they received from Heat and Control as they were designing their new manufacturing facility. Heat and Control not only helped them choose the right spraying system but also gave them advice about other pieces of equipment and design ideas that would help them scale up and automate their manufacturing facility.