Pizza production a thing of beauty
It began like a culinary ballet with a commercial kitchen as its stage. Under the buzz and glow of florescent lighting, a cast of artisan bakers moved in a rhythm that seemed to be professionally choreographed. Giant mixer bowls and pastry racks swirled around the room with dance partners clad in white aprons. With grace and seamless timing, an assembly line transformed flour to dough through a mix of vintage and state-of-the-art equipment. The result was something edible that required a standing ovation.
They could sell tickets to this daily event
To set the scene, this well orchestrated process was taking place in a historic business in the town of McCook. Sehnert’s Bakery has been servicing this western Nebraska community with freshly baked pastries and breads since Walt and Jean Sehnert first opened the business in 1957. Over the years, people have relied on this downtown staple for everything from their morning glazed donuts to their loaves of Stollen Bread during the Christmas holiday. In 1991, the operation was handed over to a new generation as Walt and Jean’s son, Matt, took over on the heels of his training at the American Institute of Baking and a three-year stint working in the bakery department of a major supermarket chain in Denver.
Matt was eager to take over the business and continue offering the same exceptional products while also infusing the bakery with fresh ideas and additional complimentary concepts. Shortly after Matt’s return, he purchased two recipes from the owners of another iconic McCook restaurant, The Dairy Cream. Having secured the secret ingredients for pizza crusts and their famous Jiffyburger, Matt was prepared to expand the bakery, offer a space to serve lunch and create a catering business. When the vacant building to the south of Sehnert’s became available in 1999, Matt broke through the brick and created The Bieroc Cafe. The extra space made room for a larger commercial kitchen and another business was created. Matt sought out a new market for his pizza crusts and that wholesale business is now the heart of Sehnert’s Bakery.
With over a thousand pizza crusts made daily, the process works in tandem with the early morning schedule of pastry and bread baking. Sehnert’s kitchen is rarely unoccupied as the production begins at midnight and continues on through the evening. Once the bakery prep, frying and icing wrap up around 4 am, a full time pizza crust crew of seven bakers starts their shift. Read ourarchived Rural Foodie on Sehnert’s Bakery.
Under the leadership of Jerri Barber, a veteran Sehnert’s Bakery employee, the 250 daily cases of pizza crusts are prepared and packaged during a period of time that doesn’t interfere with the bakery, cafe and catering operations. It is this balance of timing that makes the pizza crust production a thing of beauty.
The process begins with an ingredient that not only sets the pizza crusts apart from any other but also supports a local Nebraska business. The base of the pizza crusts is flour from the Wauneta Roller Mills in Wauneta, Neb. More than a thousand pounds of the local ingredient is used by Sehnert’s Bakery every week. Once the dough is mixed, it is placed in a proof box to develop with the perfect combination of heat and humidity. From there the crusts are formed and then sent through a tunnel oven to partially bake. They are then cooled, boxed and frozen, eliminating any need for preservatives. Eventually, the pizza crusts are sent to wholesale distributors and end up at local restaurants.
If you are looking to acquire these pizza crusts for yourself, you will have to visit Sehnert’s Bakery. Since the crusts range in size, thickness and white or whole wheat, it’s a good idea to call ahead and make certain they have the crusts you desire. Another option is to dine at The Bieroc Cafe on Fridays and Saturdays from 11:30 am to 1:00 pm when pizza made with their famous crusts are sold by the slice.
When asked about expanding his pizza crust operation to include retail availability and online ordering, Matt simply smiled the smile of a seasoned entrepreneur. He is the first to admit he has made his fair share of mistakes, but it’s from those errors he has reinforced the foundation of his business. Matt has considered new avenues in which to promote and sell his baked goods, the pizza crusts in particular, but the logistics of shipping a frozen product without compromising its integrity seems to be his main concern. Promoting small business in rural areas is always challenging, and that is why Matt and three other bakery-focused local artisans co-founded the White Thumb Bakers Guild with the intention of offering their signature baked goods to a wider audience.
The story of Matt and Sehnert’s Bakery not only defines the idea of entrepreneurship, but it highlights a concept that is a necessity to a small town’s vitality. Returning home to take over a family business involves more than simply showing up. It takes preparation, vision and the willingness to think outside the box in order to keep a product and service fresh. The future success of rural business relies on exporting goods beyond the boundaries of its own community. Whether it is retail or wholesale, successfully manufacturing and marketing products to a larger demographic will maintain small towns and keep them relevant. The sale of par-baked pizza crusts may not seem that influential, but products like this keep locals employed and McCook on the map.
As the pizza crust shift came to an end in Sehnert’s commercial kitchen, the momentum and energy did not change. Even though the orders for that day were fulfilled, the show continued to go on. Shrouded in a floury haze, the baking crew worked at the same fast pace, prepping stations for the next shift. This culinary dance was far from over.