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Natural Ovens Bakery-- A "Whole" Lot of Firsts

August 6, 2003

by Freda Parker
photos by www.vitophoto.com

First for Indiana

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In 1834 a small settlement in northwest Indiana got its first log cabin. That settlement was Valparaiso, whose name was chosen because of its meaning: vale of paradise.

One hundred sixty-nine years later, Valparaiso, now with a population of more than 27,000, got its first Monolithic Dome -- a manufacturing facility built by Paul and Barbara Stitt, owners of Natural Ovens Bakery, headquartered in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

First in the U.S.

Natural Ovens Bakery
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This Monolithic Dome, with its diameter of 220 feet, height of 65 feet and wall thickness of 23 inches at its base, is the first such dome in America designed as a manufacturing plant.

George Douglas, manager of Valparaiso operations for Natural Ovens Bakery, said, "Right now, our production is averaging about 9,000 units a day, but the goal is 30,000." Since the Valparaiso bakery does a full line of Natural Ovens' products, those units include breads, bagels, muffins, rolls, cookies, cereals and mixes. "We begin work at three in the morning, and sanitation finishes up about ten-thirty at night," Douglas said.

Natural Ovens Bakery
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The bakery currently has a staff of 58 in three departments: production, packaging and sanitation. Douglas said, "We have a variety of workers. We have some people who came in with baking experience, but our products are so unique with no preservatives or dough conditioners. It's different than baking the typical mass-produced bread. So there's definitely an educational and training component that goes on."

First Step Toward Nationwide Distribution

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Paul Stitt, who has an M.S. degree in biochemistry and is the author of several books related to nutrition, together with his wife Barbara, founded Natural Ovens Bakery in 1976. Their purpose was to establish production of "fresh, filling and satisfying, preservative-free whole grain food in the Midwest" (www.naturalovens.com). To that end, they built their first bakery in Manitowoc, Wisconsin and gradually increased their distribution to 1200 grocery stores across 18 states.

Natural Ovens Bakery
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In 2000, the Stitts, already involved in designing their Monolithic Dome dream home, began working toward the construction of a second bakery and nationwide distribution for their products. They contacted David South, Monolithic's president, who sent them to Birmingham, Alabama to see and inspect Faith Chapel, a new, 280' x 72' Monolithic Dome church. That sighting helped convince them to build a Monolithic Dome for their new facility.

Finding A Site

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Natural Ovens' second bakery site had to access key metropolitan areas: Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis. Their search took the Stitts to Valparaiso where they met George Douglas, who was then the economic development planner for the city. Douglas said, "I acted as liaison between the city, the state and the business. I worked with the owners to facilitate their coming to Valparaiso and selecting Valparaiso."

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When asked what made Valparaiso attractive to the Stitts, he said, "A couple of things stand out -- location and quality of life. Obviously location is what company expansion is all about. Being in northwest Indiana, we are close to the Chicago market, and we have the interstate infrastructure to easily deliver products to many different markets. That was very attractive.

"Then, in terms of the community itself," Douglas continued, "it's the quality of life. The Stitts are very involved in their community in Manitowoc. They sit on numerous boards and participate at the community level. Valparaiso very much embodies that type of community. We look for businesses that are here for more than just to operate their business. Instead, they are here to be part of the community, and the same for their employees. Our community takes great pride in improving itself. We don't look for handouts; we do the work ourselves. I think that philosophy aligns itself with the Stitts and their company."

Building the Dome

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In July 2001 Dome Technology, Inc. of Idaho Falls, Idaho began the construction process for the dome shell.

Shortly after that started, the firm of Joseph B Martin Architects of Lake Station, Indiana came on board and became the project's "architect of record." According to Joseph Martin, Jr., the firm's managing partner,the bakery was their first Monolithic project; they found it both innovative and challenging. "It actually pushed us to embrace some of the newer technologies," Martin said. He thinks they contributed most significantly by planning ways in which to optimize the use of the interior space. For example, they moved a motor room to an area between the dome's first and second floors and freed up about 400 square feet of the production floor.

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Martin described his firm as a fifty-year-old, three-generational, family run, relatively small company of about ten people, that specializes in the design of large food stores, churches, schools, libraries and banks.

Dome Technology completed the shell construction in December 2001. Douglas said, "In January, we started on the inside of the dome and completed that in September, and that's when the bakery equipment began coming in."

Asked what he personally likes about the dome, Douglas listed five characteristics. He said, "It's a very strong structure that will last. It's basically a bomb shelter, if you will. With that much concrete, there's nothing for the wind to grab a hold of. It's super strong.

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"We have a suspended mezzanine deck upstairs that allows a clear view of the entire production area. Nothing is hidden. So tour groups from the public can see the process -- from start to finish. That's very unique in the industry and in manufacturing, and we think that's a very healthy thing for people to be able to see just how their food is made -- the ingredients, the process, the packaging. We like that.

"Our production floor is wide open. So if we add more production equipment or change the production layout, we don't have to deal with support columns, and we don't have to worry as much about getting equipment in and out. It's easy to do that because it's so wide open.

"That wide open production area, through its physical design, has taken down some of the barriers toward building good team work and cooperation among employees and departments. We don't have a dividing wall or separate room where packaging is done -- as you find in other bakeries. You can easily see where things are and if someone needs help.

"With this thermal mass, the building is very energy efficient. It really holds a pretty constant temperature. Right now, we have no air conditioning, except for a few offices, and no heating in the dome. One large exhaust fan at the top of the dome allows us to exhaust and exchange the air inside the bakery, and we've got windows and vents. We've been maintaining a temperature in the low 70s that's very comfortable, and that gets in the upper 70s by the end of the day. We've not gone through a year of production yet. So we'll wait and see if we need to add a cooling system."

A Final First

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For the grand opening of Natural Ovens' Valparaiso bakery, Paul and Barbara Stitt arranged an event that, to our knowledge, has never been done before. They had Roy Pirrung, Ultra-Marathoner of the Year sponsored by Natural Ovens Bakery, run from their headquarters in Manitowoc, Wisconsin to their new Monolithic Dome facility in Valparaiso, Indiana: 265 miles, four days, 600,000 steps. During that record-setting run, Roy ate Sunny Millet bread dipped in olive oil, bananas, grapes, Natural Ovens' cookies, drank lots of water and took electrolytes. He never lost an ounce of weight. When Roy got to within two miles of the dome, Natural Ovens' beautiful Belgian horses, pulling an antique bread wagon, escorted him home where he met the cheering thousands who came to see the dome and tour the new Natural Ovens Bakery.

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