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Company Spotlight: Pan-O-Gold

Mark Ubl, vice president of sales, has been with the company for 38 years.

When Mark Ubl joined Pan-O-Gold Baking Company in 1981, his work day started at 3 a.m., when the alarm went off to announce it was time to start his bread route. “We had 30 routes, now we have 400,” he says. 

Driving was the best way to learn the business, the VP of sales said. “It’s that street-level talking to customers,” he points out, that builds long-lasting relationships and helps the company develop new products.

His original orders consisted of a “white and a wheat, a couple of packages of donuts and buns.” They now have 500 different products and counting, including a new twist on delivery, plus individually wrapped buns for customers such as C-stores and hospitals. 

The business has changed dramatically over the years to accommodate food trends and evolving consumer preferences, but two things that haven’t changed are the owners—it’s still going strong with the third generation of the Alton family—and employee retention. Ubl isn’t the only one who moved up the ranks at the “Midwest bread supplier.” When the original company, Beede Baking Company in Pipestone, Minnesota, was sold to the Alton family, the name was changed to Pan-O-Gold, a customer’s suggestion, since they were the bakers of “little pans of gold.”

Their customer list reads like the who’s who of bun orders, especially in the sports stadium world: The Minnesota Twins, the Vikings, the Gophers, Minnesota United, the Saints, as well as Miller Park in Wisconsin. They do a cranberry wild rice bread for US Foods, and they were Wendy’s vendor of the year a couple of years ago, Ubl says, and they deliver 51 percent whole grain bread to about 400 school districts. For retail, their bread is sold under the names Country Hearth and Village Hearth.

One of the reasons, Pan-O-Gold is able to attract and keep customers is its ability to work with restaurateurs and vendors to develop exactly the flavor profile the customer wants. Ubl talks about one restaurateur who was a particularly hard sale. “We made samples for a year and finally got their business,” he says. “We have food scientists on staff who will tinker with the recipes until they get it right.”

A close-up look at the loaves as they travel on a conveyor belt.

When management at Target Field wanted a bun that was softer than what it previously had been selling for its hot dogs and burgers, Pan-O-Gold developed a potato hot dog bun that was such a hit, the company decided to put it into retail as well. 

Ubl says he loves seeing their products at the occasional baseball game he makes it to, but says it drives him crazy to walk by a food station and see the buns uncovered. There’s nothing worse than a dry bun, he grouses. “I take that personally.”

When a grocery store customer in Prescott, Wisconsin, wanted to celebrate its 100th anniversary by getting into the Guinness Book of World Records for making the world’s largest brat, Pan-O-Gold supplied the 52-foot-long bun. They built a special pan for the bun and drove it to Wisconsin in a 53-foot long semitrailer. The Pioneer Press reported at the time (2012) that the bakery had spent $20,000 on the bun. Pan-O-Gold’s Jimmy Hanson was quoted in the article as saying, “Sometimes, you’ve gotta do a feel-good, and one family’s gotta take care of another. Not everything’s about making money.” Ubl agrees. 

“We’re willing to do anything for customers,” Ubl emphasizes.

The 200,000-square-foot bakery floor looks like a futuristic factory where three giant flour silos are continually filled and emptied and the loaves of bread cool overhead on a tame roller-coaster ride on the way to bagging. The bread is made to order, so inventory is always fresh or fresh frozen. 

The St. Cloud manufacturing plant is one of three, including facilities in Fargo and Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, serving a seven-state area for fresh bread delivery and nationwide for frozen.

In addition to a well-rounded and generous social responsibility plan—such as donating thousands of dollars to schools in the upper Midwest and donating 1 million loaves of bread and bread products to food shelves and hunger programs yearly—Pan-O-Gold is a leader in sustainability and green programs. The goal is for every item that comes into the plant to be used or recycled, so as little as possible goes into the landfill. Plastic bags are designed to break down quickly and twist ties are biodegradable. And they feed a lot of pigs with the rejected bread that doesn’t meet their high standards. 

While there are stringent quality control measures in place, one of the perks of management is that every Monday a selection of loaves are brought upstairs and the bosses test them. Which is why the conference room also includes a refrigerator and several jars of peanut butter. 

It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to make a sandwich out of a loaf of bread. 

The loaves take a ride on an overhead conveyor to cool down before being bagged and boxed for delivery. 

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