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Green Plant of the Year 2020: Bimbo Bakeries USA

Oct. 5, 2020
With a solar array on the roof and employees beneath on a perpetual Energy Treasure Hunt, the Escondido, Calif. bakery has won several sustainability awards.

Bimbo Bakeries USA’s Escondido, Calif., bakery is a model for sustainable excellence. It's earned a number of honors in its 29 years and now can add another one: Food Processing's 2020 Green Plant of the Year.

The Escondido plant is sustainable in both an environmental sense and in the business sense, which should maintain its 170 jobs for years to come. "Sustainable initiatives, when done correctly, can contribute to the bottom line, as well as helping the community and helping the environment," says Kevin Yavari, environmental sustainability manager for BBU's west region.

The plant is one of 59 in the Bimbo Bakeries USA (BBU) network, and it makes bread and bun products under such brands as Artesano, Oroweat, Francisco and Ball Park.

"This bakery has done an exceptional job in carrying out one of BBU's purposes of building a sustainable, highly productive and deeply humane company," says Yavari. "We not only want to provide great products for consumers but also take care of the communities we live and work in."

He adds that one of the biggest goals of the parent company, Grupo Bimbo of Mexico, is a commitment to 100% renewable electricity by 2025, "and we are well on our way to achieving that goal," notes Yavari. BBU, the largest baking company in the U.S., is the biggest part of Grupo Bimbo, the largest bakery company in the world, according to Yavari.

Indeed, go to the Grupo Bimbo website and the home page has such headlines as "With renewable energy provided by three wind farms, we use 100% sustainable energy in all our Argentinian operations." And under "Nourishing A Better World," before the company talks about its products, it notes Bimbo operates "in a sustainable way, generating economic development, welfare in the communities, and caring for the environment." Elsewhere, the company notes, "Social and environmental evaluations and measures have been conducted with 114 strategic suppliers."

One symbol – actually four – of corporate goals for sustainability is that Yavari is one of four U.S. regional environmental sustainability managers, who report to Chris Wolfe, corporate director of environmental & sustainability. Wolfe reports to Michael Phillips, vice president of engineering, who is based in Bimbo USA's headquarters in Horsham, Pa. Also involved is Ramon Rivera, senior vice president of operations.

In 2019, the Escondido bakery won both the Energy Star Challenge for Industry and Energy Star Certification in the Commercial Bread and Roll category, the latter an award it has received annually since the category was established in 2016. Its sustainable features helped it become the first commercial bakery to earn both of those honors in the same year.

“We look at Escondido as the standard for what the rest of the baking industry should aspire to,” says Leslie Adebayo, BBU corporate sustainability manager, a member of Chris Wolfe's team.

Some of its achievements and ongoing sustainable initiatives:

  • A 1 mega-watt solar array covers the roof of the bakery and provides covered parking for associates, reducing the “heat island effect.” The 100,000-sq.-ft. solar array generates approximately one-third of the energy used by the bakery.
  • Between use reduction and recycling, the plant diverted 97.6% of its waste from landfills in 2019.
  • The bakery was awarded the California Food Production Investment Program grant to continue making energy efficient improvements -- such as an approved high efficiency boiler project, a project on the books for 2021, which will reduce water and natural gas.
  • 21 trees were planted alongside the solar installation to enhance the site’s natural aesthetic.

In addition to following corporate sustainability goals, many of the Escondido improvements were identified by employees in an ongoing "Energy Treasure Hunt." Projects both large and small that have been completed have eliminated 455,000 kWh per year. More Energy Treasure Hunt projects are being identified all the time. Employees are rewarded with lunches and other celebrations.

For 11 years now, we've asked you readers to help us honor the best recent examples of green/sustainable plants. Back in July, we whittled down a handful of nominations to four: Chobani's relatively new Twin Falls, Idaho, yogurt-making plant; Danone North America's Bridgeton, N.J., facility; OSI Group's Riverside, Calif., factory; and the Bimbo Bakeries USA Escondido, Calif., bakery featured here. We asked them all for 200-word essays to help familiarize you with their efforts. Then we put all four essays into a poll on our web site, and nearly 1,504 of you picked the winner.

In nominations and the final vote, we listed several points we were looking for in a Green Plant of the Year:

  • Is it energy efficient?
  • Does it use innovative or alternative sources of energy?
  • It is minimally polluting?
  • Does it minimize water use?
  • Were green building materials and practices used in its construction?
  • Is the design innovative?
  • Is it economically sustainable?

"Not all are home runs, but finding anything that saves energy is fantastic," says Matt Aguirre, maintenance manager at the Escondido plant, who coordinates the Energy Treasure Hunt.

The solar array is certainly the centerpiece of the plant's efforts, but simpler things such as shutting down equipment that's not in use, fixing air leaks and installing LED lighting all contribute. The Escondido plant is looking to add battery storage to the solar array in 2021.

Being in California helps, not hurts

Being in California already sets the bar higher than for plants in the rest of the country. For some manufacturers, California laws and rules are a major pain, but for Bimbo USA, "Our sustainability goals as a company are aligned with those of the state of California," says Yavari.

In Bimbo's case, there even was a payoff. "The state is actively investing in technologies to reduce energy consumption, increase sustainability and generally improve the environment – and to keep food processing jobs in California," Yavari continues.

So last year BBU won a $1.2 million grant from the California Energy Commission covering four of its seven plants there. The Escondido bakery will use its share of the money to upgrade its boilers, installing high-efficiency, digitally controlled boilers that should reduce natural gas use by 20%.

"It's been a journey for our plant going back several years," adds Jodi Hitchcock, the Escondido plant's director of operations. "The small steps add up. Even before the solar array, we were on a path of continuous improvement. The support from corporate has kept us moving forward."

There are similar solar arrays in other Grupo Bimbo plants in the U.S. and around the globe. Yavari says the company wants to replicate the Escondido solar array across the California plants. And the parent organization recently signed a "virtual purchase power agreement" with a Texas wind farm that will provide 100 MW of electricity. "It theoretically offsets the electric consumption of all of BBU’s bakery, sale center, distribution center and outlet operations," says Yavari. "As a result, BBU will offset around 260,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year."

Whatever the U.S. organization does has a great effect on the global corporation. With $6 billion in 2019 sales, Bimbo Bakeries USA accounts for nearly half of Grupo Bimbo's revenue ($15 billion). The Mexican parent made small U.S. acquisitions as early as 1994, mostly in California and Texas, but exploded in size when it bought the U.S. baking operations of Canadian grocer George Weston Ltd. – half of the business in 2002 and the rest in 2009. There have been several acquisitions since; adding Sara Lee's North American fresh bakery business in 2011 doubled BBU in size.

Grupo Bimbo has a sustainability group that drives progress globally across all its 190 plants in 32 countries. In 2015, sustainability was elevated to a corporate purpose. President/CEO Daniel Servitje reinforces that message often, the Bimbo USA officials say.

"When Daniel Servitje comes to tour our plants, he challenges us. He'll say, 'You could put LED lighting in here … What are you doing now to reduce your natural gas use?' The message is coming from the top, for sure."

But from the bottom, too. Aguirre adds, "Our employees are really proud that we're making a difference."