Puyallup: Sumner

Sumner bakery produces ‘over a million buns a day’ for behemoth fast-food chain

Sumner touts itself as the Rhubarb Pie Capital of the World. It might be time to add burger buns to that boast.

Every day, more than 1 million buns are generated from a bakery in Sumner’s industrial backyard.

The Pacific Northwest Baking Co., 1307 Puyallup St., provides burger buns for nearly 600 McDonald’s locations in six Western states, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and California.

“We’re baking over a million buns a day,” CEO Bill Zimmerman said. “We’re very passionate about what we do here.”

A healthier bun

The bakery allowed a look inside its facility on Wednesday to show how the company makes its regular buns, Quarter Pounder buns (with sesame seeds) and Big Mac buns for McDonald’s.

In the last year, the baking company removed all artificial preservatives from its buns at McDonald’s request.

“McDonald’s is on a food journey,” Zimmerman said. “It started roughly in 2014 when they started removing artificial colors, flavors and preservatives from the food they serve. They did this in large part because of consumer feedback … (Consumers) don’t like artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.”

In 2015, McDonald’s committed to sourcing cage-free eggs by 2025. In 2016, the company announced that its chicken strips had no artificial preservatives; the same with its ice cream in 2017. In 2018, the company announced the move to 100 percent fresh beef.

Buns were the next step. Pacific Northwest Baking Co. eliminated calcium propionate, an artificial preservative that lengthens the shelf life of baked goods and prevents mold and bacteria from growing.

“As we move through this food journey with McDonald’s, this last year we were able to pull that final piece,” Zimmerman said.

While healthier options are being given at restaurants like McDonald’s, people are eating more fast food more often, with healthy options not making too much of a difference, according to researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

Not everything McDonald’s serves is preservative-free. The pickles still contain preservatives, but customers can ask for them to be removed.

For McDonald’s owner and operator Alex Medeiros, the changes have been for the better. As the owner of seven McDonald’s locations in East Pierce County, he’s started from the ground up.

“I work in the restaurants pretty much every day,” he said. “I started 39 years ago as crew member and stayed with it.”

Ryan Windish, community development director for the city of Sumner, also attended the showing on Wednesday.

“When I go to Spokane or Idaho and if go to McDonald’s, I’m like, ‘These were baked in Sumner!’” he said.

Making buns in bulk

It’s takes about six to eight hours to make one burger bun.

“We’re a very automated bakery,” Zimmerman said. “This is basically one large conveyor system.”

Pacific Northwest Baking Co., which employs 63 people, starts with basic ingredients to make dough: flour, water, yeast and a little bit of soybean oil. That mix ferments for four hours into a finished dough.

Finished dough weighs from 1,500 to 1,800 pounds before it’s sliced into smaller pieces and rounded into the correct size. The dough then is placed on sheets that hold 28 total buns.

Next, the dough makes a 54-minute trip through the “proof box,” which is kept at 100 degrees to help the dough rise. Then it’s straight into the oven to bake for eight to 10 minutes at more than 400 degrees.

Out of the oven, the buns are cooled for 20 minutes and sliced with a mechanical slicer. Every 30 minutes, workers check the buns for the appropriate color.

After the buns are packaged, they can spend up to a week at minus-20 degrees in the freezer before they’re shipped to McDonald’s locations. Once they arrive, they must be used within 48 hours.

Buns that are unusable for whatever reason are tossed. Typical waste amounts to 3 percent of the bakery’s total volume per day. That waste is given to a recycling center called Feed Commodities.

“They all go out to be recycled for animal feed,” Zimmerman said.

There’s one question that Zimmerman gets a lot: How many sesame seeds are put on a bun?

“We don’t shoot for a specific number,” he said. “It’s about the coverage on the top of the bun.”

Allison Needles: 253-597-8507, @herald_allison