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Published May 31, 2010, 12:58 PM

North Dakota bakery has national focus

FINLEY, N.D. — For 50 years, Top Taste Inc. in Finley, N.D., has been adding value to the region’s agricultural commodities. The Finley business, which began as a small-town retail bakery, now makes a wide range of frozen bakery products for customers across a growing portion of the United States.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

FINLEY, N.D. — For 50 years, Top Taste Inc. in Finley, N.D., has been adding value to the region’s agricultural commodities.

The Finley business, which began as a small-town retail bakery, now makes a wide range of frozen bakery products for customers across a growing portion of the United States.

“We’re taking North Dakota wheat, we’re taking North Dakota yeast, we’re taking North Dakota sugar, and we’re processing it into a single product and shipping it out of state, which I think is a great idea,” says Wayne Fetting, president of the private company.

Flour comes from the North Dakota Mill in Grand Forks, N.D., yeast from Minn-Dak Yeast in Wahpeton, N.D., and sugar from United Sugars in Moorhead, Minn.

Each year, Top Taste uses about 750,000 pounds of flour, more than 100,000 pounds of sugar and 200,000 pounds of yeast.

The company makes about 4 million loaves of bread annually, Fetting says after first punching in numbers on an adding machine.

It’s not a figure he carries around in his head.

“We have like 350 different items,” he says.

Top Taste has a long history in Finley.

Fetting’s parents, Harold and Janice, started the business in 1960. It supplied baked goods to groceries in surrounding towns.

In the early 1970s, Harold Fetting saw that Rhodes frozen bread dough was showing up in grocery stores and competing against his bread route.

So in 1972, the Fettings began experimenting with their own frozen bread dough. Sales were strong enough that the family expanded its frozen line in 1976.

In 1987, they discontinued the retail bakery to focus on the frozen line. They tore down the old bakery and built on a warehouse and storage freezer.

In 1992, they added a spiral freezer, which increased production capacity.

After Harold Fetting retired, Jerry Haugen, who had extensive industry experience, joined the business in 1999

“After my dad decided to retire, we wanted to find the best person we could get,” Wayne Fetting says.

Haugen, now Top Taste’s vice president and a business partner in it, handles sales and marketing.

Wayne Fetting is in charge of production and administration.

Different sales categories

Top Taste sells both raw frozen dough and items that are prepared and frozen for later resale.

The company divides its sales into three categories.

About 20 percent of sales come from frozen bread sold in groceries under the Fetting’s label.

Another 40 percent of sales come from bakeries in supermarkets.

“They take our product, thaw it out, freeze it and put their name on it. You’ll never see the Fetting’s name on it,” Wayne Fetting says.

The remaining 40 percent of sales come from the private label category, in which Top Taste makes frozen bakery products for companies that put their own name on it.

“This is an area that’s really growing for us,” he says.

Much of Top Taste’s sales come in the Upper Midwest. The company also distributes to the southeastern United States and Texas, among other areas of the country.

Location is a plus

Being in North Dakota means Top Taste is farther from customers than many of the company’s competitors. That puts Top Taste as a disadvantage in trucking its products to customers.

But being in North Dakota also places the company closer to wheat of higher quality than the winter wheat used by many competitors, Fetting says.

As a result, he says, “it seems our products have higher quality and better consistency, which really helps us compete against other national companies.”

North Dakota had record spring wheat yields in 2009, but much of the wheat had low protein content, making the wheat less attractive to bakers.

Top Taste didn’t have much trouble getting the quality of flour it wanted, Fetting says.

He says the company is committed to remaining in Finley, population about 500.

“Finley has been very good to us,” he says.

The town’s economic development corporation was started in 1976 to help Top Taste finance its expansion, say Fetting and Roger Monson, president of Citizens State Bank in Finley.

Top Taste “has been a real success story. It provides a lot of employment in our rural area,” Monson says.

The company has 40 employees, up from about 30 a decade ago.

More growth expected

The nationwide recession hasn’t had much effect on Top Taste, Fetting says.

Sales in this part of the country remain good, although the auto industry’s woes have hurt Top Taste‘s sales in the Detroit area, where the company has some accounts, he says.

Top Taste is busiest in the fall when it gears up to meet higher demand from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

“People do more baking during the holidays,” he says.

Top Taste normally operates two production shifts five days a week, but goes to two shifts seven days a week during its busy season.

Fetting is optimistic that Top Taste will see even better days in its second half century.

“We’re been seeing some good growth, and we think it’s going to continue,” Fetting says.

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