Normally, when I get an invitation to "come and see the latest additions to our new make-up line", the sender is a beauty firm - the likes of Estée Lauder or L’Oréal.

But in bakery ’make-up’ is somewhat different. And this time, the sender was the well-known Mike Johnson of Rondo, who is far more interested in perfect pastry than my long-lasting lipstick.

On the day I visited the firm, I was in good company, with quality bakers such as Simmons of Hatfield with 28 shops in Hertfordshire, Reeves the Bakers with seven outlets around Salisbury, Janes Pantry with 10 shops in Gloucestershire, and the Jolly Baker with two outlets in London.

Johnson told me the aim of the day was to take bakers, all of whom already have Rondo equipment, to the next stage, with the aim of increasing their productivity. "Most bakeries of this size cannot justify a fully automated line, so we are demonstrating that you can go step by step, with each investment providing either better consistency or increased productivity or both," he says.

"The latest Smartline provides endless dough or pastry, and the new Smartfeeder delivers to it a regular dough band to start each operation."

continuous band

As I watched the demonstrations by Rob Childs and Ted Spragg I saw raw dough being fed in at one end and shaped rolls coming out at the other.

The continuous dough band means no joins and accurate cutting and shaping every time. Products demonstrated included torpedo rolls, rectangular ciabattas and square wholemeal rolls, hand-finished with a topping of seeds and grains.

The Smartfeeder and Smartline seemed to cope very well with everything. In fact, the line can handle any shape of sandwich carrier and, with an optional moulder, traditional baguettes and petits pains. But the bakers also needed to see what the machine could do with pastry. As the demonstration continued, Johnson explained: "It can produce pastry products from pasties to apple strudels, and from scones to doughnuts. Our key objective with this line is to make it the major workhorse within the craft and wholesale or, as BCA members call it, ’non-retail’ sectors."

Surely that calls for enormous flexibility, I ask, glancing at Perry Mayne of the Jolly Baker, with two shops, and Ian Matthews of 28-shop Simmons, which also delivers to restaurants and non-retail customers. Their scale of needs is different.

But everything can be automatically produced with just two people, including one at the end for possible hand-finishing, and runs can be really short - for example, just five minutes. That may suit the Jolly Baker, because Mayne says he wants to keep producing really fresh products, top quality and ’natural’ with no additives.

Alternatively, for larger establishments, the Smart make-up line can run for complete eight-hour shifts with product change-overs achieved very quickly via a touchscreen-operated processor, controlling all roller gaps, belt speeds, depositor and guillotine settings. This length of time is important to certain customers, such as Fortes Bakery of Burgess Hill, which supplies the airlines, for example, says Mike.

Also, depending on the size of the product, the baker can run from two lanes up to six at a time, whether it is a soft sticky dough or a firm puff pastry. I can only imagine the problems of cleaning sticky dough off the line, but Terry Tredget demonstrates how cleaning and hygiene are simple to perform.

knowledge is power

Questions are taken during the demonstrations. Neville Morse, MD of Janes Pantry, writes them down in a notebook to ask at the end. He wants to make sure he knows everything before he leaves. Knowledge is power as well as production. Even so, occasionally things must go wrong or parts wear out. "We pride ourselves on service," counters Johnson. "That’s one reason we get a lot of repeat orders."

At a break for lunch, we eat the products we saw made in the morning - among them the seeded rolls, decorated pizzas and rectangular ciabattas.

"I’ve got a thing about tradition," muses Johnson. "Most rolls are circular, dating back to the housewife and the rolling pin." He doesn’t just mean bread rolls but Cornish pasties which are circles filled then folded over. "But now other shapes are very popular and are designed with their final purpose in mind," he says. "People want variety, so what we are offering customers is a step-by-step truly automatic line for a wide range of products.

"Space is always in short supply. This is a relatively compact line measuring just 11.5 metres but it does everything."

Apart from enquiries or demand for servicing, what is the nicest comment a customer has ever made to you? I ask him.

"Whenever I need help, you’ve just invented it!" he replies.

Now that’s a smart line, if ever I heard one. n