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All the Buns at Wrigley Field - A Tour of Gonnella Bakery

By Anthony Todd in Food on May 9, 2011 4:00PM

Every time you bite into a Wrigley Field hot dog, you're biting into two Chicago classics at the same time. You are, of course, eating the Chicago Hot Dog, a culinary institution being served at the second-oldest park in major league baseball. But you are also biting into a Gonnella bun, made right here in Chicago. Not out in a suburb - on West Chicago avenue, four miles from Wrigley. Gonnella has been making bread in Chicago for over a hundred years, and baking at the Chicago Avenue plant since 1956. Join us on a tour of the entire factory including the baguette line, the hot dog buns and just about everything else.

The contract for Wrigley Field alone demands that Gonnella turn out over a million buns per year - and that clearly makes Dave Gonnella smile. The family still owns and operates the company, in the 1956 location. Dave's father took him to the bakery, and now his kids want to bake with him too. After touring so many food operations out in the north suburbs, we were expecting to hear that Gonnella was moving. Not a chance. "We love being in the city - the proximity to downtown makes the logistics of delivery much easier," says Gonnella. They just renovated their iconic neon sign, which now glows as good as new.

The process of industrial bread production isn't that different from home baking, except in scale and the constant sense of motion. Flour comes from the on-site silos (each of which holds 125,000 pounds of the stuff) and is mixed with the other basic ingredients of bread dough - salt, water, yeast. Other ingredients are added for speciality breads. The dough comes down from the top of the factory - an old-fashioned assembly line uses the vertical shape of the factory to make operations easier - and into the giant mixer, which turns out a huge batch of dough. The dough is cut into smaller pieces and put through a mechanical rolling device before being shaped into the desired cut of bread - hot dog bun, baguette or french roll. Unlike the other breads, each hot dog bun goes into an individual compartment in a mold before baking.

We can't give too much away about the exact details of the line (it's proprietary) but after the molding and shaping, the dough rests, then goes through proofing so it can rise - just like at home. Except, instead of leaving the bread in a warm corner of your kitchen, the bread travels on a conveyor system through a sealed, humid box heated to 113 degrees. We ducked inside the proofer, and Gonnella could definitely start a side business growing potted palm trees. Gonnella bread isn't baked in batches the way most bakers think of them - the line is constantly moving. So, the oven has to be huge - the length of the entire factory. Bread travels through the hot oven, baking as it moves, before being moved onto a giant cooling rack.

Despite the huge size, there is still a personal feel to the bread. As in a lot of smaller, older factories, some parts of the process are still done by hand. The slashes in the top of every baguette and french roll are put there by a baker with a knife. "We could automate this, but we want it to be more authentic," said factory manager Thomas King. King constantly stopped to inspect the line, moving a stuck piece of bread or picking out a bun that wasn't quite perfect.

Gonnella delivers to Wrigley every day during baseball season, though we missed most of the delivery trucks. Hot dog buns are still wrapped in Chicago-style plastic boxes, so that you can steam them at home if you wish. Baguettes come to stores in giant paper bags, so the crust can stay crispy.

Next time you bite into a Chicago-style hot dog, think back to these pictures. You'll know you're biting into a home-town classic.