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VALPARAISO | Northwest Indiana's appetite for Square Donuts and Mega Muffins made it clear: Family Express was going to need a bigger bakery.

The Valparaiso-based chain of 63 convenience stores across the Calumet Region and North Central Indiana just invested $1.5 million in a massive expansion of its bakery and added about 10 new workers. Last week, Family Express started up its new bakery line that nearly triples the production capacity, from 17,000 baked goods a day to 50,000, President and CEO Gus Olympidis said.

Family Express has grown its number of stores — which differentiate themselves from competitors with unique offerings such as fresh milk and Starbucks-like espresso drinks — by about 15 percent over the last few years. The growing demand for fresh doughnuts, muffins, cookies and brownies had put a strain on the bakery, which cooks fresh baked goods at Family Express's Valparaiso headquarters seven days a week. 

"We could not meet customer demand," he said. "It was an absolute necessity to support our stores."

Statewide, baking has grown into a $1.9 billion industry that supports more than 31,000 jobs in Indiana, according to the American Bakers Association. The Small Business Development Center estimates the overall industry should grow by an average annual rate of 0.6 percent over the next five years.

Family Express' vastly expanded baking capacity will support the ongoing growth of the business, but it has other benefits, Olympidis said. 

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"The hot glazing gives us the opportunity to ensure freshness for longer, even if you leave it on (the) kitchen counter overnight," he said. "It's a huge deal for our people, who have had to work in the middle of the night for over a decade and can transition to more desirable hours. It's a leap in our ability to produce, a leap in the freshness of products that will taste just as good the next day, and a leap in the quality of life for our employees." 

Bakery workers, who now total around 40, previously had to start work at midnight to bake enough to supply all the Family Express stores, but the new equipment and bigger production capacity lets them start work at 6 a.m. instead. Workers are excited to be able work a schedule that will allow them to pick their kids up from school or go to the movies at the end of their shift, Olympidis said.

Family Express overhauled its whole baking process, switching from cold glazing to hot glazing that heats doughnuts to more than 100 degrees to seal in moisture and lock in freshness for longer. The company has launched online ordering and will deliver more than $30 worth of baked goods to businesses, church groups, family gatherings or other customers. 

To promote more in-store sales of its baked goods, Family Express also has been doubling and tripling the size of bakery display cases in its convenience stores.

"Our entire line of baked goods has been growing in popularity," Olympidis said. "We have the iconic Square Donuts, but our Mega Muffins are almost becoming as iconic in the markets we have stores in. It's the consumer's confidence in our product, and that comes with having something in your repertoire for a long time."

For information or to order online, visit, www.familyexpress.com/shop/.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.