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Lindsey Good from Huntington 30 Mile Meal talks to John Brunetti about Brunetti’s Italian Bakery.
KENOVA — Rocco’s Ristorante and Hillbilly Hot Dogs may offer a completely different ambiance and type of cuisine. But they have at least a couple things in common — both have attracted enough local attention to be visited by the Food Network, and both buy their bread from the same local business, Brunetti’s Italian Bakery in Kenova.
“We’ll stay with them as long as they’re down there. We hope they stay local,” said Hillbilly Hot Dogs co-owner Sonny Knight. “Anytime you need something, they get together and they make it. They never have once said, ‘Nah, we can’t do that.’
“And when we open (the bread) and put it on a grill and butter it and add garlic powder, that’s when the flavor really comes all over the place. Everyone thinks we’re making bread because it’s so fresh.”
Owned for the past 29 years by John Brunetti of Huntington, Brunetti’s Bakery has grown tremendously since its founding in the back of Brunetti’s old restaurant on 4th Avenue. It sells buns for hoagies, Kaiser rolls, hot dog buns, and other specialty bread products to distribution centers and restaurants in a region that stretches to Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio, and throughout West Virginia and parts of Kentucky.
And next month, the company is bringing back a service it formerly provided. It will again have a truck that makes deliveries to local businesses.
When he first came to Huntington from Clarksburg in 1981 and opened an Italian restaurant, Brunetti couldn’t find any Italian bread that was the type he was accustomed to with his Italian heritage.
“The texture of the Italian bread and the flavor is more of an artisan-style bread,” Brunetti said. “It’s more of something your grandparents would have made. It’s what I was used to, and that type of bread wasn’t in Huntington in 1981 when we moved here.”
So he made his own in the back part of his restaurant, Brunetti’s Italian Delights. It was in the 1200 block of 4th Avenue.
Brunetti owned the restaurant until 1983. But he had other restaurant owners — such as Rocco Muriale — showing enough interest in the bread they were making that he decided to stick solely to that.
54,000 square feet, with room to expand.
And the business grew. Brunetti’s first relocated to Virginia Avenue and then about 10 years ago moved to its current location in Kenova. It’s about 54,000 square feet, with room to expand.
The process has gotten a lot more automated over the years as well.
“We’re able to produce a lot more product in less time and be more consistent,” Brunetti said. When they first started baking bread in the restaurant, they could go through four 400-pound bags of flour in a day. Now, they can go through 50 bags.
The bakery uses all its own ingredients
The bakery uses all its own ingredients, rather than a mix, and so it doesn’t have a lot of preservatives and has a good wholesome taste, Brunetti said.
It gets 75,000-pound bulk shipments of flour, stored in a silo and blown through a tube in the ceiling to a mixer that makes 350 pounds of dough per batch. After being mixed, the dough goes through a divider which shapes dough into balls and then it rests, before being formed into a hoagie shape. It’s then sheeted and placed in molding pans, and then goes into a proof box.
“It’s like going to the sauna at the Y,” Brunetti said. “That’s where they rise and fill the mold.”
Then its either seeded or the top is split before being baked. The bakery has five ovens that can bake 100 pans every 17 minutes. Each pan has 17 to 24 rolls.
The bread is then removed from the pan to keep it from sweating and to help it cool down quicker. The bakery will soon have an automated spiral cooler to help with that process. The bread is then sliced, bagged, boxed and shipped to distribution centers.
Bringing the truck service back will improve the turnaround time for local restaurants, he said.
“Some prefer getting fresh bread to getting it from distributors,” he said. “We’ll put the truck on the road in the Tri-State area.”
Customers at Rocco’s, Hillbilly Hot Dogs and Monty’s Pizza are among those who have eaten Brunetti’s bread, as well as those who have eaten at the spaghetti dinners at St. Joseph Catholic Church, where Brunetti’s family are members.
The bread is not exactly the same as it was when they first started baking it. Through connections with other bakers, Brunetti said he’s gotten a lot of advice over the years on how to make the best bread with the most efficient process.
When Brunetti moved to Huntington with his wife, Michele, in 1981, he had already been helping run his father’s restaurant in Clarksburg. But wanted to go out on his own.
“We had two children, $500 in pocket and a little baking equipment when we moved here,” he said. “We got a $5,000 loan and grew from there.”
Michele once worked in the family business as well, he said, and one of his three now grown children, Josh Brunetti, continues in the bakery. He’s one of 10 employees at the bakery, which doesn’t have air conditioning and gets to temperatures well above 100 degrees during the summer days.
Brunetti praised his employees for knowing their jobs and performing them well.
“I don’t have to babysit them,” he said. “They know what they have to do and they do a very good job of it — even in the heat. And the heat sucks it out of you.”
It’s been an interesting journey, he said of growing the business. Eighth months after relocating to Kenova in 1999, the bakery was destroyed in a fire.
“My stack of pans was holding the roof up,” he said. “Everything had to be redone. But in 30 days we were back baking. That was a pretty dramatic feat. It was scary. We have all these accounts and you worry, but they were loyal. When we opened back up, they came back.”
He almost lost a hand, too. It took five doctors and 25 hours of surgery at a hospital in Louisville — with bone, skin and artery graphs — “to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” he said.
The past year was a little rough with the economy, he said, but he sees a noticeable increase. Business isn’t back to what it was before the recession, but it’s better, Brunetti said.
He likes being located in Kenova and plans to stay in the Huntington area.
“I like that it’s a big, little city,” Brunetti said. “It has a big city feel but it’s not New York City. I like that you can get anywhere quickly and not get caught in traffic”.