Muffin company thinks it has a rat

The New York TimesAugust 7, 2010 

Bite into a Thomas' English muffin and, it turns out, you are about to swallow one of the most closely guarded secrets in the world of baking.

The company that owns the Thomas' brand says that only seven people know how the muffins get their trademark tracery of air pockets - marketed as nooks and crannies. It has gone to court to keep a tight lid on the secret.

That leaves one of the seven, Chris Botticella, out of a job - and at the center of a corporate spectacle involving top-secret recipe files, allegations of clandestine computer downloads and an extreme claim of culinary disloyalty: dumping English muffins for Twinkies and Ho Hos.

Botticella, 56, delved into the mystery of Thomas' muffinhood after Bimbo Bakeries USA bought the brand early last year. At the time, Botticella was a Bimbo vice president in charge of bakery operations in California.

He left the company in January, apparently allowing co-workers to believe he was retiring, but accepted a job with the rival baker Hostess Brands, which years ago had tried to crack the muffin code.

Bimbo obtained a federal court order barring the move, and late last month an appeals panel in Pennsylvania upheld the order. Botticella is now contemplating his next legal move, said his attorney, Elizabeth K. Ainslie.

The muffin code

Neither Botticella nor a Bimbo spokesman would comment for this article, but the legal papers in the case suggest a muffin culture more reminiscent of Langley than Drury Lane. Recipe manuals are called code books. Valuable information is compartmentalized to keep it from leaking out. Corporate officials speak of sharing information on a "need-to-know basis."

According to Bimbo's filings, the secret of the nooks and crannies was split into several pieces to make it more secure and to protect the $500 million in yearly muffin sales. They included the basic recipe, the moisture level of the muffin mixture, the equipment used and the way the product was baked.

"Most employees possess information only directly relevant to their assigned task," Daniel P. Babin, a Bimbo senior vice president, said in a written court declaration, "and very few employees, such as Botticella, possess all of the knowledge necessary to produce a finished product."

The company claimed that Botticella had access to many more secrets as well, including sales and production plans, labor agreements and key financial information. And Bimbo suspected that he meant to share at least some of it with his new employer, something Botticella denied in his own court filings.

Botticella, who lives in Southern California, has worked in the baking business for nearly four decades, spending the last eight years with Bimbo USA, the American division of the Mexican bakery giant Grupo Bimbo.

After Bimbo bought Thomas' in January 2009, Botticella became responsible for an English muffin factory in Placentia, Calif. That March, apparently as a condition for entering the ranks of the nook and cranny cognoscenti, the company had him sign a confidentiality agreement. It barred him from revealing company secrets but did not prohibit him from going to work for a competitor.

A drawn-out split

About the same time, according to papers filed by Botticella's lawyers, the company embarked on a broad cost-cutting drive. It involved plant closings and layoffs, and the papers say he found the process painful.

In October, he accepted a job offer from Hostess to run its Eastern operations. The salary was $200,000 a year, a $50,000 cut. But he did not start right away.

Instead, he arranged to begin his new job in January (in court papers he said he wanted to claim his year-end bonus from Bimbo). He told no one at Bimbo of his plans and continued to attend meetings and receive documents where confidential company information was discussed.

In early January, Botticella gave two weeks' notice. Bimbo said in court papers that his co-workers believed he was retiring. But days before his last scheduled day at work, Bimbo executives heard rumors about the Hostess job.

They confronted Botticella in a telephone call, and he told them it was true.

A turncoat?

Within minutes of hanging up the phone, Bimbo's lawyers say, Botticella used his laptop computer to access a dozen company files containing confidential information and apparently copied them onto a flash drive. The company said that a search of computer records revealed other activities in the weeks before his departure in which he appeared to have copied sensitive files.

Botticella said in a deposition that he was merely practicing his computer skills in preparation for his new job. But R. Barclay Surrick, the federal judge who in February granted the injunction barring Botticella from going to Hostess, concluded that his behavior demonstrated "an intention to use Bimbo's trade secrets during his intended employment with Hostess."

In a written statement, Hostess, which was not part of the legal case, said that it "sought to hire Chris Botticella for his vast experience in our industry, not for any particular technology" and that the agreement he signed with Hostess required that he not divulge Bimbo's trade secrets.

Botticella appealed the ruling, but a three-member panel of the appeals court upheld the decision on July 27. In the meantime, Hostess said that it was no longer holding the job for Botticella.

How hard can it be?

Some bakery experts were skeptical about Bimbo's claims of top-secret processes. The basic techniques for making an English muffin were widely known, they said: English muffin dough is very watery, and when it is cooked at high heat the water evaporates quickly and leaves large air pockets.

"It's a matter of taking the time, getting the right equipment, paying attention to detail, to produce the product you want," said Carl Hoseney, a retired professor of cereal chemistry at Kansas State University.

Not so in Thomas' case, said Theresa Cogswell, a baking industry consultant who spent a good portion of the 1980s and '90s trying to break Thomas' English muffin code.

"I could get nooks and crannies," Cogswell said, "but I couldn't get them consistently all day, every day."

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