Vanilla takes off

Cupcake Babies are a popular item at Vanilla Bake Shop in Santa Monica, California.

 

Life is notorious for throwing curveballs at small business owners. Four years ago when Amy and Jeremy Berman decided to bid for a retail spot at the new Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), they had no idea how long the process would take or how their business might evolve in the meantime. But one thing this exuberant young couple knew well was how to adapt. Earlier in their lives, Amy had followed her passion for baking by graduating culinary school, leaving behind a potential career in television, and Jeremy had joined his wife to open Vanilla Bake Shop in 2007 in Santa Monica, CA, even after he’d just finished law school, because he knew at the time it was the right thing to do.

Still, nothing could prepare them for the roller-coaster ride of the past four years. They expanded their bakery to a second location in 2010, the same year Amy gave birth to the couple’s first child. Two years later, they had another child, and in September 2013 Vanilla opened their third retail spot —and first inside an airport. Ordinarily, bakery owners expand the family business after the kids are born and grown, but the Bermans are no ordinary couple.

From the start, their bakery steadily gained notoriety, as prominent celebrities like Martha Stewart became big fans of their little cupcakes (Vanilla sells regular size cupcakes and “cupcake babies” in two dozen flavors like Blackberry Passion Fruit and Toasted Dark Chocolate Coconut). It is Amy’s love for premium ingredients that resonates so well with Southern California customers. To name a few ingredients, she depends on Nielsen Massey vanilla, Guittard cocoa, Callebaut chocolate, sweet cream butter from Challenge Dairy and fresh berries from local farmers. Fans adore her cakes, cupcakes and sweet treats. On Facebook, Vanilla boasts more than 5,000 likes, and on Yelp, 158 reviewers proclaim their red velvet cupcakes as “probably one of the best I’ve ever had.”

It is this type of local following that convinced HMSHost, which manages culinary venues at more than 100 airports worldwide, including Los Angeles, to select Vanilla Bake Shop to be the sweet spot of the new Tom Bradley International Terminal, which opened in September 2013 after a $1.9 billion makeover. “Vanilla Bake Shop has quickly made a name for themselves, not just in Los Angeles, but nationwide, as one of the preeminent bakeries out there today,” says HMSHost’s Joe Waller, vice president of business development. “Amy and Jeremy have worked incredibly hard to grow their brand from scratch, and HMSHost is proud to be able to help perpetuate Vanilla Bake Shop’s growth.”

Vanilla’s third location, which is operated by HMSHost, is one of more than 60 options in Westfield’s new dining and retail collection at the new TBIT, featuring celebrated local and leading global brands, and cutting-edge design. LAX handles more than 1,500 flights every 24 hours.

Vanilla’s product mix differs at the airport location, compared with their other two bakeries in Santa Monica and the Century City Westfield Shopping Center. “Grab and go” items go exceptionally well at the airport, “so we developed packaging that can be taken on a flight easily and can be brought home as gifts or enjoyed on the plane, including pre-packaged cookies, cupcakes, French macarons, bars and biscotti,” Amy says. “We are currently working on developing some breakfast bread components for the early morning hours. We also offer sandwiches, salads and yogurt parfaits produced by the HMS Host chefs to make it a one-stop shop for travelers.”

Given that Vanilla’s airport location serves thousands of international travelers each week, foodservice offerings include sandwiches in a variety of options: Chicken Bahn Mi, Fresca Jamon, Turkey Wrap, Hummus Tray, and Spinach Strawberry Turkey Salad.

The majority of Vanilla’s core menu is the same, featuring Cupcake Babies, cupcakes, French macarons, cookies and bars (lemon, brownies and caramel bars with walnuts). Specialty sweets include prepackaged Salted Pecan Chip Shortbread cookies and Chocolate Sablés, which Amy makes with flour, cocoa powder, sea salt, butter, sugar and vanilla beans.

At the Santa Monica and Westfield Century City locations, Vanilla offers an expanded menu of cakes, tarts, pies, cheesecakes, and icebox desserts (chilled layer desserts like Southern Banana Pudding served in old-fashioned mason jars or as individual shots). Another popular novelty item is their Cake Lollipops, which come in three flavors: dark chocolate truffle, Southern red velvet, and vanilla bean.

A love for baking

The inspiration for Vanilla Bake Shop began when Amy, the head pastry chef and co-owner, was a young girl admiring her mother’s ability to make homemade cakes and sweets. Years later, that admiration turned into a culinary degree, and the desire to open a charming neighborhood bakery that focused on high quality ingredients and a timeless taste.

Shortly after Amy graduated culinary school and Jeremy finished law school, they partnered together to open Vanilla Bake Shop. “We envisioned a charming neighborhood bakery with fresh, from scratch cakes, cupcakes and assorted sweets that focused on high quality ingredients and timeless taste,” Amy says. “Everyone asks us how we came up with the name? The name Vanilla was concocted years ago in culinary school. While in class one day, my instructor told us that, ‘Vanilla was the world’s most universally loved flavor.’ Jeremy and I knew when the time was right, that would be the name of our bakery. It seemed fitting since we use real Madagascar vanilla beans in all our desserts!”

Jeremy and Amy Berman pose with Martha Stewart after  the VBS Meyer Lemon Raspberry Cupcake was as one of Stewart's favorite cupcakes for her National Cupcake Week.

 

Today, Vanilla Bake Shop is one of the hottest bakeries in the Los Angeles area, having been recognized by Los Angeles Magazine as one of “LA’s Top 20 Bakeries.” Vanilla Bake Shop has been featured by national media such as The Food Network during its “Cake Challenge” and by Martha Stewart during her nationwide search for her “Favorite Cupcakes.”

As an industry trend, retail bakeries across America are striving to expand their businesses by taking bolder steps to get out in front of customers, rather than wait for customers to come to them. Amy and Jeremy always knew they wanted to expand their bakery business, but they would proceed when the timing was right.

“We have been open since 2007, and I feel that our expansion plan has been rather conservative compared to other retail bakeries,” Amy says. “For us, we decided it was time to grow when our business was in a position to handle it, so we evaluated our options and made our expansion plan. We tried to avoid taking on challenges that would compromise our brand integrity and product quality.”

Another trend sweeping the country is that local food businesses are gaining more notoriety than before, and consumers love local. And now Vanilla is jumping on to the international stage, showing the power of a premium bakery brand.

“Opening our shop in the international terminal at LAX is definitely putting us into a brand new light for international consumers to discover our bakery and it allows us more potential for future growth opportunities,” Amy says. “It is going really well, and as more gates open we are able to see a clearer picture of what to expect for the future. The old terminal is still transitioning over to this one and as this process continues we are seeing more jumps in sales. Other factors that have really helped are being able to adjust our menu to meet the needs of the LAX customer. I believe it will be about a year before the whole process is complete, but so far so good.”

“Jeremy and I both grew up in Los Angeles and have a lot of fond memories traveling through LAX. We are proud Angelinos having our bakery here,” she adds. “Our partnership with HMSHost has been amazingly supportive throughout the process. They have helped us navigate the airport world while believing in bringing high quality, local, freshly baked desserts to the international travelers.”

Taking off at LAX

 

Former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa poses with Amy Berman at the brand reveal for the LAX Tom Bradley International terminal

 

The opportunity to expand to LAX started in 2009 — four years before the opening of Tom Bradley International Terminal — when HMSHost was looking for local brands to bring a more Los Angeles feel to the airport experience. Amy and Jeremy were contacted by HMSHost to see if they were interested in being bid for available spaces as LAX began its remodel.

“At the time we began this venture, we were certain we wanted to expand our business from our one location,” Amy says. “We felt very confident that working with our licensor HMSHost was the right decision because they had experience with navigating the airport bidding process, unions and other various challenges. We also knew that we would need to develop a system for running multiple stores and find a way to preserve our values with this new relationship. As it would turn out, the bidding process took so long that we opened a second location in Century City before we were awarded the LAX space.”

The process was uniquely challenging, she says, because there were so many components to the deal. Vanilla Bake Shop needed to form a relationship with licensor HMSHost and fine-tune a menu that would work well in the airport/travel environment and stay consistent with the bakery’s quality and brand. “Next steps included presenting our brand to the Los Angeles World Airports LAWA, as well as Westfield who took over the leasing process,” Amy explains. “In addition, we went through architectural meetings where we determined the necessary components needed to run our store and determine the design. The design firm, Flex Designs, created a beautiful space that captured our brand identity in a smart and creative way which we are very happy with.”

The logistics of how to bring the bakery’s desserts to the airport were a little tricky at first, Amy says. They bake everything fresh daily at their Santa Monica bakery location and deliver it every morning. “In doing so, we needed to become wholesale compliant, which required some construction and certifications on our part,” Amy says. “We considered rental kitchens that were wholesale approved, but baking out of our current kitchen made the most sense for us, so we dug in and remodeled. We became wholesale certified down to the wire, just two days before opening!”

Amy and Jeremy agree that the process has proved an extremely valuable learning experience. “We discovered different ways to adapt ourselves to the unique needs of our customer,” Amy says. “We always try to grow and evolve from every experience and this one certainly has helped us do that. We have created a few new menu options and have more in the works that will help fill some of the unique needs of our LAX guests. We have learned many operational tips from HMSHost policies and procedures that we have implemented into our other locations. We are that much more knowledgeable when it comes to opening future locations and feel confident in creating a successful expansion in a variety of environments.”

For the LAX location, Vanilla Bake Shop worked closely with the HMSHost and Flex Designs, which were contracted to generate architectural plans to build out all their spaces in the airport. “We provided them with photos of our two existing locations, along with feedback on necessary equipment, and they created the design for this space under the strict criteria of the airport,” she says. “This space was more complicated because we had to get design approval from HMSHost, Los Angeles World Airports and Westfield if we wanted to make any changes. HMSHost was extremely accommodating with everything we requested, but the tight timeline and multiple approval process made small changes a bit more difficult to accommodate.”

For example, one month before opening, Vanilla Bake Shop made some changes with the espresso machine. “The store had been approved for a different espresso machine, and this meant we had to scramble to get the approvals through NSF and the health department as well as HMSHost to switch things around,” Amy says. “Turns out small changes can have a very large ripple effect.”

HMSHost serves as the retail operator of Vanilla’s LAX location. Amy and Jeremy decided early on that because of HMSHost’s vast operating experience and expertise in food concessions that they would be comfortable implementing their operating system into Vanilla’s location. “And in turn we have learned a lot,” Amy says. “They continually work with us to create a menu of our product that will best suit the LAX customer. They staff, train and supply the location with anything needed, and provide ongoing feedback of product performance. They have been great at making many decisions that you would expect a seasoned operator to make, which has freed us up to focus on mostly brand specific issues.”

Moving forward, the sky’s the limit on the future success of Vanilla Bake Shop. “Expansion is a combination of a business’ readiness to grow and the opportunity to do so,” Amy says. “It is our intention to continue on the path of growth, taking part in opportunities that are the right fit for the company’s future.”