As Sosland Publishing celebrates its 100th anniversary, Bake magazine honors bakeries everywhere for their innovation and sustainability during challenging times. The following are specific examples of retail bakeries embracing their bright futures with successful strategies and tactics.

First opened in West Seattle where the historic Blake’s Bakery once stood, William and Heather Leaman continue to make history daily with one-of-a-kind creations. With more than 20 years of experience in pastry, bread, and chocolate, and as the captain of the 2005 Bread Bakers Guild Team USA, where he led his team to victory at the Coupe du Monde de Boulangerie (World Cup of Baking), William Leaman’s Bakery Nouveau has become a Seattle icon. “We are going to take it to the next level as far as product and variations go,” William Leaman says proudly.

Christopher Donka, operations manager at Bakery Nouveau, explains that new technologies and advancements are being introduced at the bakery to enhance precision and productivity.

“What I’ve been paying attention to while reading different publications and following ad links are more advanced multi-use depositors, different slicing/filling operations for cakes, and specialty decorating tools, as well as specialty chocolate manufacture,” he explains. “Since we started our own chocolate bar production, we’ve also started looking more at wrapping and packaging applications.”

Some of the technology the bakery uses in shop involves a programmable depositor for variety cookies, a multi-use automatic tempering machine for chocolate, a batter and filling depositor, and blast chillers.

“We’re looking at the possibly of some different shapers for dough products (while not new or advanced at all, a roll divider/shaper was a huge productivity boost/labor savings over the holiday season).  We’ve definitely found a place for the use of different technological solutions in our shops.”

Donka explains that the different tools have increased productivity by improving speed on certain repetitive tasks – such as using a depositor to fill cake pans with cheesecake batter, or a depositor to pipe macarons or portion cookies.  This frees up time for employees to do more in their production week. It also allows for a small team to handle the production needs of multiple stores or departments (which ties into profitability below). 

“For us, being able to consolidate certain products into a small team has allowed the other production teams to allocate their labor more effectively and prioritize time on products that are better with more hands-on attention,” he says.

As for profitability, technological or equipment advancements help with reducing or better controlling costs in terms of less waste and less time or labor expense for the same amount of product. Consistency of product, such as cookie weights, layers of filling in a cake, weight of batter in cheesecake, etc., helps to dial in costs and set pricing, Donka explains. This also makes it easier to deliver a consistent customer experience, which is important for making good impressions and developing long-term customer relationships. 

“There can also be a reduction in overall labor costs in a multi-store company like ours by consolidating component or product making,” he says. “For example, we have a pie press and it allowed us to replace the pie pan lining that was being done at all three of our shops during the holidays with a 2- to 3-person team at one location. We use the same press for quiche shells, creating a more consistent product across our locations.”

The cookie depositor is another example – a small team now makes all the cookies for all three shops, instead of each making and portioning out their own. Donka says that’s a huge time savings, and also an improvement in the employee experience with the removal of a lot of the repetitive hand work – which links back to productivity.

So, what are the biggest concerns or challenges facing the industry right now?

“While a little more intense than usual, it’s still labor and costs of goods,” he says. “Besides really having to keep an eye on costs, we’ve been dealing with supply issues – mostly delays in some of our specialty packaging due to shipping, but also in terms of ingredients. Some of the issues seem to be in the process of resolving, others have been on-off repeat issues. We basically continue to look at ways to increase efficiency while keeping up consistency and quality of products.”

Online expansion

Image courtesy of Stephanie McKinnie

In northern California, Manresa Bread is a neighborhood bakery founded by partner and head baker Avery Ruzicka, a 2020 James Beard finalist. Conceived in the kitchen of Chef David Kinch’s three-Michelin-star Manresa restaurant, Manresa Bread sources high-quality artisanal and local ingredients to create the best interpretations of classic breads and pastries. 

“We just made 6,000 kouign-amann in a month,” Ruzicka says of their growing sales.

Manresa Bread utilizes time-honored techniques and baking traditions like importing wheat berries and ancient grains, milling flours daily, and hand-shaping all naturally leavened breads. 

The pandemic, to say the least, has shifted their focus.

“This all feels surreal. Every year is such a huge learning experience, with different kinds of lessons,” Ruzicka explains. “We have grown our business and our management team. Covid forced me to center myself more – handing over certain tasks and finding the right fit of team members.”

Online has emerged as the perfect entry point for Manresa Bread customers. They can order for pickup using the convenient Toast takeout app, which is conveniently linked to Manresa’s website. For preorders, guests are conveniently directly on the website to Manresa’s Tock site, which hosts the bakery’s preorder business. They use a multitude of online options.

“Our product does well with delivery. Utilizing delivery systems has been a real positive for us,” Ruzicka says. “We have incredible customers. They are discerning, and they are excited to know many things about our products. We are always reviewing and rethinking.”

For instance, they are currently updating the way they make croissants to a polish-based process. Previously, they made croissants using a straight dough with long ferment.

“If we introduce a new ingredient, we absolutely communicate that. For example, our social media is informational – ‘this is the grain mix we use.’ How do we keep quality and consistency? Being methodical. We produce quite a lot for the size of team we have.”

Overall, the bakery has 70 employees now.

Beyond their retail stores, Manresa Bread is developing quite a following among food lovers.

They began selling baking mixes – waffle mix with whole wheat Einkorn flour, chocolate chip cookie mix with whole wheat flour, and mocha chip brownies – as well as cookie tins with a dozen assorted flavors. Last holiday season, the Thanksgiving Cookie Tin featured five cookies of the following flavors (Tumeric Hazel White Chocolate Cookie; Pumpkin Spice Swirl; Spritz Cookie; Rye Cherry Seven Treasure; Teff Chocolate Cookie).

“That has gone really well,” Ruzicka says. “We also do a baguette baking kit for baking poolish baguettes at home. It includes poolish ingredients, baking stone, peel, lame, and bread ingredients for two batches. People have started posting videos of making baguettes. I’d like to do more of that.”

In production, the bakery is retooling the menus of existing stores to include more cakes, entremets, and dessert items.

As the bakery enters its 7th year, the business plans to open a fourth store this spring in Palo Alto, California. The newest Palo Alto store will open in April 2022 in a bustling shopping center. The Los Gatos store will double in size after the current expansion.

Retooling for growth

Image courtesy of Three Brothers Bakery

On May 8, 2022, the date will mark the 73rd anniversary of Three Brothers Bakery in Houston, Texas. It is also more than 75 years since the founders and three brothers, Sigmund, Sol and Max, and older sister Janie, were liberated from Nazi concentration camps. You can read the whole history here.

Around the year 2000, Bobby, Sigmund’s eldest and 5th generation baker, took over the bakery and in 2005, his wife, Janice, joined him. Since then, they have created a second generation of history in America, noted by store openings, disasters, and accolades.

The bakery has operated continuously except for:

  • a three-day closure after flooding during Tropical Storm Allison,
  • a nine-month closure after Hurricane Ike rendered the building and production area inoperable,
  • another three-day closure after the 2015 Memorial Day floods, and
  • A 17-day closure after the devastating flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

The bakery is proud to say they paid employees the entire time they were closed.

Their last transformation occurred when Janice and Bobby hired a business coach in 2009. They learned they should find someone else to handle the day-to-day operations and focus on their own strengths, so they hired a management team. That proved to be a great experience and a great decision, enabling the aforementioned growth.

Additionally, they participated in the Goldman Sachs 10000 Small Businesses program in 2012, the SBA’s Emerging Leaders program in 2018, and continue learning the language of business through programs such as those put on through ICIC, ICCC, and at the SBA’s Small Business Development Centers. They were given the Small Family-Owned Business of the Year for the SBA’s Houston District.

With the advent of the Food Network, cake became recognized as an art form. Two things happened to put Three Brothers Bakery on the food map. The first was the bakery’s pecan pie being named by Country Living Magazine as “the best mail order pecan pie America has to offer.” The second was a challenge by Greg Morago from The Houston Chronicle to create a 3 layer piecake, which Three Brothers named the Pumpecapple Piecake.

“We are rooted in the legacy of survival, and now more than ever all small businesses are being tested,” Janice Jucker says.

In 2022, the bakery’s 4606 Washington Avenue location turned 8 years old, and they celebrated February 25 with cake (of course) and 8 cookies for $8 at this location only.
“As we look back 8 years ago this neighborhood was very different,” Bobby Jucker says. “Now we love how we see young children every day and so many families. It turned out to be a great location for us.”

Other new promotions include the Ready for Rodeo with Rodeo themed treats throughout rodeo season. There are approximately 600 sanctioned rodeos annually with over 30 million fans in the U.S. competition. Today, an estimated 2.5 million people enjoy the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday in March featured the bakery’s Louisiana style King Cakes and other Mardi Gras themed treats.

“About 8-10 years ago we went on a bakery trip to Louisiana during Mardi Gras season and learned we were making our king cakes all wrong,” the owners explain. “We brought home about 9 different king cakes from 9 different bakeries; laid them out on a table, and we had a tasting. We took the best of all of them and formulated what we use today. So many folks tell us now that they don’t have to get their king cakes shipped in from Louisiana because ours are just as good.”

Cookie bonanza

Image courtesy of Melissa Kirschenheiter

Amid the onset of COVID-19, New York City-based Levain Bakery experienced skyrocketing demand for its assortments of cookies available for purchase online. Simultaneously, the company needed to address an e-commerce packaging redesign while scaling up its warehousing capacity. To address these challenges, the company collaborated with R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company (RRD), a Chicago-based company with roots in printing that evolved to offer solutions from creative design and kitting to warehousing and proprietary supply chain management, and more.

“We were already a growing brand, opening new bakeries, scaling our e-commerce business, and expanding into grocery retailers,” said Andy Taylor, chief executive officer of Levain. “The challenge was creating a packaging solution that not only ensured our customers would receive our product in pristine condition, but also improved our efficiency to better meet demand. When COVID-19 caused New York—and the rest of the world —to shut down, we saw online orders multiply and we needed a supplier that had the flexibility to meet accelerating demand on a greater scale.”

R.R. Donnelley, a global provider of marketing and business communications, helped Levain Bakery meet a 200% increase in e-commerce demand during the pandemic. The 26-year-old bakery, which started on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, has transformed from a New York City institution popular among locals and tourists, to a national brand – while improving efficiencies and exceeding consumer expectations with the help of RRD’s packaging and warehousing solutions. 

Pam Weekes and Connie McDonald created Levain Bakery in 1995, out of their passions for food, friendship, and hard work. Competitive swimmers and triathletes, the founders passed their workouts by engaging in passionate conversations about baking, which inspired them to open a small bread shop in 1995, which they named Levain Bakery. Levain Bakery now has nine locations with more to come, e-commerce gift boxes, and most recently made its debut in grocery stores with the launch of Levain Bakery frozen cookies.

Available in packages of 4, 8, or 12, Levain’s cookies were already packaged in simple, shippable, self-erecting corrugated boxes filled with packing material. Not only were the boxes in need of a redesign to better reflect the brand inside and out, Levain strived to improve product protection and operational efficiency of the packaging.

“COVID-19 accelerated the urgency for Levain to address its evolving package design and warehousing needs,” said Lisa Pruett, president, RRD Packaging Solutions, Forms and Labels. “What differentiates RRD is our range of capabilities and expertise. From package design and engineering, to printing, supply chain, and marketing, we can serve as that single-source solutions provider for companies in growth mode.”

Collaborating closely with Levain’s marketing team and designers at The Creative Pack, RRD worked across multiple plants to deliver a vibrant e-commerce box that represents a combination of flexo and litho-lamination techniques. To address product protection, RRD designed a lightweight paperboard insert to accommodate all three pack sizes. The universal insert and redesigned package ultimately cut an 8-step process down to 4 steps.

“We supplied different iterations of packaging and inserts for the Levain team to evaluate. They then thoroughly transit tested the prototypes to ensure there would be no tearing or crushing of the packaging so customers would receive their cookies perfectly protected for the best possible brand experience,” said Pruett. “Our focus with clients is around sustainability and efficiency. For Levain, we were able to reduce the use of unnecessary materials per order while significantly cutting down the time it takes to package and ship the product, improving efficiency by 50%.” 

RRD also helped Levain solve its warehousing challenge using a replenishment model. This enabled Levain to receive partial orders for its rolling shipments of 15-pallets per week at its production facility while the balance remained in close proximity at an RRD warehousing facility in Pennsylvania. 

Following the success of the partnership for Levain’s e-commerce initiatives, the companies continue to work together as Levain expands availability of its grocery product: frozen, ready-to-heat cookies available in tuck tab folding cartons at over 1,700 grocery stores across the country. Additionally, RRD printed the promotional mailers for Levain’s new bakery locations in Washington D.C. and Bethesda, Maryland that opened in 2021. 

Levain’s redesigned e-commerce package also received a Gold Branding & Consumer Pentaward earlier this year in a highly competitive program that recognizes excellence in design.