Retail bakery owners have numerous thoughts on their oven wish list nowadays.

Bobby Jucker at Houston-based Three Brothers Bakers, one of the nation’s oldest and most iconic retail bakeries, points out that bakery ovens have come a long way in three decades.

Innovation remains a common theme of its longstanding tradition. Did you know Three Brothers Bakery is one of the first retail bakeries in America with an online store?

When asked what Jucker believes to be the most important oven advances from a retail baker’s perspective, he answers succinctly, “steam generation, and the recovery aspect of those steam ovens.”

What this experienced baker looks most of all with oven technology are the following factors: steam, recovery, well insulated, and smaller footprint.

“The best for us are the rack ovens,” Jucker says. “They are better than revolving or deck ovens due to our variety of needs. If you are strictly a bread baker, then deck oven is the way to go.”

Three Brothers Bakery is an award-winning small business with 200-year-old roots.

Some may know the fascinating history of Three Brothers Bakery, which is a known best as a family of survivors. The story of iconic Three Brothers Bakery dates back to Europe (Chrzanow, Poland) around 1825 with the first bakery opening. Sadly, the family was sent to concentration camps in 1941 where they had to practice extreme courage and bravery until their freedom from the SS officers on May 8, 1945.

The three brothers (Sigmund, Sol, and Max Jucker) along with their sister immigrated to Houston, Texas, where they opened a bakery on Holman St. Mixers were still not invented yet and everything was 100% homemade from scratch.

“Our dear Sigmund recalled selling only $19 worth of product on opening day, which shows just how far the company has come over the years,” the Jucker family shares. “In 1963, they hired their first employee and got a mixer! In 2000, Bobby became their 5th generation baker and took over the bakery, with his wife Janice joining him in 2005. Three Brothers bakery has now expanded into three different locations with a 4th brand new location on the way mid-summer at Tanglewood. On December 11, 2020, we sadly lost our last original three brother Sigmund. He was 98 years old. He truly created a bakery empire along with his brothers.”

The company has survived hurricanes, fires, floods, freezes, and even a world-wide pandemic. Despite all of this, they continued to pay their employees through it all.

Expert perspectives

Jan Schat, a professional bread consultant who is a Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie champion, agrees that flavor is playing a more prominent role in the craft bread world of today. There are more specialty ingredients (local grains) for bakers to work with, and although some can get expensive, bakers should be excited by the possibilities.

Schat has crafted breads that include a low percentage (10%) of a single varietal whole grain flour with wonderful results. He’s done so in classics like French baguettes, resulting in “phenomenal” flavors.

“Small additions of single varietals into liquid levains, or poolish, bring out interesting flavors. I find that to be exciting,” Schat says. “To me, it’s nice if you can transition people into better flavor and nutrition. It’s an exciting world of flavor that is definitely worth pursuing.”

Ovens have come a long way in 30 years, and Schat points out the modern ovens have become more compact and energy efficient. There is also more versatility in oven types and oven combinations available.

“Referring in this case to hearth, or artisan bread baking, the oven must be stone bottom, or manufactured stone decks with sufficient steam and steam recovery plus evenness of bake,” he recommends. “Good design is important but equally so is that the oven is well-manufactured and using quality materials.” 

Schat says he believes the best direction to go for versatility at a complex retail bakery is a convection/deck combination oven. But this really depends on how important hearth bread is to the bakery. 

The combination ovens available for retail bakers are limited and not the most obvious direction to look for an overall high quality yet simple oven, he points out.

“Only if focused on sales from hearth breads do I recommend only a deck oven, otherwise I find only a convection ovens more versatile. That said, some retail bakers prefer to bake all types of baked goods on the deck. I like this option too, but often total oven capacity for the cost does not match that of convection oven options and likely requires more labor to operate.”

Dedication to the craft

Chicago entrepreneur and artisan baker, Felix Barats, founder of Chicago Specialty Bakers, Elk Grove Village, has championed the heritage of bakery products that draw from the finest bakeries across Europe and Asia..

Barats’ dedication to his craft, his hands-on approach (each customer gets Barats’ personal attention, unlike most competitors now under more-corporate control) has enabled him to build one of the largest commercial artisan bakery in the U.S.

“If we don’t continue to offer old world bakery products, baked the way they were intended, they will be lost to the world of gastronomy,” said Barats. “I am committed to not only offering our current products, but I am always experimenting with new artisan bread products that will set new standards in baking excellence.”

Barats ensured his products retain the quality he knew from his upbringing by investing millions of dollars in top-of-the-line ovens and preparation equipment nestled in a new production facility in Elk Grove Village, outside Chicago and a few miles from his first facility in Bensenville.

Leveraging this new equipment, Barats has innovated bakery products unavailable anywhere in this country. He continues to create new bakery products for customers here and abroad.   Since 1980, when he emigrated to America, Barats continually returns to Europe to refine his old-world baking skills and discover new artisan products.  

“At Chicago Specialty Bakers we strive to produce products for customers that demand real flavor in the bread products they purchase; customization in style, shape and taste — and flexibility in our plant to meet these challenges,” notes Barats.

Learning the craft from artisans in Eastern Europe, Barats brought his skills and knowledge to the American market. Today, the heart and soul of his operation is in traditional, levain-based, dark-colored, coriander-topped, sweet-and-sour Eastern European rye breads, such as an Eastern European rye within the U.S. marketplace known as Borodinsky.

Barats maintains that rye will always form a familiar priority at Chicago Specialty Bakers, whose specialty breads include Arnautsky, Baltic Rye, the aforementioned Borodinsky, Orlovski, Stolovy and Ukrainia.

He sells more than 12,000,00 ready-made sandwiches to leading commercial airline, food service and grocery customers. This is in addition to regional, national and international distributors that order the bakery’s par-baked, frozen products. Barats also supplies food and bakery options to national coffee and sandwich shops.

Affordable indulgence

Consumers feel an incredible level of permissibility when it comes to purchasing baked foods, according to the latest survey by the American Bakers Association. Anne-Marie Roerink, principal of 210 Analytics, presented results of the study, “Life Through the Lens of the Bakery 2022,” at the International Baking Industry Exposition in Las Vegas.

The study, commissioned by the ABA to learn about the ways baked foods currently fit into consumers’ life occasions, surveyed more than 1,500 consumers in July. Findings revealed opportunities for bakery growth at home and away from home, Roerink said.

Among top concerns tracked by the study, the cost of groceries ranked highest, with 64% of respondents saying they were “very concerned” about high grocery prices. 54% of consumers reported being “very concerned” about high gasoline prices and 46% said they were “very concerned” about high restaurant prices, according to the study.

Even as inflation is wreaking havoc, bakery items remain a priority for consumers, Roerink said.

“People are creating room in their budgets for these types of activities,” she said. “Baked items are an affordable indulgence. Consumers have an emotional connection to bakery items.”

Baked foods have a high permissibility as many consumers enjoy the occasional baked treat as part of everyday life, she said.  According to the survey, 84% of consumers agreed, “it is perfectly fine to occasionally treat yourself with some baked treats such as cookies, cupcakes, donuts or pie.”

Making room in one’s budget for an occasional baked treat such as cookies, cupcakes or donuts, 45% of consumers said it is “somewhat important.”

When buying baked items in store, 56% of consumers have changed their behavior, according to the study, with the majority of respondents looking for sales specials more often.

The survey found baked foods are an integral part of family traditions and celebrations.

“At least 80% of consumers consider baked items an important part of family traditions, special celebrations, and holidays,” Roerink said.

Based on these findings, occasion-based and emotion-based marketing and merchandising could help drive sales of bakery items, she said.