In an ever-growing marketplace full of choices for consumers, retail bakeries recognize their bread and butter is scratch baking. Our 2017 Retail Bakery Operations Study shows that 95 percent of bakers bake from scratch. On average, today’s retailer uses scratch methods most often for cookies (80 percent), cakes (54 percent) and bread (51 percent).
“In my opinion, retail bakery is a very specific business with hands-on producing and personal customer service in the front end,” says Michael Weber, owner of Weber’s Bakery, an iconic Chicago bakery since 1930. “We’re not fast food — never will be — so I don’t see robots waiting on customers anytime soon.”
Still, some bakery owners see places to tweak production methods to improve profitability. Croissants, puff pastry and Danish are the top three products that retail bakeries purchase frozen, according to our report. Nearly half (45 percent) of retail bakers purchase some type of frozen product.
Others are holding on steadfast to time-tested methods. “We still make our own puff pastry dough that is laminated with only butter,” says Jory Downer, owner of Bennison’s Bakery in Chicago. The same level of commitment applies to flour, he adds. “I am very critical about the flour we use. I expect it to be from a particular mill, with very specific mill dates.”
The most influential trend related to production methods, emerging on the horizon, appears to be a trend toward central baking and bringing the theater of bakery production to the public. Places like Amy’s Bread and Zingerman’s popularized such initiatives, and the practice of hands-on baking in modern facilities that are in full view of customers continues.
La Farm Bakery just opened a new production facility in Cary, North Carolina, to allow the bakery more production and retail space. The facility will be open Monday through Saturday for customers to purchase fresh baked bread and pastries and to watch bakers in action. Additionally, a food truck will be parked outside the location Monday through Saturday to serve breakfast and lunch items. La Farm plans to expand on the location in the future to be able to serve coffee and sandwiches.
“It’s time for us to grow so that our bakers, who shape every single loaf by hand, have room to explore new ideas and produce breads to meet the demand of our customers,” says owner and Certified Master Baker Lionel Vatinet. The new facility will have expanded cooler space for storing grains and proofing coolers to allow breads to rise. It will also feature a “lab space” where its bakers can experiment with new techniques.
Wholesale bakeries are expanding their reach, as well. Founded in 1993 with a vision to create wholesome European bread with simple ingredients, St. Louis-based Companion has expanded into a multi-dimensional baking company with a growing wholesale grocery business, delivering bread locally, regionally, and as far as Montana and Florida. A year ago, Companion moved into new headquarters in Maryland Heights, Missouri, where a new $5 million facility houses the company’s impressive baking operations, a new cafe, a baking school and private event space.
“We are excited about the next chapter for Companion,” says Josh Allen, founder and owner. “We were bursting at the seams where we were. We reached a maturation point where our newest oven was 15 or 16 years old.”
Until recently, Companion had only dabbled in baking and distributing frozen par-baked breads and rolls on a regional basis. “It’s been the national grocer piece that changed that,” Allen says, adding they do business now with a national and regional grocery chain. “That whole industry is fascinating. We have formed some great relationships. Now we are big enough to take care of their needs. We are doing par-baked breads, rolls, sandwich rolls and limited pastries. We are not in the Southwest or Northeast, but we are pretty much everywhere else.”
Overall, the push in the retail bakery industry continues for making fresher products that can’t be found elsewhere. “We try to make everything higher quality and more upscale. Customers today are asking for better quality,” says Raul Porto, owner of Porto’s Bakery & Café in Los Angeles, which opened its fourth location this year.
Jory Downer, who is the second of three generations running Bennison’s Bakery in Evanston, Illinois, and a winning member of the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in 2005, showcases a variety of techniques and skills in the making of chocolate babka, rugelach, lemon florentine croissant, and hand-cut cake donuts. When frying donuts, for instance, he suggests the importance of slowly lowering the donuts into the frying grease and not flipping the dough pieces in the oil. “If they turn over, the grease is too deep,” he says.
The owner of North Shore Chicago landmark Bennison’s Bakery specializes in traditional pastries such as rugelach.
“When you cut it, you start with a nice rectangular piece, so it will stay the shape you need,” he told fellow bakers while preparing the dough to make rugelach. This dough is made with 2 pounds, 10 ounces each of three ingredients: butter, cream cheese, and King Arthur Sir Galahad flour. “This piece is 18 inches wide, which is cut in three strips,” he continues. Once the cinnamon sugar ingredients are mixed together, he sheets the dough and spreads with apricot jam, walnuts (finely ground), and the cinnamon sugar mixture. “Then we roll them up, push together, cut them and put directly in the oven. This is one of the best things we make.”
Chocolate babka is another favorite, and Chicago’s North Side where the family-owned bakery operates is surrounded by a diverse number of ethnic groups. That’s why it is so important they know how to make Greek pastries, Swedish pastries, French pastries, Polish pastries and more. And make them well. When frying donuts, for instance, he suggested the importance of slowly lowering the donuts into the frying grease and not flipping the dough pieces in the oil. “If they turn over, the grease is too deep,” he says.
There are not many Certified Master Bakers in the country, but Downer is one of them. His father, Guy, bought Bennison’s in 1967 and Jory joined the business in 1975. Today, Jory’s son, Guy, and daughter, Jordana, work for the bakery, making it three generations. Jory Downer credits his father for teaching him how to persevere and “don’t ask anybody to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.” He learned the art of fermentation from Didier Rosada and studied lamination techniques with Philippe Le Corre.
“I try to assure our customers that what they purchase here is the best quality baked goods they can find,” Downer says. Versatility is one of his true talents. He is as proficient baking artisan breads as he is perfecting pastries. He can read batters and doughs like few others, and knows when it’s ready. That matters because he is able to create a loaf of bread with the desired qualities he is after (open grain, tight grain) and use different fermentation methods to get different aromas in the finished loaf. “Being able to troubleshoot when there is a problem is important,” he says.