Paul Sapienza has both a bakery background and an accounting degree. And, he finds each one equally valuable when it comes to making dough.
Sapienza honed his baking skills producing Italian pastries in a corner of the bread bakery his father Andrew founded in 1935. In the late '60s, Andrew Sapienza refocused his Elmont (Long Island), N.Y. operation-from supplying fresh bread to wholesale and retail customers to producing frozen doughs for the burgeoning supermarket in-store bakery segment.
Looking to expand his product mix, he gave his son Paul the responsibility of developing a pastry line. By 1973, sales of Paul's handmade cannolis, sfogiatelli (another ricotta cheese-filled pastry), Italian cookies and other specialty sweets had grown so much that the bread bakery could not accommodate production.
In 1973, Paul Sapienza opened his own 1,800-sq.-ft. pastry shop in Elmont. Even after his dad sold the bread business three years later, Paul's sales continued to rise.
“No matter how well a bakery makes a particular product or how well known it is for that product, variety is the key to survival in today's business,” Sapienza says. “Even if you make the best Danish or layer cake, keep learning about new ingredients and techniques and developing new items.”
Today, wholesale customers in and beyond the New York Metropolitan area account for about two-thirds of Sapienza Pastry Inc.'s $2.2 million in sales. About half of that wholesale business comes from cannoli shells, which the company sells as a dry product, and cream filling, which is sold frozen. The other half comes from Sapienza's line of traditional confections, such as cream puffs, eclairs and babas.
To avoid overwhelming the retail business, Sapienza opened a 4,000-sq.-ft. bakery in nearby Farmingdale to keep up with wholesale demand. Nicknamed casa di cannoli, the bakery services customers in New England, North Carolina and Florida.
Growing the retail end of the business was another matter. With everyone from restaurants to supermarkets able to offer Sapienza's Italian specialties, he had to develop a variety of signature specialties that would ensure his Elmont location would remain a destination.
By devoting the shop's production to retail, Sapienza and his production team headed by Pastry Chef Robert Castellano and Head Baker Bartholomew (Baldo) Forte have done just that. At the retail bakery, cakes account for at least 50 percent of sales.
At any given time, customers will find 40 to 50 cake varieties, including mousse, decorated and, on weekends, at least 12 types of cheesecakes;-30 kinds of cookies; and other upscale desserts. True to its Italian roots, the bakery recently introduced a fancy cannoli cake decorated with melted chocolate designs.
“You have to constantly think of how you can give customers more reasons to skip the selection at the supermarket,” he says. “That's the only way any bakery can maintain its competitive edge in this marketplace.
”Light signals support Gimmee Jimmy's smooth operation
When Jimmy Libman's bakery is on the blink, business is booming. That's because Libman, owner of Gimmee Jimmy's Cookies, a specialty wholesale/retail bakery in West Orange, N.J., uses flashing colored lights to alert him and his crew when a customer or phone call (via videophone or TTY) comes in or when a batch of cookies is ready to come out.
The special light signaling system has made it possible for Libman to grow the bakery he began in his parents' kitchen close to 21 years ago into a multi-faceted operation. It also allows him to offer employment opportunities to deaf and hard-ofhearing individuals “who otherwise might have difficulty mainstreaming into the work environment,” he says.
“These people are extremely skilled, hard-working and loyal employees,” Libman says.
Gimmee Jimmy's produces at least 20 varieties of handmade home-style cookies in his 3,000-sq.-ft. facility. Among the top sellers are chocolate chip, chocolate chip M&M™ (different colors of the candy reflect the seasons and holidays) and chocolate chip walnut. “The one universal truth is that nothing beats a chocolate chip cookie,” he explains.
Wholesale customers include supermarkets, gourmet shops, convenience stores, country clubs, catering and foodservice facilities. Fifteen years ago, the company launched a mail order operation and five years later an Internet sales site.
Walk-in customers tempted by the aroma of fresh daily baking can purchase just-from-theoven cookies at a small retail counter at the front of the bakery. The company also offers corporate gift and fundraising cookie programs along with fresh cookie dough for restaurants, caterers and foodservice operations.
Despite all these facets, Libman has been careful to keep his company a manageable size because “as a deaf person I was hesitant to grow to a level that I didn't think I could manage.”
“One of the reasons I have been so successful is because I have never tried to bite off more than I could chew,” he quips.
During the past year, however, Libman brought together a management team made up of professionals “with an eye to bringing this company up to the level where it belongs.”
Current plans include building up the retail end of the business by opening Gimmee Jimmy's Cookies locations with an expanded menu that will include muffins, brownies and other bakery items as well as coffee and cappuccino drinks.