With dual operations on the outskirts of Toronto, this high-end cake bakery combines automation with finely honed baking skills to produce cakes that are prized throughout North America and as far away as Japan.
Cakes are celebratory. As an accompaniment to a midday cup of coffee with a neighbor or the jewel in the crown of a magnificent meal, a slice of cake bespeaks richness, sharing, even daring, because the lushness of a well-made cake can prove an irresistible temptation. A sliver becomes a hunk, second helpings beckon, and once the ethereal confection of cream, sponge, mousse, fruit, glazing, icing, chocolate and more chocolate succumbs to the knife, all bets are off.
Of course, there are cakes and there are cakes. La Rocca Creative Cakes creates the latter. Operating out of two bakeries in suburban Toronto’s Markham area, La Rocca is owned by the Givens and Easson families and is run by brothers Michael and Marty Givens. The bakery offers cakes backed by decades of expertise, family pride and, most of all, an unrelenting quest for excellence. Throughout Canada, and more recently, across the U.S., La Rocca cakes are sold in high-end supermarkets, specialty stores and foodservice venues.
The business began 20 years ago as a retail bakery in the Toronto suburb of Woodridge. Then, as now, it was a family enterprise. The second generation hasn’t missed a beat when it comes to living up to the family business’ reputation for producing high-end cakes with panache, at a reasonable pice. No corner-cutting allowed.
Its success owes no small debt to the Givens brothers’ knack for combining automation with skilled labor.
|Topppings, such as glazed strawberries, help distinguish La Rocca cakes from the competition.|
|La Rocca products are weighed to ensure consiste|
By automating parts of the cake-making process and placing other functions in the hands of highly trained bakers, La Rocca is able to create products that far surpass the quality of the average supermarket cake.
Michael runs the business end of the operation while Head Baker Marty manages production, as well as research and development. La Rocca employs roughly 200 staff. “About 130 or so are bakers,” Michael says. Administration, sales, call center, and drivers for the company’s fleet of 22 trucks comprise the rest of La Rocca’s employees.
Currently, most of the bakery’s cream- and mousse-based cakes are produced at a 15,000-sq.-ft. facility while its fruit tarts and tortes are baked at a nearby 17,000-sq.-ft. former health club that has been converted into a state-of-the-art bakery. The two bakeries produce a combined 8,000 to 12,000 cakes per day.
Plans are on the table for a new, 50,000-sq.-ft. bakery to replace the two existing facilities and give the company room to grow. Between branded and private label products, La Rocca produces roughly 75 varieties of cakes, cheesecakes, tarts and tortes for about 1,200 customers.
La Rocca’s customer base is divided evenly between retail and foodservice. On the retail side, La Rocca cakes are sold throughout Canada at Loblaws, Sobeys and other supermarkets. In the U.S., the bakery supplies products to Albertsons and various Kroger supermarket brands. Foodservice customers range from “mom-and-pop restaurants to the large foodservice chain operators in Canada and the U.S.,” Michael says, adding that the bakery’s distribution network now reaches as far as Japan. Retail prices for La Rocca cakes range from $20 to $26.
Michael concedes that theirs is definitely a niche market, particularly for in-store bakeries. “In a retail environment, there will be a display case where you’ll see your $11.99 to $14.99 birthday cakes with gummy bears in the icing, but then you’ll see the $19.99 La Rocca cake, which has all this handcrafted design. It will have fresh fruit, 100 percent whipped cream. It’s just a beautiful cake. It’s really something you can pick up and bring to a party or any special occasion and you’ll always be the hit of the show,” he says.
The two bakeries are configured similarly, with dedicated areas for mixing, baking and assembly. Because the assembly for many of the cakes is complex, the lion’s share of the space is devoted to filling, enrobing, decorating, metal detection, weighing and packaging.
One of La Rocca’s signature items, the Chocolate Truffle Cake, also is one of its most complex and time-consuming to produce, taking three days from start to finish. The lengthy preparation largely is due to the nature of the truffle mixture, a chocolate and cream fudge-like filling that, once prepared, must settle for two days before achieving the desired consistency and flavor.
When the filling is ready, bakers prepare a sponge, which forms the bottom layer of the cake. The sugar, flour and cocoa batter are deposited into a mould and baked. From the oven, the sponge stays in the mould and is taken to the filling area, where whipped cream is folded into the truffle mixture and an automated depositing system pipes the mousse into the mould, filling it to the top.
Once filled, the mould is moved into a blast freezer and, when it is sufficiently frozen, the two-layer cake is unmoulded and sent to the enrobing station where it is completely enrobed in chocolate. After passing through the enrober, bakers pipe a signature logo onto the top of the cake and press Belgian chocolate curls around the sides. The cake is then ready for weighing, metal detection and finally is boxed for shipping.
The Chocolate Truffle Cake exemplifies La Rocca’s melding of human and automated production techniques. A Unifiller depositor fills the moulds and a custom enrober quickly carries out the chocolate coating process, but once the machines complete their tasks, human hands supply the detail. The result is an ideal amalgam of man and machine.
Equally popular, and just as labor intensive, is La Rocca’s Mixed Fruit Torte. Though less time-consuming than the Chocolate Truffle Cake, it is still an all-day production. Every morning, a crew is devoted to prepping fruit. (La Rocca is reportedly the fourth-largest buyer of fresh fruit in Ontario markets.) Strawberries, blackberries, peaches and kiwi are cleaned and prepared for placement in the torte.
Simultaneously, the vanilla sponges are baked and depanned, and then rack cooled. Sponges, fruit and freshly whipped cream are all brought to the line for assembly, which begins with a sponge layer, then cream, followed by a layer of mixed fruit. Each cake has two layers of sponge, cream and fruit.
After the cakes are assembled, automated spreaders wrap the sides in whipped cream and a spray nozzle pipes a ribbon of cream along the perimeter of the cake. Then, automation gives way to manual labor for fruit placement. Each person on the line is responsible for placing a different fruit on top of the cakes. Rows of kiwi, peaches, strawberries and blackberries are meticulously arranged on every cake. Next, a roasted almond mixture is applied to the cake’s sides before the entire cake are sprayed with an apricot glaze, weighed and boxed.
Once packaged, La Rocca has the capacity to freeze and store roughly 4,000 cakes, but the business is, for the most part, “production on demand,” Michael says. Foodservice and retail customers use their own distribution networks to import frozen products and fresh cakes are delivered daily by La Rocca vans within a 5-6 hour radius of the Toronto metropolitan area.
While La Rocca’s expansion over the last two decades has been significant, Michael still treats the bakery as a family operation and is content with organic growth.
“My brother and I are not here to rule the world with cakes or to be the biggest company,” Michael says. He notes that while he and his brother are always looking for ways to improve the production process with more automation, it is always the product that dictates the methodology. “Not all equipment is made for our kind of production. We don’t want to change our product to fit the equipment and that’s the key. We’ll just continue to do it the way we’ve always done it,” he says.