In this case, the muffin men do live on Muffin Lane, and highlight their ingenuity with speed, flexibility and innovation.
Founders and co- C.E.O.s Steve Marks (above), Harvey Nelson and Mike Braun, plant manger, like being involved with key accounts at the grass roots level.
Photos by Lisa DeJong.
Steve Marks and Harvey Nelson, co-C.E.O.s of Main Street Gourmet, founded their dynamic Akron, Ohio-based company on an innovative concept they discovered while visiting California in 1986. Marks and Nelson noticed people lined up 10 deep at a muffin shop at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday. After Marks acquired property on S. Main Street in downtown Akron for $5,000 at a real estate auction, these childhood friends took a risk and started a business that now produces about 15 million lb. of muffins and other sweetgoods, grosses between $16 million to $20 million in sales and has an anticipated growth factor of 10 percent for the next few years.
While the business has undergone many transformations since its inception, it has found its strength and niche in custom manufacturing. In addition, with the acquisition of Isabella's Healthy Bakery in 1999, it has a strong focus in the healthful baking category. “We were one of the first to come out with fat-free muffins and one of the first to come out with whole grain muffins,” Marks says. “We think we've been on the cutting edge on a lot of these things.”
One of the company's core strengths is its ability to adapt to changing demand. It prides itself on quick product development turnaround, flexible manufacturing and progressive ideas. Its philanthropic ideals are recognized throughout the Akron community; not only through its fundraising efforts with its nationally recognized “Muffins for Mammograms” program that raises money for women who can't afford breast cancer screening, but also through its support of the Weaver School Workshop, which works with the mentally challenged. Several Weaver School students work in Main Street's labeling department. The Akron Marathon, a non-profit organization dedicated to promote health and fitness was started and funded by the company.
A trip down Main Street
After settling on the concept of muffins, Marks, a CPA by training, and Nelson, who worked in the computer field, were overwhelmed with the amount of interest generated when 3,000 people showed up the first day they opened for business. “We made peanut butter and jelly muffins, we had lunch muffins: broccoli with cheese, pizza, tuna fish with celery and all these exotic things. We became sort of the ‘darling’ of downtown,” Marks says. “We weren't classical bakers; we didn't have classical experience. A lot of what we did was just classic paradigm. We did it wrong, we did it differently, we made different recipes, we bought non-traditional mixers, used the wrong type of flour, but, it made us different.”
After about six months in business, someone approached the partners, wanting to buy batter for a restaurant. “We looked at it as more of a threat than an opportunity and said, ‘hey, we're not sure, but if you get here at 5 o'clock and bring your own buckets, and we're in a good mood, we'll sell you some muffin batter,’” Marks explains. Fortunately, the person returned, buckets in hand, for six consecutive days, leaving Marks and Nelson contemplating the possibility of venturing into the wholesale market with their muffin batter. The partners started pursuing key accounts and were given an opportunity by Russell Vernon, second generation owner and manager, West Point Market, a famous market in Akron. They learned from that process and grew from there.
In 1991, Main Street became strictly a wholesale business as the partners recognized the vast potential for growth in that arena. The company had two retail stores at the time and sold both so it could focus on the muffin batter business. Marks and Nelson bought a 15,000 sq.-ft. converted meat plant and began producing batters for wholesale.
Main Street grew rapidly, at one point acquiring business with 1,500 regional McDonald's restaurants at one point, which baked the muffin batter in its biscuit ovens. McDonald's muffin sales reportedly increased five fold versus previous sales. But, it became very difficult for McDonald's operators because the muffins were congesting the process. McDonald's corporate got involved and changed the product from fresh baked to pre-deposit to thaw-and-serve, but business never really got back to where it was before. Although the fresh baked product was very successful, there were operational issues with it.
Eventually, the company outgrew its converted meat plant and built its own 25,000 sq. ft. facility in one of Akron's industrial parks on four acres of land it purchased in 1993. Marks and Nelson sold the business in 1996 to a venture firm. Eventually, Main Street became the platform for making acquisitions. Once it acquired a cookie company, a brownie company and Isabella's Healthy Bakery, it changed its name from Main Street Muffins to Main Street Gourmet to better reflect its product lines. It also added 35,000 sq. ft. to its existing facility to accommodate Isabella's lines.
Before the acquisition of Rhode Island-based Isabella's, Main Street only produced batter and dough. But, Isabella's marked the company's entry into baking. “It was much easier to convince the banks we could buy a business, versus just starting up from scratch,” Marks says. “That's how we got into the baking part of it. We recognized thaw-and-serve was going to be a force to reckon with, and we needed to be in that.”
When the venture firm that owned Main Street bought Best Brands, Marks and Nelson realized their company would no longer be the main focus. Main Street's founders subsequently became the natural buyers and bought the business back in 2004.
Responding to customer demand
One of Main Street's survivable growing pains came with the realization that it could not compete in the market dominated by the larger, wholesale conglomerates. “It was becoming increasingly difficult for us to try and compete with the big boys because of distribution, their sales network and infrastructure,” Marks says. “So, we made a very conscious effort to have less concentration of foodservice and more concentration of the custom business.” One key national account helped Main Street find their footing in the custom business. Main Street makes about six products for them, all small runs. “They control distribution, there were no sales costs involved and no competitor,” Marks adds. We realized we could compete with the industry titans with that. The industry giants weren't necessarily going to do a small run, or put in a whole line dedicated to this start-up. We would, and we would turn things around a lot quicker than anyone else could. That's where we needed to be. It became everything we did from that point forward. Our number one priority became custom-oriented business.”
Main Street does a lot of custom products for in-store bakeries. They're constantly looking at their labor situation, leading to requests for thaw-and-serve, pre-measured or pre-weighted products, Marks notes. “We make a granola product that's baked in the store. It's pre-measured. They just have to put it on a tray and bake it. They don't have to worry about buying six different ingredients, or worry about weighing. We put it in a very easy format for them,” Marks adds.
Although muffins are Main Street's roots, with its signature topped and iced varieties, it also produces an array of specialty brownies; a bakeable-box concept, where the brownies are baked right in the cardboard box; and specialty cuts. Other products include pre-portioned cookie dough, loaf cakes and granola.
The acquisition of Isabella's Healthy Bakery not only expanded Main Street's reach into the retail market, but into the healthful baking category as well. “The sugar-free business is just going crazy,” Marks says. “That trend isn't going to stop anytime soon.” The company is just introducing Isabella's functional line of muffins. Revitalize energy muffin is a peanut butter and chocolate chip muffin rich in vitamin B6 and B12. Activate probiotic muffin, developed to improve gut health and function, is a raisin bran muffin that contains a probiotic microorganism capable of surviving the baking process. The muffin also provides an excellent source of insoluble fiber. Optimize antioxidant muffin contains blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, with aÇai and pomegranate extract, all antioxidant-rich food sources. Vitamins C and E also are added to help improve immunity and heart health.
Today, 50 percent of Main Street's business is thaw-and-serve and 50 percent is batters. Everything it does is built around a custom infrastructure. “We're very custom oriented here, so we have three main production lines, but each line has a multitude of configurations based off of what we're going to be making,” says Mike Braun, plant manager. “Although a lot of the bases are the same, each one contains different inclusions or requires a different packaging style. Things of that nature require different equipment.”
The bakery runs 24 hours a day for most of the week. It runs 12-hour shifts on the bakery line for six days; 12-hour night shifts for the brownie line for three or four days; and two, 10-hour shifts for the batter and dough lines for four days a week.
The plant is equipped with a freezer that holds 650 pallets, a 60,000 lb. bulk flour silo and uses a bulk sack system for sugar. It also is equipped with finished product testing equipment, from different types of ovens to its customer's display case, to ensure finished product integrity throughout shelf life.
Muffin and brownie batter is produced in 400-lb. batches and deposited into trays. In muffins, fragile ingredients, such as blueberries, often are hand deposited so they don't bleed into the batter. Paper liners are used on all muffins and can be personalized on customer request.
Thaw-and-serve products are baked in one of seven rack ovens. Specific baking time and temperature guidelines are posted on the ovens for each product produced. “We do shorter runs and a wide variety of products at different baking times and temperatures, making a tunnel oven impractical,” Braun says.
Thaw-and-serve muffins go through three 10 to 15 minute cooling cycles-ambient, forced air and refrigerated-before they are de-panned, packed in clam shells, iced, conveyed through a metal detector and case packed.
Main Street uses a sonic cutter that uses a two-lane system of cutting. Brownies are topped with a drizzle, if called for by the formula, then cut, wrapped, date coded, palletized and stored in the freezer.
Raw cookie dough is mixed in 500-lb. batches. Raw cookie dough, raw granola and streusel topping are mixed and deposited on the same line, but use different dies. Products then pass through a nitrogen tunnel and do not freeze completely, but become more packable. “We saw an auto bagger at a tradeshow, made by Advanced Poly Packaging, a company that happens to be in Akron,” Braun says. “Initially, the funnel didn't work well, but the company came up with a hybrid with a larger mouth and suggested a different bag. The auto bagger has increased production by 30 percent and decreased labor by 16 percent.”
A pre-deposited muffin line was purchased recently from a showroom floor. We recently developed a predeposit line where pistons deposit batter into plastic trays that are manually transferred onto a belt and run through an L-sealer. The plastic trays are offset so they stack on top of one another without the need for layer boards.
The company is investing in a couple of depositors that will broaden its capabilities and a wireless network that will automate its formulation process so changes can be electronically communicated to the plant floor, instead of relying on manual changes, Braun notes.
Making it work
Main Street's track record in adapting to change has all but defined its operations strategy. It has been able to turn its competitors' weaknesses into its strength. “We want our strength to be quick turnaround time, short runs, and we want to be flexible to give our customers better service,” Marks says.
In turn, the company expects the same treatment from its suppliers. “We can't be competitive and have a cost disadvantage,” Marks adds. “The same kinds of things we give to our customers, we want to have from our suppliers-quick turnaround and flexibility. We look for value-added, innovative solutions on things. We look to our suppliers who have had many years of experience in the baking field to give us really good answers to a lot of our problems. Even though we've had some people who have been here since the beginning, we're only a 20-year old company, competing against companies that have been around for 70 or 100 years.”
Whatever strategy Main Street Gourmet pursues, it seems to be on the right track. Its dramatic growth over a short period indicates the most direct path to custom-produced muffins and other sweetgoods leads directly to Muffin Lane.
Main Street Gourmet
at a glance
Headquarters: Akron, Ohio
Ownership: Founders and co-owners Steve Marks and Harvey Nelson
Web site: www.mainstreetgourmet.com
Management: Steve Marks, co-CEO; Harvey Nelson, co-CEO; Mike Braun, plant manager; Dan Maurer, director of research and development; Keith Kropp, director of sales; Nate Searles, national sales director; Monica Curtis, president, Isabella's Healthy Bakery; Jim Braun, purchasing director; Angela Stoughton, quality assurance and sanitation manager; Marla Kuba, controller and Kelly Loebick-Frascella, human resource manager
Product line: Custom muffins, cookies, brownies, loaf cakes, streusels, granola and specialty products including trans fat-free, fat-free, low fat, sugar-free and whole grain. Foodservice products include all-natural muffin batters, as well as low fat, fat-free and low fat, whole grain all-natural muffin batters; 4 oz. Bakery Fresh™ thaw-and-serve muffins, 2 oz. bulk packaged thaw-and-serve muffins; un-cut, 24-cut and 48-cut thaw-and-serve wild fudge brownies; 1.2 oz., 2 oz. and 4 oz. classic pre-portioned cookie dough and 2-oz. decadent pre-portioned cookie dough; thaw-and-serve “softer” biscotti; thaw-and-serve all-natural granola; streusel toppings and more. Isabella's Healthy Bakery line includes sugar-free muffins, pound cakes, brownies and cookies; no-sugar added muffins and cookies; whole-grain muffins, fat-free muffins and functional muffins, including Activate probiotic muffin, Optimize antioxidant muffin and Revitalize energy muffin
Marketing territory: Primarily Midwest and East coast, except for national accounts, where products are shipped throughout the United States
Plant size: 65,000 sq. ft.
Production lines: Three production lines capable of many custom configurations, depending on product demand and customer orders
Throughput: 14.8 million lb. per year total. 6 million lb. thaw-and-serve muffins and brownies per year; 3.6 million lb. pre-portioned cookie dough per year and 5.2 million lb. muffin batter per year
Sales: About $16 million to $20 million