by Edward M. Lee, editor emeritus
Jim Murphy of Sweetish Hill Bakery increased fruitcake sales by revising his fruit candying process.
Sweetish Hill's cookie tins range from $25 to $30 each.
Using interchangeable packaging options allows Bellows House Bakery to customize product selections for each customer.
(top) John Caron and his wife, Pattiann Christian, own Upper Crust Crumbs, which specializes in butter bars (below). Butterbars feature three layers: a brownie or shortbread base, buttercream filling and a topping.
Labor Day marks the beginning of a countdown of sorts for bakery operators: 111 days until Christmas. For most bakeries, the last quarter of the year offers opportunities to add to their bottom lines. For others, it presents the last chance to post profits for the year.
Regardless, it's not too late¯with careful strategic planning and exacting tactical execution. Another benefit comes with this; operators avoid chaotic conditions that hinder resolving last-minute issues that always surface during the winter holiday season.
Modern Baking spoke this summer with owners of four retail and specialty wholesale bakeries for their takes on getting the most from the coming holidays. All were optimistic in their forecasts for the last quarter.
"Like other bakers I've spoken with across the country, we have increased our sales this year from last year," says Jim Murphy, co-owner, Sweetish Hill Bakery, a two-unit full-line retail operation in Austin, Texas. "Sales during the last four months have increased over a year earlier, the first time that's happened in four years. And this year's profits are the best in five or six years."
Preparation for the holidays is a yearround process, Murphy explains. "We monitor what customers want to buy as this can change year to year." When the economy is slow, customers often buy more expensive cookie tins¯$25 to $30 each¯because they still want to give nice gifts, but not spend a lot of money. "When the economy picks up, customers turn to more expensive items," Murphy adds.
Several years ago, Sweetish Hill revived fruitcake sales. He attributes the increased sales in part to refining candying of fruit. "We began buying IQF cherries, fresh oranges and ruby red grapefruit in winter and candy the cherries and rinds for the next fall and Christmas season," Murphy notes.
Sales took off after the Austin Statesman published an article about the bakery's fruitcake. From January through October, the bakery sells 200 to 300 fruitcakes and about 1,000 during December.
Fruitcake production begins in September and concludes in late October. All fruitcakes are baked in dual ovenable trays, then overwrapped and tagged with bakery stickers. "The trays offer more attractive packaging, especially for the holidays," Murphy says. A 12-oz. round retails for $6.50, a 1-lb. loaf for $9, and a 2-lb. ring in a decorative tin for $20.
Early preparation is key
Each bakery operator underscored the importance of building inventories of prepared ingredients and finished products. At 3 Women and an Oven, an Overland Park, Kan., retail bakery specializing in dessert cakes, cookies and breakfast items, bakers bake and finish product fresh daily. For the holidays, the bakery mixes and stores icings and freezes some batters.
The dessert cake line includes 14 different varieties available in 9- and 5-in. whole cakes and three-bite "baby cakes."
Coowner Jayne Torline says the bakery began to receive orders in July for corporate holiday gifts. "We sold whole cakes in the past, but more corporate customers are asking for "baby cakes," she says.
The bakery created a gift box to contain twelve baby cakes with photographs and descriptions of each variety. The box, emblazoned with the bakery's pink-andwhitestriped awning logo, is priced at $20; the baby cakes retail for $2 each.
Specialty wholesaler Bellows House Bakery, Walpole, N.H., starts identifying products for the holiday season early each year. Owned and operated by a husband and wife team, both mechanical engineers who had worked for General Electric Co., the bakery evolved from their bed and breakfast operation. Guests, who received hot homemade cookies each night, encouraged the couple to enter commercial baking.
The 6,000-sq.-ft. facility produces several varieties of traditional cookies, brownies, blondies, shortbread cookies and specialty products, which Bellows House markets to private label manufacturers in gift packages or as components for assembly into gift packages. Customers also include mass merchandisers, such as Costco Wholesale, which purchase branded gift packages, and consumers who order from the bakery.
Setting the bar with packaging
"Our offerings this year will be more sophisticated, largely because we've learned a lot about different options for containers," says Lois Ford, co-owner.
"We had been purchasing stock designs and will continue to do this. But, we learned more about custom-designed boxes, offered by domestic suppliers, who have reasonable prices and who don't have the long production lead time required by foreign suppliers. Having access to these suppliers also enables us to offer packaging options to customers who assemble their bakery components."
Additional packaging options also help Bellows House present differing appearances. "Using interchangeable parts makes the presentation appear fresh, yet allows us to include traditional favorite products," such as almond butter cookies and the bakery's signature frosted chocolate nut cookies, Ford notes.
Companies that use the products as components begin ordering in April and May. The bakery begins production in late June and July to build inventory in freezers and ships product throughout the summer. As freezer space opens in early September, Bellows House begins manufacturing for its branded product sales. "Manufacturing basically ceases at Thanksgiving when we turn to assembling gift packages for shipment in December," Ford says.
Upper Crust Crumbs, Pilot Mountain, N.C., taps automated production and expanded freezer capacity to meet growing holiday demand and concurrently to introduce new products. The specialty wholesaler sells its signature butterbars to upscale food markets¯Whole Foods Market is the largest account¯in southeastern and Mid-Atlantic states.
Butterbars feature three layers: a brownie or shortbread base, buttercream filling and a topping. Flavors include pralines and cream, triple chocolate, chocolate peanut butter, lemon streusel, chocolate mint, strawberry cheesecake and cafè mocha. Containing premium ingredients and no preservatives, butterbars retail for $3.49 for a package of three.
Automating for consistency
During the last six months, the bakery bought machinery to improve consistency, which will be especially beneficial for the holidays, according to John Caron, vice president-marketing and distribution.
His wife, Pattiann Christian, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, founded the company.
"We're considering another steam-jacketed kettle for making our pralines-and-cream topping; besides enhancing product consistency, the kettle would improve safety because the chances of an employee being burned by product would drop," he explains. Next for consideration is a lemon squeezer to replace hand squeezing.
Last year, the company moved into larger quarters and installed three 8- by 10-ft. walk-in freezers. Caron notes that the increased freezer capacity is enabling the company to better prepare for the holidays. "We're learning about stock turns and how to work best with Whole Foods," he continues. "We would like to turn our stock every two weeks. This will enable having a month's worth of product at any time in the system and prevent Whole Foods stores from running out of product. As we continue to grow, we need to look at machinery to improve production."
Proper planning also minimizes the need for hiring additional holiday employees. Each operator says he or she brings in extra help but confines it to packaging product and, in the case of retail bakeries, staffing the sales counters.
"We work production requirements into our schedule, so we really don't need to add people," Murphy of Sweetish Hill observes. "But, we add staff up front, largely to help with packing and shrink-wrapping party trays and tin containers. We do a lot of this on weekends."
Murphy also notes that marketing should not be confined solely to holidays but must be pursued year-round to raise and maintain awareness of the bakery. For example, Sweetish Hill began participating in a local farmers market nearly two years ago. "Besides selling much more bread than we sell in the store, we have met many people who became customers and remember us at the holidays," he says.
Marketing efforts and other awarenessbuilding endeavors, such as participating in charitable fund-raising events, pay off in greater holiday sales when all i's and t's in production are dotted and crossed.
As Bellows House Bakery's Ford explains, "We plan the manufacture and storage of all products¯every pallet space¯so that we avoid a crunch right before the holidays. Just after Thanksgiving we are assembling, but if we are short something, we have the ability to make product and freeze it because the freezers are clearing so quickly. We can do this without clogging the system."
Any retail bakery could plan like this and avoid the hysteria that often comes with the holidays, she continues. "Many decisions (husband) Lou (Ciercielli) and I have made grew from frustration, when sitting at night and looking at each other, saying, 'Whatever we do, this will never happen again.'"