Bakery operators across the country are discovering that sustainable practices can help not only the environment but also their bottom line.
Walls made of wheat?
Pedal-powered delivery rickshaws? Uniforms made from recycled vintage clothing? As a concept, sustainability covers a great deal of territory. It includes sourcing ingredients locally. It means using biodegradable, recycled and recyclable materials for purposes ranging from building improvements to product packaging to staff uniforms. Purchasing and maintaining energy-efficient equipment helps, as does seeking out renewable energy options and reducing waste.
Though the task of going green may seem daunting, bakery operators throughout the country are finding that strides toward sustainability are good for their bottom line, as well as for the environment. In the 2009 Conscious Consumer Report: Redefining Value in a New Economy, published by national research firm BBMG, seven out of 10 consumers said they consider it important to purchase products with social and environmental benefits. More importantly, despite the economy, more than half said they would put their money where their convictions are by paying more for green products.
In the same report, seven out of 10 consumers agreed they avoid purchasing from companies whose practices they disagree with. About half tell others to shop for (55 percent) or avoid (48 percent) products based on a company's social and environmental practices.
When many people hear the word “sustainability,” they automatically think of ingredient sourcing. Maury Rubin, owner of New York's The City Bakery and two Birdbath Bakeries, opened in 1990, 2005 and 2009, respectively, agrees that sourcing is the “ground zero” of sustainability.
Although The City Bakery has always been green, with particular attention to the sourcing and pedigree of raw, organic ingredients, Rubin makes it a point to procure as much of his produce and flour as he can from nearby farms and mills that are at least east of the Mississippi. “Instead of schlepping a ton of flour 3,000 miles cross-country once a week, we were able to immediately reduce our carbon footprint on the largest volume item we purchase,” he says.
Customers at The City and Birdbath Bakeries also have come to understand — and even appreciate — the fact that if they want their favorite strawberry tart, they have to wait until the fruit is in season locally.
At Monica's Waterfront Bakery & Café in Olalla, Wash., owner Monica Downen freezes local seasonal produce for year-round use. “But when the summer's blueberries are gone,” she says, “they're gone until next summer. Locally grown fruit not only tastes better, but it saves us money. Our customers also save money because we don't have to price our products to cover the costs of importing fruit.”
Michelle and Vinny Garcia, owners of two Bleeding Heart Bakery locations and one Smash Cake unit, all in Chicago, offer pastries made with house-made jams to satisfy their customers' off-season strawberry cravings. Michelle uses Twitter to keep customers apprised of limited edition items made from small quantities of fruit. “For instance, if a local farmer brings us only a pound of really cool currants,” she says, “Twitter lets us advertise that it's here, but it won't be here for long.”
When the Garcias moved from their original farmers' market stand to a permanent location in 2006, sourcing organic and local ingredients was a laborious and expensive task.
“The most frustrating thing was not having access to bulk quantities of the ingredients we needed, so we ended up paying retail prices for everything,” Garcia says. “Now that a growing number of restaurants are moving toward sustainable foods, we are able to get many of the ingredients we need in bulk at wholesale prices.”
But operators agree that committing to sustainability still isn't always easy or cheap. Garcia points out that many ingredient costs can be twice as high, and she has to make sure she has two backup suppliers for every product. However, she is able to maintain a 30 percent product mark-up without placing a financial burden on her customers.
For Downen, buying locally milled flour is a priority, even though it costs an extra $4 per bag. Instead of raising her retail prices, she makes up the difference in other ways. “Maybe we'll buy less advertising to balance out our budget,” she says.
Eric Lester, president, Pearl Bakery, Portland, Ore., also refuses to nickel and dime his customers to offset the higher prices of local produce, flour and dairy products. Instead, he uses a specialized accounting system that instantly tracks expenses, allowing him to adjust internal efficiencies to maintain his bakery's profitability.
“I haven't had to raise my prices since the summer of 2008 when a bag of flour was about $30,” Lester says.
In addition to maintaining relationships with nearby ingredient suppliers, he tries to do business with local distributors as well.
“We have three criteria for our partners: Do they have products we need that meet our quality standards?Are the products sourced locally? And do the suppliers themselves follow sustainable practices?” Lester asks. “I even use a local CPA firm that files electronically to save on wasted paper.”
But not all products have to be local to be sustainable. While Liliana Valle and Randy Delgado, owners of North Carolina start-up wholesale bakery Mistti Cookie Co., source their flour and any other ingredients they can locally, they had to go to South America to get their organic chocolate. But, says Valle, the chocolate must be Fair Trade grown under sustainable conditions.
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Many operators recognize that sustainability applies to other aspects of their businesses. Birdbath Bakery, for example, was designed to be green, using wheat board walls made from sustainable stalks; reclaimed wood floors; vintage ceiling, door and light fixtures and 100 percent recycled paper countertop displays and shelves. Rubin describes his second Birdbath location as the ultimate in bakery recycling because it is an environmentally conscious retrofit of an almost 90-year-old landmark bakery. Staff uniforms are made from linen and hemp. Some are even fashioned from vintage 1950s (think June Cleaver) dresses.
Christine Littig, owner of Bernice's Bakery in Missoula, Mont., is another proponent of using reclaimed building materials when renovating. Finishing room staffers work on recycled high school science lab tables with tops salvaged from banquet tables. Most other items, including lumber, lighting, doors and even the door handles, come from a nonprofit building materials reuse center, thrift stores and garage sales, resulting in a significant reduction in expenses, she says.
Lester, a former accountant, saves money and energy by purchasing good-quality filters for his HVAC system, keeping a close eye on the gauges to monitor efficiency, and he blows the flour dust out of compressors regularly. “Because our equipment doesn't have to work as hard, we really save on our repair and energy costs,” he explains.
A growing number of operators use and support the development of alternative energy sources. Retail-only Birdbath operates on 100 percent renewable, emissions-free, wind-generated electricity, which provider Con-Edison says costs 2.5 percent more per kilowatt hour than standard electricity. According to ConEdison, Birdbath's purchase helps offset about five tons of carbon dioxide each year, which is “the equivalent of planting about five acres of trees or not driving 11,500 miles,” Rubin says.
The amount of wind power purchased by Pearl Bakery in a year helps support the replacement of about 60,000 kilowatt hours, equal to 72,000 lbs. of carbon dioxide, 850 trees or driving around the world three times, Lester says. At Monica's, Downen reduces what she can and offsets what she can't by purchasing renewable energy credits equal to the amount of electricity her business uses.
Reducing energy usage
Rubin, Lester and Littig have taken even more innovative steps toward reducing their — and their customers' — energy use. Rubin hires independent contractors with bicycle-driven cargo rickshaws to make deliveries between his City Bakery and Birdbath Bakery locations. Pearl Bakery contracted an independent delivery company that uses cargo tricycles.
Lester also encourages staffers to use mass transit or bicycles to commute to work by offering a bike subsidy program, a reimbursement of up to $20 per week to cover out-of-pocket costs for employees who bike to work at least three times a week. The bakery also subsidizes metro passes for those who prefer to take mass transit. Rubin offers a 25 percent discount for customers who travel to his bakeries via bicycle or skateboard.
Lester says Pearl Bakery, with its 52 percent recycled content, unbleached, food-grade bread bags, was the first or one of the first bakeries in the Northwest to use recycled paper. For his bakeries, Rubin found bags without wax lining, as wax is derived from petroleum. Gift baskets at Bleeding Heart are wrapped with corn-based cellophane and ribbon printed with soy ink.
Littig points out that until two years ago, finding green packaging was “a nightmare.” Now, Bernice's has an office staffer who spends a third of her time looking for packaging options that are environmentally sensitive as well as aesthetically pleasing. Littig's goal is to be able to find all paper products that are made completely or at least mostly from post-consumer recycled paper.
In addition to making themselves feel good about taking steps toward sustainability, operators can check into some of the federal and state grants and tax incentives that are available to offset some of the extra costs they may incur. Under the Energy Efficient Commercial Buildings Deduction passed in 2005, businesses that choose building materials, HVAC and lighting that meets certain guidelines may be eligible for tax deductions of up to $1.80 per square foot of real estate. Many utility companies also offer rebates to companies that increase their energy efficiency.
Grants also are available. For example, Kaplan's New Model Bakery, Philadelphia, received a $9,500 Small Business Energy Efficiency grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection last year, enabling the company to purchase and install an energy-efficient oven.
As awareness of sustainable practices increases, consumers are becoming more wary of businesses that “greenwash” their customers by giving lip service to environmental concerns without following through. But most, if not all, operators would agree that they don't expect or want customers to put them on a pedestal for their actions.
“We're just doing what we can right now, continuing to move forward and forgiving ourselves for not being able to do everything we want to do immediately,” Littig says.
“But we believe that as long as our customers know we are sincere in our commitment to the long-term goal of sustainability, they'll hang in there with us as we find our way.”