In 2007, Brian Pansari, a consumer products marketing executive tired of the corporate rat race, began looking for a business to call his own. “The corporate environment had so much uncertainty,” Pansari says. “I was working 60 hours a week, and if I was going to be doing that, then I thought I might as well try something on my own.”
About the same time, Matt D’Agostino, a third-generation baker was looking to retire and sell his successful four-unit full-line retail bakery business. Pansari wanted a business that wasn’t in need of a turnaround. It was a perfect match. In September 2010, Pansari became the owner La Bonbonniere Bake Shoppes, based in Edison, N.J., with other locations in Somerset, South Plainfield and Woodbridge.
“I didn’t know the bakery because I live about 30 miles away,” Pansari says. “When my wife and I came to the Edison location, we said, ‘If we owned a bakery, this is what we’d like it to be.’”
D’Agostino worked with Pansari for one month to transition the bakery. “Matt has been very good in that when a question has come up about something, he’s available,” Pansari says. “His family is still part of the business, and I still talk to him three or four times a month about something.”
Pansari also hired a culinary school baking professor as a consultant who works with the bakery to troubleshoot and develop formulas for new products. Matt’s brother Randy D’Agostino also helps with any problems in production although he currently is the head of the sales staff and oversees the four store managers.
Most customers were unaware of the change of ownership, and Pansari wanted it that way. “I didn’t want to communicate that the bakery was under new ownership because I felt like there was more downside than upside,” he says. “We had a pretty loyal customer base, and the first thing customers think is we’re going to change the products.”
The staff proved loyal as well, as most remained through the transition, perhaps helped by Pansari’s pledge that he was not out to change anything right away. But he has gradually put his own stamp on the business.
Making it his own
Pansari added some specialty products that the bakery had cut back on while D’Agostino was looking to sell the business, and streamlined product rotation to ensure product freshness. Pansari also focused on customer service. He retained the call center D’Agostino had established years before. Four customer service representatives man the phones; while each of the four locations has a published phone number, all calls are routed through the Edison location. The customer service representatives take orders, handle billing, invoices and inventory for the stores.
Pansari also stressed customer service in the retail stores. Instead of giving a discount when there was a problem, he wanted the sales staff to do what was needed to make it right for the customer. “I’d rather fix a custom decorated cake and deliver it to where the customer was going to be than to have them leave with a discount on a cake that wasn’t the way they wanted it,” Pansari says. “We’ve tried to stress that when there’s a problem, we acknowledge it, we apologize for it and see what we can do to make it right.”
Another big change Pansari made recently was to take the sales staff off commission. In 2010, shortly before he purchased the bakery, D’Agostino had transitioned the sales staff to minimum wage with a 12 percent commission on all sales they rang up. “The idea had been to match up payroll better to sales and try to incentivize people to give better customer service,” Pansari says. “I like the theory of it, but it became disproportional. It was great during the slow periods, but on holidays you were paying staff $18 or $19 an hour.”
It also proved to be inefficient for the other tasks that the sales staff had to perform, such as cleaning, stocking cases or dipping cookies. They wouldn’t want to miss a sale while they were doing other things, so it took longer to get things done, Pansari adds. “We think we can do different kinds of sales contests to keep things fun and give them an opportunity to earn some extra income.”
All production is handled at the Edison location with a truck delivering product to the other three locations beginning at 5 a.m. Bread production begins at 10 p.m., when the staff of two takes the dough from the retarder to begin proofing and baking off the loaves. Then, they mix the dough for the next night’s production and place it in the freezer. One of the bakery’s mixers transfers the dough from the freezer to the retarder before leaving at 3 p.m.
Pastry production, usually Tuesday through Saturday, begins at 6 a.m. Doughs are made at the end of the week with benchwork usually at the beginning of the week. Unlike bread, which has a steady production schedule due to the product’s one-day shelf life, pastry production fluctuates depending on how many products are still in the stores’ showcases. Store managers send the inventory lists to customer service when they close for the evening at 9 p.m., and a production list is generated for the pastry and cake departments.
Cake production begins at 6 a.m. when two people begin mixing and baking cake products. Decorators arrive between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. in order to finish the custom cake orders before the stores’ 5 a.m. deliveries. The bakery’s four locations sell about 185 custom decorated cakes a week.
The bakery has a total of 58 employees with about 30 in sales; and about two-thirds of La Bonbonniere’s 300 SKUs are available on a daily basis. Cakes account for about 40 percent of sales, breads and pastry each add 20 percent and cookies make up 10 percent. “Our business is so split. Cakes are the biggest category because of the price point, but we sell a lot of bread, pastries and cookies. It’s really fairly evenly split,” Pansari says.
La Bonbonniere isn’t known for one specific product, but eventually Pansari would like to find that signature product that makes consumers think of the bakery. The closest product currently is the brown derby cake, made with white and chocolate cake, filled with bananas, pineapples, strawberries and peaches in whipped cream and topped with whipped cream icing that is garnished with cake crumbs. He also introduced a tropical fruit version last summer with mango and papaya.
Serving different demographics
The lack of a signature product may be due to the diverse communities the bakery’s four locations serve. All locations carry the same products, but have differences in what sells best. In Edison, about 30 percent of the population is Indian or Asian, and that location sells a lot of fresh fruit cakes, such as the brown derby and strawberry shortcake. Edison also sells a lot of cakes with whipped cream topping, which tends to be less sweet than buttercream. (La Bonbonniere doesn’t skimp on ingredients–the whipped cream is 40 percent butter fat.) Somerset serves a population that tracks older and sells a lot of smaller size items, such as one-layer junior cakes.
South Plainfield has a larger African American population, and red velvet is one of the most popular cake and cupcake flavors in that store. It sold 110 red velvet cupcakes in one Saturday during a promotion, Pansari says. Woodbridge customers tend to be more blue collar and price sensitive, and the more traditional products, such as paczki and zeppole, tend to be more popular in this location. “We sell about as much rye bread at Woodbridge as we do at Edison even though Woodbridge has about half the sales,” he adds.
The Edison store accounts for about half of the bakery’s sales and averages 175 customers a day during the week with 250 on weekends. Woodbridge brings in 20 percent of sales and the other two locations account for 15 percent each. Across the board, the average customer ticket is $14.
La Bonbonniere also has a catering arm that serves corporations in the area, and makes up 15 percent of the bakery’s sales. It started several years ago when D’Agostino ran a buy-five-get-one-free cake promotion for corporations. Then, the corporations began asking the bakery to supply breakfast products, which then expanded to lunches. La Bonbonniere partners with a caterer who serves a different geographic location to supply the lunch items and it supplies the breads and sweets. It all comes through La Bonbonniere, and Pansari tells customers that the bakery has an off-site kitchen for the savory items. All the bakery’s products are sold to the corporations at retail prices. Four drivers and two vans handle corporate deliveries.
Plans for growth
As with any other bakery owner, Pansari’s goal is to grow the business. “The year I took over, sales were down from the previous year; the economy wasn’t helping,” he says. D’Agostino had been very good at making the bakery as efficient as possible and buying when prices were low. “I determined that I wouldn’t be able to increase profitability by cutting. I was going to have to drive the top line,” Pansari adds.
With fixed business costs like rent and utilities, the only option was to get more customers into the stores and entice them to buy more. He is looking at several ways to draw customers to the bakery more frequently, such as adding a savory product line of sandwiches, calzones and soups. He introduced the soups this winter and they sold well. The Woodbridge location also has a back room with tables and chairs that would be perfect for a sitting area if the bakery added some bakery café menu items.
In Edison, La Bonbonniere is opening a cupcake shop in the adjacent storefront that the bakery took over a few years ago. About 14 new filled cupcake varieties, such as s’mores, peanut butter cup, chocolate mint, strawberry lemonade and caramel apple, have been developed for the cupcake shop rollout. Pansari plans to have four standard varieties available every day with another three or four rotating varieties offered daily. The shop also will feature mini cupcakes and a new line of French macarons.
Pansari also has implemented some simple changes to increase sales, like replacing his beverage cooler with an open-air one. Beverage sales have since doubled. “So on a $14 average purchase, you add $1.40 for a beverage to every purchase and that’s a 10 percent increase. That’s huge that you can have a 10 percent increase just by encouraging customers to add a beverage,” Pansari says. “You don’t have to have everyone buy $25 cakes. You just have to have them buy whatever they are buying and then maybe add a coffee to it.”
Whatever he is doing, it seems to be working, as La Bonbonniere saw a 15 percent increase of sales in 2011. But Pansari’s ultimate goal? To be timeless.
“I want us to be a bit of a throwback,” he says. “A bakery like bakeries used to be. I want us to be classic, but not old fashioned.”