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The bakery café built its reputation on fine artisan breads baked in a woodfired oven, but has since expanded to include handcrafted desserts, savory dinner entrées and catering–all rooted in quality ingredients.
The 25-ton, woodfired brick oven is often the first topic of discussion when one mentions having visited Wheatfields Bakery & Café. Indeed, the 20-year-old bakery café built its reputation on–and brick and mortar foundations around–that oven. But Wheatfields has built its name in the Lawrence, Kan., community and beyond by doing much more than turning out artisan bread, with a thriving, fast-casual restaurant component that pulls in more than $1 million annually and a dessert and pastry department that routinely sells out of product.
In order to keep track of so many moving parts, Wheatfields focuses on a simple mantra: creating a quality product that starts with good ingredients. As a result, the bakery has high expectations of its staff–both in terms of time investment and quality of end product–with workdays for many employees starting at 2 a.m. or earlier. But general manager Amy Savoie says the employees’ dedication to producing and serving such high-quality product makes it all worthwhile.
From left: Josh Hilliard, bakery manager; Teresa Heustis, pastry chef; Zoey Ramberg, assistant pastry chef; Lisa Bartel, pastry production; Amy Savoie, general manager; and Mikey Humphrey, head baker.
“It’s all from scratch; we don’t bring anything in,” Savoie says. “I’m proud of it, everybody here is proud of it. I think that’s what keeps people here–they’re doing something that they take pride in and they’re happy to make it. Otherwise, they’re not going to wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning to go to work.”
Since opening in 1995, Wheatfields has built its business on three main pillars: wholesale and retail bread, handcrafted pastries and a fast-casual restaurant. The bakery café has since added catering, which has grown in recent years. Savoie notes that the different segments tend to bolster the others, rather than cannibalize each other. Click on the image at left to see Wheatfields at a glance.
“Bread and pastry has grown in the last year, but the percentages seem to stay about the same,” Savoie says. “If we’re selling more bread and pastries, we do a little bit better on café food as well because customers come in and get a sandwich and then say, ‘Oh, I want a slice of tiramisu or a loaf of bread to take home.’ People get inspired and take things with them, since we’re kind of a fast-casual concept.”
The bread display and checkout counter are separate from the café counter, which houses the espresso machine as well as the pastry display. This unique ordering and checkout setup helps boost check averages, as customers place their café order at one end of the counter and then have to walk the length of the product display before paying at the other end. “You have to walk and look at all of the pastries and cookies on your way to check out, so customers generally add on something–I’d say eight times out of 10, especially if they’re new here,” Savoie says.
The café serves breakfast and lunch everyday as well as dinner five days a week. The dinner menu changes monthly depending on the seasons and what’s available at the farmers’ market, although the best-selling fried chicken is available weekly, due to its popularity.
Saturdays are the busiest day of the week, when the restaurant typically serves up to 900 customers. Best-selling breakfast items include the housemade biscuits and gravy and the classic breakfast of eggs, hash browns and toast. Popular sandwiches are the roasted turkey with housemade mayo and cranberry relish on walnut sage bread; turkey, swiss and thinly sliced apples on baguette; and chicken salad with toasted almonds, cranberries, greens and housemade aioli on multigrain.
Like many restaurants, Wheatfields’ slowest days in the café are typically Mondays and Tuesdays. Because Lawrence is home to the University of Kansas, the bakery is hugely affected by game days and university events. Plus, the business gets a boost from a growing list of wholesale clients and steady retail bread and pastry sales.
Wheatfields has sold wholesale bread since the beginning and the department brings in roughly $5,500 per week with upward of 20 clients, ranging from a local brewing company to a handful of grocery stores and restaurants to the University of Kansas’ dining program. The bakery hopes to break into a few grocery stores in Kansas City, Mo., although there are no foreseeable plans for a second location there.
“We always have people come here who love our bread and say, ‘When are you going to open a spot in Kansas City?’ But the hours are hard and we’re so small. We would have to expand elsewhere and that always changes the dynamic,” Savoie says.
Head baker Mikey Humphrey pulls freshly baked ciabatta out of the oven. “I love the craft; it’s pretty rewarding,” he says.
The bread also has cultivated quite a following among locals, with best sellers including baguettes, ciabatta, multigrain and country French. Some customers even go so far as to monitor the baking schedule for their favorite loaves. “It’s interesting when customers get upset and say something like, ‘Well that bread was out at this time last week,’” Savoie says, laughing. “But every day is different. The humidity and temperature in Kansas changes drastically from day to day and that can have a huge effect on our breads. Most of them seem to appreciate that.”
Appreciation for the product also is evident among employees, as periodic cries of “I got you a warm one!” can be heard from bread counter staff as they pass fresh loaves to customers. “We always like giving warm loaves of bread,” Savoie notes. “You can get bread at a supermarket bakery, but it’s not necessarily made there. It’s nice to give them something that just came out of the oven.”