In-store bakeries are rarely physically confined except by the walls of the supermarket, and Hy-Vee Inc., based in West Des Moines, Iowa, takes this whole-store philosophy to heart. “What we say is tear down the walls,” says Tony Byington, assistant vice president, bakery operations. “It’s not just about the bakery. We have this entire huge store that customers are walking through. Our goal is for everyone to walk through the bakery but to demand that everyone does isn’t realistic. We get outside of the department so if customers don’t have time to walk through the bakery, the product is still seen.”
And bakery is in every department that customers are likely to hit in a quick trip through a supermarket. Iced cookies are displayed in the dairy department near the milk; muffins join the display of the sale-priced coffee; whoopie pies are positioned in the meat department to remind customers that they need a dessert; buns are set up near hamburgers, hot dogs and brats in the refrigerated case; bakery-made bread is showcased in the commercial bread aisle; Italian bread, baguettes and bread sticks are positioned near the spaghetti sauce; garlic chips, baguettes and snack mixes are often found in the wine & spirits department; seeded mini loaves, English muffins and 100 percent whole grain bread are displayed in the health market; and angel food cake varieties sit next to the fresh strawberries in the produce department.
Bakery also gets into the home meal replacement act. A refrigerated case near checkout stocks all the elements from every department for a complete meal that customers can put together to take home. The bakery takes the top-selling desserts and offers them in single-serve portions at the end of the home meal replacement case. “It’s a big section in a high volume area, so it gets a lot of traffic,” Byington adds. “It makes sense that the end of this case is the end of your meal, which is desserts.”
Bakery has been a key department for the 235-unit chain since the first in-store bakery was installed in 1957. Since then, a store hasn’t been built without one, and Hy-Vee currently operates 195 in-store bakeries.
Byington, a 25-year veteran of Hy-Vee, who spent the majority of his career as a foodservice manager and area supervisor, moved into the bakery department last year and was tasked with taking the bakery in a new direction.
“There are changes we are trying to make, so I think it helped from Hy-Vee’s perspective to have an outsider from the department come in and make those changes. Changes aren’t as difficult when you’re new,” Byington says. “We’re trying to modernize our concept, and our main goal is to get back to being a quality-focused bakery. That’s the kind of bakery we want to be: customer service number one and quality number two. Really they’re equal, but Hy-Vee has always been a customer service company. We will always put that first, but when it comes to bakery, our focus is quality.”
Byington and his six regional bakery supervisors are analyzing every product in every category to come up with the best product available. The ultimate goal is to get back to scratch baking, but if a great thaw-and-sell option is available, it is not eliminated from the running. Products can be made in-house in each bakery; produced at Bakery Manufacturing, Hy-Vee’s central bakery commissary; or provided by suppliers.
From all the options, they narrow the choices down to three to five products, and then work with Iowa State University’s food science department to bring in a focus group of 100 people. The focus group tells Hy-Vee which product was preferred by what percentage of people. “So we have records to document that this is the product that was chosen, and we can be comfortable that that product is going to please more customers than anything else we put on the shelf,” Byington says.
The entire selection process for one product takes three months, and at any time, the team has products in each stage of the process. Byington estimates it will take 18 months to analyze each product in every bakery category. “Then, when we get to the end of the categories, we’ll start all over again because you’re never finished. Something better is always going to come along,” he says.
Bread from scratch
One of the categories that drove the return to scratch baking was the Baking Stone artisan bread program. The bread is mixed, shaped, proofed and baked in each in-store bakery. Baking Stone brought all of the bakeries’ bread varieties under one brand name and helped streamline the choices to about 30. “Baking Stone is not your everyday hamburger bun and sandwich bread; it’s a notch above that because they are handcrafted. We only put the Baking Stone label on the varieties we’re most proud of and consider a step above standard breads,” Byington says.
In 2008, a select number of Hy-Vee in-store bakeries began the test program for Baking Stone breads and after three years, the program was ready to roll out chain wide. The bakeries were already equipped with the necessary mixers, proofers and ovens, although rack ovens were purchased to replace any reel ovens still in operation. “We were already mixing, proofing and baking enough varieties that we had the equipment we needed. It wasn’t like we went from thaw-and-sell bread to making our own bread. We were already making our bread; we just brought it all under one umbrella and one name,” Byington says.
Bakery managers were sent to area training units to learn the program and its processes. On Jan. 1, 2011, the products became available chain wide. All stores are expected to carry core varieties, such as Italian, French, baguettes and pretzel bread, and then depending on their size, they have several other varieties they can offer.
French bread is produced from lean, low-fat dough and features the variety’s signature crisp crust and moist, chewy crumb. This dough is used to produce Vienna bread, a sandwich loaf that is offered as an alternative to white bread. It also serves as the basis for garlic crown bread. The dough is rolled into a strip and cut into small pieces that are brushed with margarine and topped with garlic salt and Italian seasoning. Zesty jalapeño & cheddar bread is made with jalapeño peppers and frozen cubes of cheddar cheese that creates large pockets of cheese throughout the bread once baked.
With 195 bakeries, keeping the product consistent is key. To help, Hy-Vee developed its Baking Stone manual, which features the formula, a photo and the code data for every bread variety. “This helps with ongoing training, and we know that everyone understands our standards and varieties,” Byington says. “We have trained everyone that if it doesn’t look like the standard shown in the photo, it should come off the shelf.” Each location’s store director and manager of perishables also have the book to help ensure the product on the shelves looks the way it should.
If a product is pulled from the shelves, the bakers are retrained on how the product should be produced and what the final result should look like. This helps to keep bad habits from forming, Byington says.
To help differentiate Baking Stone bread from other bread varieties, they are displayed on wooden tables, in baskets or in wooden crates to help emphasize the handcrafted appeal. “We’ve noticed a huge impact since the rollout of Baking Stone bread,” he says. “We’re really excited about the volume it’s created.” The category now accounts for 15 percent of bakery sales.
Hy-Vee plans to give a brand name and identity to several other categories, including breakfast pastries and desserts. “It’s in the process. We’re not ready to start sourcing or set rollout dates yet,” Byington adds.
Cake is king
Like many other in-store bakeries, decorated cakes are the best-selling category for Hy-Vee, accounting for 20 percent of sales, and the chain takes its cake decorating seriously.
Every year, the company holds six regional decorating contests, with about 25 decorators competing in each. Judges are industry experts outside of Hy-Vee. The top three decorators from each region win cash prizes and compete in the finals in Des Moines, Iowa. The top three in the finals each win a trip to the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association’s (IDDBA) Dairy-Deli-Bake expo. First place also wins $1,000, second place earns $500 and third place receives $250. A decorators’ choice also is awarded and that winner also receives $500.
“We hold the contests in shopping malls so there’s consumer attention and we’re covered by local media,” Byington says. “Also, from customers’ perspectives, when they walk through the bakery, they see beautiful decorated cakes, but they don’t always see the ‘wow’ cakes we can do. The contests are not only great training for our designers, but they build awareness for our customers that we’re not just sheet cakes. We can do things like they see on TV in some of our locations with some of our designers.”
Even though new decorators go through a six-month, on-the-job training course, where they run through a checklist of about 50 skills and techniques they must master, Byington credits the competition as the best on-going training available.
Not only are competitors challenged to come up with something bigger and better year after year, but decorators from across all eight states the chain operates in can see what their counterparts are doing and take those ideas back to their own stores.
“If we didn’t do the competitions, how would they ever learn all these things? We have 451 designers, how could I possibly come up with a way to teach them all these things? That’s what this contest does for us,” Byington says.
In a nice twist of fate, this year’s Hy-Vee Cake Decorator Challenge winner, Amy Murtha from the Belton, Mo. store, also was selected to compete in IDDBA’s Cake Decorating Challenge. While the Hy-Vee competition is completely separate from the selection process for IDDBA’s, Murtha will be the sixth Hy-Vee decorator chosen in a row to compete at Dairy-Deli-Bake, which will be held June 10-12 in New Orleans. Last year’s contestant, Stephanie Dillon, who finished in second place, also was from the Belton location.
Byington also believes that by taking the top three winners from Hy-Vee’s competition to the IDDBA expo, they continue their education by seeing the talent and ideas from other decorators during the Cake Decorating Challenge and from the expo’s exhibitors. “They see talent from other companies; they can learn from that and bring it back to Hy-Vee,” he adds.
Sourcing for consistency
Hy-Vee strives to make all product in each location, but some items have such high volume that the locations often can’t keep up, which is where the central commissary, Bakery Manufacturing, comes in. Bakery Manufacturing produces cookie dough from scratch and then freezes pucks for shipment to each bakery. Cake donuts also are made in the commissary and shipped to stores frozen after frying. The commissary also supplies snack mixes and brownies, which are baked and shipped frozen.
Each bakery produces all buns and breads from scratch or a mix, coffeecakes from scratch, muffins and angel food from a mix and patisserie products mostly from scratch. Cakes are purchased prebaked and frozen for finishing in stores. Yeast donuts and donut holes are shipped prefried from suppliers; pies are purchased frozen and baked at the stores.
While each location is required to carry a certain number of core items in each category, the bakery managers have the autonomy to add varieties that meet the needs of their store’s demographic. Each bakery is required to carry at least one signature item that cannot be found chain wide. The products carry the Hy-Vee fresh label as all other bakery products do, but are often named after the location or a person to differentiate them from Hy-Vee’s core products. For example, the Sycamore, Ill. location offers Aunt Janette’s rolls, similar to a Hawaiian sweet bread, and pecan turtle cookies that are local favorites.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” Byington says. “We have some consistencies so customers can identify with what Hy-Vee bakeries are and what our image is, but then we also give bakeries the freedom to create things that local or regional customers want.”
The bakeries also are able to set retail prices locally. Hy-Vee offers a suggested price, but the final decision is left to the bakery managers.
Shift back to service
Years ago, when the bakeries began gradually moving away from scratch baking, they also began shifting away from service cases, relying more on self-serve displays. Byington wants to change that. To bring bakery back front and center, decorators have already been moved to the front where customers can watch them create their works of art, and Byington plans to do the same with bakers by moving the ovens and proofer to within view of customers.
He also plans to move the Baking Stone bread display in front of the wrapping station and offer an assortment of wrapped varieties for self-serve while having some available in an open air service case that can be sliced on the spot. The Urbandale, Iowa location will be the test store for the new service model bakery.
“If you’re Hy-Vee and your slogan is ‘A helpful smile in every aisle,’ you must have immediate, friendly service in your bakeries,” Byington says. “It will give us a chance to differentiate ourselves and show we are a full-service, customer-oriented bakery.”