Through production efficiencies and highly skilled labor, Rolf's Patisserie juggles fine pastry making and volume baking with finesse.
To walk a tightrope, you need to focus on one goal, take careful steps and maintain your balance. Rolf's Patisserie's focus has always been fine cakes and pastries. The Lincolnwood, Ill.-based wholesale bakery has taken the right steps over the years, yielding 15 to 20 percent average annual sales growth since brothers Lloyd and Ford Culbertson purchased the business in 1984. And the Culbertson brothers provide the balance.
Family does not always make good business. But in Rolf's case, Ford and Lloyd form the perfect partnership. They have different strengths, but they share the same goal: to produce high-volume gourmet cakes and pastries without compromising quality.
Lloyd, a former investment banker, is president of the company. He's the voice of the business, the numbers man and business administrator. Ford, a master baker and certified pastry chef, is the executive chef. He's the soft-spoken baker, teacher of the craft and the creative brain behind Rolf's product line and production operations.
Producing bakery products in volume and maintaining fine, quality detail is a true balancing act. Rolf's Patisserie masters the feat by incorporating production efficiencies and training a highly skilled labor force.
“We want our product to look like it was made by a pastry chef in the kitchen an hour before it was served to you,” Lloyd says.
Rolf's Patisserie was an established 250-sq.-ft. retail bakery in Chicago when the Culbertsons purchased it. Twenty-six years later, they have kept the bakery's name and its stellar reputation for fine cakes and pastries. But their business today is far different from its humble beginnings 26 years ago.
Rolf's currently operates out of a 20,000-sq.-ft. facility with a staff of 134. Ninety percent of its business is wholesale, and the company is opening a new 60,000-sq.-ft. plant in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., in January of 2011.
The company's move to wholesale baking occurred soon after the Culbertsons purchased the business. Hotels, restaurants and foodservice operations that once housed pastry departments were looking to outsource their dessert business, and Ford used his industry connections to let them know Rolf's could handle the job. “They were looking for a high-quality source for fine baked goods that could be serviced properly. We quickly claimed that niche,” Lloyd says.
Lloyd officially joined the company as president in 1989 when Rolf's moved to a 3,000-sq.-ft. location to accommodate the growing wholesale side. Fresh-baked delivered products soon dominated the business, with the bakery reaching wholesale customers as far as 200 miles from Chicago.
“When chefs hand off the pastry process to someone else, they lose the quality control they once had,” Lloyd says. “We flourished in supporting their business because we offer such high-quality product at a very competitive price. And, we're completely dedicated to servicing the account.”
By 2000, Rolf's booming business had moved to its current 20,000-sq.-ft. location in Lincolnwood just north of Chicago. Soon after moving, the Culbertsons seized another opportunity. They saw demand for frozen high-end cakes and pastries for the distributor-served market. Broad-line foodservice distributors, bakery supply houses and supermarket chains eventually became Rolf's largest customer base and the future of its business. “The beauty with working through distributors is we don't have to deliver it,” Lloyd says. “The trucks come to us, and we fill them with their purchase orders.”
The bakery is divided into three production areas: baking, assembly and decorating/finishing. Ford and Alex Kovacs, production manager, organize the production process to ensure no downtime of labor or equipment. “We're a 24/7 operation,” Ford says. “Everybody always has a job to do.”
The baking department prepares the cake layers, mousses, ganache, icings and other pastry products for the assembly department. The assembly department slices, fills and base ices cakes and pastries so that the decorating department can add the finishing touches. The glue between all three departments is the “in-process cooler,” which serves as the staging area. Sponge cakes, for example, move from the oven to the cooler, ready to be cut and used in the assembly of the cakes. The cooler then houses the assembled cakes staged to be finished by a decorator. The “packaged freezer” holds product that is ready to be distributed to customers.
As the business evolved to 50 percent frozen and 40 percent fresh local delivered, bottlenecks in the production process emerged. Refrigeration and freezer space reached capacity, and corrugated packaging for the frozen line needed attention and storage. “Refrigeration isn't just for storage of the product, it is part of the process,” Lloyd says.
Along with refrigeration, packaging is a critical part of the process for the frozen line. Delicate products have a long way to travel on some inevitably bumpy roads along the way. Distributors' trucks pick up pallets of frozen product for storage in their warehouses with eventual delivery to grocery stores or foodservice operations across the country and finally to the end consumer. Cakes and pastries need to arrive to the end consumer as if the distribution process never happened — Rolf's reputation depends on it.
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“We've spent a lot of time on our packaging,” Lloyd says. Cakes are shrink-wrapped first to withstand freezer temperatures, but Rolf's proprietary corrugated packaging ensures the products survive the entire journey. Lloyd worked with packaging suppliers to develop the exact shape and size of corrugated packaging to protect Rolf's products. The downside to the packaging, however, is the amount of space required to store it.
Space became a premium in the bakery, and the Culbertsons realized that between the fresh and frozen lines, they were running two different businesses. Some products are produced for both sides of the business multiple times in a day because the bakery does not have enough freezer space for storage. They needed to dedicate space to each side of the business for optimal efficiency. Pleasant Prairie is designed to provide the relief.
“It made more sense to segregate the fresh-baked delivered business from the frozen lines,” Lloyd says.
Once Pleasant Prairie is ramped up, all production for the frozen line will move to that operation. The fresh delivered line, which includes an extensive wedding cake business, will remain in the Lincolnwood location. “Wedding cakes and custom orders are an essential part of our business and require very skilled work,” Lloyd says. “Those craftsmen are predominantly going to stay here to service the boutique custom clientele.”
The new plant will have ample refrigeration and freezer space and warehousing for packaging material. “We are addressing those two bottlenecks right off the bat,” Lloyd says. Pleasant Prairie features two loading docks with the option for a third and has a footprint zoned for a 30,000-sq.-ft. expansion when needed.
Lloyd couldn't reveal Pleasant Prairie's new equipment plans, but the plant will be equipped for high-volume cake production, quadruple the baking capacity of Lincolnwood. “We'll have far more efficient throughput and production volume capacity more than four times what we're doing now,” he says.
Even in the new plant, the most important tool will be skilled labor. Rolf's pastries are labor intensive and require hands-on skill no equipment can replicate. Ford, who used to teach at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kan., is the primary trainer for the production staff. Much of his time is spent teaching the finer points of the pastry process, from the mixing bowl to the last decorative touch. With such an esteemed trainer in Ford (Midwest American Culinary Federation Pastry Chef of the Year), the company welcomes employees who are green to baking, as long as they have the right work ethic.
“They have to have a certain love for what they're doing,” Ford says. “But once they come here, there is not much turnover.”
Ford believes in cross training and encourages staff to try different jobs in the bakery to expand their skills and work to become managers if desired. This culture of opportunity helps Rolf's retain a solid core production staff, some of whom have been with the company 20 years.
Production staff has little time to get bored because product development is a constant at Rolf's. The bakery offers its core line of top sellers, including chocolate mousse cakes, tiramisu, carrot cake and cheesecake, to name a few, as well as a variety of pies, individual desserts and miniature pastries. In addition, Ford and his team introduce about 10 to 15 new products each season. Most of the ideas come from customers who keep close tabs on the latest culinary trends and consumer tastes.
Rolf's new blood orange mousse cake, for example, was developed for a distributor customer and will soon be available nationally. It features layers of vanilla chiffon cake and blood orange mousse enrobed in white chocolate ganache and white chocolate shavings. Handmade chocolate and piped decorations on top exemplify Rolf's signature artistic detail.
“We're real believers in keeping our offerings dynamic,” Lloyd says. “Keep the menu alive. Never let it go stale.”
Nearly everything at Rolf's is made from scratch using Ford's formulas backed by years of experience as a master pastry chef and volume baker. He uses his established formulations of cake components, such as chiffon cake, yellow cake, flourless cake, buttercream and mousse, to develop products with new flavor combinations.
Coming up with new flavors that sell is the first hurdle. Ford's bigger challenge and real expertise is his ability to design pastries with a “wow” factor that can be reproduced thousands of times and withstand distribution. “We want it high end, elegant, beautiful to look at and savory. But it also needs to be consistently replicated in our system,” Lloyd says.
Ingredients are top quality, all natural and trans fat free. Bakers use primarily butter and some palm oil to avoid trans fats. Adriene Goldstein, vice president of sales, says the all-natural aspect has been a boon to Rolf's business and its customers' businesses because of consumers' demand for clean labels.
Goldstein, who has been with the company four years, was a corporate chef herself and used to be one of Rolf's wholesale customers. With her culinary background, she can relate to the challenges and special care Rolf's customers require. And she can advise on new product development from the perspective of a one-time customer.
One of her biggest challenges in marketing Rolf's Patisserie is the perception that its products are too costly. The products actually look too good and appear more expensive than they are. “People are astonished at the prices that we have with the quality that we give,” Goldstein says.
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That image problem is one she can handle, though. Charged with growing the frozen-distributed side of the business, Goldstein is among many eager for Pleasant Prairie's opening.
“The frozen category allows us to grow beyond the region,” Lloyd says. “Now we are national. With the added production capacity, I see a bright future.”
A bright future indeed.
Headquarters: Lincolnwood, Ill.
Number of bakeries: 2
Plant sizes: 20,000 sq. ft., Lincolnwood; 60,000 sq. ft., Pleasant Prairie, Wis., to open January, 2011
Number of employees: 134 (in Lincolnwood)
Management: Lloyd Culbertson, president; Ford Culbertson, executive chef; Adriene Goldstein, vice president, sales; Alex Kovacs, production manager
Product line: cakes, tortes, pastries, pies, bars and individual desserts
Sales breakdown: 50% frozen line, 40% fresh delivered, 10% retail
Wholesale customer base: hotels, restaurants, institutional foodservice operators, supermarkets, broad-line distributors and bakery supply houses
Marketing territory: Frozen distributed line, national; local fresh delivered, 150 mile area around Chicago
Distribution for local line: Seven leased refrigerated delivery trucks making multiple routes daily
Plans: Ramp up production of frozen product line in new Pleasant Prairie plant; maintain Lincolnwood location dedicated to fresh-baked delivered products and retail
Ten percent of sales might seem insignificant, but Rolf's Patisserie values its retail shop as a marketing tool. “We use retail as a showcase for our products,” says Lloyd Culbertson, president of the Lincolnwood, Ill.-based wholesale bakery.
Located on a bustling suburban street, Rolf's front entrance looks like a retail bakery with appealing signage and storefront windows. European-style curved glass showcases are filled with colorful rows of gourmet tortes and pastries.
Culbertson thought putting a retail outlet in the company's new plant in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., would be a fruitless endeavor in an industrial park location. But city staff members were too persuasive.
When Culbertson met with Pleasant Prairie city officials to discuss the new operation, they mentioned other tenants in the industrial park with thriving retail outlets.
“They were thrilled to have a gourmet bakery coming to town,” Culbertson says.
He couldn't refuse. The new plant will have an outlet to showcase Rolf's pastries where they shine best — at the retail level.