Peter Rios may have begun his career as an engineer but his ultimate dream was to own a bakery, which he finally realized when he purchased Alliance Bakery in 2007.
“I always knew what I wanted,” Rios says. “Even when I was back home cooking and working as an engineer, it was always my plan to bring a finer pastry to Chicago because it didn’t really exist. Everything you were eating was from a mix, formulated with preservatives, artificial flavoring and hydrogenated fats. It was a sad state. I knew that going into culinary school, and I wanted to change that coming out of it.”
Rios left his job as an electrical engineer in 1994 to attend culinary school at Kendall College and worked as a baker and pastry chef at Central Continental Bakery, the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago, Sofitel Hotel Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago−all the while scouting out potential locations for his own bakery. He found the perfect fit with a 90-year-old bakery in his childhood neighborhood of Wicker Park on Chicago’s near northwest side.
Alliance Bakery was founded in 1923 by the Soplenski family, who ran it until 2003 when a former marketing director from Seattle purchased it in hopes of turning it into a coffee shop. When Rios took over nearly five years ago, the bakery’s menu was still heavy on Polish-style breads, sandwiches and paczki, with other primarily frozen or proof-and-bake items that included cookies, cupcakes, bars, pound cakes, bundt cakes and sheet cakes.
“The former owner and his wife were marketing and business people who wanted a hipster coffee joint. They weren’t food people,” Rios says.
Alliance gets a makeover
Even though the name Alliance has been an integral part of the Wicker Park neighborhood for decades, Rios had to gain acceptance among long-time customers before he could put his own stamp on the bakery. He faced pushback at the beginning for removing the rye bread and paczkis, but he was determined to make the business his own.
“The biggest challenge was switching over the product without offending the customers. I was trying to bring a new image to the bakery, but trying not to come off as too fancy or pretentious,” he says. “It takes the public a little while to catch on, especially if you’re new. The big thing is you have to have the finances to survive in that first year. Then you have to do the proper marketing and educating of the customer at retail.”
He immediately began overhauling the product line and production area. The core items, such as cookies, bars, decorated cakes and sandwiches remained, but were switched to scratch production. Fillings and toppings, such as raspberry confit, hazelnut, almond praline, gelées and salted caramel, are all made from scratch as well.
“It took me a year and a half to fully change everything out,” he says. “Instead of buying frozen cookies, Danish and cakes, I started making everything from scratch. Through the training process we’d build the pastry cooks up on pastries and cookies until they were ready for mousse cakes or fruit tarts. And all the while I switched out the inventory. At first, we were getting 300 to 400 lbs. of shortening a week. Now we don’t use any shortening; we’re ordering 500 lbs. of butter.”
He removed the deep fryer, which had been primarily used for paczkis, and replaced the old wooden benches which had been used for bread production with new wood and stainless steel ones as well as a marble counter for chocolate work. He purchased new equipment and additional coolers/freezers, and carved out a designated area for fine pastry production. Despite the overhaul, a few of the bakery’s original elements remain, including the cabinets, chandeliers and crown molding in the 700-sq.-ft. retail area, along with a 4-door wood and steel cooler and a 70-year-old revolving tray oven.
“That old oven is a workhorse. It’s been here since the 1940s,” Rios says. “I had to install new vents, but we use it for everything. It gives off a nice, even heat.”
Attention to pastry
Alliance specializes in European-style pastries and desserts and custom-designed cakes. Among the best-selling products are the “Girl Desserts,” small dessert cakes named after current and former employees of the bakery.
The Anne is the best seller and Rios’ signature product, as it showcases his years of experience with chocolate sculpting and tempering: the crunchy 6-in. chocolate cake is topped with shiny ganache and decorated with mini vanilla bean crème brûlée macarons and peanut brittle. Other varieties include the Julie, with dark chocolate cake, raspberry confit and housemade hazelnut praline filling topped with chocolate ganache; and the Michelle, chocolate cake with peanut butter cream and red berry gelée filling garnished with peanut brittle.
Although Rios was hesitant to add cupcakes to the menu, he caved due to customer demand and now sells about 1,000 each week. The bakery offers 12 varieties–four of which are filled–with flavors such as vanilla with passion fruit curd filling, banana with chocolate cream filling and cream cheese icing, red velvet with raspberry confit filling and Italian buttercream icing, chocolate with salted caramel filling topped with ganache and vegan chocolate with peanut butter icing.
Also popular are the brightly hued French macarons–all colored naturally, Rios notes–in various seasonally inspired flavors, such as rose, pistachio brandied cherry, fig balsamic, blueberry lemon meringue, milk chocolate passion fruit, pumpkin spice, pistachio manjari, coconut lime and salted caramel. The bakery currently sells 1,500 to 2,000 macarons per week, even though it took awhile for them to catch on.
“I tried to introduce macarons just after I opened, but they wouldn’t sell,” Rios says. “Nobody knew what they were. I brought them back two years ago, and now we are selling thousands of them each week.”
Alliance still offers a full line of coffee and espresso beverages, with whole beans supplied from local coffee roasters. Rios kept the semi-automatic espresso machine that was installed in 2006 and his sales staff are all trained baristas. The coffee service is a great upsell item for morning commuters, particularly in a neighborhood with a lot of young professionals.
Alliance produces about 200 decorated cakes per week, ranging from everyday sheet cakes to tiered and sculpted special occasion cakes, which have swelled in popularity in recent years.
“Volume-wise, it’s interesting,” Rios says. “We still get your everyday birthday cake orders, but the percentage of crazy sculpted cakes has shifted from 5 to 60 percent since we’ve been open.” On average, the bakery produces about 14 wedding cakes each weekend.
A growing wholesale division
About 30 percent of the bakery’s business comes from wholesale. Roughly one third of the clients are hotels; the rest are a mix of corporations, department stores and a college café.
Alliance recently added Whole Foods to its growing list of clients. The natural foods grocer now carries five of Alliance’s Girl Desserts in two of its Chicago stores, which will tack on another 10 percent to the bakery’s revenue, Rios says.
“I know that having our product at Whole Foods is going to help with the marketing part of the business because people are still discovering who we are,” he says. “It’s taken awhile to get where we are but we only want to supply those two stores. That’s the catch-22 about growing. After awhile, it’s a question of how big do you really have to get? You just want to be considered one of the best in the business; that’s the goal.”
The bakery is in production roughly 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Monday through Wednesday are the core cake production days. The bakery also typically devotes Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays to producing staple items like buttercream, cookies and scones, often bringing in help from interns on weekends.
“Stages and interns get a lot of the grunt work like scaling 100 lbs. of scones,” Rios says. “It’s good for them because then they learn how to do it right. Scones are a great exercise because you get to realize how overmixing and overkneading produces a chewy, tough end product.”
A night baker comes in at 10 p.m. to mix and proof items for the breakfast line, including plain, chocolate, almond, ham and cheddar and spinach feta croissants; cinnamon rolls; five types of Danish and scones; four types of muffins; coffeecakes and kouign amann.
At 5 a.m., two pastry cooks begin baking breakfast items and cookies and start production on quiche, sandwiches and salads for lunch (and made-to-order breakfast sandwiches, which are only available on weekends). The majority of the staff comes in at 8 a.m. to work on wholesale orders, desserts, cakes and pastry items to fill the display cases.
Alliance does a few exclusive wholesale menu items, like the “grandma-style” cake, which is sold to an area café, or a few exclusive desserts for hotel clients. But overall, wholesale and retail product lines are similar. “As a pastry chef, you have to be able to make a menu and sell something that production-wise makes sense,” Rios says. “So I don’t create anything that can’t be morphed into another dessert somehow.”
Acceptance among residents
A lot has changed in the neighborhood since Rios purchased Alliance. Empty storefronts and run-down bars are being replaced with boutique retail and grocery stores. While many of the residents are still young professionals and students, more families with one or two children are moving in. Alliance has secured a place in the increasingly gentrified neighborhood with its fine pastry offerings, while keeping its slightly edgy appeal among the younger demographic.
“We still have that young, urban hipster element, but it’s not as prominent as when I first took over because of the gentrification of the neighborhood,” Rios says. “Our street continues to get more and more commercial with more elegant shops. We’ve changed in the quality of pastry and the finesse of the product.”
The bakery still maintains a hint of subversive fun to attract the younger crowd, displaying racy cakes in the window and selling anti-Valentine’s cookies each year, which have become a neighborhood favorite.
“In the three weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, we do decorated cookies that say things like, ‘I like your brother better.’ That’s the most reflective of this community. A lot of people get it. It’s controversial but fun,” Rios says.
The bakery also is gaining a name outside the neighborhood, mainly through its special occasion cakes.
“We are becoming more of a destination,” Rios says. “If we do a cake for an event in Lake Forest or Naperville, then we’ll see a lot of orders from Lake Forest or Naperville after that.”
Additionally, partnering with multiple hotels for weddings has brought new traffic to the bakery through cake consultations. “We do all the consultations here, so we get the bride and her family coming to the bakery and hanging out in the neighborhood, which is great for return business.”
This summer, Alliance will test a weekend seated brunch service in the 1,200-sq.-ft., 40-seat adjoining café and 30-seat outdoor patio. The bakery will add wait staff, a table busser and cook, and offer eight to 10 made-to-order brunch items.
In addition, Alliance is overhauling its website to be more streamlined and interactive. The bakery also hired Nora Mineva to handle social media this past year. “It used to just be me and a manager doing all the social media but it got to be too much, with Twitter, Facebook and the website, plus people keep asking me to do a blog,” Rios says. “It’s a full-time job to do that stuff now.”
Rios also hopes to open a second retail bakery location focused on fine pastries and decorated cakes in Chicago’s affluent Gold Coast neighborhood within a year, which will finally allow the bakery to live up to its name as an “Alliance,” he says, laughing.
“At first I was worried about the finances and getting through that first year, but once we got past it, now it’s how do we get people to like what we’re doing, believe in what we’re doing and grow from that?” he says. “In the end we’re going to do what we think is good and hope the customer likes it. I know they’ll tell us if they don’t like it.”