Head Baker Solveig Tofte knows it's not just her high-quality bread and pastries that draw customers to Minneapolis' quaint, homegrown bakery and deli. What's not on the menu — the local, artisan and hand-made elements — are just as integral to Turtle Bread's appeal.
But as is the case with other artisan bread and pastry bakers, Tofte is too busy ensuring the results live up consumers' lofty expectations to spend much time reflecting on the sentimental.
“It's work. I don't think people really understand how much work it is,” she says. Would-be bakers often apply to Turtle Bread with ideals rooted in the rustic self-sufficiency of hand-made food. They aren't long for a job at Turtle Bread.
“There's nothing romantic about 12-hour days on your feet, and there's nothing romantic about making the same product over and over again. An important aspect of baking is that you're always producing,” Tofte says. “But at the same time, I don't want to disavow people of that notion, because we are doing something really cool, and that's why people come here. That's why we're growing.”
Genesis of Turtle Bread
Owner Harvey McLain first opened Turtle Bread in the Minneapolis neighborhood of Linden Hills in November 1994. The original 328-sq.-ft. space was a far cry from the current 11,000-sq.-ft. facility on Chicago Ave. in South Minneapolis that now houses production, the retail shop, deli, restaurant and pizzeria. The Linden Hills location began as a storefront in a five-unit retail space that once was a single-family home.
New to the industry, McLain produced only four or five bread varieties and offered espresso and juice when he opened. The equipment he started with included three pizza ovens, two convection ovens and a mixer. But the operation was forced to grow almost overnight, in retail baking terms.
A positive review in the Minneapolis Star Tribune drew an unexpected holiday rush to the diminutive bread bakery, and McLain quickly was selling bread faster than he could produce it. He realized that to make any money on the venture, he would have to expand. Within a month of opening, he regularly had a line of people out the door in the Minnesota winter.
“The first thing I noticed in that tiny space is that people wanted a place to sit. I didn't have it, other than a little park bench. I noticed that some people would even come in, then leave without ordering if there was no place to sit, so an expanded retail space was a priority,” McLain says.
By July, McLain had leased the building's five storefronts. The additional space allowed room for café tables and a deli counter. He also included a display case to sell cakes and pies, and Turtle Bread has slowly added products and space ever since.
In 2002, Turtle Bread opened a cold retail location in downtown Minneapolis. The retail outpost is located on Minneapolis' skyway, an enclosed, elevated pedestrian walkway that connects downtown office buildings while sheltering pedestrians from the harsh Minnesota weather. With heavy foot traffic, the location is a good proxy for a downtown main street location in warmer climes. Long a suburban destination, the downtown location gave Turtle Bread a foothold in the heart of the Minneapolis marketplace. But production for the cold spot also exacerbated already less-than-ideal baking conditions in Linden Hills.
“The need for increased production didn't dump a ton of pressure on us per se, but it probably was the straw that broke the camel's back,” says Tofte, who joined the bakery in 1999. Though full of charm and character, the Linden Hills' location was designed to be a home, not a bakery. When McLain took over the entire building, the bakery café existed on five separate levels.
“Baking is hard, it's physical labor, but the building made it a lot harder,” McLain says. “I noticed that our employees, even some of the young ones, were really struggling.” All of the walk-ins at Linden Hills were outside and required ramps. Plus, the mixer was in the basement, so employees had to carry the 50-lb. bags of flour down to the basement, then carry the even heavier doughs back up the stairs to bench. That was unsustainable once Turtle Bread began producing for the downtown location.
McLain's problem in finding a new location was balancing the need for a building that would have a serious retail presence, but still be cost effective as a production facility for all three locations. He chose an 11,000-sq.-ft. space on Chicago Ave. in South Minneapolis. One of the primary selling points was the ability to unload and store flour in the back, all on one floor, a basic feature that seemed a luxury to the veteran Linden Hills bakers.
Once Turtle Bread moved in, the neighborhood began seeing a stream of more viable tenants occupying local storefronts. Tofte recently went to a local church to talk to a youth group about life as a baker and was stopped in the hallway by the church's volunteers. “They were thanking us for moving into the neighborhood,” Tofte says. “We've been here for seven years, so for people to still recognize that so many years later is gratifying.”
Just by moving in, Turtle Bread earned the loyalty of the entire neighborhood. “When people go to a local, neighborhood place, they feel that they are going someplace that's theirs, a place that's unique, a place that they own,” Tofte says. “The chains belong to everyone, but we belong to the people in our community.”
With a firm foothold in Minneapolis and increased production capacity, the next step for Turtle Bread will be more growth. The Linden Hills store is scheduled for renovation, and additional plans are to open one new store every year for the next five years, with the next store opening planned for this summer.
Bakers often wonder how to bring production and customers together. Turtle Bread takes open production to a whole new level at its Chicago Ave. location. The retail area is separated from production by a 4-ft. stack of bagged flour.
“The Health Department gave us a hard time, asking if we could put up a window like they do at Krispy Kreme,” McLain says. “I made it very clear to them that we aren't Krispy Kreme.”
Product displays mirror the open, airy feel of the bakery. Instead of using showcases, most of the bread and sweetgoods are displayed on tables in the retail area. A plastic sneeze guard and plenty of handling papers keep the merchandising stations sanitary, and customers are allowed to shop for bread and pastry at their own pace, using their own metrics for selection.
“I think that having the products where people can look at it and pick up a lighter or darker one — hopefully with the tissues we provide — and put it into their bags, is very compelling merchandising,” McLain says.
McLain's hands-off approach to production and management has allowed the bakery to retain a core group of employees. They are permitted to experiment and introduce their own ideas for new products.
“This management style is how you attract a self-starter like Solveig,” McLain says. “I look for self-reliance and the ability to plan, especially since we're doing breads with long fermentation times. You have to be aware of what you'll need for tomorrow, next week, next month.”
Thomas Zimmerman, a master baker from Germany, was hired on in the deli department until a bakery position was available. He has introduced German pretzels to the product line, which have attracted a cult following. While not a permanent menu item, customers can always place orders for authentic pretzel varieties.
Production and pricing at Turtle Bread doesn't rely on granular analysis of reports. Instead, each department head keeps a close eye on his or her own production, staying aware of changes in costs, volumes and prices.
“Price-setting is inexact — we start with what our competitors charge, and then run through the ingredients costs and labor to make sure everything makes sense,” Tofte says. Labor hovers at 20 percent as a percentage of sales, and ingredients make up 25 percent.
“But we aren't shy about pricing,” McLain adds. “Often, we're making items in small quantities, and we're using the best ingredients.”
Breakfast pastries account for 30 percent of retail bakery sales at Turtle Bread, and breads about 25 percent. Cookies and bars also sell well, accounting for 20 percent of sales.
The bakery's cornerstone product is a germ levain bread, a popular item since the bakery's inception. Germ levain uses a partially-sifted organic whole wheat flour and a whole wheat stiff levain. The bread is available plain in 2-lb. boules, as well as with rosemary and kalamata olives. Over the holidays, Tofte makes a version with dried cranberries and pecans.
“It's a great keeper, makes amazing sandwiches and toast and has a nice bit of acidity,” Tofte says. “We have people come in from out-of-state to stock their freezers and it's very popular with German expatriates.”
Fight sales decline
Cakes also are an important part of the bakery's product mix, but since the recession hit, cake sales have slowed. Tofte found that anything more than $3.50 was a tough sell, so to make up for decreasing sales in the highest price categories, Tofte experimented with lower cost items. One area that has taken off has been bars. The bars are made inexpensively and quickly, often using scraps from other products, inclusions or doughs, and can be cut small enough that the bakery can charge $2.50 or less for each variety.
Coffee cakes also required economizing to remain profitable. The huge coffee cakes, which are baked with pan-risers for additional volume, were initially a big hit at Turtle Bread. When Tofte first started making the high-rise coffee cakes, she cut large servings, getting 36 pieces out of a sheet and charging $3.49 per slice. But by cutting the coffee cakes into smaller pieces and dropping the price below $3 apiece, Tofte found that she is making three times the amount of coffee cake just to keep up with demand.
These types of adjustments aren't the product of a spreadsheet or data analysis; rather, they're organic responses to changing customer preferences. Having her hands in the dough every day produces an almost intuitive feel for which products are working and which need help. “When you're that close to production, it's easy enough to just listen to what the customers and staff are saying, then respond,” Tofte says.
at a glance
Market served: Minneapolis metropolitan area
Management: Harvey McLain, owner; Solveig Tofte, head baker; Tomas Zimmermann, assistant head baker; Marnie Berg, retail manager; Daniel Clark, head soup chef; Maria Tabares, deli chief
Number of employees: about 68 for bakery/retail/café; 110 total (including the three restaurants)
Number of locations: 3
Store sizes: Linden Hills, 4,000 sq. ft.; Chicago Ave., 11,000 sq. ft.; Downtown, 1,800 sq. ft.
Product line: Full-line retail bakery specializing in artisan bread and breakfast pastries, including croissants, Danish, muffins, cookies, brownies, bars, pies, cakes, tarts, tortes, wedding cakes, frozen pie crusts, and frozen pizza dough.
Sales breakdown: Food & beverage, 55%; retail bakery, 35%; wholesale bakery, 10%
Production methods: 100% scratch
Product breakdown: Pastry, 30%; bread, 25%; cookies and bars, 20%; cakes, tarts, tortes, pies and muffins, 25%
Average check per customer: $15
Major equipment: Five-deck oven, double rack oven, 80-qt. spiral mixer, 60-qt. mixer, two 20-qt. mixers, 30-ft. walk-in freezer, 12-ft. walk-in cooler, double roll-in cooler, double roll-in retarder, sheeter
Bakery supply distributors: BakeMark, Bix Produce, Premier Foods
Plans: Renovate Linden Hills store by adding new pastry cases, refrigeration and floors. Open one new store every year for the next five years — next store opening planned for late spring/early summer
a sampling of prices
|Pain de campagne||$4.99|
|Rosemary olive levain||$5.99|
|CROISSANT & DANISH|
|PIES (12 ins.)|
|CAKES & TARTS|
|Chocolate cake, 10 ins.||$41.00|
|Marquis, 8 ins.||$19.99|
|COOKIES & BARS|
|Chocolate chip cookie||$1.99|