Sometimes keeping things small and simple can produce big results. August First, a two-year-old bakery café in Burlington, Vt., thrives on such simplicity. The product line is deliberately kept small–only about two dozen bakery products and a limited selection of breakfast sandwiches, soups, salads and lunch sandwiches–and production is simple, all scratch with space for minimal equipment–a couple of mixers and an oven.
“We intentionally have a small menu to make it very easy for people. We don’t have a pick-your-own-sandwich experience because people don’t want to have to think and make decisions at lunch,” says Jodi Whalen, a former marketing executive who owns the bakery café with her husband, Phil Merrick. “We kept that in mind when we were putting together our menu and product line. There’s not much of one thing, and it’s worked out well. I think one of the reasons we’re popular is that it’s not complicated to be here.”
About two weeks before opening, the couple realized they needed to offer sandwiches, Merrick says, and readjusted the production area to include a small kitchen area between the sales counter and the bakery production. The bakery’s location, in an underserved area situated between the central business district and tourist destinations, required more of a café element, which the couple addressed with the sandwiches and a high-quality coffee service.
Sandwich varieties are limited to six options: turkey or ham bistro, BLT, curried chicken or tofu salad, salmon salad, garden veggie & cheese and a panini of the day. Lunch sales now account for about 35 percent of business. Six months after opening, the bakery added five varieties of breakfast sandwiches.
The focal point of all sandwiches is the bread, made fresh daily using long fermentation methods. “About 90 percent of our breads are very long ferment, and are baked when they’re about 13 hours old,” Merrick says. “Our yeast breads use only a fraction of the yeast compared to industry standards. Our baguette is 100 percent yeast, not sourdough, but it only has 0.15 of an ounce of yeast per 10 lbs. of flour. Our sourdough and
seven-grain bread is mixed with just straight starter, no commercial yeast is added.”
A night mixer comes in around 6 p.m. to begin bread production. All the flour used in the bakery is organic with about 11 percent protein, making it a bit harder to work with than the standard 13 percent protein flour, but results in bread with sweeter flavor and a less tough crust.
|Location: Burlington, Vt.|
|Founded: August 2009|
|Management: Phil Merrick and Jodi Whalen, owners|
|Bakery size: 2,000 sq. ft., 60% production, 40% retail|
|Product line: artisan breads, pastries, flatbread pizza, soups, salads and sandwiches|
|Product breakdown: bread & pastry, 20%; wholesale/bread bike, 8%; breakfast sandwiches, 9%; coffee/tea, 15%; lunch (sandwich, salad, soup), 35%; Friday night pizza dinners, 11%; other (cooler drinks, granola, chips, etc.), 3%|
|Average sales: $750,000 (est. 2011)|
|Number of employees: 15|
|Average number of customers: 300 to 350 daily|
|Major equipment: two mixers, deck oven, reach-in freezer|
|Bakery supply distributors: Hillcrest Foods, Black River Produce, Reinhard Foodservice, Shadow Cross Farms, Monument Farms|
The yeast breads, such as baguettes and some specialty breads, are bulk fermented for 11 hours overnight in a separate room that is kept at 65°F to 68°F. The naturally fermented varieties like, Country French or seven-grain, are bulk fermented for an hour, shaped and then proofed for about 10 hours in the cool room. “It’s not a retarded proof, which would be somewhere around 50°F; it’s just a very slow proof, which results in a really light bread,” Merrick adds.
A baker arrives at about 5 a.m. to begin baking the sourdough varieties before shaping the yeast breads, which start coming out of the oven at 7 a.m. The baker also makes a batch of whole grain bread in the morning. August First intentionally keeps the loaves of seven-grain, which is almost 30 percent whole grain and flax, slightly underproofed. This helps keep the interior denser, which works well for sandwiches. For baguettes, bakers are not as concerned about size as they are about maintaining a crispy, eggshell-style crust and a wheaty aroma. “For us, the fact that you don’t smell yeast, you smell wheat is what is important,” he says.
Merrick also recently began making brioche-style hamburger buns. The bakery doesn’t have a divider, so all the buns have to be hand-shaped, which justifies the $6 price for four buns. “I said the only way I’m going to do this is if I can get $1.50 a bun,” Merrick says.
“They are so good, and people love them,” Whalen adds. Daily bread varieties include Country French sourdough, seven-grain, Kalamata olive, jalapeño cheddar, baguettes and seeded baguettes. Other varieties, such as challah, pain de seigle (rye) and whole wheat, are only available on certain days during the week.
Though breads are the second largest category in the bakery, Merrick found that he often had several loaves left at the end of the day.
“We’d thought people would flock to the bakery to buy loaves of bread,” Whalen says. “Well, it’s inconvenient for a lot of people, so how could we get the bread to them?”
The answer: a bread bicycle. In the afternoons, the bakery sends out two bicycles to sell bread to the neighborhoods throughout Burlington. They have defined routes, so residents know that their bread day is Monday and so on. “We’ve gotten to the point where we’re selling more bread on the bicycles than we do in the bakery,” Merrick says. “Every week they sell to someone who hasn’t heard of us, so it’s great advertising.”
Production of the bakery’s cinnamon rolls, cookies and Hungarian sweet rolls is done a few afternoons a week. The baker (who doubles as the night mixer) arrives at 2 p.m. to make up the pastry products and place them in the freezer. Then Merrick bakes them off as needed in the morning, as well as makes up the scones and brownies. Cinnamon rolls are pulled out by the night mixer to proof overnight. Due to the limited production space, Merrick tries to keep only two people working in production at any given time.
When developing the sweet side of the product line, Merrick and Whalen had several considerations to keep in mind. One was that due to the limited production space and equipment, the pastries had to be able to fit into the bread production schedule while at the same time be something different. “We don’t do croissants or the same thing everybody else does. We look for something different,” Merrick says.
“We had a lot of conversations about what people were looking for, and we discussed dipping into trendy stuff, but we wanted longevity,” Whalen adds. “We knew that classics were what people were looking for.” So, no cupcakes are to be found at August First. Instead, the signature product is a traditional Hungarian pastry called kiflis, but which the bakery simply named Hungarian sweet roll.
“Because we didn’t have the space for a sheeter, we wanted to find something that was similar to a croissant,” she adds. “There’s nothing too unusual about this sweet roll but it is like nothing else that anyone else was doing.” The pastry is made with sour cream, egg yolks, a little yeast and butter and then filled with walnut meringue made from egg whites, walnuts, sugar and vanilla. The bakery also offers a honey-apricot filled variety.
“What’s great about them is that we make them up, freeze them and then take them straight from the freezer to the oven,” Merrick says.
Whalen likes that there is no sugar in the dough. “They’re not overly sweet, you can actually have one for breakfast and it doesn’t overwhelm you with sugar,” she says. “One of our philosophies here is that we want people to feel good when they leave. We don’t want people to feel unhealthy even if they eat our most decadent brownie; the sweet won’t be over the top. We want them to feel good about the food, but also about the space and the experience.”
Outside brought in
The space, and overall experience, truly sets August First apart. Located in a former garage, the bakery kept the two large garage doors and often opens them so patrons have the feel of an outside dining experience while remaining protected from the elements. The doors also let in a lot of natural light, which provide a better atmosphere than any electrical light can produce.
|Walnut meringue Hungarian sweet roll||$3.00|
|Granola bar without gluten||$3.00|
|Coconut macaroon without gluten||$1.50|
|Triple chocolate brownies||$3.00|
|Chocolate chip walnut cookie||$1.25|
|Oatmeal raisin cookie, ½ dozen||$6.25|
|Cranberry almond scone||$2.50|
|Kalamata olive bread||$6.00|
|Jalapeño cheddar bread||$6.00|
|Country French sourdough||$4.50|
Though the doors provide a great atmosphere for customers, they can wreak havoc on bread production, but Merrick and his staff are well trained enough to easily make adjustments for the non-controlled environment. The bakery seats about 50 people with 16 tables inside and three outside.
Whalen and Merrick also made a conscious decision when planning the layout of the bakery to keep it as open as possible, including production. Customers have a clear view of the production area from their first step through the door.
“One thing I don’t necessarily enjoy but is an important part of our business is the openness,” Merrick says. The baker in him doesn’t always like being under the watchful eyes of customers. “We decided to keep production open because of the theater aspect. Customers watch us and it magnifies the business,” he adds.
If Whalen had her way, it would be even more open. “It’s who we are, I think people really appreciate it. It’s like staying in someone’s house,” she says. “And I think it helps when people are waiting for an order, they can actually see what we’re working on.”
The couple worked with a consultant through a free local government agency to help develop a business plan. The consultant had previously worked with Panera and Bruegger’s and knew bakery cafés. This freed Merrick and Whalen to focus on the interior. Sight lines were important in the largely open space. The oven is visible but the dish area is not. They also worked to find the balance between homey-looking tables, chairs and accents but not so mismatched that it felt like a dorm room.
With a product line ranging from bakery to sandwiches to coffee, it often feels as though August First is three different businesses–a bakery, café and coffee shop, Merrick says. The multiple product lines help attract enough customers to keep the bakery busy throughout the day.
“It helps fill in the gaps in the day,” Whalen says. “That was something we had to work out early on. Whenever there were gaps in the morning or afternoon, that’s when we started doing more sweets and things like that.”
The bakery, which closes daily at 5 p.m., also began opening on Friday nights for a pizza buffet. The tables are pushed together so patrons sit family style and several varieties of flatbread pizza as well as sweets are available on the buffet. The bakery’s flatbread is only available on Friday night. “We found a sweet spot and we’d like to keep it,” Whalen says.
The couple also has begun opening up the bakery to private parties in the evenings. Customers can simply rent the space or they can order a completely catered meal from the bakery. It is the area where Whalen sees the most potential for the bakery’s future growth.
Though the bakery has only been open two years, Whalen and Merrick are always looking at ways to expand. A second location isn’t off the table, but the consultant they used when opening the business told them if they were to open another location, they might as well open three more, Whalen says. That way they could hire a regional manager to run the multiple locations. “Growth is always good, but moderate growth is best,” Merrick says. More locations aren’t currently in the game plan, but taking advantage of the space at night and maybe adding more bakery bicycles could boost revenues.
While August First is a new bakery, Merrick had experience owning a bakery for several years in the Adirondacks, and the couple thought they had a good idea of what they could expect, but those expectations have been blown out of the water. By their third year in business, they expected to be pulling in about $600,000 in sales. Currently, after only two years in operation, 2011 sales are expected to be $750,000.
“That’s 25 percent more than we expected to be next year,” Merrick says. “Which is good because we’d underestimated labor costs, so it’s actually working out very well.”
The bakery’s success is due to Merrick and Whalen’s partnership. “One of the reasons for our success is Phil’s very strong at baking and I’m more business. You can’t have one without the other,” Whalen says. “You can bake an amazing product but if you don’t have the savvy with how you’re packaging it or marketing it, it will just sit on the shelf.”