For most people, retirement means days spent golfing or fishing. For Gary and Colleen Worthington, retirement meant another shot at the foodservice business. In the late 1980s, the couple sold their nine locations of a franchised national sandwich chain and spent eight years in retirement, but “we were bored. There’s a lot to be said for contributing to the world instead of just being a taker,” Colleen Worthington says.
The couple needed something to do and began talking with friends who own a flourmill. The mill’s owners had toyed with the idea of opening a bakery, and the Worthingtons thought the future was in European hearth bread. Colleen went to AIB International, Manhattan, Kan., to take classes and Gary attended both AIB and the San Francisco Baking Institute. They decided to open a bread bakery supplied by the local mill with a flour blend developed exclusively for the bakery.
On Dec. 2, 1997, the Worthingtons opened the first Kneaders in Orem, Utah. “We were so naïve to think we could open on Dec. 2 and that it would be fun. But we were overwhelmed,” Worthington says. (They have since learned their lesson. No new stores are allowed to open October through December.) Although the timing might have been overwhelming, the Worthingtons weren’t daunted and quickly began to plan ways to grow their business.
The first location opened as mostly a bread bakery with a few pastry items, such as cinnamon rolls, with four small tables. Those tables were always full and they knew they were on to something. Within months of opening, the Worthingtons added sandwiches to the product line knowing that Kneaders’ bread was the perfect basis for freshly cooked meats. “Our turkey sandwich is our very best-selling sandwich. You cannot beat fresh bread from the oven and turkey from the steamer,” Worthington adds.
Today, Kneaders has 21 locations (half corporate owned), mostly in Utah, but with plans to expand into Colorado, Oregon and Texas as well as add units in Idaho and Arizona. About four years ago, the company entered a growth phase, and six stores were added in 2012 with plans are open 12 more in 2013. All but two locations feature drive-thrus and nearly 40 percent of sales are conducted through the drive-thru.
Whether the store is corporate owned or franchised, the corporate bread baker and corporate pastry chef spend the week before opening in the location making sure the ovens are working properly and the procedures are in place in addition to the new franchisee spending a month working in another Kneaders location. The corporate bakers remain for another week after opening. Then, an inspector from the corporate office reviews each location once a month to ensure standards are kept. Twice a year all owners gather at the corporate facility in Orem, called the Bakehouse, for additional training.
Almost all products–42 varieties of pastries, such as cheesecake, cakes, brownies, pies, and cupcakes, and 11 flavors of bread, such as asiago cheese, 100% whole wheat and French country–are baked fresh in each location. The Bakehouse produces only a few items, such as éclairs and piecrusts, which are shipped to each location through the chain’s ingredients distributor.
“What I like best about not having a commissary is that a customer can call at 10 o’clock at night and ask for 120 fruit tarts for tomorrow and we can do that for them. If I had to depend on a commissary, I couldn’t do that. It makes us feel a lot more connected with the customer and what we can do for them,” Worthington says. The caveat is that Kneaders can only fill customer requests for variations of products it already offers. Mini cupcakes can be produced but a salmon dinner for a catering order can’t. “We find that we’re better and can perform better for people if we stick to what we do. Let’s do what we do and let’s do that the very best we can,” she says.
Croissants also are ordered from a supplier for bake off in the stores. “The moment we can do the croissants better than what we can buy, then we’ll make them, but right now, [the supplier] is much better than we are at making them,” Worthington adds.
European tradition, American flair
Pastry production begins at every location at 2 a.m. and finishes between 10 a.m. and noon. The pastries are rooted in European tradition but feature a distinctive American flair. They are often sweeter than their European cousins. For example, the fruit tart’s dominant flavor is the vanilla mousse. One the newest and most popular products is the chocolate dome, which features chocolate cake and chocolate mousse topped with chocolate ganache and garnished with chocolate swirls.
To help introduce new products, Kneaders has begun running contests for its pastry employees. A recent competition was to find new cookie flavors. About 25 pastry chefs participated. They produced their cookie entry for two weeks and had it on display for sampling in the stores. Customers were asked to go to Kneaders’ Facebook page and vote on their favorite cookie variety. The result was six new cookie varieties customers loved. Now, the corporate team is tasked with working out which varieties make sense to offer on a regular basis in every location. Kneaders plans to run a similar contest for different products once a year.
Once pastry production winds down at midday, the bread team takes over with feeding the sourdough starter and mixing doughs. Fresh breads start rolling out of the oven around 5 p.m., and bread production winds down at 10 p.m. Eleven varieties are available on a daily basis; 2-lb. loaves are produced for individual sale and 5-lb. loaves are baked for sandwiches. Varieties include the best-selling asiago cheese and French country sourdough as well as ciabatta, chunky cinnamon and rosemary focaccia. Seasonal varieties, such as pumpkin and lemon blueberry, rotate throughout the year.
“It’s funny what’s in a name and a price,” Worthington says. “French country sourdough is our best-selling bread but when we started making it we just called it sourdough and nobody bought it. We raised the price a dollar and renamed it French country sourdough. It’s our most popular selling bread now.”
With every location producing freshly baked items from scratch, training is crucial to maintain product quality and integrity. New hires work for a month before they are tested for certification. For example, pastry employees have to be able to name the five types of chocolate the company uses, what the different chocolates are used for and the temperatures for heating them. They also are tested on how quickly they can fill 100 éclairs.
The bread and pastry manuals contain detailed instructions so employees with little baking knowledge can replicate the products. Employees also are sent to classes at AIB International or the San Francisco Baking Institute on a regular basis or instructors come to the chain’s locations to teach new methods. Kneaders recently introduced webinars, so the corporate bread and pastry bakers can work with bakers in the stores to correct problems they may be running into.
Kneaders recently held a pastry rodeo where all pastry employees from all the locations gathered at the Bakehouse for competitions and demonstrations. The employees were judged by Kneaders’ ingredient suppliers on how well they could complete tasks in a given time, such as how fast they could decorate five fruit tarts. It gave Kneaders the opportunity to compliment employees on their abilities as well as correct mistakes. “It was our effort to try to get speed and quality up to our standards so they could be faster in their stores,” Worthington says.
Continuity through all locations
The product line is identical in all locations. “I feel pretty strongly about that,” Worthington says. “We have a big population that is in all the stores and they’re disappointed if it’s not what they’re used to.” While franchisees can decorate their locations to fit their own demographics, they must purchase décor from approved suppliers. And certain things are always the same. Products in the showcases are set the same in every location.
“In every one of our stores you’ll walk in the door and while you’re standing in line you’re right in front of the pastry display. We want them to say, ‘Wow, that is absolutely amazing. I’ve never seen anything like that,’” she adds.
“What it gets down to is about the food, and the main thing is our product is fresh every day. We like to think our brand is comfort with the freshest food possible and a focus on relationships, whether it’s the relationship with our employees, with our customers or our food purveyors or equipment suppliers,” Worthington says. “That’s what we do at Kneaders is care about the people.”
On 9/11, she debated whether to keep the stores open and an employee convinced her to stay open because people needed a place to be. It was one of the busiest days for the company. “People just needed that comfort of the homemade bread and going somewhere where they knew people would be. We had people sit for hours and we had standing room only at one point. That was really the first time I realized that we’re not just selling bread and pastries, we’re selling comfort to people.”