Ponzio's co-owner John Fifis and bakery general manager Nick Fossel
Baking begins at 5 a.m. to prepare for the restaurant's 7 a.m. opening and to fill wholesale orders.
Ponzio's Restaurant and Bakery packs in the customers who are treated to a three-page dessert menu.
Ponzio's showcases feature full-size desserts, smaller portions and slices to cater to any size impulse.
Twenty percent of Ponzio's customers order dessert in the evenings.
Hamentashen and rugalach rank among Ponzio's staples.
In the middle of the twentieth century, diners, stainless-steel roadside monuments to all-American cuisine serving meals from morning to night and breakfast all day, proliferated throughout southern New Jersey. One of the major attractions for both locals and travelers was the neon-scripted promise of "baked on premises" breakfast pastries and desserts. It still is the main attraction at Ponzio's Restaurant and Bakery in Cherry Hill, N.J.
The Ponzio's tradition began in 1949 in Brooklawn, N.J. when James Ponzio opened his state-of-the-art, counter-and-booth eatery (complete with air conditioning, automatic dishwashing equipment and a dedicated bakery production area.) Nine years later, the diner was purchased by brothers James, Nick and Michael Fifis. In 1964, the brothers took over another diner in a busy traffic circle in Cherry Hill, less than 10 miles northeast of Brooklawn, and re-opened it under the Ponzio's name.
Around 1990, the Fifis brothers sold the original restaurant and consolidated their operation in Cherry Hill. Although James Fifis remains president and a visible presence at the restaurant, he has passed the hands-on ownership reins to sons John, Chris and Nick, along with partner John Giambanis (referred to as John G.)
Today Ponzio's serves about 14,000 guests each week and earns between $5.5 and $6 million per year, about 3 percent to 5 percent of which comes from sales of its bakery products. While about three-quarters of Ponzio's bakery sales come from a combination of dine-in and take-out customers, the owners also provide about 14 wholesale accounts with cheesecakes, decorated cakes and individual and mini pastries "to ensure that the 2,500-sq.-ft. bakery is constantly running at maximum cost efficiency," says John Fifis, a Culinary Institute of America graduate. Nick has a restaurant management degree from Widener College in Pennsylvania and Chris a marketing degree from Philadelphia University.
Sweets are central to the Ponzio's experience. Twelve feet of dry and refrigerated bakery cases, diner-style refrigerated revolving display racks and wall-mounted behind-the-counter shelves greet guests as they enter the restaurant. A three-page (not including coffee selections) dessert menu tempts them at each table. The regular dessert menu lists more than 60 bakery selections, including more than 20 cakes and cheesecakes, 30 individual pastries and nearly a dozen fruit and cream pies.
Guests also are invited to check out the revolving case in front for cake and pie selections not listed on the menu. New items are often introduced by including them as part of the restaurant's weekday, three-course, fixed price dinner special.
One particularly popular dinner menu special that made it to the regular dessert menu is an individual confection the Fifis' call "Yokie Pokie Pie." Based on a favorite recipe of Nick's wife's family, this dessert consists of a walnut crust, layers of cream cheese filling and chocolate pudding, topped with whipped cream and shaved chocolate.
Prime time evenings
John Fifis estimates that about 10 percent of dine-in guests order at least one item from the bakery at breakfast, primarily muffins, white fondant-iced Danish, raisin-studded cinnamon buns or cream cheese dough cinnamon sticks. Another 10 percent order dessert with lunch. "Most of our lunch customers are local business people who have limited time," he notes.
From dinner through 1 a.m. closing, the dessert orders jump to 20 percent. Ponzio's maintains a team of six full-time bakers; four of whom received their training on the job, working their way up from dishwashers to bakers' helpers to full-fledged bakers.
Bakery production is a six-day-a-week, 10-hour-a-day operation. During holidays, that increases to seven days a week and 12- to 14-hour days, Fifis says. The action begins at around 5 a.m. to prepare for the restaurant's 7 a.m. opening and fill the wholesale orders that are e-mailed to the bakery each day.
Cheesecake, "made from the same recipe since day one," according to Fifis, has always been a signature item for Ponzio's. Available in nine varieties, it is a top seller whole from the case and by the slice from the menu.
Number one on the cheesecake hit parade is the mini version topped with chocolate ganache. Under the direction of Bakery General Manager Nick Fossel, the Ponzio's team also turns out signature cheesecake-based creations, such as chocolate bash cake (layers of chocolate cake, mousse and cheesecake finished with ganache); chocolate cheese layer cake (cake, cheesecake and chocolate buttercream icing); and Key lime cake (vanilla cake, cheesecake with key lime filling and graham crackers crowned with whipped cream).
To keep up with the consistently high demand, cheesecakes are made from scratch daily. Carrot cakes are produced once a week, and decorated butter cookies, which are sold by the pound and as cookie trays, are produced every other day. Cookies make up 20 percent of bakery sales on average and twice that during the holidays, Fifis says.
Throughout the year, and especially on weekends, 1-lb. trays of cookies sit on top of the bakery display counter and fill shelves behind the counter ready for customers to take home or give as gifts. During the holidays, a seventh baker, dedicated to making cookies, is added to the production team.
"We know we could sell many more corporate cookie trays during the holidays, but we don't have the equipment or the space to produce them," Fifis observes.
Tops on the four co-owners' equipment wish list is a cookie depositor and convection rack oven, he says. Because pie and crust tarts are currently formed by hand, a press to boost production speed and efficiency also would be a welcome addition, he adds.
About five years ago, Ponzio's switched from making vanilla and chocolate cake layers from scratch to using mixes. "Not only do the mixes allow us to increase our production speed and volume, but their quality and consistency are excellent," Fifis notes. "We experimented with 10 different brands before we found the ones that fit our standards."
Ponzio's bakers prepare cake layers twice a week to freeze for as-needed use. "It's easier for us to finish the layers quickly and cleanly when they're cold," he says.
Bakers also produce buttercreams every other day and pie fillings twice a week to finish cakes and pies throughout the week.
Members of the large Jewish community in and around Cherry Hill have long relied on Ponzio's to have a fresh supply of their favorite traditional treats every day. Among the must-haves are rugalach (small cream cheese-based pastry dough rolled and filled with fruit, cinnamon or chocolate chips) and hamentashen (tender, three-corned pastries made with sweet cookie dough surrounding a fruit filling).
"We're looking for ways to expand our production capacity, but want to be careful to maintain our current level of quality and control our costs," Fifis explains.
At Ponzio's, the target for bakery ingredient cost is 25 percent, compared with 30 percent for the rest of the menu, to cover the 10 percent shrink from Napoleons, cream puffs and other desserts that have only a one-day shelf life.
Since there is no room for expansion within the restaurant's current 30,000sq.-ft. building, the owners are exploring a number of building additions and off-premise options.
To appeal to younger diners (ages 25 to 35), Ponzio's recently overhauled its restaurant menu for the first time since 1964. But, the dessert menu remains virtually unedited and true to its roots.
"People still expect and order the traditional diner desserts, such as pies and layer cakes," Fifis says. "And our number one best-selling cake by the slice is our cream cheese-enriched pound cake ring. It's basic, it's homemade and it will probably always be a part of Ponzio's," he adds.
Ponzio's Restaurant...a sampling of prices
Ponzio's Restaurant at a glance
Competing against the chains
John Fifis has nothing against chain restaurants. But, without a chain's marketing dollars and clout, the second generation restaurateur knows that he and his three partners (two of whom are his brothers) have to rely on buzz rather than budget to maintain the status and sales at their independent Ponzio's Restaurant and Bakery in Cherry Hill, N.J.
Ponzio's has been a well-known name in South Jersey and nearby Philadelphia since 1949. Owned and operated by the Fifis family since 1958, one way it has maintained its top-of-mind status is through its packaging.
Fifis points out that 10 percent of the bakery's production budget is dedicated to packaging. Every box and bag is imprinted with the Ponzio's logo. Even the cardboard cake circles bear this visual reminder of the pastry's provenance when they appear at parties.
"It's details like this that demonstrate our pride in our products and our commitment to quality," he explains. "Besides, boxes and bags don't usually make it to the serving table, but the cake circle remains in front of the guests until the last slice is gone."