Some people might think it takes a lot of crust to give up a successful business to begin another one from scratch. But, in 1996 Gary Bryant decided it was time to make a fresh start by developing his own sandwich-based fast-casual concept. For Bryant, that meant building every sandwich on breads fresh from the oven. And 29 stores later, it still does.
During his eight years as a licensee of a national ham store/restaurant chain, Bryant had built his seven stores into some of the most consistent volume leaders in the system. Convinced that he had identified an untapped market niche, he left the company and opened his first Bear Rock Cafe in 1997.
“Over the years, I had watched sandwich sales continually rise in the ham stores. I thought there was an opportunity for a quick-casual chain offering a wide range of sandwich selections and comfortable ambience,” Bryant says.
Of several concepts Bryant tested in focus groups, the mountain lodgethemed Bear Rock Cafe was the hands down favorite. And, despite its location in a C-rated shopping center in Raleigh, the first cafÈ did 30 percent more volume than Bryant had anticipated.
Buoyed by this initial success, Bryant opened 10 more units in as many months. By the end of 2002, Bear Rock had 15 locations in three states. By the end of January 2004, the number had risen to 29 units in nine states.
In 2003, the company, based in Cary, N.C., a suburb of Raleigh, had annual sales per unit ranging from $1.2 to $1.7 million and system-wide sales totaling $13 to $15 million. Key to the concept is baking in every unit, Bryant says, with breads, cookies and pastries being pulled fresh from the oven all day.
Expanded bread variety
Much of the Bear Rock menu is focused on its 11 varieties of breads and rolls. Made from formulas specified by the chain, the doughs, which are outsourced, arrive frozen either fully baked or in proof-and-bake form.
Originally, sandwiches were available on croissants or Kaiser rolls. Now, customers also can choose from sourdough, stone mill wheat, seeded rye and vegetable loaves, classic ciabatta or Asiago focaccia rolls.
Bear Rock focuses on fresh breads throughout its menu, which features sandwiches with names like Garden Grill Ciabatta, Rockslide Focaccia and Rising Sunflower. Salads are topped with croutons (made from leftover loaves), and soup is available in sourdough bread bowls.
To help his products stand out in the marketplace, Bryant developed some simple baking techniques to give his bread a distinctive Bear Rock twist.
To keep bread crusts tender, for example, loaves are bagged in cellophane or plastic as soon as they cool to room temperature. They are then used for sandwiches or sold whole. Bear Rock staffers rotate the bagged breads, which generally have no more than a two-day shelf life, two to three times a day.
Two-pound loaves of six bread varieties and eightpacks of Kaiser rolls are always available, and Bear Rock management evaluates the bread offerings twice a year. The company is currentlylooking for low-fat, low-carb breads and sub rolls.
To produce Bear Rock focaccia, with its unique crunchy-chewy texture and flavor, staff docks the dough much like a pizza crust, brush it with oil and sprinkle it with Asiago cheese before baking.
Best selling cookie
In the dessert category, Bear Rock sells between 100 to 300 3-oz. cookies at every location, every day. Of the four available varieties, chocolate chunk is the number one seller, followed by chocolate chunk macadamia nut, oatmeal raisin and cinnamon sugar (Snickerdoodle).
Customers often comment on how much they like the soft, extra-chewy texture of Bear Rock's oven-fresh cookies. Although the formulas are proprietary, Bryant reveals that part of the secret is slightly underbaking the dough.
The chain's signature Sticky Paws (caramel apple) cheesecake and a New York-style Central Park cheesecake are delivered fully baked and portioned. For the breakfast menu, fully baked, iced cinnamon rolls require only a quick warming to melt the icing.
“Bear Rock was designed to be a franchise concept from day one, so we needed to make our processes simple without cutting any quality corners,” Bryant explains. “With the ready-to-bake cookies and pre-baked desserts and breakfast pastries, we have eliminated any baking inefficiencies, so our franchisees and customers are assured of consistent product across the U.S,” he says.
Although between 75 to 80 percent of the baking is completed between 6 a.m. and lunchtime, some items, such as focaccia and cookies, are produced throughout the day. “We have baking equipment in the restaurants to underscore our message about the freshness of our offerings,” Bryant notes. “We don't want people saying that we have ovens but never use them.”
Desserts account for between eight and 12 percent of Bear Rock Cafe's total daily sales. Between 12 and 15 percent of these sales are made at lunchtime, with another 35 to 40 percent at dinner.
But even though employees are trained to talk to customers about the desserts and keep sampling trays stocked and fresh, Bryant believes that pastry sales could be higher.
“Bear Rock is currently evaluating its whole dessert program, with the focus on adding tabletop desserts,” he says. “We have no sacred cows on the menu, except for the cookies.”
Dessert pricing is another issue currently being addressed by the Bear Rock team.
“It's hard to convince a customer who has just bought a $5.75 sandwich to also buy a $3 slice of cheesecake,” Bryant says. “We sell a lot more cookies and pastries that range from 99 cents to $1.69.”
To showcase the desserts more effectively, the company is testing a display that would consolidate all of the breads and sweet offerings into a single, eye-catching 45 degree angle display located in the front of the store beside the order counter.
New dessert display
By scattering the desserts around in different displays, we may be giving them more space. But we think the impact will be greater with a single, easy-to-find, easy-to-view unit that they have to pass on their way in,” Bryant adds. “Just as important is the fact that we will be able to control the quality of our products if they're in a more confined space.”
Bear Rock has always kept close track of its inventory with shelf stickers to designate the date products were baked. While the size of the new displays may require more frequent restocking, that is not a detriment.
“Overstocking can hurt product quality,” he says. “If we have to bake cookies three times a day instead of two, that's better than serving our customers stale product.”
Breakfast at Bear Rock, which has consistently ranged from five to seven percent of sales, is changing as well. To its original offering of thawand-serve pastries, the chain has recently added egg, cheese and/or meat sandwiches on bagels or English muffins.
This year, the morning menu will get another boost with the addition of two new varieties of muffins and/or pastries.
Technology boosts sales
Last year, about 70 percent of the Bear Rock units began offering free Wi-Fi wireless Internet access to attract coffee and pastry customers during the traditional off-peak hours: after breakfast, mid-afternoon and after dinner. So far, says Bryant, the results have been positive, and the company plans to do more Wi-Fi promotion this year.
Bear Rock also plans to open between 15 and 30 new units this year, with an additional 35 to 40 on the drawing boards for 2005. Currently, four locations are company owned, and the rest are franchised.
As Bear Rock continues to grow, Bryant intends to keep companyowned units to a maximum of 10 percent of the total number in the chain. He also projects that systemwide sales will increase to $25 to $30 million in 2004.
|Cinnamon roll, 5 ozs.||$1.79|
|Bear claw, 4 ozs||$1.69|
|Bear bagel, 4 ozs||$ .99|
|English muffin, 4 ozs.||$ .89|
|Grizzly bear cookies, 3 ozs||$ .99|
|Sticky Paws cheesecake, 5.75 ozs.||$3.09|
|Brownie, 3 ozs||$1.39|
|Mama Bear's homemade apple pie, 4.5 ozs||$1.89|
|Bread (6 varieties), 2-lb. loaf||$2.99|
|Kaiser rolls, 8 pack, 22 ozs||$2.99|
Bear Rock Cafe...at a glance
Company name: Bear Rock Cafe
Location: Cary, N.C.
Web site: www.bearrockfoods.com
Market served: Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin and plans for national rollout
Bakery products: breads, cookies, pastries, brownies, cheesecake, pies, rolls, bagels, muffins, biscotti
Number of retail locations: 29
Store sizes: 3,500 to 4,500 sq. ft.
Annual systemwide sales: $13 to $15 million in 2003.
Production methods: outsources fully baked, par-baked, proof-andbake and raw dough products
Key personnel: Gary Bryant, president and C.E.O.; Lance Farlow, C.F.O.; Russell Lambe, vice president of operations; Chris Cheek, vice president of franchise development; Shannon Dixon, vice president of real estate; Deneen Nethercutt, vice president of marketing
Major equipment: Proofer/oven combination, cooler and freezer, slicer, cooling racks