John Homrighausen always considered himself more of a chef and caterer than a baker. But when his customers started regularly requesting his baked products, he seized the opportunity to expand, opening Ranch Bakery in June 2011 as an extension of his flagship business, J-BAR-H Texas Catering in Houston, Texas.
“Catering took a hard hit in 2009, and I started looking for additional streams of income for my little company,” Homrighausen says. “We had always baked our own rolls and desserts to great acclaim from our customers and there was a hole in our market for a scratch bakery that wasn’t a donut shop, a Panera, or a Hispanic bakery. So I started the bakery on weekends, selling pans of whatever I was making.”
As the business grew, Homrighausen converted 164 sq. ft. of his 2,000-sq.-ft. catering production space into the retail bakery, adding rustic design elements to give it a comforting, ranch-like feel, such as recycled fence pickets, galvanized buckets, wicker baskets and a chalk board for writing the day’s menu.
Nostalgic product line
The bakery’s core product is the kolache, a semisweet, filled pastry that has become a staple food of Texas. Homrighausen learned the formula from a friend’s grandmother and began offering traditional varieties in six-count tins.
“We sold out of the kolaches every weekend, so each week I would add a new flavor,” Homrighausen says. Rotating sweet and savory flavors include cherry compote; apple with salted caramel; lemon curd; bacon and cheese; jalapeño, sausage and pepper jack; and cream cheese.
Other products include cinnamon rolls; bourbon bacon sticky buns; pastry struedels; handheld pies; pie fries; cakes; and bialy-like soft “bretzls” stuffed with fillings such as bratwurst, grainy mustard and cheese, pepperoni and cheese, and caramelized onion and cream cheese.
“When you see people try a product their grandmother made them or that touches them, those are very specific, powerful gifts to give people. That’s why I bake the way I bake,” Homrighausen says. “All the catering recipes are throwback recipes as well, so the bakery has to fit in with that theme.”
Also attracting a lot of attention are Ranch Bakery’s cowboy cupcakes, which Homrighausen calls “manly cupcakes” for their bold, often boozy flavors like Irish Car Bomb, with St. Arnold’s stout dark chocolate cake, Irish whiskey ganache filling and Bailey’s buttercream icing; Cowboy Coffee, with coffee-flavored cake, coffee icing and coffee-chocolate drizzled on top; and Roadhouse, with Shiner Bock ginger cake topped with peanut butter icing and candied pretzel garnish. The bakery offers a few dozen of multiple varieties each week, with online orders also available.
“You don’t come into a cupcake bakery and feel comfortable as a guy,” he says. “I didn’t want to do cupcakes at first. But we’re market-driven creatures, and my customers wanted them. So I had to find a way for them to fit my food ethic.”
Building a web-savvy business
Homrighausen puts almost as much time into his website and social media efforts as he does into the product. He designed the website himself to reflect the Ranch Bakery theme; his RB logo, which appears on signature desserts and packaging labels, also can be seen throughout the website in the same branded style.
He tweets and posts regularly on Facebook to keep the conversation with customers going. He also frequently reads consumer food blogs for new ideas and to keep abreast of trends. He got the idea for pie fries on a food blog, he notes.
“Everything has changed in the past five years,” he says. “Being small and adaptable and savvy, I can be right on the cutting edge of where I need to be product wise and business wise. Someone recently told me, ‘You will not support your business through the cash register alone. You need to bring people in through catering and through the internet.’ So there’s a multi-prong approach to what I’m doing.”
While he maintains that he is first and foremost a chef and caterer, Homrighausen has plans to expand the bakery with additional standalone locations because he sees growth potential for the business.
“Baking is hard. I hate making money $1 at a time. I have catering jobs that will pull in $8,000 with just one event,” he says. “But I see the bakery as a replicable business that can be grown. It was very deliberately created with minimal cash outlay at the front of our shop. We created something that is putting something back into the market.”