“We decided from the very beginning that quality was going to be everything for us,” says Jim Williams, who owns Seven Stars Bakery in Providence, R.I. with his wife Lynn. “Everything is fresh every day, and we've never compromised on that.”
He remembers working at a bakery early in his career that sold the same batch of cookies for several days. Cookies two or three days from the oven are still edible, but they don't taste the same as day one from the oven, he notes. A customer who loved a cookie on day one might be disappointed going back to buy the same cookie on day two.
“I think that is something you see a lot in bakeries. The bakers make a batch of something and they sell until it's gone because they don't want to lose that money,” he says. “It's understandable, but they would make more money if they focused on quality. People come back for that. Our customers know they are getting fresh product and that it was baked that day. We won't budge on that, and that has really helped us.” In the cookie scenario, imagine if a customer bought the cookie for the first time on day two. The customer might leave your bakery thinking your cookies aren't very good and not come back, he says.
At Seven Stars, the Williams don't use any ingredients with preservatives; everything is natural. For example, they only use fresh eggs and don't use any pre-made fillings. Williams recently had to switch the flour the bakery uses due to rising costs. “These days, price has dictated a lot. We're always looking for ways to save a couple bucks, but also continue making the best product we can,” he says.
In the case of the flour, he found a source in Canada that was cheaper than anything he could find in the United States; it turns out it is the best flour he has ever used. Being forced to look for different sources of ingredients led him to the best. He is still using that flour and doesn't expect to change unless something happens with the market, and it becomes unavailable.
The bakery's bread, pastries, muffins, croissants, Danish and cookies are all made from scratch, and that is something the bakery will always stand firm on, Williams states. The majority of the breads are made from natural starters with long, slow fermentations. He also promotes quality through his custom packaging, which helps set the loaves apart on grocery shelves (about 20 percent of Seven Stars' sales are from wholesale) as well as giving customers descriptions of the breads. Williams invested in the custom packaging about six years ago to differentiate the bakery from other area bakeries that tend to use generic packaging.
All the couple's efforts are paying off. About 18 months ago, the bakery moved into a new production facility, and last summer, they remodeled the original location and opened a second retail shop. Plans for a third store are already in the works; the only thing missing is the ideal location.
“I really believe that part of the reason that we've been successful is because we've focused on not bending our basic rule of quality. And selling our product for one day and donating everything at the end of the day,” Williams says.
A glance through the reviews of New York City's Almondine Bakery tells the whole story. A sample of customers' comments on yelp.com, a popular restaurant review Web site, include: “If I could bring my bed into the shop, I would live there,” and “I have never had a better almond croissant in my life.”
Each of the 33 distinct reviewers, without exception, coos about the four-year-old French bakery in the heart of Brooklyn's trendy, quickly gentrifying DUMBO (down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass) neighborhood.
Herve Poussot saw opportunity in the area, and started the bakery in September 2004 with area developer David Walentas and famed chocolatier Jacques Torres, who already had a chocolate shop in the neighborhood. Poussot since took over the reins as sole owner, and carved out a niche as a French bakery of Parisian standards in the shadow of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.
Almondine features artisan breads, pastries and special occasion cakes, as well as coffee, sandwiches, quiches and other foodservice items. “We are very lucky in that we are able to do very good bread and very good pastry,” Poussot says. “Rarely do you have both that are of the highest quality.”
Everything at Almondine is baked in small batches from scratch. A baguette a customer picks up in the afternoon was baked no earlier than noon.
Almondine doesn't have any wholesale clients, allowing it to retain its multiple small batch bake schedule. “If you're making dough in the evening, baking all night, loading a truck in the morning, that's 20 hours between the oven and the plate,” Poussot says. “We bake everything last minute, we don't play around with it.”
In order to keep the freshest product on shelves without disappointing, Almondine has no set menu. Two chalkboards let customers know what's available. After four years in the neighborhood, Poussot has a good understanding of when individual products will be expected. But without a menu, the bakers aren't forced to bake in volume to keep fully stocked.
“Not having a menu allows us to adapt to our market as it changes over the course of the day and through the season,” Poussot says. “It gives us the freedom to make small adjustments and make sure everything is just from the oven.”
Two display cases highlight all of the fresh tortes and pastries, most of them nameless. Without a menu, Poussot doesn't feel the need to name his creations. This helps to ensure that the pastry chefs have the freedom to be creative instead of making the same things every day. Poussot also likes the idea of customers coming up with names of their own.
Aside from using the best available ingredients and baking in small batches by hand, Poussot says that quality assurance depends largely on employees. His employees have, for the most part, been with him from the beginning. Such low turnover aids in consistent quality.
“You have to respect your employees, we're all here to work,” Poussot says. “I need them, they need me, we have a goal to reach and that's it.”
The final level of quality assurance is Poussot's very presence. He's there 15 hours per day, seven days per week, with his hands on most everything that makes it to the retail space.
With such a commitment to quality, it figures that every yelp.com reviewer had a comment along these lines: “Almondine, I think I love you.”
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