Little did Mark and Rhonda Atwood know what their future held when they opened a small cake shop 30 years ago in Pineville, La. In 1980, the couple expanded to a full-line retail bakery in nearby Alexandria, and relocated again in 2004 to a new 10,500-sq.-ft. facility.
The most recent move allowed the bakery to extend its product line beyond baked foods, including deli offerings, gourmet coffee and tea, gelato and gift wares; all of which combined with its array of high quality cakes, pastries and other baked items, generated $1.4 million in sales in 2006. In the 27 years its been in business, Atwood’s Bakery has become a destination in central Louisiana. Mark and Rhonda’s vision for the future of retail baking is among the reasons Atwood’s Bakery was selected Modern Baking’s 2007 Retail Bakery of the Year.
This summer, Modern Baking put a call out to its readers to nominate the best retail bakeries in the country. The nominations were judged on several criteria, including sales, product quality, management systems, merchandising, training systems, marketing plans and industry service. Atwood’s Bakery, which also was featured in Modern Baking’s May 2007 issue, offers a model for which other bakeries can aspire.
When the bakery moved to its current location, the Atwoods included a deli in the plans. However, they chose to delay introducing the deli for a year.
“When the doors opened, we went from 150 products in our old bakery to nearly 350, including beverages and gelato,” Mark recalls. “We wanted to make sure we had our systems in place before we added a deli.” The timing was nearly perfect.
A family friend, who is an American Culinary Federation certified executive chef, had taken a year off work. He signed on to help plan and equip the deli kitchen and develop recipes and procedures for gourmet sandwiches, salads and soups. He also handled cooking for the first nine months; the current executive chef worked with him, which allowed for a smooth transition.
Located at one side of the bakery, the deli has 48 seats. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; dinner is available from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday. To avoid congestion at the sales counter, customers indicate their choices on order tickets and submit them at the deli’s cash register.
The menu includes gourmet sandwiches, salads and soups, prepared from scratch. Create-a-deli sandwiches and Atwood signature sandwiches, served with kettle-fried chips and a kosher pickle, sell for $6.95 and $7.95, respectively.
Examples of signature sandwich varieties include The Atwood, which features a freshly baked butter croissant filled with smoked chicken salad, smoked applewood bacon and smoked Gouda cheese, garnished with lettuce and tomato. The BBMT has applewood smoked bacon, fresh basil, fresh mozzarella cheese and tomato with mayonnaise on fresh sun-dried tomato bread.
Each month, Atwood’s features a sandwich of the month for $7.95. During Modern Baking’s visit, the chef prepared barbecued pulled pork, smoked on premise, in a tangy barbecue sauce and served on a French roll. Garnish included red pepper rings and bread-and-butter pickles.
Salads, which include Greek and chunky tuna, sell for $6.95 and $8.95, respectively. Shrimp salad was the month’s feature during Modern Baking’s visit. Served with garlic bread, the salad contains fresh shrimp, celery, and pablano and red peppers, tossed in Atwood’s spicy cilantro dressing and garnished with hard-boiled egg.
Queen’s Soup, the bakery’s signature soup, is a rich cream of chicken with wild rice soup. All thick soups are served in sourdough bread bowls; broth-based varieties are offered in ceramic crocks. Daily soup varieties include crawfish and mushroom, tomato with pasta and cauliflower and walnut, among others. A bowl of soup sells for $5 and a 6-oz. cup is $3.
On Thursday and Friday evenings, the deli offers its Evening of Desserts. “Our size of town (54,000 residents) could not support more than two nights,” Mark observes. “Also, having only Thursday and Friday night makes going out special to many customers.” Saturday night would have been more profitable, but Mark was concerned with quality of life for his staff. The bakery closes at 4 p.m. Saturday and reopens Tuesday. “That gives our employees almost 2½ days off to be with their families,” he concludes.
During the evening deli hours, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., customers can select from the bakery’s wide variety of pastries, tortes, gelato flavors or one of Atwood’s featured desserts, all served on china. Featured desserts are selected specially for the evenings and are changed weekly.
One favorite sweet is Brownie Mountain. A scoop of chocolate gelato is topped with three warmed fudge brownie wedges, angled to create a mountain. Hot fudge and caramel sauce are ladled over the brownies, and whipped cream on top provides “snow.” Cut pecan pieces garnish the dessert.
Desserts can be enjoyed with gourmet brewed and espresso coffees and teas served in china cups and saucers. Soft music enhances the experience. Gourmet coffee and teas also are available during the bakery’s regular hours, and were introduced with the new location.
Expanding into gourmet coffee
Coffee service, common to many bakeries, was new to Atwood’s. To select a brand of brewed coffee, Mark and Rhonda conducted a tasting with ten loyal customers whom they knew like good coffee. Gathered in the store, the panel blind-tested freshly brewed coffee from Starbucks, a local coffee shop and several other brands.
The panel tasted each variety just brewed, after 30 minutes and then after 60 minutes. Once the testers and the Atwoods selected the brand, the testers sampled that company’s different varieties. “The resulting house coffee is a Sumatra variety, which is expensive for a house coffee,” Rhonda says. “But, that’s what our customers prefer.”
The brewing system features holding pots with digital readouts, which indicate how much coffee remains and when it was brewed. “We pull ours between three and four hours,” she says. “Often retailers allow coffee to stand too long, especially when they brew several different types. This system enables us to always have freshly brewed coffee.”
The Atwoods also took a course on preparing espresso drinks, which included frothing milk. The instructor counseled not to rely on thermometers to froth milk. Readings, especially on dial thermometers, are delayed, which can result in scalded milk.
Rather, they learned to listen to the sound of the pressurized milk. “When the high-pitched sound begins to drop, the temperature nears the optimum level in steps,” Rhonda explains. They taught their sales staff this method. “It takes practice, but you learn to make perfect milk.”
Just as important is the need to position the espresso machine so customers can easily see the preparation. “It’s part of the theater we want to create,” she adds.
Adding tea and gift wares
Getting into the gourmet coffee business made offering tea a natural segue. The Atwoods expanded their tea line to include a dozen varieties of loose tea, which sales personnel prepare with infusers to provide better brewing compared with bagged tea. To select tea, customers may sniff the teas’ aromas from jars positioned along the top of a service case. The sales staff then prepares the drinks from teas at the prep station.
Varieties are rotated to maintain customer interest. “The ‘theater’ approach to selling and preparing tea is similar to a cappuccino experience,” Rhonda says. “As a result, our tea business has grown.”
Customers also can purchase the tea by the ounce, which offered an opportunity to add more complementary items to the bakery’s gift wares–a greater selection of tea pots and tea sets, infusers, and ceramic caddies for infusers and bags.
The tea accessories are part of an expanded gift wares line. The former location had displayed a few items, such as cookie jars and tea pots, to accompany bakery gift packages. Rhonda increased it during the last 18 months to include tea settings, serving platters, dessert trays, decorative aprons, baking and cookware, and other accessories.
She says most gifts are geared to three types of customers: individuals 60 years old or older, like grandmothers who appreciate tea pots with some special tea; young girls, like granddaughters, who like tea sets; and families and couples, who use cookie jars and serving platters, especially during the holidays.
“You would be surprised at the business in gift wares,” she observes. “They sell all year and especially before Christmas. Most importantly, gift wares carry as much as a 70 percent margin, including sales labor.”
Gelato proves profitable
While many bakery operators offer or have toyed with the idea of selling ice cream, few have pursued gelato, the intensely flavorful Italian ice cream. Bulletin: It can be wildly profitable.
“Who would have thought people would spend nearly $100 for a gallon of ice cream?” Mark asks. “We get $17 for 25 ozs., and the cost to make gelato is less than to make super premium ice cream because you use mostly water. And, it’s milk-based, not cream-based.”
Customers select from 16 flavors in a curved glass service case. To encourage sales, Atwood’s “requires” customers to sample at least three varieties. “While a customer tastes samples, we explain how we make it, like old-fashioned slow-churned ice cream; so it’s richer and denser than today’s whipped up ice cream. Even if a customer doesn’t buy, they will the next time,” Mark adds.
He learned from other bakers that high visibility is important to make gelato sales successful. That’s why he installed the display case next to a cash register and near other impulse purchases.
Gelato is available in 3- and 5-oz. cups, priced at $2.95 and $4.50, respectively, and a 25-oz. container for $17. Toppings are 50 cents each.
Sales are growing steadily, Mark says. “Gelato’s flavor is more intense than that of ice cream because fat in ice cream masks its flavor,” he explains.
An employee prepares a week’s supply every Saturday. To simplify its production, Atwood’s makes gelato from a prepared mix. (The traditional method is more labor intensive, requiring pasteurization of a mixture that includes fresh eggs.) The mixture is cooled, and then frozen.
“You get a better tasting gelato with the traditional method, but gelato’s not our primary product,” Mark says. He chose the no-cook method which involves mixing a powdered base with milk and requires half the time to prepare. The equipment also is less expensive, $20,000, compared with about $60,000 for the conventional pasteurizing system, he adds.
With its expanded product line that does not ignore the importance of quality baked products, Atwood’s Bakery set its sights on the future. And, it has become a destination, which is vital for bakeries in the South, Mark says. Without a dense population, getting customers to return is integral to success. Atwood’s Bakery has succeeded.