| Buttercooky Bakery's lineup of European-style desserts. |
Borgognone is the kind of guy who doesn’t take no for an answer.
Whether he was trying harder as one of the smaller guys on the football team at New York’s Institute of Technology or getting his foot in the door at the Plaza Hotel by offering to work in the pastry kitchen for free, Borgognone’s passion propels him to action. At 41, he’s already been in the bakery business for 32 years. This month, he opens his second Buttercooky Bakery in Manhasset, Long Island, a satellite of the original shop in Floral Park, N.Y., which he’s owned since 1995.
Despite his French-sounding name, Borgognone is Sicilian through and through, one possible source for his fierce work ethic. His father Frank immigrated from Arigento, Sicily to New York City 45 years ago and partnered with another Italian immigrant to run a bakery in Brooklyn.
“I started working when I was nine years old, cleaning up and washing pots, then filling cannolis and gradually working on cakes and pastries,” Ben Borgognone says.
Borgognone’s passion for the business was first ignited in his father’s shop. Later, when he studied hotel and restaurant management at college, he was convinced that baking was in his blood.
But Borgognone’s path to success was not in taking over his father’s bakery, with its Italian pedigree and familial history. Instead, Borgognone drove into the city and cold called for a job at the Plaza Hotel.
| Ben Borgognone grew up in the bakery business and had long envisioned owning his own pastry shop. |
“I didn’t even have a resume,” Borgognone says. “I’d only worked for my father.”
He offered to work for two weeks for free, and four months later, he was assistant pastry chef. His three-year tenure at the hotel, where he worked closely with Alain Sailhac, now a dean of culinary studies at the French Culinary Institute, New York City, polished his pastry technique and exposed him to a world of high-end European pastry.
Learned from the family
For the next two years, Borgognone worked for his uncle at Veniero’s Pastry Shop, a multi-million dollar a year Italian bakery operation in Manhattan. There, he learned volume production and honed his management skills.
With these skills in place, Borgognone felt ready to go into the bakery business for himself. A mom-and-pop German bakery in Floral Park turned out to be just the ticket. “It was dark and dingy, really in need of an update,” he recalls. “But the location, in a well established residential neighborhood on a commuter drive, was perfect.”
The challenge was clear: take over an existing bakery and change the product line from basic buttercream cakes and traditional breakfast products to fancy European pastry. Borgognone envisioned an upscale product line, and a bakery design to go along with it.
| Gourmet cakes and pastries as well as sharply uniformed sales people contribute to Buttercooky's professional image. |
The original shop was 2,000 sq. ft. with 600 sq. ft. of retail space and the remainder for production and storage. He spent $500,000 on bakery upgrades–everything from electrical wiring to custom cherry wood cases. Borgognone’s idea was to replicate a European coffee bar, complete with homemade gelato and Italian flavored sodas.
“The transition took time,” Borgognone says. “Customers generally don’t like change.”
Made it his own
The Buttercooky name was the only thing that remained the same in the Floral Park shop. Borgognone transformed the physical space into a bright, open, full-service pastry shop. The remodel sent customers the clear message that the new Buttercooky was professional and committed to high-quality bakery products.
To further win over customers, Buttercooky encouraged them to sample products. Being willing to accommodate last minute orders and offering custom cakes quickly earned Borgognone the loyalty of existing customers and attracted new ones to the positive changes in the bakery.
Buttercooky produces cakes for every imaginable holiday, an overture to the neighborhood’s diversity. He slowly introduced fancy cakes to his 95 percent scratch product line. Buttercooky’s Fruit Salad Cake, for example, is filled with light custard, pineapple, bananas, peaches and strawberries and topped with heavy cream.
Finishing cakes with special touches is Borgognone’s forte. Chocolate shavings and chocolate-dipped ladyfingers adorn Buttercooky’s chocolate tiramisu. Towering meringue rises in Alpine peaks above the banana cream pie. A mirrored pool of dark chocolate envelopes the silken chocolate mousse cake, rich with Belgium chocolate ganache.
“The guy before me made Black Forest cake and white and chocolate cake with buttercream icing. That’s it,” Borgognone says. “I wanted to use my knowledge of European pastry.”
Along with 40 different kinds of cakes, Buttercooky sells a full line of breakfast items, including coffee cake, Danish, croissants and donuts, as well as cookies and bread.
Although committed to being primarily a retail operation, Borgognone acquired some wholesale accounts in the beginning to jumpstart his cash flow, supplying cakes and breakfast items to caterers and country clubs. His retail business jumped 40 percent after the renovation. “I think the new look, bright lighting and visibility made all the difference. People really started noticing us.”
| The bakery's redesigned retail area features new showcases, coffee equipment and cafe seating. |
Envisioned a café
A few years ago, when the lease for the beauty shop next door was up, Borgognone decided to expand. A major coffee chain was coming into the neighborhood, and he wanted to increase his presence in the increasingly competitive market. He broke through next door, doubling his space to a total of 4,000 sq. ft. The larger space allowed room for café tables, a beautiful copper imported espresso machine and a gelato case during the summer.
An avid reader of everything related to the bakery business, Borgognone knew what kind of bakery he wanted to run. “I wanted it to be inviting, the kind of place where people felt comfortable,” he says. The bakery is pristine, modern and spotlessly clean. An admitted clean freak, Borgognone notices every fingerprint on the shop’s brass rail and every smear on the glass cases. No product is displayed unless it meets Borgognone’s standards.
Most of Buttercooky’s employees have been with the company for years. “I promote from within,” Borgognone says. “Attitude is the most important thing to me. You can teach everything else.”
Borgognone sets the example, addressing nearly every customer by name and beaming with pride when he is complimented on a special cake he made for a 50th anniversary. “I never turn anyone away. If somebody comes in and needs a birthday cake 10 minutes before we close, they get it,” he says. Buttercooky typically bakes 240 sheet cakes and 400 tortes a week, in addition to breakfast items and cookies.
After the expansion, Borgognone experimented with longer store hours by offering sandwiches and savory snacks and staying open until 10 p.m. “We really didn’t get the traffic in the evening. There wasn’t enough business,” he says. “This is a coffee and pastry place, so we went back to our 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. schedule, seven days a week.”
Solid base for growth
With nearly 3,000 sq. ft. of production space, including an elevator to transfer product to five large basement walks-in refrigerators and freezers, Buttercooky had the capacity to support another location. “I figure if I’m going to send trucks out to deliver product, it might as well be to my own place instead of going the wholesale route,” Borgognone says.
A second location in the business district of the upscale village of Manhasset on Long Island’s North Shore opens this month. “I had customers begging me to open there for the past three, four years,” he says.
The second Buttercooky Bakery is a 1,200 sq. ft. space with 600 sq. ft. of storage in the basement. Staffed by a pastry chef and two assistants, plus retail sales help, the Manhasset store bakes bread and breakfast items. The bakery finishes some cake products, but most of the fancy cakes and tortes are delivered from Floral Park daily.
“If we can do half of the business we do in Floral Park, I’d be happy,” Borgognone says. A recent demographic study revealed that Buttercooky draws customers from a broad geographic area, including Suffolk County, Brooklyn and even Connecticut. The Manhasset store will extend its reach into northern Long Island.
A strong believer in building a word-of-mouth reputation, Borgognone does not spend money on advertising. For his dollar, he prefers to boost his community profile by donating product to charity events and sponsoring local sports teams. “I like to give back that way. And, truthfully, I think it’s a better way to get our name out there,” he says.
Plans more stores
With ample production space and a tight round-the-clock production schedule that keeps the freezers full of enough product to carry him through a week of business, Borgognone believes Buttercooky can support more locations. “I think we can handle a couple more stores,” he says.
Wedding cakes are an untapped area of Buttercooky’s business ripe for growth.
“We’re only doing about 150 to 200 cakes a year right now, and we can do more,” Borgognone says.
Despite having three decades of baking under his belt, Borgognone is revved up and ready to go. “No question, it’s a life of sacrifice. I miss out on time with my family. If it weren’t for my wife, Barbara, none of this would be possible. She’s supported me in every way from the beginning.”
Borgognone has come a long way since stuffing cannolis in his father’s bakery as a child. He’s done things his way and he’s proud of it. “When I create a product that totally surpasses my customers’ expectations, that’s when I realize why I do what I do, and I love it.”
A sampling of Buttercooky Bakery prices
Fruit salad cake, 9 ins.… $17.95
Chocolate mousse cake, 7 ins.…$18.95
Red velvet chocolate cake… $17.95
Fresh fruit torte, 10 ins.… $21.95
New York cheesecake, 7 ins.…$8.95
Tiramisu, 5 ins. (miniature)…$3.45
Linzer tort cookie, 4 ins. …$1.50
Pecan tart, 4 ins.… $3.95
Buttercooky Bakery...at a glance
Locations: Floral Park, N.Y. (main location) and Manhasset, N.Y.
Management: Ben Borgognone, owner/pastry chef
Bakery’s primary business: retail
Number of stores: 2
Store size(s): 4,000 sq. ft., 1,200 sq. ft. (new shop)
Market served: Long Island
Product line: cakes, European pastry, fruit tarts, cookies, pies, breakfast pastries
Annual sales: $800,000 (original location only)
Product breakdown: cakes, 50%; cookies, 30%; bread, 10%; breakfast pastries, 10%