This organic bakery in the heart of Chicago is literally the realization of a dream for Owner Michelle Garcia. With many vegan products, including the most popular Take a Hike scone, Bleeding Heart is satisfying an under-served niche market.
Garcia’s artistic flair comes out in visually appealing window displays.
An e-mail address that begins with "pastryforpeace" is a good indication that Bleeding Heart Bakery is not your typical bakery. Located in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood, this organic retail bakery is a realization of a dream for owner Michelle Garcia. "The name came from a dream. I know it sounds really cliche, but it did," she says. "There was no place in Chicago that I really wanted to work that I thought stayed true to what I had come to believe in as a socially responsible adult and pastry chef."
Bleeding Heart tries to buy all ingredients from local producers and uses biodegradable packaging and bakeware whenever possible. "We use reusable containers for wholesale orders. Everything we choose to use has a purpose behind it," she adds.
Garcia wrote the business plan for the bakery while in business school; the original plan called for the bakery to be non-profit. She was turned down for non-profit status, but the bakery does have a currently inactive non-profit arm. "I couldn’t run a retail store and be non-profit unless everyone was volunteer and everything was sold at cost," she says. Those parameters simply didn’t work for a functioning retail bakery.
Opening the bakery on Halloween 2005 was the culmination of years of culinary training for Garcia, including the French Pastry School and work experience from around the country, including Whole Foods, retail bakeries, pastry shops, restaurants and hotels as well as a sojourn in Amsterdam. Before the bakery’s doors opened, Garcia and her husband had spent the previous year selling organic bakery products at local farmers’ markets. "The farmers’ markets were my testing ground to see how Chicago would fare with organic foods," Garcia says.
She also spent time talking to local farmers, discussing her plans for the bakery and how much product she would need. "It was tough because organic at that point [3 1/2 years ago] hadn’t really hit at all. I think I freaked out a lot of farmers because although they do cater to a lot of restaurants, most restaurants aren’t 100 percent organic," she says. "That’s our goal, to be 100 percent organic."
In addition to offering an almost completely organic product line, Bleeding Heart offers a large assortment of vegan products. On a day to day basis, nearly 30 percent of the bakery’s offerings are vegan, but on paper that percentage jumps to 50 percent. To classify as vegan, the bakery’s products can not contain any animal or dairy ingredients such as eggs or butter.
Bleeding Heart is making a name for itself within the vegan community, mainly because its vegan products don’t taste vegan, if the online reviews are any indication. Part of the reason for the ‘non-vegan’ flavor, Garcia says, is that the bakery searches out the best ingredients possible. "Our vegan butter really tastes like butter and that’s why people are saying it doesn’t taste like vegan," she says. "It’s the closest to not being vegan but still being vegan."
Even with a product line based on seasonal ingredients, some items Garcia leaves on the menu year-round due to customer demand. She removed the popular blueberry buckle from production after the blueberry season ended, but customers were still asking for it. To try to appease them, she introduced a banana buckle, which turned out to be as popular, but still didn’t satisfy customer demand for the blueberry version. "They still wanted to buy the blueberry one, and they were going to buy both, so I started offering both," she says.
The best-selling product is the Take a Hike scone, that Garcia describes as trail mix baked into a scone. The vegan scone is made with whole wheat pastry flour, flax meal, pumpkin seeds and dried fruits, such as cranberries, apricots and apples. "It’s still soft, not like it sounds like it would be," Garcia says. "It’s not granola-y at all."
Other popular items are the bakery’s mousse tarts, especially chocolate mousse. The chocolate mousse is currently coated with an opera glaze, but Garcia is working on a new version that will be wrapped in acetate to allow all layers to be visible.
"I also designed this green apple mousse cake that is awesome," she says. It features a ginger ganache layer, a walnut dacqouise layer, green apple mousse and apple pie filling.
Vary the product line
The bakery’s product breakdown changes with the seasons and Garcia’s whims. This winter, the bakery concentrated on individual desserts and pastries. She revamped the cakes and pastries and began offering layer cakes. The layer cakes also help fill the void left by fruit tarts, with no fruit except apples and pears in season during the winter.
"We do offer an apple tart and a poached pear tart, but we aren’t going to get strawberries in the winter because they are going to come from Brazil. While they might be organic, they aren’t sustainable and the fossil fuels that would be burned getting them over here on the barge just doesn’t make sense for us," Garcia says.
With only 1,500 sq. ft. of space and an inability to get many ingredients in bulk (for carrot cake, the staff has to open 60 16-oz. cans of organic pineapple), Garcia limits production to what sells on a daily basis. Her staff produces a dozen of each tart and scone variety daily, of which about 3/4 sell. The bakery offers four to six varieties of teacakes each day with a dozen available of each flavor. For cakes, Garcia tries to keep a dozen in the showcase at all times, but with three to four different varieties available. Six different varieties of brownies are available and the bakery sells about two dozen of each.
Bleeding Heart offers decorated cakes, including vegan wedding cakes. Garcia is the sole decorator, but she admittedly keeps it that way. Her most popular decorated cake is the polka dot cake. "People just love it," Garcia says. "For adults, it’s kitschy and for kids, it’s perfect. I tried to stop doing it because I go through design waves, but I couldn’t stop that one."
Garcia decorates two to three wedding cakes a week during the summer and about one a week in the winter. The bakery delivers them to reception sites, so they can be assembled on-site. "Vegan cakes have a tendency to lean, so we have to stick lots of stuff in places to get them to stand up straight," Garcia says.
To introduce new products, the bakery’s staff place new items in highly visible areas and use signage to draw attention to them. For example, Bleeding Heart recently introduced a granola, macadamia cake, called Trixie. "We found this 1950s pin-up girl and used her to make signs that said ‘Try a slice of the Trixie cake, on sale today’," Garcia says. However, most products take off simply because customers notice them.
Using her flair for design, Garcia makes sure customers notice her product. Her background in art pays off in the bakery’s funky interior design as well as the bold colors she uses for merchandising products in the showcases.
The bakery recently began offering heirloom tomato tarts, and customers noticed right away. "Usually we’ll make a dozen a day of each tart, and I ended up selling two dozen a day of the heirloom tomato variety. Now it’s back down to a dozen," she adds.
Many of the bakery’s customers come in daily, and Garcia makes it an adventure by continually moving products around in the showcases. By moving the products, customers are forced to ask or actively look for them and in the process often notice different items that they also want to try. "Ranise, our general manager in front, is really good at telling people what’s new and suggestive selling," Garcia says.
Staggered customer count
During the week, most of the 100 to 200 customers come to the bakery at night as they are getting off work. The busiest weekdays are Thursday and Fridays, with the slower Tuesdays and Wednesdays allowing the staff to catch up from the busy weekend. During the week, customers come periodically throughout the day. You never know what or how much will sell on a daily basis in the retail store, Garcia says, which is why she produces products daily based on what people are buying. "Otherwise, I’d have so much edible waste," she says.
Garcia and her husband started offering a weekend brunch three months ago, which triggered three waves of new customers on Saturday and Sunday. The first wave hits in the morning with the breakfast/brunch crowd, then the sandwich wave hits about mid-day, and the final wave comes right before 3 p.m. as customers try to get their orders in before brunch ends. "During the week, we end up selling the same amount as the weekend, but it’s more staggered," Garcia says.
Bleeding Heart’s weekday production begins at 3 a.m., when Garcia arrives to get that day’s orders organized. On weekends, she arrives at midnight. Another baker joins her at 6 a.m. to make the batters and scones. A third baker later in the morning. Garcia leaves around 6 a.m. to make deliveries and returns about two hours later to finish the day’s orders. Production usually ends about 3 p.m. Garcia’s husband also comes in the afternoons to make all the bakery’s savory items and sandwiches.
"We are a really super-small operation, but an amazing amount of stuff comes out of here," Garcia says. Due to small batch sizes, she currently only uses a 20qt. mixer and two convection ovens, one of which is used as a proofer. However, that is about to change.
The bakery is adding 600 sq. ft. of space, which will give it space for a chocolate and cake decorating room, more prep space as well as additional freezer and refrigeration space. The focal point of the new space will be a solar powered oven.
With the bakery currently doing 25 percent of its business with wholesale accounts, Garcia hopes the addition will flip it to only 25 percent retail and 75 percent wholesale. Even without the additional production space, whole-sale sales have doubled in the last two months. Only about half of the retail store’s 300 products are offered to wholesale clients.
Along with her passion for quality bakery and pastry products, Garcia has a head for business. She understands her niche and is making the most of it. "I’m not in this for the money, which is probably the stupidest thing I could ever say, but I don’t envision ever making a lot for me personally," she says. "I want to see this business and the organic world succeed. I want to be a part of this awesome thing that is happening and not be the only one doing it."
| Bleeding Heart at a glance |
Bleeding Heart a sampling of prices