With a name that means food for the gods, this full line retail bakery must deliver high quality products. A new location boosted sales to $2.2 million and serves an average of 250 customers a day.
For the past two decades, the baking industry has seen an influx of corporate refugees who trade in their briefcases for bakery whites. The Shermans, who own The Ambrosia Bakery in Baton Rouge, La., are such a case. Felix worked for a beverage company for 27 years before a company merger made his job redundant. Cheryl had decorated cakes out of the house and had worked for several bakeries.
“So, I said to Cheryl, why don't we open our own bakery,” Felix says. “She nearly shot me.”
“Because he had no idea,” Cheryl quickly retorts.
But the idea was out there, and it eventually became a reality. The Shermans leased a 1,200-sq.-ft. former pizza shop and opened The Ambrosia Bakery in December 1993. Two years later, they built a 3,000-sq.-ft. bakery, then added another 1,200 sq. ft. a couple of years later. Three years ago, they felt the space pinch again and began working on their current 8,250-sq.-ft. facility, which they moved into last summer. But like much in life, the move did not go according to plan. “Moving to this place was a big eye opener for us,” Cheryl says. “We never anticipated half of what happened.”
Baton Rouge had largely escaped the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The bakery only lost power for one day. However, Hurricane Gustav, which hit the area on Sept. 1, 2008, was a different story. “We planned to move the bakery over a weekend,” Felix says. “Most of our equipment was in the new bakery, so we only had to move product. We almost made it.”
Hurricane Gustav hit in the middle of the move, and the bakery was without power for eight days. All of the bakery's refrigerated and frozen products and ingredients were lost. It amounted to three dumpsters full. The bakery had generators, but they were only large enough to run a small cooler and freezer. A massive generator is needed to run all of the bakery's coolers and freezers, Cheryl says. Luckily, physical damage to the bakery was minimal, but the bakery's large pylon sign suffered extensive damage.
The interior of the newly constructed building was not harmed either, so the new bakery opened without needing any major repairs. The design of the 2,200-sq.-ft. retail space includes a bridal consultation room, which the Shermans decorated themselves rather than hire a professional decorator. “We went with what we liked, but you never know how it's going to turn out,” Cheryl says. “We wanted to have a certain warmth and ambiance. I think we did create that. I was really pleased with how it came out.”
The focal points of the retail area are the showcases and the mural above them, painted by a New Orleans artist. The mural, which took six weeks to paint, is Grecian-themed to play off the bakery's name and incorporates the bakery's product line. One of the gods is holding a cannoli.
The showcases run a continuous 50 ft., displaying almost half of the bakery's more than 500 products. “We wanted everybody to see exactly what we sell,” Cheryl says. The new cases also allowed the bakery to add chocolates and gelato to the product line.
The new bakery has seating for about 30 inside and about 20 outside. With the seating and additional production room in the back, the Shermans added a hot deli, including a professional stove, and hired a chef. “We had seen it in other bakeries, and it seems the way bakeries are going now-towards bakery cafes,” Felix says. “And, we like to eat in the South.”
The deli serves hot breakfast items, such as eggs, quiche, French toast and pancakes as well as lunch items, including burgers, sandwiches, wraps, soups and salads. Breakfast begins shortly after the bakery opens at 6:30, and lunch runs until 2 p.m. The deli is staffed until 4 p.m., so late lunch customers can be accommodated.
The new location has about 1,200 sq. ft. dedicated to bakery production, with an additional 1,800 sq. ft. for the decorating room. The Shermans purchased about $170,000 of new equipment to outfit the bakery. Included was a new 24-pan revolving tray oven, which is smaller than the old location's oven. Felix sacrificed the additional baking space for the floor space and energy efficiency provided by the new oven.
A separate mixing room contains two 80-qt. mixers, one 60-qt. mixer and a 20-qt. mixer. Felix had seen a mixing room when he had visited another bakery and knew that was something he needed when designing the new production space. In his previous location, front end staff would have to walk past the mixers while they were mixing, which was something that Felix wanted to avoid.
A walk-in cooler with a door at each end makes cake production more efficient. Cakes that have been stacked and iced are rolled in racks into one door of the cooler, and decorators remove the cakes from the other door when they are ready to decorate them. One lesson Felix learned the hard way: add windows to cooler doors.
While the bakery offers a full line of products, Ambrosia is known for its cakes. Its Fresh Strawberry Cake is the best seller. The cake was initially a summer item until a customer requested it out of season despite the high price of strawberries at the time. “He didn't care how expensive the cake was; he wanted it,” Cheryl says. “So, we did it, and now we offer it year-round.”
Two doors of the four-door cooler behind the showcases are devoted to strawberry cakes. The Shermans average the cost of the strawberries for the whole year, so they can charge the same price no matter the season. The base is a four-layer yellow cake with strawberry icing. The yellow cake is made from a bag mix, but the real draw lies in the icing. “The strawberry is in the icing, but it's a special recipe,” Felix says. “I'll share anything else, but not that.” An 8-in. round strawberry cake retails for $27.95.
Ambrosia's exceptional cake decorating talent tops off its signature cakes. On Saturdays, the bakery has about 150 cake orders, not including the cakes for the showcases. For the weekend, from Friday to Sunday, the bakery's eight decorators produce 300 of what the bakery calls “highly decorated cakes.” These cakes include piped figures, sculpted cakes and fondant designs.
The bakery has seen skyrocketing demand for these highly decorated cakes, mainly due to the decorating programs on television. “Customers expect higher quality designs and finishing work,” Felix says.
“I'll be honest with you, the media has really blown the decorating off the wall because customers expect a highly decorated cake, like a two- or three-tier birthday cake,” Cheryl adds. “The economy hasn't affected us as far as what people are ordering. I'm very surprised they're not holding back on the amount they are spending. People might be starting to feel the crunch, but they aren't giving up things. They still want that highly decorated birthday cake for their one-year-old.”
Cheryl recently decorated a baby shower cake that was $400. If she were in a more expensive market, such as New York City, the bakery could have easily charged $1,200, she says. “It shocks me how much people spend on a birthday or shower cake. It's unbelievable.”
While a Baton Rouge bakery can not command the same prices as one in New York, Cheryl says Ambrosia is commanding high prices for its decorated cakes. To help customers put the price in perspective, Felix equates designing a cake to an architect designing a building. Consumers pay high dollar for a building design, and it should be no different for a cake design, especially when they use highly qualified decorators. The bakery has three certified decorators on staff, including Phuong Truong, winner of the Retail Bakers of America (RBA) 2008 Creative Decorating Competition.
About 80 percent of the bakery's sales come from cakes, which includes a significant number of specialty cakes. The bakery uses about 30 50-lb. bags of cake mix every week. Some of the best selling specialty cakes include Italian cream, which is a traditional Italian cream cake with coconut and pecans, cream cheese filling and cream cheese and pecan icing; red velvet; and the Scarlet O'Hara, featuring chocolate Devil's food cake with turtle, chocolate buttercream and raspberry filling covered with chocolate icing and fudge ganache and garnished with three chocolate buttercream roses. “I called it Scarlet because after you eat it, you don't give a damn,” Cheryl says. “Although, I should have named it Rhett.”
With its location in Louisiana, Ambrosia earns significant business in king cakes, selling about 18,000 a season. The season officially starts 12 days after Christmas on January 6, and continues until Ash Wednesday, although the bakery ships a king cake somewhere in the country almost every week of the year. Ambrosia offers three different sizes: the 48-oz. double-braided large, 12-oz. regular and a 8-oz. mini. It also has Christmas tree and candy cane shaped king cakes for the winter holidays as well as a bunny shape for Easter. Some brides have even ordered king cake as their wedding cake.
To help speed the king cake production process, the Shermans purchased a dough divider to quickly divide the dough, which is then stretched, filled, rolled and braided by hand. Ambrosia's king cake is similar to a brioche dough and is fluffier than other bakeries' versions.
“King cakes help pick up the slack in January and February,” Felix says. “It used to be that during Mardi Gras, our king cake sales would go up as our cake sales would slide down, but not anymore.”
To help advertise and boost king cake orders, the bakery recently upgraded its website to accept online orders. “We can ship any of our 8-in. cakes, our cheesecakes, but we mainly ship king cakes,” says Cheryl and Felix's son, Felix Jr. However, the majority of online orders are for in-store pick-up, he adds.
The Shermans also invested in their first TV commercial. The 2 1/2-minute infomercial began airing on Thanksgiving Day on a local station, and aired everyday until Christmas. “We're doing some additional TV commercials because now we have our own musical campaign. They don't call them jingles anymore,” Felix Jr. says.
The bakery has earned accolades from local press as well. For the past five years, an area magazine has named The Ambrosia Bakery the best bakery in the 225 area code. To remain the best, the Shermans know they have to stay on top of trends. They travel the country extensively visiting bakeries and rely a lot on other bakers for ideas and help.
“Working with RBA has allowed us to meet a lot of bakers throughout the country and tour a lot of bakeries,” Felix says. “We got many ideas from our friends and incorporated them.” For example, Felix uses Dexter Larson's (Duluth Community College, Duluth, Minn.) fruitcake formula. He also saw a cake slicer while on a bakery tour in Chicago, and then purchased the same type of slicer for his strawberry cakes. And, he has picked up several ideas from Deerfield's Bakery, Deerfield, Ill.
“A lot of the baking industry has helped us,” Cheryl adds. “The RBA has been a big part of helping us. We can get online with any question for help, and they [RBA members] are right there. It's gotten us through a lot of problems.”
As first generation bakers, the Shermans were grateful for all the help they could get as they built their business from scratch. They also credit their three sons for the success they have achieved. Felix Jr. handles marketing and deliveries, David manages human resources and payroll while Michael helps out with decorating and is the bakery's IT administrator. Both Felix Jr. and David work at the bakery full time.
“My boys have been the souls of the business,” Cheryl says. “All of our family is involved in our bakery. We wouldn't have come this far without our children.” The Shermans plan to leave their successful business to their three sons.
“We built a reputation, and we built a clientele. We're proud of that,” Felix says.
Location: Baton Rouge, La.
Founded: December 1993
Management: Felix and Cheryl Sherman, owners; Felix Sherman Jr., director of marketing; David Sherman, human resources director; Michael Sherman, IT administrator
Business: 100% retail, some mail order
Annual sales: $2.2 million
Number of employees: 65
Bakery size: 8,250 sq. ft.-2,200-sq.-ft. retail area, 2,800-sq.-ft. storage, 3250-sq.-ft. production
Product line: breads, pastries, cakes, cookies, chocolates, gelato, hot breakfast and lunch items
Product breakdown: cakes, 80%; breads, 5%, cakes and pastries 15%
Average ticket sale: $25
Average number of daily customers: 250 to 300
Major equipment: spiral mixers, divider, cake depositor, reversible sheeter, rack oven, traveling tray oven, proofer, walk-in cooler, walk-in freezer, pan washer
Bakery supply distributors: Koerner, Best Brands, P.A. Menard, Sysco
|Key lime cupcake||$1.99|
|Fruit tart, mini||$1.19|
|Cakes, 8-in. rounds|