“Do the right thing” are words to live by but often hard to live out. But this is the principle that guides Michael Manni and his wife Cheryl as they try to produce the best bakery products and be the best employers they can. The couple owns LaSalle Bakery, with two locations in Providence, R.I., this year’s Modern Baking Retail Bakery of the Year.
Michael, who grew up two houses down from the 800-sq.-ft. original location, began washing pans at the bakery when he was 15. After graduating from college, rather than continue to pursue a full-time teaching position, he took the owner up on an offer to buy the business in 1975.
“When Michael came home and told me about the offer, I said ‘Are you out of your mind? How are we going to do this?’” Cheryl says. “We bought the bakery when we were 24 years old and had nothing. We were babies.”
But 36 years later, the Mannis have expanded the original location to include the entire 6,500-sq.-ft. building that they now own. In 2002, they purchased a 6,000-sq.-ft. building half a mile away from the original Smith Street store for a second location that opened the following year.
“One of the reasons we opened a second location was we wanted to make the Smith Street store larger. The retail space wasn’t big enough, and the only way we could do that was to take some of the production space,” Michael says. The second location was originally purchased to function as a production facility only, which is one of the reasons the Mannis bought so close to the first store.
The Admiral Street building had always had a retail bakery storefront, so they knew the neighborhood could support one. “We were going to make a small store. Then, we said, ‘You know when we open up, we might be sorry,’” Cheryl says. They decided to make the retail space about 2,500 sq. ft., the same size as the newly expanded Smith Street store. “We could have always taken half of it back for production if we had to,” she adds.
The Mannis knew the close proximity of two retail locations would be great for the production, but were unsure of customer acceptance. “We were concerned because we didn’t know how much Admiral Street would steal from the original store,” Michael says. “We were okay if it stole some.”
“The number of customers we get at this store (Admiral Street) and there (Smith Street), we could never handle in one store,” Cheryl adds. “Providence is a very funny town. People drive two miles and they pack a lunch. So, all the people that live on this end of the city come here to Admiral Street and all the people that live on the other end of the city go to Smith Street.”
The original Smith Street location remains the busier of the two stores, with higher customer counts and higher ticket sales, but Admiral Street has proven to be a good decision. The bakery’s two locations serve about 1,000 customers a day. A third location had been in the plans when the Mannis were scouting for a second store. “The second location has been open eight years, and this was the year we had been thinking about going into a third location. I’m glad we didn’t do it because there is still so much we can do in our current locations to get better and improve on the overall customer experience,” Michael says.
Part of the reason adding another location was tabled was the logistics of production. Currently, production occurs at both locations, and the Mannis admit their system can be confusing, but it seems to work for them. “For 28 years we had one store, and for the first couple of years where we had two, it was tough to get a handle on operations, but now we’ve got it down pretty well. However, it’s still evolving,” Michael adds.
All bread is mixed and shaped at Admiral Street, and most is baked in the revolving tray oven, but some is trucked to Smith Street to be baked in the rack oven. Danish, puff pastry and croissants are mixed and laminated at Admiral Street, but are frozen and baked at Smith Street. All of the muffins, cookies, cakes and savory products are mixed and baked at Smith Street. However, the custom cakes are then trucked to Admiral Street where the decorators are based.
Custom cake orders can be placed at both locations, but they can only be picked up at Admiral Street. All pan washing is done at Smith Street. “There’s a lot of handling, no two ways about it,” Michael admits.
Bread production at Admiral Street begins at midnight and runs to about 8 a.m. Bread bakers also handle sandwich assembly for the two stores. The decorators arrive at 3 and 4 a.m. and are finished by 11 a.m. and noon. The production at Smith Street begins at 3 a.m. and is finished by 11 a.m.
One of the biggest product line improvements the bakery made was the introduction of savory items. LaSalle introduced sandwiches about six years ago. They are made at the Admiral Street location, wrapped in raffia and placed in the showcase. “It’s incredible how popular they are,” Michael says.
A few years ago, the bakery also expanded into breakfast sandwiches and calzones. Calzones started with four flavors, but have grown to include seven, such as spinach and pepperoni, chicken Parmesan, eggplant Parmesan, meatball and pulled pork. “Our growth has been in the food–the sandwiches, the calzones, the breakfast sandwiches,” the Manni’s son Michael says. “It’s been about 20 percent growth in sales.”
With a second location, and the fact that Michael and Cheryl couldn’t be in two places at once, they knew the old system of employees coming to them with problems or questions couldn’t be sustained.
Knowing this, Michael joined a peer business group called The Alternative Board (TAB), which is made up of local small business owners and meets for one morning a month. Along with the monthly meeting, Michael hired a business consultant that specializes in transitioning companies to the next phase of growth.
As a first step, the consultant interviewed 10 key people at the bakery and gave the Mannis an “as-is” assessment of what he saw as well as recommendations of how he thought the bakery could grow. “The money I’ve spent with [the consultant] has been well worth it,” Michael says.
The consultant’s first recommendation was that Michael pull himself out of daily production and take on more of a CEO’s role in the company. Then, they worked together to develop an organizational chart and job descriptions for every position in the bakery. The job descriptions helped to clearly define roles and now serve as the basis for employee reviews and a quarterly bonus program for managers.
They also provide competency models as well as a path for growth. For example, decorators and bread bakers are broken down into three levels of skills. If an employee has the ability to do all the skills of the next level, the employee has a path to move up within the company.
“We’re seeing where we can move people up now,” Michael says. “It’s really beneficial to move people within the organization. A lot of employees started like myself as a pan boy.”
The bakery also has held classes to help train senior and second-tier management. Each group went through a series of six classes held once a month. Each class was four hours long and issued homework, usually readings from business publications. Each employee also had to keep a personal journal of what they learned.
LaSalle implemented a series of staff meetings to help with communication. The bakery holds a mandatory hour-long monthly meeting for all sales staff in both locations..
In addition, all the managers gather for weekly meeting every Saturday. “It’s a tough day to do it but it’s the only day everybody is here because during the week we stagger the days off,” Michael says. “They have to bite the bullet and get down here for an hour.” On Tuesday mornings, Michael meets with his son Michael, his production manager Mike Dellagrotta and the sales manager Lee Sufi for an operations meeting.
“We’ve never been as successful as we have since we changed our management style and structure. There’s no way I’m going back,” Michael adds. “We couldn’t have a business consultant before because there weren’t enough dollars. But running the bakery like a business really makes a big difference. It’s so common to hear, ‘This is a bakery, it’s different.’ But it’s not, it’s a business. You’ve got to watch the numbers.”
The bakery also has turned its attention to marketing. During a TAB meeting, Michael was impressed by a local marketer who spoke about social media marketing and how businesses can market smarter. “I had been thinking about hiring marketing help, but it was always with big corporate companies, and I felt we’d be throwing our money away,” he says. However, he was drawn to the local firm, which offered a different approach than larger companies. “I thought it was worth a try, and if we don’t see any benefit to it, we don’t have to continue,” Michael says. “But we’re a few months in now, and we’re already seeing results.”
Expanding the brand
One of the first marketing challenges was to build the brand. The marketing consultant recommended the bakery revamp the logo slightly and overhaul the website to include more targeted messaging and an online store. Store signage was changed, bigger logos were added to packaging and new promotional pieces are in the works. LaSalle has a presence on Facebook with more than 5,000 fans who interact with the bakery through regular wall postings.
LaSalle is developing some new marketing programs to introduce the bakery to new customers and keep its name in front of frequent ones. About 15 to 20 schools are within a mile of the bakery, and the two locations actually bookend Providence College. For Providence College’s incoming freshmen, the bakery includes a $5 gift certificate in their welcome packets. The bakery also sends another card to parents that can be used toward buying care packages for their students.
“A lot of those kids would find us anyway, but now they find us faster and their parents find us,” son Michael says. “A lot of our increase in business has been from those Providence College students, so now we’re going to do the gift cards every year so the freshmen know who we are.”
The bakery also sells hard plastic cups with a screw-on top and straw that feature the bakery’s logo. Customers buy the cup for $10 and then save up to 50 cents on each beverage refill.
In addition to strengthening LaSalle’s business operations and marketing, Michael and Cheryl are developing a succession plan to turn the bakery over to the next generation. Ultimately, Michael hopes to spend less time in the bakery, turning over day-to-day operations to his son.
The Mannis plan to bring in a financial adviser before finalizing the formal succession plan. “I’m not sure how the rest of the plan is going to go,” Michael says. “What I have learned in the last year is that this process takes time, and if it’s done quickly, it’s not good.
“I’m still passionate about the business and I still love it, but we (Cheryl and I) are on the other side now. I put a lot of heart and soul into this.”
That’s what it takes to do the right thing.