Since Lynn and Jim Williams opened Seven Stars Bakery, their philosophy has always been "to keep it simple."
The new commissary allows the bakery to add production equipment and return to day baking.
Customers love Seven Stars’ stable menu, which ensures their favorites are always offered.
Everybody knows that coffee is a stimulant, but what Jim and Lynn Williams couldn’t foresee was how a jolt of java would shake up their entire business. When the couple invested about $200,000 to convert a corner gas station in Providence, R.I.’s historic East Side in 2001, they envisioned a boutique artisan bread and "morning pastry" bakery where the only thing separating customers from the busy exhibition baking area would be a low counter.
The Williams’ didn’t have any trouble persuading the neighbors to come to their Seven Stars Bakery for the made-from-scratch loaves and croissants, Danish, muffins and cookies. The neighbors liked the place so much that they wanted to grab a cup of coffee and an oven-fresh treat, pull up a seat and stay. According to Lynn, total sales have consistently increased by 25 to 27 percent each year and current revenues have grown from a first year total of about $476,000 to more than $2 million.
As the café expanded, the operation at Seven Stars became as different as day and nigh–literally. Within two years, a swell of café seating overtook the exhibition production area, coming within peel handle-poking distance of the oven and leaving no room in the 2,500-sq.-ft. building for proofing racks.
Each evening after the shop closed, tables and chairs were stacked and stored, the sheeter was unfolded and the racks rolled in to give the staff space to work the bench. Baking became an overnight activity as the production team burned the midnight oil turning out between 700 and 1,000 hand-crafted loaves in about 15 different varieties as well as about 2,000 pastries for the next day’s sales.
But running a 24-hour operation was not what the Williams’ had envisioned when they began their family enterprise. In the beginning, Jim, a California-born political science graduate who had turned his affection for good bread into a vocation, made the bread. Massachusetts-born Lynn, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, prepared the pastries.
As sales increased, so did the staff, which currently totals about 30 employees. With the birth of their daughter about 2 1/2 years ago, Lynn, who by that time had taken on managing the business end of the bakery, reduced her hours to about 20 a week.
New production facility
To get the operation back on a more family-friendly day baking schedule and allow room for additional equipment, the Williams’ decided to relocate all production to a larger facility. It took about a year to find a space that would fit their commissary criteria. The new 7,000-sq.ft. production area is in a 650,000-sq.-ft., century-old mill building that was undergoing restoration in nearby Pawtucket.
In December, after 12 months and about $500,000 worth of renovations, Seven Stars’ new production facility was up and running, just in time to meet the annual onslaught of holiday orders.
One major piece of equipment that did not make the move was the circular brick hearth oven, a main feature of the original location. The oven required the baker to place sheet pans lined with wet towels inside for 45 minutes prior to the first bake of the night to boost the steam levels. In the new commissary, a deck oven provides double the baking capacity of the hearth oven along with more consistent temperature and steam regulation.
The additional working space also allowed the bakery to trade in its peels, which had to be stored in a ceiling sling during the day, for a loader. A second sheeter along with a dough divider and baguette moulder, also have been added to streamline the work flow.
Instead of shoulder-to-shoulder covered racks, dough now rests in a walk-in proofer/retarder. Freezer space for unbaked cookies, muffins, scones, brownies and pound cakes has doubled from 72 to 146 sq. ft.
Despite these equipment additions, Seven Stars continues to follow the traditional artisan crafting methods for making its breads, which account for about 27 percent of the bakery’s total sales. The majority of the loaves are made from natural starters–about half of the varieties from two sourdoughs (one rye, one whole wheat levain)–and undergo long, slow fermentation. It takes about 10 hours for the sourdoughs to go from mixer to oven.
Many of the sourdoughs proof in linen-lined willow bannetons, and the ryes in unlined coiled cane German brotform baskets. Once shaped, the doughs rest on linen sheets.
The rye starter is the basis of the bakery’s popular multigrain, toasted walnut and raisin and the seasonal savory pumpkin loaves. Country bread, another top seller, is a sourdough with whole wheat and rye flours.
Seven Stars’ best-selling durum sticks, the bakery’s version of rustic Italian bread with a crackling crust and large holes, is made from a combination of durum and white flours. The same dough also is shaped into rounds and rolls.
Pain de mie (baked in a lidded pan in the convection oven) and 100% orangic whole wheat pan loaves began as oncea-week specialties, Jim says. Now, they are everyday favorites.
Many of the pastries, which make up 38 percent of total sales, are based on laminated doughs which are made from scratch daily. In addition to traditional butter, almond and chocolate croissants, the dough is used to make fruit, cream cheese and newly introduced ham and cheese-filled Danish, old-fashioned cinnamon buns, cinnamon twists and sticky buns with toasted pecans. At the end of the day, any remaining croissants are cut in half, soaked in amaretto syrup, stuffed with almond-butter filling and baked again.
On weekdays, bakers prepare about a dozen batches of laminated dough, each one yielding 50 croissants. On weekends, the number of batches rises to 16.
Lemon pound cakes, in individual rounds or larger loaves, are dense and extremely moist from a soaking in lemon simple syrup. Each day, the bakery’s menu also features three varieties each of scones (such as granola nut, ginger biscuit and cranberry pecan); cookies (most popular year-round are the gingerbread stars and chocolate chips); and muffins (including berry, pecan coffee cake and cherry almond).
Although the shop’s "made today, sold today" policy can be tricky, the staff has learned to keep production pretty tight, Lynn says. Anything left at the end of the day, usually about 10 to 15 percent of production, is donated to a charitable organization.
Keep product line simple
One reason Seven Stars is able to work so efficiently is because the menu is basically the same as it was when the bakery opened six years ago. Aside from a few seasonal items, customers know what they’re going to find in the small, 5- by 3-ft. pastry case, on the bread rack and on the chalkboard menus.
"It’s not that we aren’t inspired to add new items all the time," Lynn says. "But we don’t think that people need 300 choices, and our customers have their definite favorite items that they want to see all the time.
"Another problem with bringing in new items is that while it’s easy to add them to the menu, it’s really hard to take them off once you do," she notes. "Everything becomes somebody’s favorite."
During holidays, the bakery does change products a bit. Products are generally not added, rather they are modified. For example, staff may use special cutters, such as hearts for Valentine’s Day, to cut the linzer tarts and brownies.
"We could add lots of products. If we decided to sell iced sugar cookies, we could probably sell a gazillion of them," Lynn observes. "But we don’t want to do them. We don’t want to stress ourselves out. Stay focused and keep it simple is our philosophy."
The couple is, however, considering expanding the café menu to include grab-and-go sandwiches that will be made at the commissary. And they plan to open additional cold sites, possibly as many as four or five within the next five years, in Rhode Island and the Boston area, Jim says.
Although the expanded production space has given them the option to take on more wholesale accounts, the Williams want to limit it to 20 to 25 percent of their business. However, the early morning baking time may make it possible for them to offer their wholesale customers an additional late afternoon bread delivery.
This summer, the Providence location will undergo a major make-over, requiring the shop to be closed for about four to six weeks. The Williams plan to continue selling their full line of products, including coffee and espresso drinks, from a food truck. Café seating will be provided in the 20-sq.-ft. garden area.
Renovation plans call for retaining the café’s current 40 seats. But the amount of space dedicated to product display will double with the addition of a 10-ft.long French marble counter.
"Without shelves, it will be easier to set up more eye-catching displays and the whole thing will be much easier to clean and service," Lynn says.
Some customers have expressed concern that moving the production from the premises will change the intimate Seven Stars atmosphere they have come to love, Jim admits. But he and Lynn are both confident that they can retain the "Seven Stars magic."
"When I had to reduce my hours in the shop and hire a retail manager after the baby was born, customers told me that the place just wouldn’t feel the same," Lynn says. "But, since that time, sales have doubled."
"Our philosophy is we do what we’re capable of doing according to the vision we have for our lives," Jim agrees. "We’re in it for the long haul and we think our customers know and appreciate that."
a sampling of prices
Ginger biscuit, 5 ozs. ..............................................$2.15
Almond croissant, 6.6 ozs. .....................................$2.95
Butter croissant, 2.6 ozs. ........................................$1.95
Raspberry Danish, 3.8 ozs. ....................................$2.50
Berry muffin, 5.2 ozs. .............................................$1.95
French baguette, 14 ozs. ........................................$2.75
Durum stick, 19 ozs. ...............................................$3.50
Toasted walnut and raisin loaf, 24 ozs. ................$5.00
Pumpkin seed bread, 24 ozs. .................................$4.50
100% organic whole wheat pan loaf, 56 ozs. .......$6.75
Chocolate chip cookie, 3.3 ozs. .............................$1.50
Sticky bun, 5.6 ozs. .................................................$2.50
Lemon cake (small), 9.7 ozs. .................................$2.50
Lemon cake (large), 32 ozs. ..................................$7.75
Cinnamon bun, 4.4 ozs. ..........................................$2.50
at a glance
Location: Providence, R.I.
Owners: Jim and Lynn Williams
No. of stores: 1
No. of bakeries: one 7,000-sq.-ft. production facility and one 2,500-sq.-ft. retail location
Product line: artisan breads and morning pastries, including croissants, Danish, muffins, cookies, pound cake, brownies and bars, scones
Production methods: scratch
Major equipment: vertical and spiral mixers, reversible sheeters, deck oven with loader, proofer/retarder, six-burner stove, convection oven, baguette moulder, dough divider, refrigerator, freezer
Plans: To remodel the retail shop this summer and open up to five new cold sites over the next five years.