For his third retail baking venture, John Barricelli wanted to bring really fresh bread and pastries to Connecticut. In less than two years, SoNo Baking Co. already generates more than $1 million annually.
SoNo’s bakers produce 12 different varieties of bread daily, selling as many as 300 loaves on a weekend day.
Individual-size tarts, such as poured ganache tarts, are popular for parties.
PBS viewers all over the country can simply turn on their televisions any weekend to see John Barricelli ply his culinary craft as a co-host of "Everyday Foods," a lifestyle program produced by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. But customers can watch the Culinary Institute of America-trained baker at work at his SoNo Baking Company & Café in South Norwalk, Conn. almost any day of the week.
Barricelli ensures that customers have plenty to see. A wall of windows overlooks the 2,600-sq.-ft. production area and its centerpiece Italian deck oven. Turning the former warehouse without electricity or plumbing into its present incarnation required an initial investment of about $760,000, half for leasehold improvements and the remainder for fixtures and equipment, says Barricelli.
"A good 40 percent of every one of those equipment dollars were dedicated to gearing up for bread production, including the purchase of bannetons, couches, racks and rack covers," he explains.
Since the 4,200-sq.-ft. retail bakery and café with seating for more than 30 opened in the spring of 2005, it has grown into a $1.2 million operation. About one-third of SoNo’s total sales come from bread.
Each day, Barricelli and his team turn out 12 different types of artisan breads (about 200 loaves on weekdays, 250 to 300 on weekends) as well as Danish, puff pastry, traditional and whole wheat croissants, pâte sucreé and pâte brisée from scratch.
Nothing is ever frozen at SoNo. "We bake for the showcase, not for the freezer," Barricelli says. "Even if we had more freezer space, I wouldn’t use it to store back stock."
With sourdough as the bakery’s signature loaf and the basis for four of the menu’s daily offerings, Barricelli says he likes to take these liquid levain-based doughs "to the max," giving them a leisurely 18-hour proof to develop their distinctive flavor and crumb characteristics. On particularly cold New England nights, the staff will arrange the proofing racks around the deck oven to keep the doughs warm.
Broad range of products
In addition to the namesake SoNo sourdough, the bakery also offers whole wheat, cranberry pecan (a year-round favorite) and olive variations. As at many European-style artisan bread bakeries, baguettes are the best sellers at SoNo. The same dough also is shaped into a French country loaf and decorative epi.
Ciabatta appears on the menu in the form of a more than 1-lb. loaf as well as in diminutive, 4-oz. versions. It also is the foundation of the café’s pizza dough and focaccia. Both large and small focaccia is offered in savory and sweet varieties. On Sundays, SoNo customers have come to eagerly anticipate a special, dried fruit version with currents, sour cherries, golden and black raisins and cranberries, Barricelli says. The house-made pâte brisée provides the basis for two of the café menu’s top sellers, individual size tomato tarts and quiches. Begun as a summer specialty, the tomato tart has become a year-round staple, Barricelli says. He estimates that the bakery sells about 200 of the tarts and quiches, which are available in a range of flavors, including traditional Lorraine; corn, crab and chive; smoked salmon and dill; and red pepper with feta cheese.
Circles of pâte sucrée are formed into three sizes of dessert tart shells–mini, 3-in. and 10-in.–and filled with various mousses, creams, fresh fruits, curds, nuts and jams. Tart prices start at $1.75 for an individual mini, graduating to $3.75 for 3-in. and $18 for 10-in. sizes.
Among the display case "must-haves" are the browned meringue peaked lemon and key lime tarts as well as the apple with its layers of frangipani and fruit, apricot glaze and sprinkling of almond slivers. Popular for parties (SoNo also caters), are the poured ganache tarts crowned with gold leaf.
Danish dough, made with cardamom, also is fashioned into sticky buns. Croissant dough is rolled in sugar to create a buttery, sweet called Kouign Amans (butter bread), which Barricelli describes as a cross between a palmier and a croissant.
Each day, the bakery offers between 10 and 18 varieties of cakes in 6-in., 8-in., 10-in. and 12-in. sizes, ranging in price from $20 to $60.
SoNo’s signature cake, a chocolate ganache cake, is composed of three chocolate cake layers sandwiched with ganache and finished with chocolate icing that is coated with ganache.
House-made chocolate disks rimming the top of the cake is a good example of the bakery’s sleek and simple approach to design and decorating. Local brides also appreciate SoNo’s approach to decorating. In season, the bakery averages two wedding cakes per weekend.
The perennially popular carrot cake and red velvet cakes also are available as cupcakes, which are strong sellers both as individual treats or stacked into special occasion towers. Cookies at SoNo are scooped and refrigerated. Muffin batter, with different flavors produced each day, is refrigerated so the batter can be scooped and baked in the morning. The bakery offers three muffin varieties on weekdays and four on weekends.
Always innovate new products
Barricelli encourages his staff of 18 (half of whom are bakers) to experiment with new creations and combinations. He prefers to hire skilled culinary school graduates and others with industry experience, which pays off with a constant flow of new ideas and additions to the entire team’s repertoire of techniques. A recent example of staff ingenuity was an upscale twist on a childhood lunch box classic using SoNo’s basic chocolate cake baked in rectangular moulds that is split, filled with buttercream and decorated with buttercream squiggles on top.
Barricelli himself always is adding some new sweet to the mix, ranging from an elegant chestnut roulade or "Sarah Bernhardt" (an almond macaroon dipped in ganache) to homey Amish oatmeal cake or Italian torta della nonna (grandmother’s cake). Everybody in Italy has a version, Barricelli says, but his features sweet dough and semolina egg custard topped with sanding sugar.
With such a variety of products, pricing could have presented a huge problem, but Barricelli turned to an outside, back-of-the-house management company. The company developed a computer program for SoNo that automatically analyzes cost factors, such as labor, ingredients, overhead and packaging, for each item.
The range of products can make it difficult to attractively display them all in the bakery’s 54-in.-long dry and six-ft.-long refrigerated display cases. Barricelli uses tiered racks, serving plates, baskets and cutting boards arranged along the top of the cases to help fit all the products.
Product rotation is an all-day affair, beginning at about 11:30 a.m. after the initial morning rush when the store opens at 7 a.m. As muffins and Danish are consolidated, other items are added to keep the cases full and shining the spotlight on other items.
Unsold loaves are turned into croutons and crostini, which the café serves with its soups and salads. Leftover croissants are torn into pieces, tossed with cinnamon sugar, baked in muffin cups and topped with white icing to become pull-apart monkey breads. Even the residual heat in the deck oven is used to its fullest potential. When the turned-off oven cools down to 300 degrees after the morning’s bread baking, cheesecakes are popped in to bake.
Probably the most ingenious example of recycling is SoNo’s use of cake top trimmings in its dense, intensely bittersweet chocolate bread, a free-form breakfast or brunch loaf that only is available on Sundays.
Plans for additional locations
In the spring, Barricelli plans to open a second SoNo location, a 1,600-sq.-ft. cold site with café seating, about one mile away from the original bakery.
"Our bakery is located in an industrial area, on the edge of an upscale community, so we get lots of local customers, but not a lot of tourists," Barricelli explains. "The cold site will make it easier for visitors who come to the Maritime Museum, which is the second largest tourist center in Connecticut to enjoy our products."
Barricelli believes the new site also will provide a convenient after-movie dessert and coffee spot for local residents who go to the area’s multi-plex theater. Another possible project is a third SoNo site, this one with production space for pastries and desserts, a half mile from the second location in a 600-acre "city-within-a-city" industrial/residential concept.
SoNo Baking Company & Cafe
A sampling of prices
Tomato tart, 3.4 ozs. ................................... $4.50
Croissant, 2.6 ozs. ....................................... $1.75
Pain au chocolate, 2.4 ozs. ......................... $2.00
Apricot Danish, 4 ozs. ................................ $1.75
Monkey bread, 3.8 ozs. .............................. $2.00
Apple turnover, 3.1 ozs. ............................. $2.00
Muffins, 3 ozs. ............................................ $1.75
Éclair, 4 ozs................................................. $2.25
Carrot cupcake, 3.5 ozs. ............................. $2.50
Chocolate ganache cake, 6 ins., 34.8 ozs. $20.00
SoNo sourdough, 17.5 ozs. ........................ $3.75
Ciabatta loaf, 17.2 ozs. ............................... $4.50
Baguette, 10.6 ozs. ..................................... $2.75
Olive sourdough, 4.6 ozs. .......................... $4.50
Ciabattini, 3.8 ozs. ...................................... $1.25
SoNo Baking Company & Cafe at a glance
From baker to Martha, then back to baker
A 27-year industry veteran of the baking industry, with much of it involved in preparing picture-perfect food for magazines and television, John Barricelli’s penchant for the profession is part of a family tradition that began when his Italian immigrant great-grandfather opened a bakery around 1900 and continued with his grandfather.
Following his culinary school graduation, Barricelli worked in the kitchens of major restaurants in Connecticut and New York, including the Four Seasons in Manhattan and the River Café in Brooklyn. He also founded two New York bakeries, both of which he sold. In 1998, the New York-born baker moved to Connecticut to work for domestic guru and multi-media tycoon, Martha Stewart.
During his years with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Barricelli was a senior editor, developing and testing recipes for Martha Stewart Living and Everyday Food magazine; kitchen manager for Martha Stewart’s long-running television program; and, three years ago, an on-air personality for Omnimedia’s Everyday Food TV show. He also has worked as Stewart’s in-house caterer for a variety of business and social events at her various homes.
Barricelli is credited as "test kitchen manager" in the 2005 Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook. In another 2005 book, The Martha Rules: 10 Essentials for Achieving Success As You Start, Build or Manage a Business, Stewart cites Barricelli as a "baker of great distinction" and his cakes as "scrumptious and gorgeous." In her "Quality is Everyday" chapter, she describes his commitment to high standards in ingredient selection and technique.
Being "a baker at heart" is what led him back into retail baking, says Barricelli. "Besides, I wanted to bring really fresh bread to this part of Connecticut," he notes. "Most times, people were eating bread that was almost 24 hours old."