How many supermarkets can claim they can count a paczki king and queen among their employees? Most likely, the honor only belongs to Riesbeck Food Markets, St. Clairsville, Ohio. The crowning of the king and queen, voted on by store customers, is the newest component of the Paczki Ball, a promotion begun 12 years ago by John Chickery, the chain's bakery director.
The ball is only one of the many promotions surrounding paczki, which the in-stores began selling 13 years ago. That first year, Riesbeck's only offered the Polish pre-Lenten treat for the seven days before Ash Wednesday.
“It was our first attempt, and we only did $3,700 in sales. I didn't know if it was going to be worth it,” Chickery says. He rethought his strategy, and in addition to the week before Ash Wednesday, he began selling paczki the seven consecutive weekends for Easter. By the third year, the bakers were frying paczki 19 hours a day. In 2009, Riesbeck's sold almost half a million, and this year's sales are tracking 12 percent higher than last year. Sixty percent of the paczki are sold by Ash Wednesday.
Like most of the other products at Riesbeck's, paczki dough is made from a mix. After mixing, the dough rests for an hour; it is then scaled and rests again. After dividing, the dough is shaped and then frozen. The paczki are fried about an hour after they are removed from the freezer.
“Paczki has grown to the point where our customers are really anticipating it,” Chickery says. To keep that anticipation up, he runs a full-page newspaper ad the week before Fat Tuesday, as well as teasers in the in-store ads three weeks prior.
Paczki season kicks off with live radio remotes from the stores and the Paczki Ball the Saturday before Ash Wednesday in the St. Clairsville location, which includes the crowning of the king and queen as well as three hours of live music by a polka band. The bakery's merchandising tables are moved to make room for about 100 seats and a dance floor.
“People can listen and dance to the band, and we sample paczki and other Polish items,” he says. A paczki-mobile also generates interest.
“We do a lot of promotions,” Chickery says. “We try to have something going all the time.” In addition to the paczki promotion, the bakeries promote cherry month in February, and for St. Patrick's Day, Key lime angel food cake. “It's unique to use, and I only do Key lime once a year. It won't be back until next year,” he adds.
Strawberry fest is celebrated during the first week of May. Each location chooses a different merchandising theme and incorporates up to 70 different strawberry products. Then, the month of October is Oktoberfest, where the bakeries showcase a variety of German specialties, including fastnacht, the German version of paczki.
Close on the heels of Oktoberfest is the pumpkin face cake promotion for Halloween. Single layer cakes in the shape of pumpkins are iced with orange buttercream and sold for $3.99. Tables are set up with decorating tubes so children can add faces to their cakes.
In November, all of Riesbeck's perishables departments join in a sample fest, where a variety of specialty products from each department are available for customers to taste. “We'll do a full array of Thanksgiving and Christmas items. Most of them aren't for sale yet, but it gives people a taste of what is to come,” Chickery says.
The bakeries keep customers interested by frequently rotating the products available. Riesbeck's offers about 250 bakery SKUs with 175 for sale at any given time and about 50 are unique to Riesbeck's. For example, most stores only offer pumpkin products from September to December. The exception is pumpkin bread, which is available year-round. “I think people want something different when they come into the store. That's why we bring items in and take items out. We want them hungry for that item,” Chickery adds.
He also tantalizes customers with items that will be available soon. The bakeries offer a pumpkin nut cookie topped with cream cheese icing that is typically only sold from September to December; however, Chickery will showcase the product in an ad in July to get customers thinking about pumpkin and other fall items.
Long-standing production methods
Riesbeck Food Markets operates 14 stores under four banners with 10 in-store bakeries. Of the stores with bakeries, six have full production areas with rack and/or deck ovens, spiral mixers, proofers, sheeters, dividers/rounders, moulders and cookie depositors. Two of the in-stores have limited production facilities and two are cold spots with product shipped in four times a week from the other production bakeries. The orders are placed a week in advance, but adjustments can be made as late as the night before.
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Averaging 12 employees, the bakeries produce almost all products from scratch or a mix. When Riesbeck's first started adding in-store bakeries in the early '60s, it used a mix and bake program offered by a bakery ingredient supplier. Almost 50 years later, the bakery still uses the same program and makes some products from scratch, including cookies and Danish. The in-stores use very few thaw-and-sell products. The only difference between being a full scratch bakery is that the mix program saves the employees having to scale most ingredients, Chickery says
“If our supplier went out of business, we'd look to start producing on our own,” Chickery says. “More of our new products seem to be scratch. We've already invested in the equipment, and we're willing to invest in labor. We see it as an advantage over the Wal-Marts of the world because we're unique. They aren't going to do the things we do, and that gives us a niche in the marketplace.”
Products have a three-, five- or seven-day shelf life, with a few exceptions. Chickery strives to keep stales between 8 and 10 percent. “If your stale factor is 4 to 6 percent, you aren't producing enough. Once you get to 12 to 14 percent, you're producing too much,” he says.
The bakeries do recycle some products, but donate the majority to area charities. Recycled products include croutons from out-of-date bread, and the chocolate drop cookie is made from leftover cake. Unsold donuts are turned into a Spanish spice bar. “If you didn't know, you'd never realize it was a recycled product because we're adding raisins, spices and oils. We have a nice cream cheese icing for it, and it's really moist and flavorful,” Chickery says.
Production begins at midnight with bakers making donut dough, then bread baking begins at 3 a.m., followed by cookies and batter items, such as muffins. In all locations except St. Clairsville, all production is done in full view of customers. This is something that Chickery is considering changing. Most of the production occurs overnight when customers are not present, and during the day, minimal production occurs as customers shop.
About half a dozen new products are introduced throughout the year. Recent new items included whoopie pies, soft pumpkin and chocolate cookies, peach angel cake roll and brown sugar loaf. This month, the bakeries will start offering a southern country cake, a yellow cake topped with a coconut whipped icing that features a hint of pecan. Chickery also plans to feature the southern country icing in a pineapple angel cake roll. “Our bakery people are coming up with new ideas for products all the time,” Chickery says.
The only problem posed by new products is that they need a label. Only the St. Clairsville location retains any service counters; all other bakeries are fully self-serve. All packaged products need an ingredient and weight label, so the bakeries can't just make up a product and put it out to see if it sells.
All products are displayed on several tables and wall units in the bakery, as well as on tables at the front of each store. “We try to have some merchandising tables in the front of the store,” Chickery says. “Most of Elm Grove's bakery display is in the front of the store so we capture the customers right away. Every department wants to be the number one aisle, and we're not any different.”
All locations previously featured service counters, but labor was a large pull on the program, and it was the one element Chickery felt he had the most control over. He started experimenting with selling packaged products and found that sales actually increased. To keep some element of service, the cake decorators are positioned in front to the production area, in view of customers, and the decorators also serve a customer service role.
In 1996, when Chickery moved into the bakery division, he took a hard look at what the bakeries were grossing and realized that to become profitable, Riesbeck's had no choice but to raise prices. The company did an extensive price check on other supermarket in-store bakery prices within a 100-mile radius and then slowly raised prices. Bakery sales now account for 3.25 percent of overall sales.
“I can honestly say we are the most profitable we've ever been in the history of Riesbeck bakery,” Chickery says. “I'm proud of that and so are our employees.”
Riesbeck's at a glance
Market served: Southeastern Ohio and northwest West Virginia
Number of stores/bakeries: 14/10
Number of banners: Riesbeck Food Market, 7; More for Less, 4; Pick'n Save, 2; Village Market, 1
Main competitors: Kroger, Wal-Mart Supercenters
Size of stores/bakery: 60,000 to 15,000 sq. ft./4,000 sq. ft.
Average number of bakery employees: 12
Management: Richard Riesbeck, president, C.E.O.; William Riesbeck, vice president, sales and marketing; John Chickery, bakery director
Contribution to store sales: 3.25%
Product breakdown: Donuts, 30%; cakes, 25%; cookies, 15%; bread, 12%; loaf cakes, muffins, batter products, 10%; other (pies, bagels, European-style bread, sweet rolls, coffee cakes), 18%
Major equipment: Double or single rack ovens, deck ovens, 80-qt. and 20-qt. spiral mixers, proofer, sheeters, dough dividers/rounders, moulders, automated cookie depositors, bread slicers
Bakery supply distributors: Rich Products
sampling of prices
|Grandma's bread, 16 ozs.||$2.69|
|Homestyle bread, 16 ozs.||$2.69|
|Italian bread, 16 ozs.||$2.69|
|Whole wheat bread, 16 ozs.||$2.99|
|Chocolate chip cookies, 12 ct.||$3.79|
|Grandma's raisin-filled cookies, 6 ct.||$3.89|
|Nut roll cookie, 10-ct.||$5.99|
|Chinese almond cookie, 8 ct.||$4.29|
|Thumbprint cookies, 12 ct.||$4.29|
|Iced pumpkin nut cookie, 12 ct.||$4.69|
|Blueberry muffins, 6-ct.||$3.79|
|French flip coffee cake||$3.99|
|Cinnamon sticks, 10-ct.||$3.69|
|Cinnamon walnut coffee cake, 18 ozs.||$5.99|
|Polish gourmet poppyseed roll, 12 ozs.||$9.99|
|single layer, 8 ins.||$8.99|
|Bear claw, 4-ct.||$3.99|
|Long john, crème-filled, 6-ct.||$3.99|
|Cake donut holes, 24-ct.||$3.69|
|Glazed donuts, 12-ct.||$4.99|