Focusing on natural, organic and locally sourced ingredients, New Pioneer’s two in-store bakeries rake in $1.6 million annually, making it one of the largest co-op bakery departments in the nation.
Iowa may not be known as a foodie heaven, but in the midst of the corn and soybean fields is New Pioneer Food Co-op with a focus on natural, wholesome foods, and its bakery is no exception.
“We’re the hippie version of Whole Foods,” jokes Craig Albright, food production coordinator for New Pioneer’s two locations in Iowa City and Coralville. With a major university located in Iowa City, area residents tend to be college educated and upper middle class–ideal demographics for an all natural grocery and bakehouse.
The co-op began as a bulk food grocery in 1971 in Iowa City, but it wasn’t until 1994 that the co-op added a bakehouse to produce hearth-baked breads. Pastry items were added as part of the deli 13 years ago, becoming its own department in 2003. In 2004, the entire store, including the bakehouse, removed all hydrogenated fats from its products. Almost all the bakery’s items, about 90 percent, use organic flour and other organic ingredients. The bakehouse also offers vegan products, as well as a wheat-free product line.
“Instead of saying we have glutenfree products, we refer to them as no wheat. We can’t guarantee that they are gluten-free since we have flour everywhere; we do handle those products carefully,” Albright says. Requests for no refined sugar, no eggs or no dairy products also can be fulfilled.
Unlike most in-store bakeries, the bakehouse at New Pioneer has had to carve out display space as bakery products grew in number and sales.
“Bakery is spread throughout the store,” Albright says. “We were kind of an afterthought. When they were designing the [Coralville] store, this department wasn’t the monster it is now. So, we’ve had to stick stuff wherever we could.”
As a result, almost all bakery items are self-serve with a variety of products in single-serve packaging. The only service items are whole cakes, and even these items Albright would like to make self-serve as a convenience to the customers. “Our cake slices used to be a service item, but our sales ballooned when we had the slices packaged and ready to go,” Albright says.
The bakery’s two locations rake in $1.6 million annually, accounting for almost 7 percent of total store sales. With such high numbers, New Pioneer is the second-largest co-op bakery in the nation, and it often serves as a training ground for other co-ops that want to start or improve their own bakehouses. “At least three different co-ops sent their staffs here,” Albright says.
The germ of the bakery began in the early ’90s when former general manager Rochelle Prunty wanted to bring “good bread” to Iowa. Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Mich., had inspired her, and a membership survey suggested that the co-op’s member-owners would support fresh-baked breads.
The original bakery manager, Rebecca Bergus, trained at Rock Hill Bakehouse, Albany, N.Y., and returned armed with formulas and 10 lbs. of raw dough culture. The bakehouse centers on its 8-ton, three-deck hearth oven, which has 225 sq. ft. of baking surface and holds 100 to 200 loaves.
In 2001, when the Coralville location opened, the bakehouse (and oven) was moved to the new store, and the bread program was completely revamped.
“We’d had a bread program for years, but we dropped the old starters and started our own stuff,” Albright says. Then, in 2006, the pastry department, which had a small production space in the Iowa City store, moved into the production space at Coralville, combining the bread and pastry programs into the bakehouse.
All products are made from scratch, using natural ingredients and organic when possible. The breads are produced from a variety of preferments, such as starters, poolish, bigas or levains to create 12 basic doughs. From those, 28 varieties of bread are produced. On any given day, 12 to 18 different loaves are available.
At 2:30 a.m., bakers begin mixing the day’s doughs. At 5:30 a team of four to five employees comes in to hand divide and shape the loaves. The loaves are proofed from 45 minutes to 3½ hours depending on the variety. Then, they are baked at 400°F in the hearth oven. Varieties include cracked wheat farm, challah, ciabatta, Parmesan pepper, Italian potato, focaccia, Greek olive and jalapeño cheddar. All breads have a 24-hour shelf life. At 10:30, the bread team begins prepping the starters for the next day’s production. Bread makes up 3.3 percent of total store sales.
Bread production runs until 2 p.m., and then pastry takes over. However, two pastry crew members come in at 4 a.m. to begin making breakfast items, such as scones, muffins and cookies. The main pastry crew of four comes in the afternoon to make up the rest of the product line.
Pastry production wraps up around 10 p.m. As with the bread, pastry items are made from scratch using natural ingredients. The only exceptions are croissants and Danish, which are produced from frozen dough because the bakehouse doesn’t have space for a sheeter. Products are baked in a singlerack oven. Pastry makes of 3.5 percent of total store sales.
Pastry items include about two dozen varieties of bars, such as monster, banana and peanut butter bars, tarts, cheesecakes and cakes, with about eight varieties offered as slices daily. Most cake varieties are baked every one to two days, even though they have a four-day shelf life.
“We have the reputation of having the best cakes in town. Our chocolate mousse cake is our signature item,” Albright says. “It is a major draw. People who wouldn’t normally shop at the co-op come to just to get one of those.”
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Top sales generators are cookies, scones, chocolate mousse cake and muffins. Cookies, muffins and scones account for 30 percent of bakery sales. Last year, New Pioneer sold 65,000 cookies and 28,000 scones, Albright says.
All production is done in the Coralville store with deliveries to the Iowa City store beginning at 6:30 a.m. for the 7 o’clock opening. A total of five deliveries are made to the Iowa City location daily.
Decorators start at 7 a.m. with a second shift coming on at noon and working until 8 p.m. The staff fulfills about 30 special order cakes per week in addition to the cakes in the display cases. With New Pioneer’s commitment to natural ingredients, decorators make almost all the food colorings used to tint icing.
“We’ve worked to get a nice palette of natural colors,” says Miriam Alarcon- Avila, head decorator. “On a very rare occasion, we’ll use artificial colors to meet a customer request.”
New Pioneer’s four decorators, led by Alarcon-Avila, are known for producing artistic, unique designs. “Miriam has fantastic creative abilities, and we offer really unique items that no one else in town does, like handpainted chocolate images, such as drawing American Gothic on cakes,” Albright says. He is no slouch in decorating ability, either. While he admits that he had never baked a cake before taking over the new pastry department 13 years ago, he has a master’s degree in art, which easily translated to decorated cakes.
The bakehouse also creates about 25 wedding cakes a year, not a huge segment of its business, but the amount of attention they generate makes them an invaluable word-of-mouth marketing tool. “Pretty much every time we do a wedding cake, three or four people come in and mention it. It’s a great tool to drive sales of regular products,” Albright says.
New Pioneer does participate in traditional forms of marketing, such as television or newspaper ads, but much of the focus is on non-traditional programs. In one instance, New Pioneer auctioned off a seven-course dinner for two, which was made in the winner’s home. The bakehouse staff also recently participated in a sand castle building contest in Iowa City.
With both bread and pastry sharing only 1,000 sq. ft. of production space, Albright and Jason Peters, bakehouse manager, are beginning to cross-train the production staff. Currently, only about a quarter of the 20 employees can work with both bread and pastry items. “We want everyone to work both in bread and pastry a bit to get a basic skill level and knowledge of both. It will give us better versatility,” Albright says.
New hires are assigned to observe a current employee for a few days, and then they begin prepping pans and measuring dry ingredients before they move on to finishing product. New Pioneer finds itself in the lucky position of not having to train new hires that often. Only two of the 20 production employees have been with the bakery for less than two years, and more than half have been with the bakehouse for more than five years.
Albright also is trying to develop more of team approach to pastry production to mirror the how the bread production operates. Currently, a staffer makes a product from start to finish, but Albright is trying to change that to one employee prepping pans for several different products while someone else gathers the ingredients so it all comes together at the end.
As a co-op, New Pioneer also is in the unique situation that members can volunteer to work in the stores, and some choose the bakery. “We don’t let just anyone come in and work,” Albright says. “We schedule working members once we know their skill level, so they know what their job is. Some of our working members have even ended up becoming employees.”
New Pioneer is looking to expand, and plans are to move the bakehouse to a commissary once an appropriate facility is found. This will allow the bread and pastry departments to each have their own space and the bakehouse will be able to explore developing a truly gluten-free product line.
Bakery sales have grown considerably through the last few years, which help support the idea of a commissary. In 2003, pastry accounted for $242,000 in sales, $509,000 in 2005 and $804,00 in 2010. That’s 60 percent growth during the last five years and 230 percent growth in seven years.
Bread, a more mature department, also had phenomenal sales growth. Bread sales accounted for $545,000 in 2003, $624,000 in 2005, and by 2010, the department had grown to $747,000. In the last five years, bread sales grew 20 percent; nothing to sneeze at when you take into account recent economic factors, the no-carb movement and that Iowa City was completed flooded a few years ago. “With all of that, we’ve maintained positive growth through every single quarter,” Albright says.
The continued sales increase can be attributed to New Pioneer’s commitment to quality. “What I’ve learned after 13 years is to make sure your product is fresh and it’s good. Just one stale cake can kill your business. Always focus on high standards of fresh, high-quality ingredients,” Albright says.
Location: Coralville, Iowa
Market served: greater Iowa City area
Founded: 1971, bakehouse opened in 1994
Management: Craig Albright, food production coordinator; Jason Peters, bakehouse manager; Miriam Alarcon-Avila, head decorator
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Number of stores/bakeries: 2/2
Size of bakeries: production, 1,000 sq. ft.; 200 linear ft. of display space
Number of bakery employees: 20
Bakery sales: $1.6 million, 7% of total store sales
Product breakdown: bread, 50%; pastry, 50%
Product line: full line of hearth and pan breads, muffins, scones, cookies, cakes, cheesecakes, tarts, pies and single-serve items
Major equipment: 3-deck hearth oven, single rack oven, proofer, spiral mixers, baguette moulder, refrigerator/freezer
Plans: move production to a commissary, cross-train staff for both bread and pastry, develop a truly gluten-free product line
Bakery supply distributors: United Foods, Dawn Food Products, U.S. Foodservice
Tiramisu, slice $4.99
Lemon cheesecake cup $2.99
Pumpkin cheesecake, 8 ins. $15.99
Traditional New York cheesecake, 10 ins. $29.99
Chocolate mousse cake, 9 ins., two layers $24.99
9 ins., three layers $32.99
Carrot Babycake $16.99
Scottish oat scones $2.25
Macaroons, dozen $10.89
Decorated cupcake, medium, dozen $17.00
Chocolate chip cookie, each $1.25
Pumpkin pie, 9 ins. $8.99
Pecan pie, 9 ins. $14.99
Chocolate mousse cup $1.99
French baguette $2.49
Persian flatbread $2.99
White bread $1.99
Cracked wheat farm batard $2.29
Whole wheat rolls $0.75
Sourdough, 18 ozs. $3.99