Maybe it’s a natural side effect of operating on the sun-drenched shores of West Palm Beach, Fla., but Judy Leibovit, founder and president of Sweet Endings Desserts®, is an optimist. Though recent economic conditions had slowed the foodservice industry’s dessert sales nationwide, she sees a light at the end of the tunnel.
“The economy, I believe, is turning around,” Leibovit says. “The crash two years ago hurt dessert sales in restaurants. Consumers were ordering main courses and shying away from appetizers and desserts when dining out. But now, our customers and our distributors are looking for new items to get customers’ mouths watering again.”
Consumer trends experts agree that people are slowly returning to every segment of the foodservice market, but post-recession consumers are still gun-shy when it comes to expenditures perceived as luxurious or indulgent. Being strapped for cash for two years taught consumers how to get by on less. Now, with a few extra bucks in their wallets, they haven’t forgotten their lesson.
Leibovit’s job of late has been to entice wary diners by wowing them with unique and surprising flavor combinations. A simple slice of cake might not be enough to snap customers out of their spending funk, but a slice of Florida Orange Sunshine® cake, the bakery’s trademarked dessert, has been able to do the trick.
“We put extra touches on Sweet Endings’ products to differentiate ourselves from other dessert companies in the market. We offer our customers made-from-scratch desserts focusing on quality,” Leibovit says. “Our customers–distributors, grocery stores, restaurants and hotels–say our products look and taste like desserts their pastry chefs would have made.”
The heart and soul of the product line is gourmet, scratch-made two-, three- and five-layer cakes, as well as individual serving desserts, all designed to be easily distinguishable from standard dessert fare. The bakery’s Florida Orange Sunshine cake, for example, is made with 100 percent real Florida orange juice and features orange buttercream icing. The Sweet Georgia Coconut Cream Bombe® uses real coconut throughout the cake, while the Southern Red Velvet cake is made with real buttermilk and cocoa and is garnished with white chocolate curls covering the cream cheese icing. The Summer Fresh Strawberry uses fresh-from-the-farm strawberries as filling and gourmet Tiramisu cake includes real marscapone cheese, espresso-soaked sponge and a dusting of real cocoa.
Leibovit’s goal is to provide desserts that are unique and of high enough quality to excite consumers and compel them to forgo economic misgivings about dessert purchases. New items, such as tea cakes, continue to augment the core desserts, freshening the selection and aiming to inspire a return to dessert.
Built from scratch
Leibovit built her business from scratch, 21 years ago in a home-based bakery, with coffee cake the marquee product. “I bought $250 worth of ingredients–flour, sugar and cocoa–and a hand-held mixer; that was my start,” she says. “I was making two cakes at a time, delivering out of the back of my Jeep.”
A chance meeting with a local West Palm Beach distributor resulted in an order that had Leibovit thinking about increasing production volume for her business practically overnight. Sweet Endings has been growing ever since.
“Honest to goodness, we’ve never been turned down by a distributor once we’ve presented the product to them,” Leibovit says. “Our niche is in totally scratch, kosher baked products. A lot of our competitors use mixes. Our products not only look good, but taste as good as they look. We use real butter, real sugar, real chocolate and whole milk, and customers can taste the difference.”
Now, Leibovit and a staff of 25 full time employees produce thousands of cakes per day, making more than 100 SKUs, in a 10,000-sq.-ft. facility. Sweet Endings distribution footprint includes the central and eastern United States. A new vice president of sales and marketing, Sandy Hiddemen Rivera, was hired anticipating the request from distributors for national distribution, Leibovit says.
“We’re putting a national network of brokers together; we just hired two,” Leibovit says. “By the end of the year, we will show significant growth.”
Sweet Endings’ product line is 75 percent 10-in. cakes (two-, three- and five-layer). Cheesecakes, tarts, pies, cupcakes, individual serving desserts and brownies round out the selection. Leibovit and Mike Levine, production manager, also have met with good success with products that stretch size boundaries.
Changing serving sizes
Petite sizes and desserts for one are increasingly popular among Sweet Endings’ distributors. The company responded by upping production of the single-serve portions. The individual-serving desserts weigh 4 to 8 ozs. and are pulled from the 10-in. cake varieties. Apple crumble, Key Lime raspberry cheesecake and hot chocolate lava cakes are unique to the single-serve dessert line.
“Our individual serving desserts are decorated more basically to allow pastry chefs to do their own thing,” Leibovit says. “They are made from the same scratch-made compnents as our larger cakes, but we want to leave room for end users to put their personal touch on them.”
Better Than Sex Brownies® and Mike’s Best Blondies are sold in uncut half sheets, allowing foodservice operators to customize size to various applications, from a stand-alone item to an ice cream accent.
Like a lot of bakers, Leibovit has been keeping an eye on the cupcake craze. She had been anticipating a drop in popularity, but the trend seems to still be going strong. At the nexus of several larger food trends, including smaller serving sizes, portability in food and popularity of comfort or nostalgic food items, Leibovit is beginning to believe that cupcakes have more staying power than she first thought.
In order to differentiate Sweet Endings’ cupcakes from the products from cupcake boutiques and shops, all of the cupcakes are filled and weigh in at a whopping 8 ozs. The Coconut Grove variety is filled with coconut custard, the Chocolate Kiss is filled with chocolate pudding and the Mega Bite Milky Way is filled with caramel mouse.
“We are currently looking into bite-sized desserts, salted caramel and various other niche products,” Leibovit says. “Dessert lovers want new and exciting items as well as feel-good desserts from the past.”
Currently, the company offers a miniatures line of products with 24 to 42 individual items packed into 3.5 to 4 lb. case weights. The line includes red velvet, chocolate, lemon and orange whoopee pies, as well as mini cupcakes, mini tarts, mini pies and mini cheesecakes, all designed as amuse-bouche or single-bite sweetgoods.
On the opposite end of the size gradient, Sweet Endings offers extra large, uncut, five-layer cakes. “We set ourselves apart also with cakes weighing up to 15 lbs. each, like the ‘Big Boy’ Ultimate High five-layer chocolate cake and the 1/2-lb. filled giant cupcakes,” she says.
Although most of the standard cakes are delivered pre-cut for the foodservice operators’ convenience, uncut cakes give the operator the latitude to use larger portions and perhaps address the growing popularity of consumers sharing desserts.
“A waiter walking through a restaurant with a slice of a five-layer cake that’s almost 1 lb., filled with chocolate pudding, and is covered in fudge, brownies and ganache–that gets a lot of attention from diners,” Leibovit says.
“People say they don’t want big slices of cake, but they always end up eating it all,” she adds. “We also have something for every price level. We have a 20-cut version of the five-layer cake so if people are looking at a price point of around $1, we can provide that. Or a large slice of our five-layer could command $15. We try to cover the whole spectrum. But the basics–our high-end cakes–sell better than the little niche things. At least that’s what we’ve found.”
New products and culture
Development of new products to address new consumer trends is a trial-and-error procedure. “We get a lot of feedback on what our customers are looking for, and we design products to meet their needs,” says Mike Levine, production manager. “Our customers give us their ideas on what they have in mind, but most of Sweet Endings’ desserts are original ideas. If a dessert is not selling, we don’t continue making it.”
Leibovit and Levine work closely together to bounce ideas off one another for new concepts. “We’re a very close family at Sweet Endings. Most of our staff has been here at least 15 years,” Leibovit says. “When Mike recently got engaged, we went with him to buy his engagement ring. We are all in this together. It’s great team effort.”
The egalitarian command structure helps with quality control. Other than recent serving size tweaks, most of the basic cake formulas haven’t changed much or at all since they were first created. With an experienced staff that has been working closely with the same formulas for years, inconsistencies are easily spotted. Nobody’s afraid to speak up.
Training is primarily on the job. Ideal candidates come from culinary institutes with past experience in baking and have to be self-motivated.
“They have to have a drive, Sweet Endings manufactures a lot of cakes day-in, day-out; they have to be good at what they do,” Leibovit says.
New employees shadow a veteran employee for a few weeks until Leibovit and Levine are satisfied with their work standard. If after two weeks the new hire doesn’t have the requisite work ethic or work mentality, they part ways. “Usually, they leave on their own,” Leibovit adds.
Product pricing is determined primarily by the cost of ingredients. Leibovit didn’t change any products because of the economic downturn–she continued to purchase the same high quality ingredients in order to retain Sweet Endings’ premium reputation. This commitment to quality paid dividends and simultaneously forced Leibovit to learn better procurement strategies.
“It was a hard two years, but sales were up tremendously last year and are up again so far this year. Eventually, we will have to have a price increase,” Leibovit says. “We haven’t had one for awhile. I started working more closely with our ingredient manufactures to receive direct rebates on our ingredients. We buy a lot direct, which helps our bottom line–we didn’t do that until two years ago. “
At the speed the bakery is growing, Sweet Endings is adding economies of scale that also help with procurement. Currently, Leibovit is building a 10,000-sq.-ft. freezer space at another location.
“We buy a major piece of equipment each year,” Leibovit says. She maintains that rapid growth will not change the company’s core values of high end products made from scratch with the best available ingredients. Sweet Endings’ successes have been predicated on quality and differentiation, creating a point of distinction separating their product from their competitors.
“We take care of everyone like we would want to be taken care of,” Levine adds. “We have a lot of pride, and that pride goes into our baking; we’re proud of what we do.”