When you talk to Gary and Sandy Polletta, owners of Edgewood Bakery, Jacksonville, Fla., one of the first things you notice is their love of laughter. You can’t carry on a conversation without one or both or all three of you ending up laughing. The jokes and asides run fast and free. The second thing you notice is the love they have for their bakery family, which includes daughter Krysti Bennett and son Gary Ray Polletta, as well as their employees and customers. Their love of these two things makes the bakery a fun place to work or visit and keeps the Pollettas firmly grounded in their community.
This joie de vivre passes readily from the Pollettas to their employees to their customers and back again. It isn’t unusual to find any of the family chatting (and laughing) with customers. The same goes for their employees. “We don’t want to be a place where people don’t want to come to work,” Sandy says.
But, Krysti adds, “Any time you work with family, you have your moments.” “We tell people when we hire them, you know if you hear something, remember we’re married or we’re family–take what you hear with a grain of salt,” Sandy laughs. “But our whole staff is really like family.”
The family aspect of the bakery has existed since the bakery opened in 1947. The Pollettas are only the third family to own the business. Twenty years ago, Gary and Sandy purchased a 1,700-sq.-ft. space with only five parking spots that was grossing about $100,000 to $120,000 a year. “But if you’re not growing, you’re dead in the water,” Gary says. And the bakery has grown, not only in size but also product line. It has gone from five employees to 20, and sales are now about $1 million a year.
About five years ago, the operation outgrew its physical space. The Pollettas looked into expanding their current building as well as moving the bakery completely.
“This is an older neighborhood, but we opted not to move out of the area because this is our base and our home,” Krysti says. Instead, they found the ideal location right across the parking lot, a corner building with 6,000 sq. ft. and more than 29,000 sq. ft. of parking space. The property also included a 1,500-sq.-ft. building, a former training center, which the Pollettas turned into a banquet facility.
To cause as little disruption as possible, Sandy, Krysti and Gary Ray continued to run the bakery in the original building from September to the end of December while Gary spent the time in the new building overseeing the remodeling. The original bakery closed its doors Christmas Eve 2005, and eight days later, Edgewood Bakery opened in its new facility. Until 2009, the bakery had traditionally closed the week between Christmas and New Year’s, so the move didn’t cause any lost sales. The new building featured 2,000 sq. ft. of retail space, including a separate room for wedding cake consultations, and 4,000 sq. ft. dedicated to production, storage and office space.
The larger bakery with its additional overhead did affect profits the first couple of years, but Gary likens the bakery business to a teeter totter. “We’re still pushing the teeter totter down, and the only way to do that is to increase your business. It’s a neverending battle,” Gary says. “When you’re aggressive, once you do get the teeter totter down, you do something else and you go right back up. But you’re constantly building that way.”
Becoming a bakery café
The new bakery allowed for a foodservice kitchen to be tucked into the production area. With a kitchen, Edgewood began offering a full breakfast and lunch menu in 2009. The bakery sells handmade burgers, salads and a variety of sandwiches and sides for lunch. The breakfast menu includes omelets, breakfast wraps, French toast and quiches.
The germ of the new menu began developing shortly after the move. Krysti had the idea to offer biscuits in the morning, and sales took off. To build on that, she decided to offer a few packaged sandwiches in a cooler at the front of the store. Then, she added some salads.
“It just kept growing,” Krysti says. “That’s how the café really started to come along, from just that little old biscuit. The diversification really helped when we needed to make a change because people weren’t coming in anymore just to pick up that little bakery item. It’s been fun and interesting to watch it grow. I never thought five years ago that this is what we’d be doing.”
An added bonus of the lunch menu is it makes it easier to introduce new bakery products. All lunches include a cookie or a sample dessert, which allows Edgewood to showcase different products and get customers to try new items. The seating also provides a captive audience, which makes it easy to sample new products. “Sometimes if we’re making something new, we’ll take it out and give it to the people who are eating,” Gary says.
“It gives people who might not want to buy it a chance to taste it. Then, they’ll talk about it to someone. It’s always about keeping that excitement going,” Sandy adds.
And, they have found many customers are unfailingly honest. If they think a product is terrible, they say it, Gary says. But it gives him a chance to find out what they don’t like, and that’s the kind of feedback a bakery needs. The key is to make what the customers want or like, not what you like, he adds.
“There are many things we would love to make, but there’s not a market for them,” he says. It took the bakery years to be able to sell cannolis. The Pollettas would put them out in the showcase, customers would ask about them, and the staff would explain the product. Then, the customers would buy a glazed donut because the glazed donut was what they wanted.
Artisan breads are another example. The bakery made all types of wonderful artisan breads, Gary says. The couple had visited Norway and brought back ideas for all the breads they had sampled. “It was the greatest bread in the world, but we couldn’t give it away,” he says. “So now we just make it for ourselves.”
However, he’s not giving up on the breads. He plans to introduce mini loaves to hopefully tempt customers into making a smaller commitment at a lower price point.
Expanding into catering
The new bakery’s kitchen and banquet facility made branching out into catering a logical step. Catering got into full swing about three years ago. The bakery has anywhere from five to 20 catering deliveries a week for corporate luncheons or parties, and the banquet hall is booked two to six times a month, which usually includes a catering option of some sort. Customers booking the hall for events are not required to order catering, but they are not allowed to bring in outside food or drink.
Catering and kitchen sales now account for about 20 percent of the bakery’s business, and it’s still growing, Gary says. Sales now require a chef to run to the kitchen as well as a server to take lunch orders and deliver the food, leaving the other production employees free to focus on baking.
Adding a full-service kitchen was not without its challenges. Foodservice is not the same as baking. “The chef doesn’t know bakery, and the bakers don’t know the kitchen, so everything hinges on communication,” Krysti says.
The fact that the kitchen and bakery share one revolving tray oven also makes communication important. If the kitchen needs the oven, the chef needs to be aware of the bakery’s production schedule because you can’t cook a turkey at the same time as pumpkin pies, for example.
The chef developed a new menu for both the bakery café and catering. Business is so brisk that on Saturdays, the bakery had to add a second server. Weekday breakfast orders are still taken at the counter.
Service is key
“Diversity is good,” Sandy says. “But customer service is everything.”
Gary agrees. “There are only two things we can offer: customer service and good product. We’re not convenient; they have to make a special trip to get here, so for them to pass up the grocery store and drive over here, it has to be worth it. People come here because they like the product and they get good service. If we don’t deliver that and we lose a customer, then that’s our fault. The only bakery we compete with is us.”
Almost all the 300 bakery products are made from scratch. For some items, such as a few cake varieties, the production team switched to mixes to avoid changes in raw ingredients that affected the final product. Eggs would be gelatinous one week and watery the next. Even the shortening changed throughout the years.
“When you have people baking for you who aren’t as skilled, you’re better off using a mix,” Gary says. “You can doctor it with flavoring or change the procedure a bit so you can make it your own, but the consistency is there. You have to have consistency.”
However, producing certain items from scratch, such as Danish and carrot cake, allows the bakery to keep the final product unchanged. The bakery’s signature product is its cheese Danish. “Customers know whether they came here four years ago or come here today, they’re going to get the same Danish,” Sandy says. “They feel comfortable bringing people here and recommending us.”
Early morning production
Production begins between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., when three bakers start pulling items out of the freezer. All products are frozen unbaked, which helps keep the inventory stocked. While the Danish proofs, the production team begins preparing the breakfast pastries and cutting out and frying the donuts, which also are made from scratch. All the products are in the showcase by the bakery’s opening at 6:50 a.m. The unusual start time allows the bakery to snag customers who need to be at work by 7 a.m.
Once the cases are stocked, the bakers begin making icings and mixing the doughs for the next day’s bake. Before the production shift ends at about noon, the bakers bake off cookies, breads and fruit pies, and the freezers are restocked. Freezer-tolerant products are shifted through the freezer in less than four days to keep dough quality high. The bakery has a total of 634 ft. of freezer space.
In the new bakery, the production space is completely removed from customers’ view, so the Pollettas are working on ways to bring the art of baking back in front of customers. The old location positioned the decorators in the front of the shop, which added a little baking theater, and the Pollettas want to recreate that.
This month, they plan to host a demonstration night where customers can come in and watch them make a dessert and talk about the importance of using quality ingredients. “These are the things that we take for granted but the average person doesn’t know,” Gary says. The interest is there; he uses the popularity of the food cable channels as evidence. He also plans to run videos on the website and in the bakery of what goes on in the back of the shop.
“People find what we do interesting. You have to see your business through your customers’ eyes,” Sandy says. “You have to be proud of what you do and how you do it. We don’t just take something out of a box and put it out. There’s a lot of craft that goes into it, so why not share that? It gives us more credibility as a real bakery.”
Participating in bakery association decorating and baking competitions also helps give the bakery credibility. And customers become invested in how the bakery performs. “The customers love it,” Gary says. “Every fall they come in and ask what we’re doing for the competition.”
The associations also are invaluable for networking and generating ideas to grow the business. Whenever the Pollettas attend a workshop or association meeting, they always bring a few employees with them. “They learn and get a competitive spirit,” he says. “They see what other bakeries are doing, and it’s a good growth opportunity.”
“They also get a sense of ownership and pride,” Sandy adds. “That’s why we do competitions. It’s not about us having bragging rights; it’s a good way for our employees to grow and challenge themselves.”
Gary is still astonished at how the bakery has grown in the last 20 years. “It’s been a real ride. Some days you just sit back and say, ‘How the heck did this ever happen?’ It’s just amazing,” he says. “I think what makes us unique is the people in the bakery. Our bakery takes on the personality of its people, and the bakery continues to grow because of the good nature of our crew, our commitment to quality and because we try to meet the needs of our customers.”
Edgewood Bakery at a glance
Name: Edgewood Bakery
Edgewood Bakery sampling of prices
Buttercrust bread $2.39