For many bakeries throughout the U.S., classes, parties and multi-day camps teaching everything from pie and bread making to cookie and cake decorating are more than just a way to help customers satisfy their cravings for creativity. Operators say these educational endeavors have generated lots of business-building buzz. Some also have developed their hands-on how-to's into serious profit centers.
Parents hoping to have a Saturday cake decorating party for their child's birthday at Just Cakes in Bethesda, Md. have discovered that they had better plan ahead. “Our Saturdays are booked up months in advance,” says owner Marge Schinnerer.
She credits the birthday bashes with helping to put Just Cakes on the map.“We're not in the downtown area where all of the foot traffic is, so we had to become a destination bakery,” she explains. “Once parents started dropping their children off here for parties and classes, they were so impressed by the cleanliness of our exhibition production area and by the quality of our products that they kept coming back.”
For $35 per guest, Schinnerer provides a special party room for 90 minutes, balloons, soft drinks, a group party cake, individual 6-in. cakes to take home and, most important of all, a trained pastry chef to teach some of the tricks of the trade. The bakery also has an optional half-hour, make-your-own pizza add-on for an extra $20 per person.
But children aren't the only ones eager to get up close and personal with pastry. In response to customer requests, Just Cakes also began hosting decorating parties celebrating a wide range of more mature milestones from Sweet Sixteens and fiftieth birthdays to bridal and baby showers. Local businesses can book them for team-building events, too. All of the parties average between eight and fourteen guests.
From fall through spring, Just Cakes also hosts after-school, weekend and evening classes for children, teens and adults covering a wide range of topics from pies to cookies to gingerbread houses. Costs for the 90-minute to two-hour classes range from $40 to $80 per person, and $85 for a parent/child team gingerbread house decorating session.
During the traditionally slower summer months, Just Cakes' four-day-a-week (Monday through Thursday) summer camp keeps the bakery bustling. Each day, two three-hour sessions cover anything from baking a basic breakfast (e.g. quiches, quick breads) to cream puffs and tarts for advanced campers. Up to 10 participants per four-week session pay $250 each to polish their pastry prowess.
To remain competitive and offer customers maximum value for their money, Schinnerer keeps profit margins on parties, classes and camps modest. But as a steady source of revenue, media coverage and customer retention and referral, they are well worth doing, she says.
Parties as marketing
Dana Kern agrees it's hard to put a price on the goodwill she garners from the cookie-decorating parties and classes she has been offering at her Chocolate Mousse Bakery in San Carlos, Calif. for the past three years. She charges $40 for one parent and child duo and $19 for each additional youngster for the 90-minute classes. She also offers an a la carte menu for private parties beginning at $50 per hour for reserved seating space for up to 15 guests, balloons and party hats. Options include a group cake for an additional $3 per child and cookie or cupcake decorating for another $3 or $4 respectively per child.
Although they do generate some direct revenue, Kern views the parties and classes as more of a marketing tool. “We have a big population of children in our community, and when parents saw us hand-decorating our products, they asked for the parties and classes,” she says. “These events allow us to build and maintain strong relationships with our customers.”
She estimates that the bakery hosts between 25 to 30 parties per year, mostly on weekends; while classes, with a maximum attendance of 10, are held about six to eight times per year.
The addition of the words “Kids/Adult Classes” to a small Yellow Pages ad was all it took to start the phone ringing for reservations at Ruben's Bakery & Café in San Antonio, explains owner Cheri Perkins-Flores. Unlike many bakeries, she doesn't charge for use of her seating space. “If they buy their food from us, they can have the space,” she says.
Perkins-Flores' rule of thumb for planning children's activities is that the six- to seven-year-old crowd generally has an attention span of about 45 minutes. She has found that youngsters do best decorating cookies ($2 per guest) because they're quick and easy.
Because of legal liabilities, she keeps the sharp items, such as knives and scissors, out of small hands, relying instead on spatulas for icing and pizza cutters for making shapes and designs. She also caps the guest list number at 14, so every child can have one-on-one attention.
Most of the promotion for the classes is done verbally, through listings on the Ruben's Bakery Web site and via email to customers. Recently, Perkins-Flores placed a classified ad on the craigslist.org Web site.
She also solicits input about class topics and times from customers by providing questionnaires.
“Communication is so important when you're scheduling classes,” she notes. “If I hadn't asked, I wouldn't have known that many of my customers who wanted to take our ‘Sugar Artistry’ decorating classes for older teens and adults (two hours, $60 per person, maximum eight students) had Saturday scheduling conflicts. We made them happy by moving those classes to Wednesday evenings,” she says.
For some recent “Sugar Artistry” classes, Perkins-Flores brought in an outside instructor. This year, she plans to spend more time teaching baking and pastry classes for adults as well as adding some child-centric sessions beyond the private parties.
She also is working on a Mother's Day cross-promotion with the spa next door. After a morning of spa treatments together, children will make a sweet surprise treat at the bakery while mom enjoys some solo pampering.
Classes can be profitable
Julie Bashore calls the classes at her House of Clarendon Bakery in Lancaster, Pa. the most lucrative part of her business. In fact, they have become so popular she is looking for a separate 3,000 to 3,500 sq. ft. facility in which to hold them.
Bashore's offerings run the gamut from professional-level, five-day wedding and 3-D novelty cake courses to two-day weekend classes on creating plated desserts to four-hour gingerbread house-building sessions for children. Prices range from $725 for the most complex courses to $75 for the child-friendly construction classes.
Currently, she can accommodate a maximum of 10 students per session in her in-house classroom. With a separate teaching facility, she can increase that number to 15 to 20. In her current facility she limits the schedule to one or two professional-level courses to avoid chaos during prime wedding season.
“First and foremost, we're a cakery,” she says.
Bakery shares secrets
Since 1992, Zingerman's Bakehouse has been an Ann Arbor, Mich. landmark and legend. For more than a decade, the bakery shared its trade secrets during once-a-month, two-hour Sunday classes. Consumer clamor for more led to the launch last year of Bake!, a full-time, 800-sq.-ft. instructional facility next to the bakery with its own equipment (including convection and hearth ovens) and dedicated teaching staff.
The four-hour adult classes cover a range of topics from basic breads, cakes and pastries to international and ethnic specialties. Prices run from $100 to $125 per person.
Most popular so far are the classes on pies and French baguettes, says Amy Emberling, Zingerman's Bakehouse managing partner. During December, the school held seven classes on Christmas cookies alone.
“We just kept scheduling new ones as the existing ones filled up, and we could have done more,” Emberling notes.
Tuesday afternoons, the children take over with their own two-hour sessions. Teens (ages 13 to 16) get their own time on Tuesday evenings. Classes are $40 per participant. Scout troops get discounted rates.
Bake! also offers bread or pastry focused, intensive, four-day adult “fantasy camps” called “Bake-cations” for $1,000 per person. Each day immerses home bakers in nine hours of instruction and hands-on skill-building.
Zingerman's views Bake! as a business with high profit-making potential. “After build-out, equipment and other start-up expenses are covered, the primary cost will be for labor,” Emberling explains. “But we can grow our sales in this area without having to increase our staff.”
The company also is convinced that the school has contributed to last year's increased Bakehouse sales, she says.
“We're in an out-of-way location in an industrial park, so we think that Bake! has brought us to the attention of more people who might never have visited us before,” Emberling notes.