by Edward Lee, editor emeritus
Bennison's at a glance
Location: Evanston, Ill.
Guy Downer, here decorating, custom designed this rotating work table.
Bennison's 20-ft. production table adjusts for a full range of products including Danish.
Bennison's retail shop incorporates a number system to help organize customer flow.
On most Saturdays during the summer, Bennison's Bakeries has little trouble selling 600 loaves of artisan bread at a farmers' market two blocks from the bakery. Yet, the bakery's owners count themselves fortunate to move two dozen loaves any Saturday from the bakery's bread racks. Why the disparity?
"The farmers' market draws customers willing to drive long distances to obtain fresh products, including our bread," says Jory Downer, who with his father, Guy, owns the bakery. "But, bread is tough to sell in the bakery. People won't drive a long way just for a loaf of bread." So, Bennison's, operating in Evanston, Ill., which borders Chicago's North Side, has adapted its product line and marketing strategies to fit its unusual circumstances.
The full-line bakery is located in a commercial and residential neighborhood one block from stops for suburban commuter trains and elevated trains to Chicago. Weekdays a couple thousand commuters walk past the bakery. With scant available parking, Bennison's relies largely on this foot traffic.
During morning rush hours, commuters stop in for freshly made croissants, Danish, donuts and coffee. At lunch, workers from nearby offices and retail businesses purchase sweets after having lunch at several nearby cafes and restaurants. Then, beginning at 4 p.m., evening commuters pick up custom-decorated cakes and other items for evenings and weekends.
To ensure that Bennison's retains repeat business, "we rely on what other retail bakers do: offer the best possible quality, better than what customers could get anywhere else," Jory says.
Despite the scarce parking and only 2,000 sq. ft. of production space, Bennison's posts $1.2 million in annual revenues. Efficient production, derived in large part from nearly every type of automated equipment for a retail bakery, helps support the Downers' efforts.
Tried carry-out prepared foods
Bennison's is something of an institution in Evanston, best known as the home of Northwestern University and where the Women's Christian Temperance Union was founded. The late Larry Bennison opened the bakery in 1938 and eventually operated seven locations. In 1967, Guy, then a salesman for Standard Brands, purchased the business. He had sold coffee to the founder.
By 1970, Guy had consolidated operations to three locations, including the main Evanston bakery, where he expanded its space and transferred all production. At the nearby Wilmette, Ill., store, Guy installed kitchen facilities, hired a chef who had managed United Air Lines' local commissary and introduced carry-out prepared foods. It was a short-lived venture.
"We were a bit ahead of our time," Guy recalls. "The concept was great, but we were undercapitalized. Meanwhile, the sugar (price) crisis hit." He sold the kitchen to the chef but retained the cold spot until five years ago, when he sold it.
Today, Bennison's with its single location focuses on cakes, cookies and pastries, and during the last few years, artisan breads. Jory is most proud that Bennison's can sell 600 artisan bread loaves each Saturday at the Evanston Farmers' Market.
By his own admission, this would not have occurred 10 years ago. During the last eight years, Jory has honed his bread and pastry skills, mostly by having taken several courses at the now-defunct National Baking Center in Minneapolis.
His commitment to improving his skills and those of his bakers not only has raised the level of product quality in his bakery, it also helped Jory to compete successfully last year for a spot on the three-person Bread Bakers Guild Team USA, which will participate in the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie (World Cup of Baking) in April in Paris, France.
Made croissants signature item
Bennison's croissants, which the Downers consider a signature product, reflect the bakery's heightened quality. While croissants account for small percentages of sales at most fullline bakeries, Bennison's does a thriving business. Each weekday, the crew bakes a full rack of all-butter croissants, along with Danish just before 6 a.m., when the doors open to the first commuters. "The croissants and other breakfast items are as fresh as can be," notes Jory, who says French croissants no longer are superior.
Bennison's also has taken advantage of the morning commuter business to sell coffee, one of the most profitable products a bakery can offer. Jory says the bakery tried to sell cappuccino but found that 75 percent of customers were unwilling to wait.
He installed a two-dispenser machine to speed production. Customers still left the store. Bennison's now offers ready-made dispensed cappuccino in addition to high quality conventionally brewed coffee, which it has sold since before Guy purchased the bakery. The store generates $1,200 to $1,400 a week in beverage sales and goes through more coffee than does a small hotel, Jory says.
Bennison's has considerable competition for the morning business. During the last 20 years, downtown Evanston has lost its department stores, such as Marshall Field's, to outlying shopping centers, and experienced growth in restaurants, coffee shops and book stores, which often offer beverages and bakery snacks.
"Our morning sales slipped with the growth of Starbucks and other coffee shops, but our noon business has grown," Jory observes. After having lunch, office workers from nearby businesses regularly stop at the bakery for sweets, including cupcakes and brownies. Business is brisk: six dozen cupcakes a day and five sheet pans of brownies and four pans of lemon bars a week.
All-occasion cake sales growing
Evening commuters have boosted sales of stock, alloccasion cakes as well as helped support custom cake orders. A refrigerated case always has several on hand, ready for a piped greeting. "We rescue many husbands who forget their wives' or children's birthdays," notes Guy, who heads Bennison's cake decorating,
The bakery also has grown cake sales by marketing occasion cakes via the Internet to nearby Northwestern University and its students. When students search for "birthday cakes" on the student help Web site, the results display Bennison's contact information. To spread the word about the bakery's Web site, Bennison's cake boxes carry the address.
When Jory considered adding artisan breads about six years ago, he knew they would not become a strong sales category for the store. Consumers in Evanston have several retail venues, such as in-store bakeries and bread shops, from which to buy bread. "However, I was confident that we could sell bread at the Evanston Farmers' Market," he recalls.
The market, the oldest and largest in Illinois, operates Saturdays from May through October. He also eyed a farmers market in Wilmette, close to Bennison's former store, where residents have fond memories of the bakery's products.
For more than a year, Jory worked with Evanston city officials to gain approval to participate. The deal limits Bennison's to selling only bread-type products; a non-compete clause accommodates not-for-profit organizations to sell sweetgoods, cakes and pastries. At the Wilmette market, which does not limit Bennison's product mix, the bakery sells breads and pastries, including donuts, angel food cakes, coffeecakes and cookies.
Bennison's employs a 10- by 10-ft. tent to display breads and rolls, croissants and scones. An overhead vinyl banner carries the Bennison's name and logo. Downer family members and friends staff the markets because Saturdays are too busy to pull employees from the store.
The more popular bread varieties are sourdough baguettes, ciabatta (plain and herb), California (fruit and nut) bread, seven-grain sourdough rings, olive and sun-dried tomato loaves, and garlic Asiago cheese with black pepper bread. Bennison's rotates varieties to maintain customer interest.
Jory says unpredictability of the weather is the only major drawback to participating in the farmers' markets. "We begin making the bread on Wednesday. If on Friday the forecast shows rain, we'll have a lot of dough on our hands. Crusty bread doesn't hold up well in the rain."
Wholesaling opportunities have developed, particularly as foodservice establishments opened. Bennison's sells locally to about 20 accounts, among them two hospitals, a couple of food stores and coffee shops, a sandwich shop, a restaurant and two Jewish temples. Wholesale business account for about 15 percent of total revenue.
The bakery limits its wholesale volume because production for retail sales is "maxed out" for the weekend, Jory explains. "We could use more wholesale business Monday through Thursday."
To ensure that wholesale accounts are worth pursuing, "we don't go after business selling donuts at 60 percent of retail, nor put up with being yelled at for being five minutes late," he says. Also, the bakery limits deliveries to within a few miles.
Efficiency from automation
Wholesale products come from Bennison's retail product mix, nearly all of which the bakers produce from scratch. Jory attributes the bakery's efficient production to having welltrained, loyal employees and a full complement of automated equipment (see accompanying At a Glance article for list of equipment).
The bakery lacks only one major piece, a batter depositor, which would help with producing 80-qt. batches of blueberry and carrot muffin batters. Before purchasing a depositor, Jory says he likely would install cash registers and a customer ordering system, and a digital security system, which would enable him to monitor operations from his home. Jory also is considering adding a small, revolving tray oven with steam injection, which would add baking flexibility to the existing rotating rack and four-deck ovens.
Use of a few convenience bakery products, notably frozen raw bagels and puff pastry dough, and mixes for cupcakes and red velvet cakes, has enhanced efficiency, too, Jory observes. "We sell little puff pastry, so it's not cost effective to make puff from scratch, and we cannot make it as good as the frozen we buy," he says.
Having a long list of equipment to make scratch products requires a talented staff, and Bennison's bakers are as adapt at operating the gear as they are at handling bench work. All employees but one joined the bakery with no experience.
"We brought them along, and they've been with us for seven to more than 30 years," Guy says. "When we hire someone who really cares, we will go as far as we possibly can to train them. I recognized a long time ago that people work for more than money. If they are treated with respect and have a comfortable place to work, they will stay. As a result, we have no turnover in the back shop."
Finds talent at culinary schools
When filling new positions during the last few years, Jory has looked to local culinary schools for candidates. "All too often, bakery owners complain that they cannot find good production help," he says. "If they opened their eyes, they would see that culinary schools are full of upcoming graduates who make good candidates."
He recognized this opportunity several years ago while teaching baking and pastry courses at Kendall College, formerly of Evanston, now located in Chicago. He acknowledges that while recent graduates may have good skill levels, they nearly always lack real world experience that would make them more valuable to retail bakery owners.
Though graduates may know which end of an oven peel to grab, Jory notes that they require consistent, thorough training to become productive employees. "This requires patience, which will result in good, productive workers."
This is one reflection of the Downers' attention to detail that has enabled Bennison's to flourish, especially in view of its inconvenient location. As with most other retail bakery operators, Guy and Jory are challenged to make their bakery a destination location - to make a stop at Bennison's worthwhile. The traffic coming their way shows their efforts are succeeding.
A sampling of Bennison's prices
Yeast-raised donut, glazed...................... .88
One baker's quest to compete on the international stage
For Jory Downer, the third time indeed was the charm. Last year, he qualified for a coveted spot on Bread Baker's Guild Team USA 2005, the threemember national baking team that will compete next month at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie (World Cup of Baking) in Paris, France.
He twice had tried out for the team, in 1999 and 2002. He credits his success to support from fellow members of the Bread Bakers Guild of America, classes in bread and pastry making at the now-defunct National Baking Center (NBC) and practice, practice, practice.
Downer's interest in artisan bread initially led him in 1997 to join the guild. "Looking back, I knew very little about making really good, authentic bread, but it intrigued me," he recalls. Soon afterward, he read a notice in Modern Baking about the Midwest regional try-outs for Team USA and applied to compete.
Of the three categories - bread making, bread sculpture and Viennoiserie - Downer chose to compete for the bread making position. "I had no idea what it was all about," he says. "We had to prepare four varieties, and it was the first time I had used the equipment." Try-outs were conducted at the NBC.
"I didn't make the cut. But, I was surrounded by talent, and what we baked was so good and better than anything I could imagine-even the worst of the product." The experience spurred Downer to pursue improving his skills, which led to taking five week-long NBC classes in bread and pastry making during the next two years. The experiences not only enhanced Downer's baking skills but enabled him to introduce new procedures in his bakery, Bennison's Bakeries, in Evanston, Ill.
For example, Downer learned to use lower protein flour and has applied it to nearly all of Bennison's products. "We had used patent flour with 13.5 percent to 13.75 percent protein; now we use bread flour with about 11.8 percent protein throughout the bakery," he explains. "We've virtually eliminated excessively dark or burned products.
"Of course, we must handle dough production differently. For example, bread doughs must ferment longer because of the lower pH levels in them."
After taking the classes, Downer tried out for the team in 2001, competing once more for the bread making position. Disappointment again. Believing he would have a better shot in 2004 in Viennoiserie, Downer focused on developing his pastry making skills and captured the category's position.
Between team practice sessions held every couple of months, he hones his skills every day, except Saturdays, and uses fellow bakery owners' facilities to help acclimate him to working in unfamiliar environments. "I'm looking forward to the competition in Paris," Downer says. "It will include four days of total camaraderie with bakers from around the world."
His quest to make the team has benefited the bakery by enhancing quality across the product line, notes his father and co-owner, Guy. "Years ago, we had only white, rye and whole wheat. Now, we have such vast variety, and the government is stressing whole grains as important in diets, which will improve their popularity."
Adds Jory, "Because of these and other benefits, I feel I must give something back. Becoming a member of the team is helping to do that."