Though the national news media covered in excruciating detail Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coasts, one would be hard pressed to recall any positive reports coming from the storm’s aftermath. Certainly none about the area’s wholesale, retail and supermarket bakeries and bakery supply houses, which were knocked out of business.
One retail bakery not only survived Katrina but has thrived after losing all its products, ingredients, some major equipment and suffered damage to the building causing a three-week shut down. Paul’s Pastry Shop has benefited from a coming together of good luck, timely planning and “the hand of the Lord,” say co-owners Sherri Paul Thigpen and husband Robert Thigpen.
Sherri’s mother and father purchased the original 855-sq.-ft. bakery in downtown Picayune, Miss., in 1970. Picayune is located 45 miles north of New Orleans and 30 minutes west of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Sherri purchased the bakery from her parents in 1988 and built a new 5,500-ft. facility three miles off the interstate. Three years prior to the hurricane, Sherri and Robert began planning a new facility to replace the 5,500-sq.-ft. building.
By 2003, their planning folder bulged with notes taken from visits to bakeries and trade shows and from trade magazines. Robert, a real estate developer, says the couple wanted to tie the bakery into a new specialty shopping center, which would have complementary retail stores.
That year, they purchased land on a hill overlooking the intersection of Interstate 59 and a major thoroughfare into Picayune. The couple, with daughter Laci Brunson, office manager, and son-in-law Clay Brunson, production manager, stepped up the planning process.
The final bakery layout included the requisite retail sales, production and storage areas plus an upscale café with outdoor seating, a wedding cake planning room, a party room and a gallery from which customers could view bakery production and cake decorating. The shopping center tenants included a florist, wedding gown and tuxedo shop, gourmet meat and cheese shop, ice cream shop and non-food gift shop, among others.
The general contractor broke ground in May 2005 and poured the foundations just before Katrina hit in August. “We were fortunate that we had locked in the construction price,” Sherri recalls. However, the contractor initially could not find labor and had difficulty obtaining building materials. “It took twice as long to complete construction than we had planned,” she says. The bakery and the first of the stores opened in October 2006.
The hurricane “changed everything for Picayune,” Robert says. “Our little town, which had been the same for 30 years, changed forever within a few hours. It didn’t take long before our highways were choked with cars and trucks driving north from the coast. Thousands of those people relocated here in Pearl River County.”
From July 2005 to July 2006, the county became the third fastest-growing county in the nation, while Hancock County at the Gulf Coast was one of the top three counties with decreasing population.
More than 45,000 people currently live within five miles of Picayune’s limits. Some 10,000 subdivision home sites in the county have been sold. And, county officials project the population will grow to 90,000 residents by 2010.
The growth bodes well for Paul’s business. Traffic counts at the former bakery three miles west of I-59 averaged 7,500 vehicles a day, and currently, traffic averages 35,000 vehicles daily on I-59 with county officials expecting much greater volume.
Before the hurricane struck, Paul’s sales already were increasing at a rapid clip. By 2004, annual revenue had reached $1.1 million from $180,000 in 1988. Since Katrina, sales have grown to $1.6 million in 2006 and are expected to top $2 million this year.
Leading the sales gains will be Paul’s signature king cakes, whose unit volume the owners expect to exceed 110,000 by year end, and decorated cakes, especially custom-decorated cakes and an expanding line of upscale dessert cakes.
The owners designed the bakery’s facade and interior public areas to build sales by capitalizing on the appeal of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Exposed brick, wrought iron fixtures, warm yellow walls and arched doorways carry the feel throughout the store. Accents of Mardi Gras purple and gold enhance the festive environment.
Cajun and zydeco music waft through the Mardi Gras Morning Coffee Café and its outdoor patio, which features wrought iron tables and chairs, brick walls and floor, and a fountain.
When entering the store, customers first see self-service displays of gift items offered to complement the bakery, including Mississippi-made foods, such as cheese straws, flavored pecans, pralines and magnolia honey jelly.
Other self-service displays contain high-volume products, such as king cakes and cookies. With its king cakes, Paul’s promotes the bakery as “The Home of the Original Cream Cheese King Cake.”
Immediately following the island displays, customers see curved glass service cases. The higher cost of the showcases is paying off as sales of several product categories have increased, Sherri says. For example, éclair sales climbed to nearly 300 a week from less than 100 in the former location, she explains, adding that the lighting and glass give the products great visibility.
Cases at the middle of the service displays feature cakes. “Cakes have the best profit margins, and we’re working to increase this business,” Sherri says.
About two years ago, Paul’s sold an average 120 to 140 custom-decorated cakes a week. Sales have grown to about 230 weekly. All-occasion cakes had totaled 50 to 60 weekly and have increased to 130.
More elaborate products
In its previous location, the bakery’s dessert cake lineup was limited to a few basic varieties, such as chocolate, coconut, German chocolate and red velvet. The new products include more elaborate types of dessert cakes, some of which Paul’s created.
One example is its signature chocolate confusion cake. Decorators start with a layer of brownies, apply a layer of German chocolate icing, top it with chocolate devil cookies (light, crunchy, flourless chocolate pecan cookies), add a layer of cream cheese icing, and then a layer of chocolate cake. They ice the cake with whipped chocolate icing, garnish with chocolate cookie crumbs and drizzle with chocolate icing. A 4-in. by 8-in. cake retails for $10.99.
“The different textures help to make it appealing,” Sherri says. “We’ve used existing products to make something new.”
Moving to the new location presented an opportunity to upscale the product line, which also is reflected in pricing, she adds. Paul’s had sold 8-in dessert cakes for $7.99 to $8.99. “We now have more unusual, higher-end cakes that sell for $13.99 to $19.99,” she explains.
Still, raising prices is a concern. “This area is not affluent, and I don’t want to lose customers. But, we understand that if we make a good product, people will pay for it,” Sherri says.
Wedding cake sales also have grown. Decorators two years ago handled two wedding cake orders a week; currently, they average six. “More than six taxes their capacity,” she notes. “Sometimes, we have to limit orders.”
Brides-to-be review cake options in Paul’s Wedding Gallery, which conveys a home-like French Quarter ambiance with cinnabar walls, silk floral arrangements, an Oriental rug and elegant chandeliers. To enhance customer service, the bakery partnered with a wedding invitation supplier, linking the bakery’s Web site with that of the supplier. Paul’s also is in the process of becoming a Select Baker for Wedding Cakes Across America and David’s Bridal’s new national program.
Beyond the gallery, a hallway features 6-ft. by 8-ft. windows to allow customers to watch activity in the cake decorating and bakery production rooms.
Production Manager Brunson observes, “The viewing gallery has opened the bakery to the public in a way that they develop trust in what we do. And, they learn how much work goes into making the products they buy.”
Opposite the gallery and across the sales area, the Mardi Gras Morning Coffee Café steps up the French Quarter theme. In the morning, the café serves as a coffee shop, where customers enjoy espresso-based beverages, brewed coffees, teas and breakfast pastries. At noon, it offers gourmet sandwiches, light entrées, salads and soups.
Executive Chef Ed Hahn Jr. garnishes and decorates dishes with a flair learned during his career in New Orleans white tablecloth restaurants. Weekly menu offerings include Cajun and Creole fare, which help support the French Quarter theme.
Examples from a week’s menu include: Monte Cristo sandwich, turkey, ham and cheese, served with blacked redfish salad and grilled Chicken asparagus soup, $9.95; fried green tomatoes topped with jumbo lump crab meat and Hollandaise sauce, $9.95; open-faced barbecue pork sandwich with pepper jack cheese, sautéed onions and mushrooms, $5.95.
Lunch is served Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, the café offers coffee and gourmet beignets from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., selling an average 210 beignets. A 12-oz. coffee and three beignets retail for $3, and three beignets sell for $2.
“People from the coast and Jackson take day trips just to visit our bakery and eat lunch in the café,” Hahn says. He also prepares food for functions held in Paul’s Mythical Purple Party Room, tastefully decorated in Mardi Gras purple and gold.
The room, available for luncheons, showers, and birthday and office parties, seats as many as 40 guests or accommodates 60 for stand-up receptions. In January, Paul’s hired a
full-time party room coordinator because of the growing demand.
Many years before moving, Paul’s attracted out-of-state customers who stopped while visiting in Mississippi.
“It starts with offering high quality and doing what’s needed to keep it. Then, it involves marketing. When Sherri had no funds for marketing, she did what she could to get the bakery’s name known, like swapping birthday cakes for radio spots and getting our king cakes into locations along the Gulf Coast,” Robert says.
Before Katrina, Paul’s two vans delivered wholesale king cakes to 139, mostly coastal, stores. The hurricane eliminated that business; still, customers drive to the bakery to buy them, he says, enabling the bakery to maintain 25 percent of its business in wholesaling the cakes.
For the last 35 years, a Picayune AM radio station each day gives a certificate for a free 8-in. or 1/4-sheet birthday cake. The radio host draws the name of a listener with a birthday that day. The winner redeems the certificate at the bakery and may select from any cake on display. Paul’s receives air time in trade for helping the station promote listening to its birthday of the day segment.
Sherri set up a similar arrangement with a Gulf Coast FM station, which serves a much broader listening area. The major difference is Paul’s ships cakes to the winners.
“The return is much greater than the cost to provide the cakes,” she says. “Bakery operators shouldn’t be afraid to approach their radio stations to do this.”
Last month, Sherri arranged with local hotel and motel operators to place small promotion cards either in guest rooms or in racks at check-in. The Picayune welcome center also has them available. The cards feature a photo of the bakery, its address and telephone number, and offer visitors $3 off the price of lunch or a free gourmet coffee and pastry.
The reverse side has space for visitors’ contact information, including e-mail addresses. Each month, Paul’s conducts a drawing from the cards for a $20 cash award. Out-of-town visitors to the bakery’s Web site also can register for the drawing by downloading an entry form and mailing it to the bakery. Winners are announced on the Web site. Consumers from 19 states registered for a recent drawing.
Production occurs from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. six days a week. Brunson directs four full-time production employees and eight seasonal employees in January and February to handle the king cake rush. Donna Wilk, cake decorating manager, oversees four decorators.
The bakery production and decorating rooms are temperature and humidity controlled, which facilitates production, especially of yeast-raised items, such as king cakes.
Bakers prepare king cake dough from a custom-made mix, adding water, eggs and yeast, all mixed in an 120-qt. spiral mixer. A hopper feeds dough into a single-piston divider, which, for large king cakes, divides the dough into 32-oz. pieces.
A reversible sheeter presses the pieces into oblong shapes, which bakers fill, first with a layer of specially formulated cream cheese filling, then with one to four flavored fillings.
When preparing a traditional cinnamon king cake, bakers place a rope-shaped dough piece lengthwise down the middle of the dough and spread on thin layers of cream cheese filling and cinnamon smear. In the absence of additional fillings, the dough piece provides extra volume.
A small plastic baby doll, representing the Christ Child, is placed randomly in each king cake. (A notice accompanying the cake notifies customers that the king cake contains a plastic doll.) The sides of the filled pieces are folded to the center and sealed; cinnamon king cakes are rolled, cinnamon bun style.
Cakes proof for 15 to 20 minutes at 80 percent humidity, and then bake in a rotary rack oven at 325°F for 17 to 23 minutes, depending on the variety and size. When cooled, cakes are iced in purple and yellow Mardi Gras colors.
From Epiphany through Mardi Gras, the bakery produces 55,000 king cakes. After Mardi Gras, production tapers to 20 to 30 a day, except holidays, when demand increases.
Sherri recently restructured the bakery’s management to prepare for the anticipated growth, including possibly opening retail stores in nearby cities. “The bakery was a sole proprietorship, which meant that I did everything,” she says.
Each department–production, decorating, coffee shop, restaurant, wedding gallery, retail store, party room and business office–has a manager and assistant manager. She and the managers meet every two weeks; managers and assistant managers meet monthly. Each department meets weekly and full staff meets quarterly. The office staff also publishes a quarterly newsletter with information from all departments.
She says giving up the managerial responsibilities was difficult. “I was emotional about it. I felt like parts of me had been taken away after being in charge for 19 years. Now, I’m emotional because they’re helping our business so much.”
Though having delegated many responsibilities to others, Sherri won’t be far from the action. Anyone who has observed her in the bakery learns within minutes that she will fill any free time.
Likely she will put it to use generating yet more ideas and plans for the bakery. And, with good luck and help from above, who knows which opportunities lay ahead for Paul’s Pastry Shop?