| Partners in business and marriage, Tammie and M.J. Coe share a 1,600-sq.-ft. production facility for her Tammie Coe Cakes and his MJ Bread. |
Conventional wisdom among many retail and specialty wholesale bakery operators would suggest that bakery owners Tammie and husband M.J. (Michael John) Coe of Phoenix are swimming upstream against a swift current.
Tammie, who manages retail-only Tammie Coe Cakes, recently opened her second outlet at a time when many retail bakery operators are doing well to profit from a single location. M.J., who directs MJ Breads, limits his wholesale artisan bread and roll business to only a dozen accounts, hardly sufficient volume to keep most specialty wholesalers in business, much less succeed.
And, Tammie and M.J. set prices that would make most fellow operators wince. Her 8-in. rolled fondant cakes command $45 each and an 8-in. apple pie fetches $24. Wedding cake prices range from $7 to $22 a slice. As well, M.J. isn’t shy, charging his restaurant customers 50 cents for each dinner roll.
They succeed because they identified customer bases that appreciate top quality bakery foods and willingly pay for them. Further, their whatever-the-customer-wants attitude toward service has earned loyal customers who would not consider going elsewhere for their cakes, tarts, cupcakes, cookies, brownies, muffins, scones, cream puffs, and artisan breads and rolls.
Both are graduates of Johnson & Wales University, Providence, R.I., where they met. After gaining several years’ experience in various foodservice and retail bakery operations, Tammie opened a cake and pastry business in 2001 in the kitchen of a gourmet food market and deli in Phoenix.
From a 6-ft. refrigerated service case and 8-ft. table, she posted nearly $500,000 in sales the first year. The next year, she and M.J. opened their current 1,600-sq.-ft. facility for pastry and bread production adjacent to the food market.
They’re not the typical couple running a family-owned bakery. Tammie, who works days with her nine pastry cooks, sells her cakes and pastries from the front door. At 5 p.m., M.J. and his crew take over the facility, working nights to begin bread deliveries from the back door by 7 a.m. the next day.
Their products also are not conventional bakery foods. Tammie’s staff prepares signature rolled fondant cakes and other pastries with top quality ingredients, such as European-style, unsalted butter; European chocolate; and freshly squeezed juices. Nearly all cakes are finished with highly stylized rolled fondant in a broad spectrum of color schemes. Tammie sells 100 to 150 cakes each week, including two wedding cakes.
| The Coes’ new retail store features the couple’s full line of cakes, tarts, muffins, cookies, brownies and bread. |
M.J., a certified master baker and 10-year member of the Bread Bakers Guild of America, and his bakers prepare their bread items from scratch, using Old World procedures and fresh ingredients. For example, they roast fresh tomatoes and garlic and purchase fresh herbs for focaccia.
Moving into the production facility provided the opportunity to broaden the pastry lines, as well as to introduce artisan bread products. For Tammie, this included building business in rolled fondant cakes, on which she had chosen to focus about 10 years ago. “I discovered rolled fondant and what it can do for cakes,” she says. Without formal instruction, she perfected her rolled fondant skills.
Tammie Coe Cakes’ six signature cakes are finished with white chocolate rolled fondant, as are all fondant cakes, in colors appropriate to the cakes. Available in 4-, 6- and 8-in. sizes, the signature cakes include Zebra (chocolate buttermilk cake filled with white chocolate mousse and raspberries), milk chocolate cake with hazelnuts (“next-to-flourless” milk chocolate buttermilk cake filled with chocolate mousse and hazelnuts), Lemon & Vanilla (vanilla sponge cake filled with lemon custard studded with seasonal berries), strawberry shortcake (vanilla sponge cake filled with vanilla custard and sliced strawberries), White Chocolate & Blackberries (vanilla sponge cake filled with white chocolate mousse and blackberries), and Bananas Foster cake.
The bakery’s glass entry door leads directly into Tammie’s decorating room, with workbench and reversible sheeter for the rolled fondant. There, she finishes and decorates nearly all of the cakes. “We want people to see our production area,” she says, “to see what goes into our cakes.”
By late 2004, Tammie’s business had grown to a volume that prohibited her from effectively fielding customer inquiries and decorating cakes concurrently. Each month, she was handling about 2,000 telephone calls and numerous errands in addition to her production and management duties.
She hired three part-time sales people, called cake concierges, to enable her to pursue her cake production. They work with customers, taking orders for custom cakes, including e-mailed orders. This includes discussing their needs, such as dietary concerns as well as design and decorating needs. The concierges also inform customers about breads, scones and other products for catered events.
Tammie continues to meet Tuesdays with customers who request special or complex cakes. “I love to work with customers, to learn what they want in a design, then to create the cake that they want.”
However, she meets with no more than six customers “because I want each person to feel that she’s getting the attention she wants–as many as two hours each.”
Despite having additional sales help, Tammie still limits wedding cakes to two per week. “These cakes require considerable work for which my clients pay big money, and I cannot disappoint them,” she explains.
| Tammie Coe finishes her cakes with her signature draped white chocolate fondant. |
Tammie Coe Cakes also is developing a reputation for its cookies, made with doughs featuring seasonal flavors and decorated with rolled fondant tinted from a palette of colors. Tammie created seasonal “fashion colors” by adapting hues used by women’s and men’s clothing designers.
The bakery regularly ships cookies and cakes overnight to “snowbirds” off-season and to people who have seen the cakes while visiting in Phoenix. To protect the cakes, employees place them on cake boards, wrap them in thick gauge plastic film, top them with plastic bubble packaging, and pack them with a sufficient amount of dry ice to keep the cakes cool without freezing them.
M.J. found that his experience in working as an artisan bread baker in foodservice operations and in an artisan bread bakery start-up provided valuable background to open his wholesale business. For example, he narrows his account base to only upscale, single-unit restaurants and currently limits the number to 12 accounts. None was solicited, and potential customers are placed on a waiting list.
“High volume for our operation is not necessarily the best thing,” M.J. says. “Instead, careful selection of accounts and keeping quality and service high are the way to do it. We’re trying to keep the art of baking in place to guarantee the high quality that our customers expect.”
He also considers himself a part of his customers’ menu planning. “Most chefs want to simplify their days, like anyone else,” he says. “They don’t want to have to think about the quantity of bread they will need. They provide me with their customer counts as late as 11 p.m. for the next day, and we will supply the appropriate quantities.”
Further, M.J. creates a unique, signature bread for each account, as well as offering items from the product list, which includes baguettes, batards and dinner rolls, among others. For example, a chef told M.J. he did not want to use table bread because it required too much labor and added cost. To win the business, M.J. prepared a 5-lb. oblong loaf of French campagne, or country, bread.
M.J. sliced the bread in half length-wise before baking, but left the ends attached. Without notifying the chef, he delivered the loaf with instructions for the wait staff to break the loaf in half and portion the halves as needed. He also offered suggestions for serving the bread with spreads. As a result, “the chef bought some loaves, and his orders are increasing,” M.J. says.
Chef customers have come to rely on M.J. for new bread products to accompany upcoming menus. “These products, such as the campagne loaves, are exclusive to those customers. So, they truly have signature breads,” he continues. “Doing business this way separates me from other operators.”
He notes that nurturing relationships with wholesale accounts has yielded other rewards. For example, one account supplies duck confit for sandwiches offered at the couple’s new retail store. The account keeps duck confit in production even when the restaurant does not have it on the menu.
Duck confit served on a ficille loaf and prosciutto served on a baguette are among several different daily sandwich specials. A whole sandwich sells for $8 and a half sandwich costs $4.
Live at work
The retail store is located in a newly constructed “live/work” development in the trendy Roosevelt Arts District near downtown Phoenix. In a nod to family-owned retail operations of years ago, the owners and operators live above their stores. The Coes’ 800-sq.-ft. loft features an interior stairway down to their retail store, whose sales floor covers 300 sq. ft.; storage and office areas total 500 sq. ft.
Opening at 5 a.m., the store offers breakfast items, gourmet coffee beverages, cold drinks and juices, bottled water, cookies, bars, tarts and rolled fondant cakes. Customers may take their orders or consume them at sidewalk tables under umbrellas.
Plans include offering continental breakfast “room service,” or home delivery, to the complex residents. A customer will check off items on a menu and a time–listed in 15-minute increments–for the delivery, provide a credit card number and fax orders by 7 p.m. for delivery the next morning.
| MJ Bread’s bakers produce custom breads for each client. |
Supplying product for the store and wholesale accounts from a 1,600-sq.-ft. bakery requires a 24-hour operation, 365 days a year. The first night baker arrives at 5 p.m., and the last leaves at 6 a.m. Meanwhile, the pastry crew begins to arrive at 5 a.m. The delivery driver arrives soon afterward to package and leave with wholesale orders by 7 a.m. The last member of the day crew leaves at 9 p.m.
Tammie’s crew begins by cutting frozen sponge cakes, which are mixed and baked three to four times a week. The pastry cooks mix Italian buttercream, made with European-style, unsalted butter, four times a week. Each day, they prepare tarts, bars, brownies, and other pastries, and set up cakes, which Tammie finishes and decorates. Lastly, the day crew bakes off cookies, as needed, in the afternoons.
The night bakers use four bread starters with different hydration levels: liquid levain, which is a base for other starters; sponge for baguettes; rye starter; and stiff levain for batards and levain loaves, or mild sourdough loaves. Each night, the bakers produce 1,000 to 1,500 lbs. of bread dough in 12 different varieties for 18 to 24 different breads and rolls.
They regularly add value to the bread items, such as preparing hamburger buns ($4 per dozen, wholesale) with brioche dough containing unsalted, European-style butter, and slathering Parker House rolls with the same high quality butter.
M.J.’s crew also handles production of breakfast items, mainly muffins and scones. They also produce doughs for about 200 6-oz. cookies a day, including about 90 that Tammie’s crew bakes off in the afternoon.
Growing demand for M.J.’s products from current accounts and potential customers is outstripping production capacity. He plans to relocate bread production this summer into a 3,000-sq.-ft. facility, as yet to be identified, and keep cake and pastry production at the current bakery.
The move would, among other things, offer M.J. and Tammie more opportunities to see each other. “At the new bakery, I probably would work from 4 a.m. through early afternoon,” he says. “Our focus would be on supplying bread by 4 p.m. to restaurants with evening business. How much fresher could you get?”
Though the Coes are looking forward to growing, M.J. does not want to become “too large.” Several restaurants, bakery cafés and other retail outlets have asked for Tammie’s cakes and M.J.’s breads. But, the couple believe such growth would stretch their personal capabilities too far. “There’s a point at which our creativity, product quality and customer service would suffer,” he says. “I don’t know at what point that would be; I think that it’s different for everyone.”
| Assembling Bananas Foster |
| Bananas Foster cake |
Assembly of Bananas Foster cakes shows Tammie Coe Cake’s attention to quality. Pastry cooks place a banana cake round in a cake ring and brush it with a rum/Grand Marnier glaze.
They pipe a 1/2-in. diameter ring of Italian buttercream, made with European-style, unsalted butter, around the cake ring’s inside edge, which helps bind the two cake rounds. Caramel mousse filling is spread across the cake within the buttercream ring, and the second round is placed on top. This round also receives a ring of Italian buttercream and the caramel mousse filling.
After the cake is refrigerated for 24 hours, Co-owner Tammie Coe removes the cake ring and wraps the cake in white chocolate rolled fondant with a flourish that yields a three-dimensional fabric-like appearance.