SO WHAT IF THE BUILDING IS kind of small, tucked out of sight on a narrow one-way street, with a parking lot not much larger than a postage stamp? Visually arresting storefronts and easy in and out retail parking did not figure into the equation when Sharon Butler and Mary Pat Pace decided to move their Cincinnati wholesale bakery in 1989.
Although the pair's decorated cakes, particularly their wedding cakes, had attracted a small following of retail customers during their first six years, wholesale had always been the primary focus.
When they moved The Bon-Bonerie bakery into the 2,000-sq.ft. space, Butler and Pace bought a second-hand bakery case "just to have it there," Pace says.
They also put in a couple of tables, so customers could enjoy a cup of tea or coffee and pastries while watching the action in the open production facility.
During the next five years, word of mouth advertising turned the trickle of retail customers into a steady flow. Today, about 90 percent of The BonBonerie's $1.9 million in sales comes from retail.
In 1995, the partners expanded-their tearoom to seat 40 and changed the menu to include tea lunches, featuring finger sandwiches, fresh fruits and pastry, soups, salads, sandwiches and quiches.
"The BonBonerie is the place that everybody likes to think they 'found'," Butler noted.
One of the specialties they come for is the bakery's signature Opera Cream Torte, modeled and named after a famous Cincinnati candy. Pace and Butler credit this chip-studded chocolate layer cake, which is filled and iced with rich vanilla cream, coated with dark chocolate glaze and decorated with white chocolate lace, with launching their business.
"It was our best-seller more than 20 years ago when we started and it's still our best-seller today," Pace says. During an average week, The Bon-Bonerie sells about 160 9-in. and 140 6-in. Opera cream tortes.
Other menu staples include another-20-year favorite, apple Bavarian cheesecake (vanilla cheesecake in a prebaked shortbread crust topped with fresh apples, walnuts and cinnamon drizzle icing), carrot cake (brushed with fresh orange syrup and filled with cream cheese icing) and caramel walnut bars.
Daily selection of products
On any given weekday, the bakery usually features between six and eight different tortes and cakes, at least two (including the Opera torte) of which are chocolate, and four (including the apple Bavarian cheesecake and carrot cake) are nonchocolate. The daily selection also includes around 20 types of bars and pastries and 20 varieties of cookies.
While chocolate chip outsells all other cookie flavors, Swedish gingersnaps have become a year-round favorite, and are off the menu only around Christmas when they are replaced by gingerbread men and ginger crackles. But, The BonBonerie's signature cookie is the butter cutout, which is dipped in the same white chocolate icing that is used on the Opera torte.
Every day, the bakery displays at least six different decorated cut-out cookie shapes in its display cases, mostly priced from $1.25 to $2 per 2-oz. cookie. Customers can order custom cookie shapes and decorations if they purchase a dozen of each design.
"We have always been known for our high-end fancy cakes, tortes and French pastries, but we wanted to create a niche for ourselves with a pick-up item that was fun, different and artistic," Butler says.
At Halloween, the bakery sells several thousand of the cut-out cookies in a single week, says Pace.
During the Christmas season, that number jumps to more than 10,000.
All of The BonBonerie's products are made from scratch in small batches by a staff of 15. Cookies are still hand-scooped or cut.
Move to smaller sizes
During the past few years, the partners note that while people seem to want items that taste home-baked more than ever, they want these products in smaller sizes.
"We used to offer three different 9-in. pies every weekend. Now, we usually have one, and it's usually a 6-in. pie that can serve two and not leave a lot left over," Pace says.
The smaller 6-in. cakes also generally sell better than the larger 9-in. ones. "We can charge $17 for our 6-in. cakes because they're so rich they can easily serve eight to ten people," Butler points out.
Butler and Pace also are always on the look out for desserts that can be adapted to individual size servings. Single-serve portions run the gamut from old-fashioned bread pudding ($2 per slice), rice pudding ($2.50 per cup) and English trifle ($2.25) to elegant dark chocolate ($1.75) and Bailey's Irish Cream ($2) mousse cups.
To meet the needs of increasingly time-crunched customers, the partners also are prepackaging more items for grab-and-go convenience.
"We always had a front table with two or three prewrapped items, such as a pound cake, an angel food cake and a pie or chocolate chip toffee shortbread," Butler says. "Now we offer at least eight to 10 different products on weekends."
Both Pace and Butler admit that operating the bakery has been a live and learn experience. One lesson they had to learn twice was that they do not want to expand, at least into any cold sites. The two locations they tried, one a cafÈ in the local library and the other in a small neighborhood market, cost more to staff than they brought in.
"We realized that if we ever decide to open up a second location, we have to produce something there, even if it's making sandwiches or baking off cookies," Butler explains. "It gives the people working there something to do, creates pride in the product and, in the case of the cookies, fills the whole place with that freshly baked smell."
As far as relocating to a larger space, the partners say they think about it every time their lease is up for renewal. But, it looks as if The BonBonerie will continue to be one of Cincinnati's hidden treasures for some time to come.
|Opera cream torte, 9 ins||$38.00|
|Apple Bavarian cheesecake, 6 ins||$12.00|
|Scone, 3 ozs||$1.00|
|Carrot cake, 6 ins||$14.00|
|Decorated sugar cookie, 2 ozs||$1.25|
|Caramel walnut bar, 2 ozs||$0.85|
Chocolate chip toffee shortbread, 8 ozs
|Cinnamon rolls, 3.5 ozs||$1.75|
White chocolate macadamia cookie, 1 oz
|Cherry raspberry pie, 9 ins||$18.00|
Wedding bells make cash registers ring
For The BonBonerie in Cincinnati, wedding season means more than increased cake sales. In addition to creating a maximum of 14 elaborately decorated cakes per week during peak summer season and two to ten a week the rest of the year, The Bon-Bonerie literally offers soon-to-be wedded couples one-stop shopping for favors, place cards and bridesmaids' gifts as well.
Using an oversize dress-shaped cutter and their versatile butter-based dough, partners Sharon Butler and Mary Pat Pace created a bridesmaid charm cookie for prewedding luncheons or showers. Borrowing from a long-held tradition of embedding silver charms on ribbon pulls into a cake, Butler and Pace sell a $10 sterling charm tied around the waist of an $8 dressshaped-cookie. "They are beaucoup work to make, but customers love them," says Butler.
Other wedding design cookies, including bells, bride and groom, doves, hands with wedding rings and hearts double as reception table place cards and favors. Prices start at $1.50 each and wrapping in individual cellophane envelopes with ribbons costs an additional 50 cents per cookie.
For a wedding with whimsy, The Bon-Bonerie creates favors from gumballs, which the decorators pipe with royal icing to resemble tiny brides and grooms ($1.65 each). Or, the couple can favor their guests with monogrammed raspberry-filled petit fours ($1.50 each for the cake, 50 cents additional for the writing).
| Company name: The BonBonerie Location: Cincinnati |
Web site: www.thebonbon.com
Primary business: retail bakery
Market served: Greater Cincinnati Area
Bakery products: upscale tortes, 35%; mini desserts, 11%; cookies, 13%; wedding cakes, 9%; tea room, 8%; bread, 1%; miscellaneous (gift items, drinks, etc.), 19%
Number of retail locations: 1
Store size: 4,000 sq. ft. (including 2,000-sq.-ft. tearoom)
Annual sales: $1.9 million
Production methods: scratch
Management: Mary Pat Pace and Sharon Butler, co-owners
Major equipment: vertical mixers, rotating rack oven, convection oven, pan washer, rack washer, refrigerated service showcases, refrigerated self-service cases, refrigerator, freezer