With the good fortune of being written up in numerous travel guidebooks and being showcased several times on the Food Network, this 500-sq.-ft. bakery is a go-to destination for thousands visiting New York City.
Levain Bakery, home of the large, 6-oz. cookie, isn't so big itself with retail and production space of only 500 sq. ft. This is only one of the Manhattan retail bakery's many contradictions. Another is the owners themselves. Pamela Weekes and Connie McDonald are competitive athletes, who you'd think would be more likely to open a juice bar instead of a bakery full of high-caloric indulgences. In fact, it was while they were in training for an Ironman triathlon that they decided to open Levain.
Neither had any bakery experience. Weekes worked in fashion and McDonald had bounced around in several industries before going to culinary school. However, Weekes had grown up baking with her family and McDonald discovered a love of bread in culinary school, so they had the passion.
“We both like to eat and we wanted to make things we really liked and that nobody else made,” Weekes says. “There are so many bakeries, which is great, but we wanted to try to make things you couldn't get somewhere else.”
In 1995, they opened Levain Bakery in the kitchen of a local restaurant. At first, the bakery only made bread for wholesale customers. But when it moved into the 500-sq.-ft. space on the Upper West Side, the neighborhood discovered Levain.
“We did no marketing when we opened,” Weekes says. “We just opened our doors, and before we knew it, people from the neighborhood were stopping in wanting to buy our products.”
It was the turning point for the bakery. Weekes and McDonald had by this time expanded the product line to include cookies and pastries, and having their own space allowed them to exit the wholesale business to focus exclusively on retail. While the neighborhood found them, it didn't hurt that the bakery was written up in the New York Times soon after it opened, which Weekes and McDonald credit for much of their early success. However, the products kept the customers coming back.
The Times article was just the beginning of many lucky marketing breaks the bakery has benefitted from.
Levain Bakery has made its way into numerous Asian guidebooks, as well as Weekes being interviewed for French television. Closer to home, the bakery has been featured in several Food Network shows. Weekes says she can tell which episode recently aired by the number of calls the bakery gets and the questions the callers ask.
“People get excited when they see the bakery,” McDonald says. “What they saw on television is real.”
Levain's most recent break was being featured on the Oprah Winfrey show in March. Oprah correspondent Mark Consuelos visited the bakery to show viewers how his favorite cinnamon buns are made.
The guidebooks and television shows have made the bakery a true destination for tourists. Levain is off the beaten path with its location on West 74th Street, between Broadway and Central Park, but thousands manage to find it. “A big percentage of our business is from tourists,” Weekes says. “We have a lot of international followers—people from Europe and Asia, especially.”
Frequently, the tourists become “regular” customers, coming back to the bakery every time they are in New York City.
It is not unusual to see the tourist customers having their pictures taken in the bakery while they eat the giant cookies. But all bakery customers find themselves on camera. The Manhattan location and a seasonal store in the Hamptons both feature Levain Bakery TV. The cameras take a still photo of the retail counter every 10 seconds. Customers can then go the bakery's website to view and download pictures of themselves until 8 a.m. the next morning.
The purpose of the cameras is two-fold, Weekes says. First, people like to see pictures of the bakery and especially of themselves in the bakery. Since it is such a tourist destination, the pictures are a good memento of their trip to Levain. Second, it draws people to the bakery's website. The website sells cookies and Levain merchandise, providing another sales opportunity for the bakery. The merchandise includes t-shirts, tank tops, sweatshirts, aprons and tote bags featuring the bakery's logo and website.
Weekes and McDonald also offer classes for customers. In March, they offered four—two on baking Italian breads, which demonstrated how to make basic focaccia, ciabatta and pizza, and two on baking for breakfast, teaching students how to make oatmeal raisin scones, bomboloncini and brioche. At $250 a class with a limit of eight students, Weekes and McDonald know they aren't going to improve profits greatly, but it is a way to interact with customers and share their love of baking.
With such a small area for production and display, the bakery is limited in the number of products it can produce. “One of the things we've been criticized for over the years is that we have such a limited selection, but it's really not that limited for our space and for the volume we do. And, we want to do what we do well,” Weekes says.
“We have customers here that really appreciate what we do,” McDonald adds.
Small space, big products
The bakery produces six different bread doughs, in several different sizes and shapes daily, as well as four cookie varieties, jelly donuts, three types of pizza, scones, brioche, bomboloncini, muffins and two cakes. All told, the bakery offers about 20 different items daily. Most production is done overnight, though cookies are made and baked off throughout the day. All products are made from scratch and sold on the day they are made.
Known for its cookies, the bakery limits the varieties to only four: chocolate chip walnut (the most popular), dark chocolate chocolate chip, dark chocolate peanut butter chip and oatmeal raisin. Some customers balk at the size and the price, 6 ozs. for $3.75, but as Weekes points out, the cookies are meant to be shared.
“People ask me what a cookie should embody, and it should promote happiness, sharing and friendship,” she adds. “They ask why we don't make a smaller cookie, and first of all, it's not the same when it's smaller. Secondly, the whole idea is that is should be a bonding, sharing, fun thing. I eat a cookie every day, but I share it.”
As for the price, McDonald says that many other New York bakeries sell their cookies for $18 to $20 a pound, and for almost half a pound of cookie, Levain charges less than $4. “You're getting a good deal,” she says. “They aren't cheap for us to produce. And we do try to keep our prices down. I think there is a psychological limit for how much people will pay for a cookie.”
“We've tried really hard to educate our customers about the difference between our ‘good’ cookies and the cheaper cookies on the supermarket shelves,” Weekes adds.
With such a small space limiting how many different products the bakery can offer, Weekes and McDonald feel they finally have found the right mix. They currently have no plans to add new products, though they have plenty of ideas. They have toyed with the idea of offering seasonal cookie varieties, but that would mean temporarily suspending a variety they currently offer—something they aren't sure their customers will tolerate.
Weekes and McDonald know people are creatures of habit, and customers want the products that have become their favorites. They also want to find it in the same place.
“We learned early on not to mess around with where we placed things,” Weekes says. The display area remains almost unchanged day-to-day, so customers can come in and quickly scan to see if their products are available.
Some of the stress of operating in such a small space was alleviated in 2008, when Weekes and McDonald rented 800 sq. ft. of office space across the street from the bakery. This allowed them to move their non-ingredient storage and bookkeeping out of the retail space, opening up more room for ingredient storage. The extra space also allowed them to save money by being able to buy packaging and other items in larger quantities.
In 2000, Weekes and McDonald opened a second, seasonal location in Wainscott, N.Y. in the Hamptons on the eastern tip of New York's Long Island. When they first opened in Manhattan, the traffic to the bakery slowed considerably in the summer. “It was terrifying, so we decided to open a seasonal store,” Weekes says. (Levain's Manhattan location now experiences steady business year-round.)
They looked first at Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts, but settled on the Hamptons with its close proximity to the city. The second location is four times as large as the Manhattan store, with 2,000 sq. ft. “Imagine if we could have that kind of space here in New York,” Weekes adds.
The Hamptons location opens in April and closes after Labor Day, and brings its own set of challenges.
“It's complicated out there. It's hard to find employees,” Weekes says. “The cost of living is relatively high, so a lot of people that work there don't live there, and the traffic is horrible.” Levain has to start from scratch almost every year when hiring employees, which can be difficult since all of its products are made from scratch every day in both locations.
To properly staff the location, they often transplant their New York employees to the Hamptons for the summer, often providing both housing and transportation.
Making it work
Weekes and McDonald have succeeded in an industry where many others fail. They both admit that the journey has not been an easy one.
“I personally believe that most small businesses fail not because they aren't great ideas, but because people don't stick with it long enough. It's very challenging. I don't think either one of us realized quite how challenging it was going to be,” Weekes says.
“You have to give up almost everything,” McDonald adds.
They credit their successful partnership on both having the same core values. Their focus has been less on personal profit and more on providing the best products they can.
“When we started this business, we wanted to make everything freshly every day to have the best possible product,” Weekes says. “And to contribute something to society, to give back in some way to the neighborhood and charities. I think we've been able to achieve all of that.”
at a glance
Headquarters: New York City
Bakery's primary business: 100% retail
Number of locations: 2
Store sizes: Manhattan, 500 sq. ft.; Wainscott, 2,000 sq. ft.
Product line: several varieties of bread, cookies, pastries and pizza
Management: Pamela Weekes, co-owner; Connie McDonald, co-owner
Number of employees: Manhattan, 7 to 10; Wainscott, up to 5
Production method: all scratch
Major equipment: vertical mixer, deck oven, convection oven, refrigerator, freezer
Bakery supply distributors: Dairyland, One Stop Restaurant Supply, Imperial Paper, illy caffee North America
a sampling of prices
|Seeded semolina bread,|
|Whole grain bread,|
|Whole wheat walnut raisin|
|bread, 28 ozs.||$6.75|
|Sourdough boule, 2 lbs.||$5.25|
|Ciabatta, 20 ozs.||$4.50|
|Sourdough rolls, 3 ozs.||$1.00|
|Banana bread, 6 lbs.||$35.00|
|Sour cream coffee cake,|
|Lemon cake, 4 lbs.||$35.00|
|Carrot raisin walnut bread,|
|Oatmeal raisin scones||$2.75|
|Walnut sticky buns||$3.75|
|Chocolate chip walnut cookie,|
|Olives with goat cheese|