In the last several years, this Utah-based chain has expanded to 16 stores while introducing an artisan bread program and revamping its pastry products in its in-store bakeries.
Like many modern supermarket chains, Harmons Grocery, based in West Valley City, Utah, has grown significantly in recent years. The growth has been organic, not through acquisitions, taking the family-owned company from a produce stand in the 1930s to a 16-unit full-service supermarket, with the latest three locations opening within the past year. Currently, all locations feature an in-store bakery, and Harmons has invested significantly in the department, with a from-scratch artisan bread program in all locations and a revamped pastry lineup in nine stores.
With the artisan movement really hitting its stride in the late 1990s, Harmons’ management decided to introduce a from-scratch bread program to its stores. About a decade ago, two of Harmons’ bakers trained at the San Francisco Baking Institute and worked with a consultant to help adapt the formulas and techniques they learned to the higher elevation of Utah.
“It was really only within the last couple of years that we got the artisan bread program rolled out to all the stores,” says Keli Lessing, fresh bakery sales director. “It is a process, even just getting the equipment. We have two stores that don’t make the bread on site because there’s no room.”
While the ingredients that make up the program are simple–flour, water and salt–Harmons had to invest in all new stone hearth deck ovens for the locations and spiral mixers that handle the dough gently as well as commit to staffing. “The president of the company [Dean Peterson] is very supportive of the program; it’s a huge labor investment,” Lessing says. Every bakery has a lead artisan bread baker as well as a dedicated sales associate, and higher volume stores add bread bakers and sales staff as needed. “At a minimum, we always have a sales associate from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., because bread is all full service and we realize with this bread that if we don’t have someone speaking to the customer about it, it’s not going to sell. It’s a bread that people might not be comfortable with,” she adds.
Commitment to training
Every lead artisan baker is sent to the San Francisco Baking Institute for two weeks, and new hires work with a company trainer for two weeks. “It’s pretty intense. We train them how they’re going to work, and we make them understand why we do things a certain way. If they understand that, they’re less likely to cut corners because it’s not just ‘Do it this way because I said,’” says Jason Lindsay, bakery trainer.
The bakeries keep a dough log that tracks how much hydration was used, the temperature of the dough and bake times. This way a less experienced baker can look back and see what the baker did in the previous days to get an understanding of what might be going on. Elevation is an issue–it differs from store to store–so knowing what has worked in the past at a certain location is helpful to the artisan bakers.
Bread production begins as early as 3 a.m., with the goal of having the loaves on the shelves by 10 a.m. Ten different doughs are produced daily from poolish and levain starters. Daily varieties include ciabatta, country French, French baguette, multigrain whole wheat, roasted garlic, sourdough, white chocolate pecan, crostini and challah. A variety of the day also is available, with offerings including three-cheese semolina, jalapeño cheddar, walnut blue cheese and asiago green onion. Country French is the best-selling variety, followed closely by sourdough.
Once the starters are fed in the morning, bakers begin mixing the doughs. For example, after country French is mixed, it proofs for one hour before dividing. Then, it rests an additional 20 minutes before it is shaped. The 1.5-lb. loaves are baked for a minimum of 40 minutes at 460°F with steam. “It takes about 40 minutes to develop that crust, and it can go upwards to 55 minutes depending on hydration,” Lindsay says.
After the loaves are baked, bakers turn their attention to prepping the sourdough, which rests overnight, for the next day’s bake.
Simple, quality ingredients
Although the bread is made from simple ingredients, Harmons pays close attention to the quality of those ingredients. The flour is from a local miller that provides locally grown, organic flour.
This attention to quality is paying off. Bread makes up an average of 22 percent of the bakery’s sales, with some locations seeing 30 percent bread sales. “This is a high labor program, you can’t avoid that. Harmons has been able to see the benefit of it. Bakery is a destination department and it’s done a lot for our customer count storewide. Bread is really the driver for the bakeries,” Lessing says.
About 20 percent of Harmons customers shop the bakery, which is slightly higher than the national average of 17.5 percent, according to Modern Baking’s 2012 Supermarket Bakery Research. Bakery sales per customer average $5.39 for Harmons, significantly higher than the $3.61 national average.
“Good education of customers is helping,” Lessing says. “We’re doing food right, and making an effort to do it. People are responding.”
Upscaled pastry program
Last December, Harmons began revamping its pastry program. Stephanie Pendergast, lead pastry chef, City Creek, and Adalberto Diaz, culinary kitchen lead chef, City Creek, reworked the pastry formulas to streamline production and add upscaled products. The process took about three months. “Harmons already had a good base when I got here, we just had to develop processes to create products that were more stable, better quality with a longer shelf life while keeping an eye on costs. The products are not only beautiful, but the process is easy for our stores,” Diaz says.
In the previous iteration, Harmons’ double chocolate mousse cake featured a bisque chocolate cake enrobed with an acetate band, and then the layers of mousse and icing were built on top. It looked fine and customers could see what they were getting, but the new version is enrobed with chocolate, not a plastic band.
“The idea was that every time customers buy something from us, they can eat the whole thing,” Diaz says. “There’s no peeling, removing or taking out. I don’t want to put out something that they can’t eat.”
The crème brûlée used to be brûléed in front of the customer, which was a good idea in theory, Lessing says, but did not work in reality. Customers didn’t buy it because it looked more like pudding, not crème brûlée. So, with the new program, the crème brûlée is put out already brûléed, which shortens the shelf life. “Now it looks like brûlée, and customers understand that this isn’t a restaurant and it isn’t going to have that perfect crunch,” Diaz adds.
Diaz also focused on cutting down on the different product components the bakery makes. The mousse used for the chocolate cake also is used in raspberry mousse tarts. “With chocolate mousse you have cake, mousse and chocolate, and with raspberry tart, you have a tart, mousse and fruit. From the point of view of the customer, they are two totally different items, but from our point of view, it’s utilizing an item in another way that we might not have before,” he says. The formulas also are flexible in that flavors can be easily swapped out to create “new” seasonal items with a slight tweak on the decoration.
The use of the same components also makes for easy training. It only takes three days to train a lead pastry chef to make the 20 different items in the pastry showcase. Most bakeries are staffed with only the lead pastry chef for production. The program allows for several components to be frozen until needed, which adds to efficiency.
“We don’t buy any of the components for our pastries, but we know what we can produce ahead of time and what components are critical to put out fresh,” Diaz says.
“The pastry program is now in nine stores,” Lessing says. “A few more stores offer a few of the items that don’t require the specialized equipment.” Again, Harmons invested in the equipment needed to get the program off the ground, such as tart presses, induction burners, small mixers and a variety of smallwares, such as spatulas, moulds and pans. It costs about $10,000 to get a bakery outfitted for the new pastry program. But pastry now accounts for about 10 percent of bakery sales. In the newest location, City Creek in downtown Salt Lake City, pastries alone accounted for $3,600 of sales the first four days the store was open.
“We have to find the middle line between a fancy pastry shop or restaurant and what a regular supermarket is doing. We’re trying to break that barrier; we’re a hybrid,” Diaz says. “This is new and trendy for a supermarket, and we want to keep it that way,” he adds.
Along with both the bread and pastry programs, Harmons also carries a full offering of cookies made from scratch, custom decorated cakes, donuts, bagels, pies and rolls. For both products made in-house and those brought in from suppliers, the company is making a concerted effort to provide as clean of labels as possible. The bakeries use no shortening; all products are made with butter. The chain’s dieticians also work with Lessing and her crew to help analyze any new products that the bakery wants to bring in.
Harmons’ commitment to bakery also can be seen in how it staffs the bakery. Staff sizes range from 10 to 18 employees. At a bare minimum, a bakery has a bakery manager, an assistant bakery manager, a lead artisan baker, a lead pastry chef (for the nine bakeries that have the new pastry program), a lead cake decorator and a bread sales associate. Then, as volume dictates, the bakeries also have cake decorators, sales associates, packaging associates, sweet bakers and artisan bakers. The bakeries are open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Store directors are tasked with bakery hires for their location, and the key is getting store directors on board with the bakery program for them to hire the right people for the position.
“Our bakers are very passionate; they have to be to work as hard as they do. They’re the hardest working people in the store by far,” Lessing says.