Quality and uniqueness are watchwords for the in-store bakeries of this 15-unit chain in Southern California. If customers can find it elsewhere, they won’t find it at Bristol Farms.
With its commitment to quality food and its Southern California location, it is no surprise that the Hollywood elite, such as Halle Berry and Penelope Cruz, is often spotted toting bags out of Bristol Farms' 15 stores. However, supermarkets can't live by celebrities alone. The chain's commitment to an assortment of high quality, fresh and specialty products also holds true in its in-store bakeries.
“Category by category, we've always done well at finding the best of the best. We're a little bit of a grandma's kitchen-type bakery,” says Doug Poling, senior director of bakery. Production for the bakery is a combination of items baked off in each store, made-from-scratch proprietary items produced in the central kitchen and finished items supplied by third-party specialty wholesale bakeries.
In 1982, when Bristol Farms first opened, its in-store bakeries were primarily supplied by outside vendors' finished products. As the chain continued to grow, it gradually switched to scratch-made items produced in each location's in-store bakery and mixed in bake-off items and fully finished products. Now, Bristol Farms' in-stores are in the process of another production switch.
Previously, the company had its corporate headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., a distribution facility at a different location and commissaries located in three stores that provided foodservice items for all locations. About five years ago, Kevin Davis, Bristol Farms' chairman, president and C.E.O., decided to incorporate all three under one roof in Carson, Calif. The new central kitchen also produces proprietary items that are shipped to each in-store bakery.
“In 2008, when this idea of trying to produce proprietary items in our central kitchen for the bakery came to fruition, we started with about five or six items; right now, we're producing about 40 items and are planning to push more through,” Poling says. By the end of the year, the number will be probably be more than 50. “The concept is to offer scratch-made products that can only be purchased at Bristol Farms. Not doing it necessarily in the individual stores, but doing it under one roof where we can monitor the process to ensure consistency, leverage the costs and offer extraordinary products at very competitive retail pricing.”
When the central bakery began taking shape, Poling and Robin Bell, director of bakery, began looking for the best bakers in the organization to staff it. Baking begins in the early morning with supplemental baking carried on throughout the day in the stores. All items not produced in the central facility are still baked in each individual location. For example, the 30 varieties of par-baked bread, from two different companies, are baked off in each location, as are the frozen cookies. Scones, made in the central facility and shipped frozen to the stores, also are baked off on site.
A central bakery has limitations, which include storage and transportation issues. Some bakery products, especially desserts, can be fragile, so transporting them may never be feasible, Bell adds. Products from the central facility are delivered every day to the stores. Some stores receive deliveries more frequently than others; it depends on the volume of the bakery and its storage space. Every store receives a minimum of four deliveries per week, and some have twice that number.
“The idea is to look at everything we offer in our stores, either produced in-store or bought from a third party, and see what we can feasibly produce in the central bakery and what we can't,” he says. “Right now, that list is at 40, but we talk all the time about how to expand that list. Will there ever be a day when 100 percent of the products are made in the central facility? No, it's not feasible, but there will continue to be a growing number of items that we will produce in the central kitchen. If the customer likes it or wants it, they only have one place to get it.”
The aim is to stand apart from the competition. “We're really trying to focus on the central kitchen items and what makes Bristol Farms unique. We try to focus on things that nobody else has,” Bell says. “I don't want to offer what our patrons can find at other stores.” All natural items continue to be a major emphasis with the products being produced by or supplied to Bristol Farms bakeries.
Products supplied by third-party vendors encompass mainly the chain's 3-, 6- and 7-in. dessert cakes, as well as the majority of the dessert bars. However, dessert bars are one of the categories being slowly transitioned in-house and produced at the central kitchen. Currently, one-third to one-half of the dessert bar category consists of proprietary items produced by Bristol Farms, but Poling foresees the number eventually reaching almost 100 percent. “That category is a good example of if we can replicate and/or produce a superior product by doing it ourselves, then we're going to make it in our central kitchen,” he adds.
Commitment to service
Another tenet of Bristol Farms is providing extraordinary service, in all departments including the in-store bakeries. At a time when many in-stores are moving away from full service cases, Bristol Farms remains committed to its service products. About 60 percent of the bakery sales are generated from service items.
“We feel like we're kind of old-school with the baker behind the counter and people behind the counter waiting on customers; they can point to a particular éclair or cheese Danish and our employees will get it for them. It's one of the nuances that makes Bristol Farms different,” Poling adds.
The in-store bakeries also benefit from the entrepreneurial spirit prevalent throughout the chain. With its 15 locations, the chain is uniquely positioned in that it has more leeway than a large 300-unit chain or a one- or two-store operation. Corporate offers a general guideline but leaves some merchandising discretion up to the individual departments or stores based on what works for each location, depending on neighborhood characteristics, Poling says.
This works well since each store varies greatly in size, from 7,000 sq. ft. to 40,000 sq. ft. Bakeries generally represent about 5 percent of the store size, and the number of employees can range from as few as four to as many as 15. Most bakeries have an average of eight to 12 employees.
The difference in size also can make it difficult for bakery managers to find the perfect mix of product with a choice of about 400 SKUs. With so many options, shrink can become a problem. To help keep it under control, Poling introduced the 10 in 10 initiative in which each bakery is trying to deliver shrink results under 10 percent in 2010.
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Poling and Bell take a close look at each bakery manager's purchasing and inventory numbers and publish report cards that rank the stores with the best forming at the top. Bakery managers also earn bonuses based on exceeding expectations.
Although each store varies in size and product offerings, one thing they all have in common is their demographic characaterisics. All Bristol Farms are located in communities where “foodies” typically live who have the desire, means and resources to shop at a high quality purveyor of fine foods such as Bristol Farms. “We compare ourselves to a five-star restaurant with a very fair and competitive value proposition,” Poling says.
Cupcake still king
One product that has proven popular across all locations is the cupcake. “It's pretty amazing,” Poling adds. “I wouldn't characterize it as a fad anymore; cupcakes are here to stay.”
Bristol Farms offers 15 different varieties of cupcakes, and the category accounts for more than 15 percent of sales, with several thousand units being sold each week. Depending on the bakery's size, some stores carry the full line while others can only carry half of the varieties. In 2008, the chain's gourmet specialty cupcakes were voted No. 1 cupcake overall by the readers of the Orange County Register.
Red velvet has proven the most popular flavor, and Bell is working on a black velvet version, which is dark chocolate cake with cream cheese icing. The chain also is running a Bristol Baker's Half Dozen program. When customers purchase six cupcakes, they get a seventh one free. The cupcakes are about 20 to 30 percent larger than most competitors'.
Decorated cakes also make up a large percentage of in-store sales, accounting for 19 percent. Each location has at least one decorator on staff, and decorating trends include fresh flowers and specialty designs featuring gourmet chocolate from Europe. The department also can fulfill orders for character designs. “Our decorators take it to the next level. We don't just stick plastic props on a cake. You won't see that in our cases,” Bell says.
Although each bakery has the same basic elements, bakery managers are given leeway to run the bakery as best fits the surrounding community. Poling and Bell have parameters of what they want to see in the showcases, for example, but leave it mostly up to the managers to decide what works best.
“We set the program up the way we envision it, but it can change along the way. If they see their sales and overall financial results are headed in the right direction, then we limit our direct involvement,” Bell says.
“We simply give them a starting point, and then give them a reasonable amount of latitude,” Poling adds.
Bristol Farms at a glance
Headquarters: Carson, Calif.
Founded: 1982 by Irv Gronsky
Market served: Southern California with one store in San Francisco
Management: Kevin Davis, chairman, president and C.E.O.; Sam Masterson, executive vice president; Adam Caldecott, vice president of marketing; Doug Poling, senior director of bakery; Robin Bell, director of bakery
Number of stores/in-store bakeries: 15/15
Number of bakery employees: 8 to 12
Store sizes: 7,000 sq. ft. to 40,000 sq. ft.
Bakery sizes: 5% of store size
Product line: full line, including artisan breads, rolls, decorated cakes, dessert cakes, pastries, muffins, cupcakes, pies, cookies and bagels
Major equipment in in-store bakeries: deck ovens, gelato case
Bristol Farms sampling of prices
Newport Beach store
|Orange cranberry loaf, 16 ozs.||$4.99|
|Chocolate lovers crumb cake, 12 ozs.||$7.89|
|Cornbread, 1.2 lbs.||$4.47|
|Lemon bundt cake, 24 ozs.||$7.69|
|Carrot cake, slice, per lb.||$5.99|
|Honey nut bagel chips, per lb.||$14.59|
|Apple galette, 7 ins.||$29.99|
|American Beauty cake, 6 ins.||$29.99|
|Flourless chocolate cake, 6 ins.||$26.99|
|Champagne cake, 6 ins.||$21.99|
|Pencil cake, 8 ins.||$36.99|
|Mini gourmet pastries||$2.69|
|Chocolate lava cake, 3 ins.||$5.39|