St. Louis-area Straub's has evolved in more than a century of business, yet it has remained true to its core mission of providing the highest quality products possible and bakery is an important component.
How does a company in business since 1901 stay relevant to today's consumer? By knowing its customers extremely well and meeting their changing demands. This is exactly how Straub's Fine Grocers, Clayton, Mo., has remained successful, and bakery has been integral in that success.
William Straub opened his first market in the Webster Groves neighborhood of St. Louis with a second location following in 1933 in Clayton. Subsequently, the family opened three more locations in Central West End, Town & Country and Ellisville. The Ellisville location opened last year, the first new store since 1966. J.W. “Trip” Straub III currently runs Straub's, the fourth generation of his family to operate the markets.
Straub's built its fifth location from the ground up, and at 40,000 sq. ft., it is more than three times the size of each of the four other locations, which average about 10,000 to 12,000 sq. ft. Bakeries average about 250 sq. ft., with production facilities in the Central West End and Ellisville locations. The newest store also includes Straub's Culinary Center, with several cooking classes for customers, including pastry making and cake decorating.
Every store is distinctly different to meet the needs of its unique customers, however, some things are true across all five locations. All serve upper income patrons who are in the top percentage of food expenditures. “Everything about every bakery is different in every location, but they all serve Straub's customers,” says Mike Vernon, Straub's bakery specialist/buyer. “Our customers are generally professionals and couples without children. We have a lot of wealthier people, but we also get some middle income customers who just like the quality that we offer.”
The Clayton store serves mostly professionals and is busiest during the week, especially between the lunch hours of 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The new Ellisville location is the only one that has a primary customer base of families and is busy on the weekends and evenings after work. Webster Groves gets a low number of high-end shoppers every day and Central West End (across the street from one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country) has the most traffic, but the customers tend to buy in small amounts because they often walk to the store. Each store's uniqueness adds to the perception that each in-store bakery is a local, neighborhood bakery.
“The demographics have stayed the same over the years,” Vernon adds. “That's part of our success—we aren't marketing to the people who are concerned with how much something costs. It only costs too much if they get home and they don't like it. We don't have to undersell just because the place down the street has butter cake for $1.99. Ours is better than that.”
The commitment to quality has been unchanged since the market opened. For example, Straub's is known for its meat; it is the only market in St. Louis that sells USDA prime beef, and all departments have to live up to that standard. Bakery is no exception.
The market added bakeries in the 1940s, and they have gone through several substantial production changes through the years. When the bakeries were first added, Straub's made all bakery products out of a central commissary; the product line consisted of desserts, pies and cakes and even a line of candies and ice cream.
In the 1970s, it switched to producing items in each of the locations, which it continued to do until this year when Vernon came on board in January. He grew up in his family's specialty market in Ohio, which is very similar to Straub's, before opening his own bakery. After that, he worked in the bakery department of 15-unit supermarket chain based in Cleveland.
Straub's bakeries were making only about a dozen items in-house and bringing in all others from five or six local vendors. One of Vernon's first decisions was to centralize production again, however not in a commissary. “Baking in each location was too inconsistent and too inefficient,” Vernon says. “Now, I can have one guy make all the Danish for all the stores as opposed to having five people make Danish five different ways with different levels of quality.”
He shuttered the production departments in all but the Central West End location and the Ellisville store, which when it was built last year included a production area for bakery. The other three locations do some minimal baking off of products. All pastries and cakes are made at the Central West End facility and Ellisville produces breads and rolls. The two production areas are about equal in size. Each has three production employees, including a production manager. Keeping the product line split along those lines allows greater efficiency since each product line requires different oven temperatures and neither space is large enough to handle both lines for all locations.
The two production facilities also make delivery easy. The truck (Straub's produce company handles all the bakeries' deliveries) leaves from Central West End about 7:30 a.m. and circles around to Ellisville, then makes a return trip to Central West End. Each store receives deliveries twice a day—the first one in the early morning and the second in the late morning or early afternoon. Each route takes about three hours to complete, factoring in the time to unload both the produce and the bakery products. “In a perfect world, we wouldn't be doing it this way, but we have to work with what we have,” Vernon says.
When changing over to centralized production and adding to the number of products made in-house, Vernon did not abandon vendor-supplied products. In all, the bakeries only offer 15 percent of the products previously available.
Unique, high margin items
For the products made in-house, Vernon is looking for unique, high quality items that maintain high margins for the best profitability. Bakery's percentage of store sales varies, but averages five to seven percent, with Ellisville as high as 11 percent.
“Clayton is getting a larger share every day. This store sells the most, which is the way it's always been, but it's selling a lot more than it used to,” he says. “All across the board, sales are up in the bakery since we implemented the new program.”
Customers did not notice the removal of baking from every store. “Sales are up, quality is up and customer perception is up,” Vernon adds.
About one-third of the bakeries' products are made in-house, one-third are from small, local vendors and the remaining one-third are from large manufacturers. Of the products that are made in-house, one-third are made completely from scratch, one-third come in ready to bake and one-third are convenience items that need some work, such as mixes or frozen dough. About forty percent of bakery sales are from the service counter, the rest come from the packaged products from both Straub's bakery and local vendors.
Straub's is still in the midst of revamping the bakeries, and within the next year, the bakeries will look completely different, Vernon says. However, quality will remain the driving force. One of the changes he would like to make is to take cake decorating out of the Central West End production facility and move it to each bakery.
Currently, products made in-house include coffeecakes, butter streusels and cinnamon nut loaf made from a 1940s pastry formula, which takes three days to prepare. The cinnamon is not just sprinkled on top, but is a liquid cinnamon topping that becomes like a candy coating during baking. The bakery's gooey butter cake features more of a fudgey texture rather than a traditional cake texture. Straub's also makes nut rolls in a small, 8-oz. size, but Vernon plans to offer the products in a larger size as well. A local favorite is coconut toast: bread slices spread with icing and topped with coconut before baking off.
Among the most popular items are the labor-intensive cinnamon pull-aparts. The pastry dough is sheeted, then cut into cubes before being tossed in a cinnamon sugar mixture. The dough pieces are placed in an 8-in. round pan and baked for 35 minutes at 350°F.
The production staff also makes its own Danish and a cinnamon pretzel that is filled with Bavarian cream. The pretzel dough is sheeted, cut into strips, and then Bavarian cream is piped down the middle. The dough is folded over and twisted into a rope before being formed into the pretzel shape. In total, the bakeries produce about four dozen different items. Production in both facilities begins about 5 a.m. and ends by 2 p.m.
Look to small vendors
For the products that Straub's can't make profitably in-house, it looks to small, local vendors. It currently deals with about 25 different vendors who deliver directly to each bakery. Vernon looks for unique products, and Straub's has an exclusivity requirement for vendors, so all products can only be found in Straub's bakeries. One of the most popular items is Miss Hullings cake, which features seven layers of cake with filling between each layer. It is the best selling product in four out of five of Straub's bakeries, and they sell about $250,000,000 worth of the cakes a year.
Each of the bakeries is staffed by a bakery manager and one to five salespeople. The bakery managers operate independently to meet the individual needs of their bakery's neighborhood. The managers are in charge of ordering the products and keeping sales up.
Suggestive selling is an area that Vernon hopes to improve with his new bakery program. “Before I came, there wasn't much interaction between the staff and customers, not a lot of upselling or suggestive selling, but we have to step up the game,” Vernon says.
“We want food that people will talk about and remember. That's the best advertising for the bakery,” he adds. “We want to have the best bakery in St. Louis.”
at a glance
Headquarters: Clayton, Mo.
Bakery management: J.W. “Tripp” Straub III, owner; Mike Vernon, bakery specialist/buyer; Mike Roessleine, bakery production manager, Central West End; Rich Valentine, bakery production manager, Ellisville; Brandy Michel, bakery manager, Webster Groves; Evelyn Tinnin, bakery manager, Clayton; Kelly Ryan, bakery manager, Central West End; Vickey Brewer, bakery manager, Town & Country; Jody Jung Bueker, bakery manager, Ellisville
Number of stores/bakeries: 5
Number of bakery employees: 2 to 6 per bakery
Market served: metropolitan St. Louis
Major in-store competitors: Schnucks Markets, Dierberg's
Product line: full line of both house-made and vendor-supplied cakes, desserts, cookies, muffins, breads and rolls
Production methods: 1/3 scratch, 1/3 ready to bake, 1/3 mix and frozen dough
Major bakery equipment: spiral mixer, sheeter, dough divider, proofer, revolving tray oven, double rack oven, deck oven
Plans: continue to revamp product line and bring additional products in-house; add a cake decorator to each location
Bakery supply distributors: Bono Burns, Bakemark, U.S. Foods, Sysco, AWG Inc.
a sampling of prices
|Alessi Bakery fancy|
|muffin, 8 ozs.||$2.25|
|Apple turnover, small||$1.20|
|Donut holes, each||$0.28|
|Butter rum muffin||$1.45|
|Hamburger bun, 4 count||$2.29|
|Buttercrust bread, 16 ozs.||$3.49|
|Knot dinner rolls, 8 count||$3.19|
|8 ins., 24 ozs.||$8.99|
|Baby cakes, 4 ins.||$6.99|
|Carrot cake, 8 ins.||$8.99|
|Caramel nut roll, 8 ozs.||$3.99|
|Cinnamon pull-apart, 8 ins.||$4.99|
|Oatmeal raisin cookies,|