As director of bakery sales and merchandising for Parsippany, N.Y.-based Kings Super Markets, Ken Downey is putting his past experiences to use. Downey also was recently elected president of the New Jersey Bakers Board of Trade.
How did you get into the baking industry?
I started out as the bakery clean up kid when I just turned 16. I was working for Inserra Shop-Rite at the time. Then, I liked it so much that I started doing the pan out and baking rolls. One Friday night, one of the two night bakers called in sick, and the other asked me if I wanted to work all night and help. The store manager called my parents, and the rest is history. I worked my way up to become a bakery manager for Inserra by the time I graduated high school. But it just wasn't enough for me to know how to do the baking; I wanted to know why things happened: why rolls got bigger in the proof box, why things rose in the oven, etc. So, I did a little research and found out about AIB. I applied and was accepted in its residence course. I graduated in December 1988.
What makes the supermarket in-store bakery sector unique to other segments of the industry?
Traditionally, the supermarket bakery has had kind of a leg up on the retail bakery. What I mean by that is the majority of retail bakeries specialize in particular things; the things they are known for that draw in their customers. The supermarket bakery has a captive audience, per se. When Porterhouse steaks are on the front cover of the circular for $4.99/lb., customers will come to take advantage of the great sale. While they are in the store, they will no doubt shop for bakery items as well. That being said, you still have to offer your customers a quality product at a fair price or they will by-pass the bakery.
Tell me a bit about King's in-store bakery program and its specialties?
Kings Super Markets is an upscale retailer in northern New Jersey. Our slogan is, “Expect the unexpected at Kings.” We are constantly bringing in new and unique things from around the world across the company in all departments. Whether it's yak or elk steaks in the meat department, white truffles flown in from Alba, Italy in the deli, or fresh chocolates packaged only three days before in Belgium in my bakery departments. Kings' bakery program does have some unique signature items. Our apple pie, our fresh fruit tarts and our store-baked cookies are our own formulas, developed by us. People seek these out when they are shopping at Kings.
How long have you been involved in the New Jersey Bakers Board of Trade (NJBBT)?
For eight years. I would have became involved much earlier, but the association by-laws, since its inception in 1918, prohibited supermarket bakers from becoming members. In 2000, the by-laws were re-written to include supermarkets as well as baking and pastry arts teachers and students.
Coming from the in-store bakery side of things, how does your perspective differ within the association, if at all?
Not much. Everyone is pretty much united with the common goal of driving sales and coping with the economy.
What are your primary goals as president of the NJBBT?
I have two primary goals. First is building membership and the second is education. We are currently reacting to the upcoming changes in the safety and sanitation requirements in New Jersey. We have been in contact with Rutgers University and are currently working with them to certify our members in the “Serve Safe” program.
Who are your mentors in your profession?
I have two people who really took an interest in my abilities and really helped me in my career. First is Jim Gribben. Jim was the V.P. of sales of the former J.W. Allen Co. in Wheeling, Ill. Jim hired me directly from AIB as a technical sales person in the Northeast. I hadn't really done any sales before, so Jim really taught me the business and how to deal with customers. I worked in sales for about five years before realizing it just wasn't for me. Sales is something you really have to love to be good at and I just wasn't. But I always liked baking, managing and dealing with customers, so I went back into the supermarket world as a bakery manager. I began working for a small chain of stores in North Jersey and stayed there for a couple of years until I heard of a bakery merchandiser's job at Food Circus Supermarkets. FCSM is a 13-store chain in southern Jersey trading under the Foodtown banner. This is where I met Lou Scaduto, Jr. Lou was the V.P. of merchandising and operations. Lou hired me as his bakery merchandiser, and in four years I was the director of deli/bakery. Lou taught me that you always need to satisfy customers if you expect them to keep coming back. He also taught me that in the bakery, consistency must be a priority at all times. If customers buy something today, they should be able to come back next week and buy the same thing. These are things that I will always carry with me throughout my career. Jim and Lou have become very close friends of mine and I still call them for advice from time to time. I am a firm believer in taking a chance on people. They both took a chance on me, and I will never forget it.
If you weren't working in the baking industry, in what other profession would you like to work?
Honestly, bakery has consumed my life. I enjoy it so much, I can't think of doing anything else.
Do you have any words of advice for newcomers to the baking industry?
First of all, get an education. The days of starting as an apprentice when you are very young and by-passing school to work side by side with an old-time baker to learn the profession are long over! There are plenty of schools out there offering baking or baking and pastry arts as a major. If you are really serious, then take advantage of these.
What is the future of supermarket in-store baking?
This is a very tough question, especially in the economy right now. So, I'm not really sure. But I can tell you this for certain…the only way to succeed is to stay fresh. Start attending trade shows and reading the bakery publications to see what's new out there. You have to stay fresh and constantly offer your customers new and unique things to keep them coming back.