Bakeries on Rise: Sweet Smell of Success Fills Local Shops
Know a region by its bread: French baguettes. Italian focaccia. New York rye. San Francisco sourdough. Southern biscuits.
Historically, the staff of life was baked daily by someone baptized with flour. “Baker” became his surname.
With sugar plentiful, the baker added pies, cakes, doughnuts and pastries. Commercial bakeries using preservatives nearly killed the ancient profession which, in the last decade, has come roaring back as an artisan trade.
Ethnic/artisanal bread has yet to become a staple in Southern cuisine. However, says Steve Grasso, baker and co-owner of Broad Street Bakery & Café in Southern Pines, Moore County benefits from a geographically diverse population.
“Here you have to combine ethnicities,” Grasso explains.
He complies with a hard-crusted Italian loaf, French baguette, Jewish rye from a 72-year-old starter, and an all-American, nutritionally correct seven-grain.
“People who have moved here from neighborhoods where bread was a staple are appreciative,” Grasso says.
These and other factors influence local bakers, who employ a baker’s dozen strategies for success.
No. 1: Beginner’s luck. Genevieve Walker, a young Army wife from Utah, was tired of teaching English. Despite economic conditions, she followed her dream to open a pastry shop.
Walker has baked passionately since childhood, apprenticed at several fine bake shops, but knew little about the business end. With family financing, mostly secondhand equipment and sweat equity, in April she opened tiny Acorn Bakery alongside the Belvedere Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Southern Pines.
“It wasn’t as expensive as I thought,” Walker says.
Because her business is regulated by the N.C. Department of Agriculture, not the Department of Health, she did not need commercial appliances. She has no regular employees. She did no market survey, just “said a prayer and baked.”
Her product line includes cakes, pies, morning pastries, cookies, brownies and, recently, a wedding cake. European butter, Belgian chocolate, Mexican vanilla and other fine ingredients mean relatively high prices — more than $3 for a Danish.
Walker takes credit cards because “I didn’t want to give anyone a reason not to buy,” she says.
Despite the low-visibility location, business has been so promising that Walker may move to larger quarters when her one-year lease is up. Credit Acorn Bakery’s success to a pleasant young woman, an attractive shop in a neighborhood frequented by customers who can afford her top-shelf wares.
“My (baked goods) look homemade, not super-polished. People like that,” Walker says.
No. 2: A back-up plan. Steve Grasso, a graduate of Culinary Institute of America, has been in the business 19 years, long enough to know that not by bread alone can a Southern bakery succeed in a high-profile location. He bought Broad Street Bakery, as a bakery only, in 2000.
“We are vulnerable to the economy,” Grasso says. “You’re only as good as your last loaf. If people don’t like the product, they won’t come back.”
They came back wanting sandwiches made on his loaves. Thus the breakfast-through-lunch café.
Early on, Grasso established a relationship with chef-restaurateur Mark Elliott; Grasso supplies bread to Sly Fox, hotels, hospitals and golf tournaments. His operation is now three-pronged: wholesale, catering and the retail café.
No. 3: Trend-spotting. Cupcakes took off like a satellite from Cape Canaveral. Even before the television craze, people appreciated the variety and size. (At $2.50 a pop, one is enough.)
“I had the idea before the TV shows,” says Janell Canino, proprietor of C-Cups Cupcakery, open for a year on Pennsylvania Avenue. Canino is an experienced home baker, not professionally trained.
“I was nervous it wouldn’t do well so I just sat on it,” she says. “Then when the shows popped up, I thought I’d better get into this now.”
The adorable building, previously a real estate office, couldn’t be more fitting.
“I wanted to be downtown, for walk-ins,” Canino says. Parking for pickup can be problematic, however.
Customers like the open kitchen, where cupcakes in 10 flavors are made daily. Canino caters weddings, pool parties and other events.
“I’m really pleased with the response, which is better than I thought,” she says.
Canino has expanded her trendy line only to include brownies and cake pops made from imperfect cupcakes. She rides the retro wave with old-timey drinks, including Coke in glass bottles. She resists going further.
“I want this to remain a cup-cakery,” she says.
No. 4: Espouse a cause: C-Cups Cupcakery was conceived while Canino’s mother was being treated for breast cancer.
The name suggests the tie-in. The bakery donates to breast cancer causes.
Breast cancer is also a cause at Broad Street Bakery, following Jackie Grasso’s diagnosis and treatment.
No. 5: Maximize visibility. Canino has a room for cupcake-decorating kids’ birthday parties. Broad Street, Acorn and C-Cups Cupcakery sell T-shirts. Sandwich boards and websites are a must. Walker has a booth at the Saturday Moore County Farmers Market.
No. 6: Price point. Acorn reduces day-old merchandise. At Granny’s Old-Fashioned Doughnuts in Aberdeen, prices are from yesteryear: 79-cent doughnuts, 83-cent muffins.
Granny’s, which has been in business for 30 years, is at a crossroads, price- and otherwise. Dunkin’ Donuts opens soon a few hundred yards away. Regulars are begging management to bake more doughnuts and increase their product line to retain customers.
Owners Bee and Vina Phromsavanh aren’t interested. They arrive at 1 a.m. to start baking, opening their doors at 5:30 a.m. Breakfast sandwiches are too much trouble, Vina says.
“We keep it simple, keep the price low,” she says. “We take care of the customers and they take care of us.”
No. 7: Family involvement. Bee and Vina Phromsavanh say family labor keeps the payroll down; they pass savings on to customers. Genevieve Walker is a one-woman show, from painting the floor to keeping the books. Grasso names sandwiches for his kids. Canino uses her three gorgeous children for models in enlarged wall-mounted photos.
No. 8: Customer loyalty. Andy Pellegrino shows up at Acorn for breakfast and a chat every morning.
“She’s the best! There’s always something different,” he says of Walker’s creations.
Walker has learned her customers’ preferences, if not their names. This isn’t “Cheers” yet. Frances Smith has been patronizing Granny’s for 10 years.
“To me there’s no comparison. I just wish they’d make more so they wouldn’t run out at 10 a.m.,” Smith comments.
No. 9: All agree: freshness. One stale roll can turn a customer away forever, Grasso says.
No. 10: Personality. Like freshness, this makes the A-list, especially when the baker him- or herself serves customers.
Walker’s smile is an asset. Canino dresses in pink, the store’s logo hue. The open kitchen allows her to chat with customers as she decorates cupcakes.
No. 11: Onsite consumption. At Broad Street customers may sit down, inside or out, with just a roll or pastry. Once finished, they are more likely to buy something for later.
Granny’s has seating aplenty and drive-up. Acorn sports two tiny tables, offers coffee, tea and cold drinks. C-Cups Cupcakery has several tables. Most have benches outside.
No. 12: Surprises. Walker “gravitates toward Julia Child stuff, like éclairs and croissants.” Besides fruit Danish, she makes a ham-and-cheese version. Granny’s has a Tar Heel doughnut, shaped like a foot. Broad Street names sandwiches: Lean Body, Italian Boss.
No. 13: The sum of all parts. Martin Brunner, chef-owner of The Bakehouse & Café in Aberdeen, diversifies by supplying high-end restaurants like Chef Warren’s and Southern Prime Steakhouse, also retail outlets in Fayetteville and Raleigh.
He is the bakery and pastry coordinator (instructor) at Sandhills Community College, where he attended business/accounting classes. These enhanced and streamlined his operation. Wedding cakes are also a profitable sideline.
The family-oriented staff includes his father, wife and mother-in-law. “That way I have more control on how (we) interact with customers,” Brunner says.
Some recipes, brought from Austria, are handwritten by his grandfather. The café not only showcases his wares but keeps revenues steady. “A restaurant and bakery go hand in hand, make more money,” especially when the café cash register is beside the pastry case and bread racks.
Brunner’s wares are baked daily.
Visibility is provided by a glass storefront and a picture window between café and cake decorating area.
“We have no secrets,” Brunner adds.
The café menu includes surprises, like a spinach-based Barcelona burger — his Spanish mother-in-law’s contribution. The Bakehouse donates desserts to Family Promise events and participates in Given on the Green, for good works and exposure. The baker himself is enthusiastic, friendly, confident and personable.
“I am the brand,” he says. “If you’re good at what you do, they will come.”
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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