WOOSTER, Ohio -- Buehler Food Markets here introduced its customers to king cakes this year with an event designed to whip up Mardi Gras ambiance -- and stir up sales.
Colorful decorations, cake tastings and Mardi Gras music set the stage for a visit by "the three kings." The "kings," who in real-life were costumed Buehler bakery associates, offered customers tastes of the cake and told them about the king cake tradition as it is played out in New Orleans this time of year.
They also distributed handfuls of beads and doubloons, items that are traditionally part of Mardi Gras festivities.
''I thought if we're going to do this, let's go all out," said Steve Bakey, supervisor of bakery operations, for Buehler's 10 stores. The effort paid off, too. Buehler offered their made-from-scratch king cakes in all their stores, but sold a lot more of the items in the stores that were visited by the "kings."
"In a four-hour period, we sold four or five times as many as our other stores did all day," Bakey said. The bakery official declined to offer any sales volume figures, but he said the king cakes did as well as Buehler's had hoped they would.
"And this is just the first year. We're simply trying to get the message across. I expect sales will grow each year."
Bakey made that comment even as he admitted he was skeptical about how king cakes would go over in the middle of Ohio.
"I know they're big down South, but I didn't know if they would work here. Actually, the colorful boxes gave us incentive to try it this year," he said.
He referred to special king cake boxes designed and manufactured by Paper Products Co., Cincinnati. The boxes carry the colors of the king cake -- purple, green and yellow -- and also have the story of the king cake printed on their sides. A large window in the top of the box shows off the cake itself and the tiny doll that goes with it.
King cakes, which are traditionally consumed in Mardi Gras territory from January 6 through the day before Lent, are a super-sweet, oval-shaped cake, with a dusting of bright purple, yellow, and green sugar on top. Originally, the cakes contained a tiny doll which represented the Christ child. Tradition has it that the person who discovers the doll in their piece of cake is obligated to buy the next cake or throw a party.
Now, the doll is no long baked into the cake. Retailers simply place it, with a card that tells about the tradition, in the box with the cake.
Bakey pointed out that the boxes from Paper Products are particularly important because they help tell the story about a product that customers may not be familiar with.
"The king cake boxes are very important. They give the product a special identity, and because they're so brightly colored, customers can see them from a distance. We had them stacked on a table in the bakery," Bakey said.
The whole three kings event at Buehler Markets, held the last two weekends in January at selected stores, decidedly brought people into the bakery department and sold more products, and it also heightened employee morale. Bakey explained that he had no trouble getting volunteers to wear the bright-colored king costumes. The associates had fun ad libbing, too, he said.
"One [bakery associate who was dressed up as the king Melchior] was telling customers if they bought a king cake from him they wouldn't have to pay income taxes this year. Everybody had a lot of fun," Bakey said.
He added that he and Dennis Smith, president of Paper Products, used the public-address system to invite customers to the bakery to sample king cake and hear about the tradition surrounding it. They also took the opportunity to tell customers that the king cakes, paczki [another pre-Lenten treat], and other pastries are made on-site from scratch.
"We had a video going in the bakery that showed the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans and also showed king cakes being baked," Bakey said.
Customer response was great, he added, and emphasized that he's happy that he decided to try the cakes.
"Dennis [Smith] was very inspiring in getting us going on this. He put me in touch with a retailer in Louisiana who sell hundreds and thousands of king cakes every year," Bakey said.
Smith works with Carl Richardson, chairman of the National Paczki Promotional Board, to get retailers involved in selling paczki, king cakes, kringles and hot cross buns.
The idea is to create events in the bakery with theme-based items that have "history, energy and tradition attached to them," Richardson said in an earlier interview. They can be put to work to give bakery sales a boost during periods of the year when sales are apt to slump, he said.
Richardson is the founder of the original National Paczki Promotion Committee, which has since been brought under the umbrella of Laurel, Md.-based Retailer's Bakery Association.
For RBA, Richardson has developed an extensive information booklet that explains how products such as paczki and king cakes can add additional bakery revenue. For more information retailers should call RBA's toll-free, paczki hot line. It's 1-800-884-1500.
Buehler Food Markets jumped on the paczki bandwagon five years ago. Now, the company carries the traditional, pre-Lenten treats that look like giant Bismarcks, all year round.