CANTON, Mich. -- The bakery department at the Holiday Market unit under construction here is anchored by an imported, hand-crafted Farjas brick oven capable of turning out 9,000 loaves of artisan bread a week.
According to John Pardington, who owns the independent retail operation with his wife, the igloo-shaped oven will be operated by Bob Pisor, a well-known bread expert who owns the Stone Bread House in Leland, Mich.
"A great loaf of bread is a destination item. I believe people will come a long way to get a great loaf of bread that's affordable," he said.
The 35,000-pound oven, manufactured by Spain-based Antonio Farjas, took two weeks to construct using imported bricks and mortar, under the guidance of a master mason sent by the importing company, Pavillier of France.
The oven is one of the "crown jewels" of the store, said Pardington. The original Holiday Market, located in Royal Oak, Mich., was founded by his father-in-law. Both units source the majority of their products from Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Spartan Stores, though the retailer calls on dozens of niche wholesalers to supply the stores with specialty goods.
The oven at the Canton store is 10 feet in diameter and features an enormous round stone in the center that holds heat and provides an "oven spring" that allows the bread to rise immediately. According to Pardington, the oven takes 10 days to attain the 400-degree optimum cooking temperature, using real wood. Once it is stoked, he said, it will never be extinguished, merely maintained during off hours at a lower temperature.
The arrangement with Pisor, who left the broadcast news business about eight years ago to pursue his life-long passion for breadmaking, is simple.
"Bob will make the bread. He's responsible for hiring his people. Everything will run through my register scanners, and I take a percentage of it and Bob takes the rest," said Pardington.
Among those coming in to work the oven are two San Francisco-based expert breadmakers from whom Pisor learned the trade. Pardington said that with $50,000 invested in the new oven, he wants to ensure that it is used properly, to its fullest potential.
"To make the level of bread we're talking about here requires an artisan guy like Bob Pisor and his team," he added.
While the activity around the oven is enough to draw curious shoppers, Pardington wants them to buy as well. To accomplish this, the front service area around the device is occupied by a 20-foot maple table that curves back away from the aisle and is topped with curved tempered glass. Here, warm, just-from-the oven loaves will be displayed for immediate sale.
Any breads that sit long enough to cool will be bagged and sold from an adjacent 16-foot self-service section built of French oak and wicker. The idea is to keep the product fresh and moving. Indeed, volume is key to the program's success, noted Pardington.
"We're looking [to sell] thousands of loaves a week. Our philosophy is that bread should always be affordable," he said. "We're not talking $5 loaves, either. We're talking $2 to $4 loaves."
The program will work on very tight margins, according to Pardington. The bread line's production costs are higher than is typical due to the fact that the products use organic flour, grown and milled by Mennonites in Kansas; and pure water, filtered onsite and free of chlorine and flouride.
"We're hoping that in a store this size we can do many, many thousands of loaves a week, and that is our goal," said Pardington of the sales/profit formula.
The oven itself will serve as the primary merchandiser of the breads. Dominating the space at 35,000 pounds, it will be in near continuous operation during regular store hours, putting the products virtually in the faces of customers. Pardington said that he consulted with Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y. -- which owns 14 Farjas ovens -- before deciding how to position it in his store.
"We've designed this thing so that the oven is on display for all the people to see," he said. "We want them to see the wood burning [and] the artisans working."
Cross merchandising is also part of the plan. Old-style market carts will be strategically placed in certain areas of the store where the breads can be tied in with other products. For example, fresh baguettes might be placed in the cart and wheeled over next to the store's gourmet cheese island, where more than 4,000 varieties of cheese are for sale, as well as bulk olive oils and olives.
The completed oven may be a work of art, but it arrived as nothing more than a steel frame, crates of gears and bolts and a tremendous number of bricks. Master mason Christian Pozzar -- employed by Pavillier -- and a crew of local masons and laborers then spent two full weeks building the oven brick by brick. Due to the extreme temperatures and frequency of use, the oven requires three different grades of cement to handle the heat. The meticulous activity surrounding the project had even veteran construction workers employed in other tasks watching in awe, recalled Pardington.
"There are three layers of brick in this oven. All of these are insulated with sand cement, which really holds the heat in," he said of the oven's interior. "There's the lower section, where the wood goes to heat the dome. Then, the middle chamber is the cooking area, and the upper chamber circulates the hot air over the top of the breads so you get an evenly browned product every time."
Though the oven will certainly be a destination for customers, Pardington said the rest of the store matches the bakery in authenticity and quality. Entering the front door, shoppers are faced with market carts filled with floral displays and single-stem containers from which they can create their own arrangements.
The power aisle then moves to the Caesar salad station and a sushi station, both of which are action-oriented and manned by a store associate. The sushi operation in particular is similar to the bakery in one respect: it also relies on a piece of equipment, though this one creates perfect sushi using the ingredients inserted into it. Along the right side is the store's produce selection, brought directly from the Detroit terminal market.
The power perishables are clustered in the rear right and run along the back of the store, ending with a full-service meat (including products smoked in the store) and seafood department. In between, shoppers will find not only the brick oven and international cheese department, but also the full-service deli and fresh meals, prepared by an on-site chef.
Besides the bread table and adjoining bins, the rest of the bakery is comprised of a 6-foot dry case for homemade pies, tarts and cookies; 30 feet of refrigerated cake space; and another 6 feet for imported Belgium chocolates. To further entice customers, the bakery is situated next to the store's coffee roasting department.
"It's a great area -- chocolates, coffees, pastries, baguettes, olive oils and cheeses. To me, that's right on the edge of life," said Pardington. "That's life at its best."