ROCHESTER, Mich. -- The corporate view is fine, for the corporate office -- but it may be forcing in-store bakeries down the wrong path.
That's the opinion of Carl Richardson, industry veteran and former vice president and director of in-store bakeries for Farmer Jack Supermarkets, the 97-unit, Detroit-based division of A&P, Montvale, N.J.
As Richardson sees it, the corporate edicts at many chains about how to run in-store bakeries are diluting their bakeries' greatest strengths. Originally seen as a way to set a store apart, in-store bakeries are being threatened by a plague of sameness, in the name of corporate efficiency.
"If supermarkets don't individualize their bakeries to make them a draw, they might as well forget it and just expand the commercial aisle," he said.
Richardson said that, after 32 years at Farmer Jack, he decided to resign from the company this spring primarily because his philosophy about the bakery's future no longer coincided with the direction the head office was taking bakery.
He cited subtle pressures to do things the corporate way, regardless of the needs of the local market. Richardson emphasized that such pressures from on high are not particular to Farmer Jack; they currently pervade the supermarket industry.
"Farmer Jack treated me great over the years, and allowed me to grow as a person. Yet the fun was gone, and it was time for me to go. The bakery needed a change and so did I," he said.
Richardson talked to SN about the evolution of in-store bakeries, and what he thinks is in store down the road. He also shared his ideas about how bakeries can bring more business into the store and also maximize their profits.
He also commented emphatically about trends within the industry that are threatening the persona of the in-store bakery.
"During the evolution of the in-store bakery over the last 20 years, there have been mergers and buyouts by bigger companies that have affected supermarket chains and manufacturers. Now, 75% of supermarkets have in-store bakeries. And, as a result, management with experience in in-store bakery is being spread thin.
"Along with that, the attitude has emerged that the least costly way is best," Richardson said. That is manifesting itself in bakery when a retailer elects to use fewer suppliers, and then takes on all the lines of those selected few.
Such an agreement, while perhaps attractive from a corporate perspective, can erode creativity and even undermine in-store bakery sales in particular markets, Richardson explained. "For example, it could be that one product in the corporate deal -- such as the Italian bread -- is not as good quality as one you could get from a local supplier -- one that's already a good seller in your store.
"Corporate deals also sometimes lead to the use of thaw-and-serve products to the exclusion of anything else," he said. Richardson does not endorse avoiding all thaw-and-serve products. Rather, he said thaw-and-serve should be given a role within a mix of different types of products.
Successful in-store bakeries use a judicious combination of scratch, mix, frozen dough and thaw-and-sell products, and thus maintain the perception of in-store baking, he noted.
"It's when you get top heavy with one that you're in trouble. For instance, an operation that is all thaw-and-sell becomes just a me-too operation; but on the other hand, an all-scratch bakery is too labor-intensive and costly," Richardson said. "The first in-store bakeries were mostly scratch operations, and they've evolved to using a combination of different types of product. The trick is to get the right combination to fit your operation and your market, and then create a version of a product that makes your operation stand out," he added.
Richardson conceded that the quality and consistency improvements made by manufacturers have substantially leveled the playing field for in-store bakeries.
"Quality is no longer an issue. Excellent products are available from manufacturers. The problem is that everybody has them. So it's even more important to specialize, or to do something to set yourself apart," Richardson explained.
Besides finding the right mix of different types of products, supermarkets can also distinguish themselves with a number of other tactics, he said.
He recommended creating signature products, doing theme merchandising and revving up excitement with special selling opportunities, such as National Paczki Day, which promotes the sale of a pre-Lenten doughnut-type treat. And he underscored the necessity of using such tactics not as a blanketing strategy, but as a menu to choose from to respond to each store's individual market area.
And bake-off bread and rolls and cake-decorating help create a perception of fresh-baked products, he said.
"Every bakery should have some type of oven, so they can do some fresh baking. Don't think all those employees don't figure into your image. They'll be telling people if everything is just taken out of a box," he said.
But what about training associates to do the cake decorating and the baking that gives the store the right image? "You need to have them participate in seminars and workshops. Manufacturers offer them, and there's no excuse for not taking advantage of that," Richardson said.
He added that he also sees a great opportunity for independent bakers to team up with supermarkets in some way to sell fresh products.
"Smaller supermarkets could use the expertise independent bakers offer, and the independent bakery could broaden its market," he suggested.
When it comes to creating a signature product, the in-store bakery should stick with a category that's generating good sales already, Richardson advised.
"For example, if cakes are big sellers, then maybe you can design a 7-inch specialty cake, or create a signature bread if bread and rolls do well for you," he said. The key, however, is being able to tailor that product, whatever it is, to the consumers' needs in the local market area.
He also suggested in-store bakeries step up their efforts to tell people what they do best. "You can use bag stuffers at the front end, but also you can get involved in community events, such as mother-daughter banquets, church functions and any event where wedding plans are being discussed. Sample your cakes there. It's a good investment," he said.
Asked if he considered it important for in-store bakeries to offer wedding cakes, Richardson said, "Absolutely. It's a terrific way to show people what your capabilities are. I'd go so far as to say offering good wedding cakes can make the difference between a great in-store bakery operation and just an operation," he said.
"Ask any successful operator and he'll tell you he makes a lot of money on wedding cakes, even though they are a lot of work to do right."
Wedding cakes present a good quality image. So does the right balance between self-service and service, Richardson said.
"That's a delicate balance. Some products don't handle well as self-service, so you have to be careful. And there should be enough service staff to make customers feel comfortable," he said. "I think, eventually, we'll see about a 60 to 40 split between self-service and service."
Richardson began his supermarket career at the age of 16 as a bag boy at Barker's Supermarket in Bristol, Tenn. He later worked for several chains prior to joining Farmer Jack in 1963 as a manager in training. In 1980, Farmer Jack appointed him director of in-store bakeries.
He continues to serve on the board of Laurel, Md.-based Retail Bakers of America. He also is president of Metro Detroit Bakers and Allied Association, and chairman of the National Paczki Committee.
Richardson said he intends to continue working within the bakery industry in the areas of consulting, marketing and developing paczki nationally, as long as the need is present.
Richardson has joined forces with RBA to make paczki promotions a nationwide event during the weeks preceding Lent. He will participate in RBA's regional workshops throughout the year to inform manufacturers and retailers about the sales opportunities that paczki present, he said.
"I'll also be working with regional bakers' associations to create local paczki promotions," Richardson added.