CHESTERLAND, Ohio -- Customer reaction is shaping the formation of a new line of hand-shaped crusty breads that began its official rollout at Russo's, a four-store independent here, in mid-August.
The 16-item line -- called Artisan Breads -- is a direct response to the positive customer comments that six crusty breads generated when they were introduced at the retailer's newest store two-and-a-half years ago, according to Jeffrey Babbush, bakery production manager and bakery/deli merchandiser and buyer.
At that time, the creation of six breads seemed like a perfect way to use the bakery department's new brick oven -- the first within the company.
As time passed, however, it became evident that customer demand for the breads could exceed the number of varieties being offered and the creation of a private-label line proved the most viable marketing path, Babbush said.
"We were lucky, because we seemed to be on the cutting edge of the [specialty] bread boom within our area," said Babbush, adding that within six months of introducing the products, a number of bread stores opened throughout the company's marketing area.
Such openings, however, weren't all bad for business, noted Babbush, explaining that these boutique-like shops have helped generate customer excitement by drawing attention to the category.
He added that in many cases the bake shops have eventually closed -- possibly because of their narrow product focus. Overall demand for fine breads, however, has remained strong.
When Russo's began charting its strategy for introducing the new line, it was customer response -- and not a quick rollout -- that was one of the retailer's main goals.
By electing to follow a slower store-by-store introduction over a three-month period, the retailer felt it could fine-tune its line, based mostly on customer reaction.
When the retailer introduced the new line at the store where the original six varieties were carried, it committed to a three-week introductory period that included the give-away of more than 650 loaves of bread and the inclusion of self-addressed, self-stamped customer comment cards in all the product packages.
The comment cards, which were created especially for the product introduction, asked customers to identify the variety of bread they tried and rate it according to appearance, crust, texture and taste using such criteria as awesome, good, OK or needs work. In addition, the cards provided several lines for further comment.
So far, the retailer has received almost 100 customer responses via the customer comment cards and has made at least three substantial product changes as a result, said Babbush.
For example, customer response prompted the retailer to use smaller chunks of chocolate throughout its Chocolate Cherry Bread, and to distribute them more thoroughly than was the case with the larger chunks previously used, according to Babbush.
It also prompted the retailer to infuse cheese throughout its Sweet Onion Parmesan Bread -- prior to this, cheese was melted on the top only; and to answer customer requests for a smaller version of its Fruit, Nut & Grain Bread, with a Fruit, Nut & Grain roll.
Russo's also promoted the line with nine demos held throughout the three-week introductory period, and through its monthly newsletter.
The breads -- which are now being baked daily at the company's central commissary in steam-injected rack ovens, until a large-enough hearth oven is purchased early next year -- are retailing for $1.99 to $3.69.
They are being merchandised in dry service bins that are part of the bakery service counter to provide the greatest "aesthetic appeal," and to encourage employee-customer interaction, according to Babbush.
The loaves are packaged in perforated bags at the time of sale and can be sliced on customer demand, although most customers choose to forgo that service, said Babbush.
The employees put corresponding product cards within each bag when packaging it. These cards identify the variety, describe its ingredients and include other eating, storing and handling information.
For example, the card for Roasted Garlic Bread tells the consumer that "This distinctive loaf with mouth-watering cloves of sweet, roasted garlic has delicious flavor and aroma" and is "Great for any dinner entree!"
It also states that the bread is "best eaten within 24 hours of purchase," and says "to keep longer, store in a plastic freezer bag, reheat, and enjoy again."
The varieties offered in the line include Sourdough Round; Fruit, Nut & Grain; Country French; Olive Rosemary; Sun-Dried Tomato; Italian Pesto; Sesame Semolina; Ciabatta; Pecan Raisin Bread and Chocolate Cherry Bread.