When Jungle Jim's went hunting for the best desserts around, the retailer looked no further than its own backyard.
Bon Bonerie, a beloved Cincinnati bakery, makes a signature opera cream cake, a luscious-looking round, layered pastry, enrobed in dark bittersweet chocolate glaze with white chocolate rosettes and diamonds decorating the top. Jungle Jim's was looking for a top-notch bakery partner, so teaming up with Bon Bonerie was an easy choice, said Sharon Wollenweber, Jungle Jim's bakery manager/buyer, and one of the bakery's biggest fans.
"Bon Bonerie's products are wonderful, and people around here know that," Wollenweber said. "It [Bon Bonerie's presence] enhances our bakery."
The opera cream cake was just the beginning of what can only be described as a sweet relationship between the bakery and Jungle Jim's. The retailer had expanded its in-store bakery, and was looking for a partner to supply cakes, pastries and other sugary favorites that would round out the bakery's offerings with easy-to-merchandise desserts. Bon Bonerie's reputation and willingness to work with Jungle Jim's sealed the deal.
In this market, Bon Bonerie's products are considered the cream of the crop. Indeed, the bakery has received "best" awards from local and regional newspapers and magazines year after year and has earned high marks in Zagat guidebooks.
"By anyone's standards, Bon Bonerie is the best of the best," said Jim Youngblood, a real estate developer associated with the retailer.
A single-unit independent, Jungle Jim's is also one of a kind in Cincinnati. With about 300,000 square feet of selling space, the retailer sources unique products and showcases them against a
backdrop of animated animal figures and other carnival-like trappings. Sales at Jungle Jim's in-store bakery have grown steadily since it partnered with the bakery, Wollenweber said, estimating Bon Bonerie's products make up 3.5% to 4% of total bakery sales. Bon Bonerie delivers baked goods twice a week to Jungle Jim's, but occasionally makes an additional trip if necessary.
Right now, Bon Bonerie has about 4 feet of two-level space in the service case, plus a triangular, self-service, refrigerated unit at the end of the service case. Packaged scones and other items have a spot on top of the service case.
The only Bon Bonerie items displayed in the service case at Jungle Jim's are whole cakes, which can be quickly and easily put into a box, said Maureen Arata, Bon Bonerie's dedicated liaison with Jungle Jim's. Anything smaller is packaged at Bon Bonerie's 4,000-square-foot store and production center. The bakery doesn't supply Jungle Jim's with cake slices, which are offered at Bon Bonerie's store.
"Part of the reason for all that is that we wanted to add as little labor as possible for Jungle Jim's," Arata said.
Officials at the supermarket told SN they're happy with the arrangement with Bon Bonerie. They talk regularly to Bon Bonerie's owners Sharon Butler and Mary Pat Pace as well as with Arata.
"It's a true partnership that works for both of us, and for our shoppers, too. It's a great service to them that they can pick up Bon Bonerie pastries here," Wollenweber said.
Wollenweber, who confesses to being a longtime fan of the upscale bakery, described the lengths to which Bon Bonerie goes to make a quality product.
"Last Easter, they had a coconut cake we sold here that was incredible. They baked the fresh coconut themselves and flaked it. They even used the coconuts' milk as an ingredient in the cake."
The bakery doesn't cut corners, and that's what sets Bon Bonerie apart from other bakeries in the area, Bon Bonerie's owners told SN.
"It's all from scratch and we do everything by hand. We even cut our cookies by hand and dip them in white chocolate, for example," said Butler. "My philosophy is that products can be beautiful and taste good, too. People have said that what we're doing can't be done [and keep products at a price shoppers can afford]. Well, we're doing it."
To make it happen, the bakery sticks to a tight production schedule and limits the selection of products, she said.
Product selection is particularly important in the supermarket setting because of shoppers' price sensitivity. For that reason, the small cakes sell better there, Arata told SN. The hands-down best seller is the same as that at the bakery's home store: the signature opera cream cake. It's made up of layers of rich chocolate cake that contain chocolate chips, and features two layers of fairly stiff cream filling similar to the filling in a chocolate Easter egg. The opera cake stands tall at 5 inches high, about half the height of a roll of paper towels, Arata said.
Labor and premium ingredients require a hefty retail for many of Bon Bonerie's pastries, but Butler pointed out that Bon Bonerie's prices haven't changed much over the years. For instance, chocolate chip cookies, which were three for $1 15 years ago, are 50 cents each now. Scones were 85 cents each 15 years ago. Now they're $1.25.
"We've taken less margin on some things with the hope - and it's been true - that sales would increase," Butler said.
In fact, Bon Bonerie's total sales have increased at a rate of about 7% annually over the past several years, Pace told SN.
Bon Bonerie's customers at its original store don't bat an eye at the prices. At the same time, shoppers at Jungle Jim's who are not already acquainted with Bon Bonerie's pastries are learning the products are well worth the money, Wollenweber said.
The supermarket company approached Bon Bonerie before the holidays a year ago, shortly after a remodeling expanded its in-store bakery as well as other departments. The retailer's bakery is primarily a bread and roll bakery, so the addition of a line of premium sweet goods was a big plus, Wollenweber said.
"It works for us, and it's good for Bon Bonerie because it gives them another outlet," she said. "They're located on the other side of town."
Over a weekend, the in-store bakery sells about 40 Bon Bonerie cakes, plus other items like four-packs of scones for $5 and smaller rum cakes and cookies, Wollenweber said. Not only that, but they're all added sales.
"I don't see any of it eating into our sales," Wollenweber said.
For example, Jungle Jim's bakery makes its own carrot cake and retails it for about $1 less than Bon Bonerie's, yet both continue to sell well, she said.
All Bon Bonerie's products are retail-priced the same at Jungle Jim's as they are at Bon Bonerie's freestanding store. Jungle Jim's pays wholesale prices for them and then takes the profit. If something doesn't sell, Bon Bonerie gives the supermarket a credit for it.
"We've been in business for 23 years, so we know our customers and what sells best at our store, but it was an experiment in the beginning at Jungle Jim's," Arata said.
Impulse plays a bigger role at the supermarket than at Bon Bonerie's store, which has become a destination for Cincinnatians, and also customers who drive up to 100 miles from other parts of Ohio, she said.
All Bon Bonerie cakes, with the exception of carrot cake, are priced alike: $18 for a 6-inch and $38 for a 9-inch. The less labor-intensive carrot cakes are $15 for a 6-inch and $30 for a 9-inch.
Three of Bon Bonerie's "classic" cakes - opera cream, carrot, and Bavarian apple cheese - are offered every day at Jungle Jim's. In addition, one or two others are rotated in and out. For instance, a Chocolate Romance Cake featuring white chocolate and raspberries has joined the line-up. For Valentine's Day week, there will be a strawberry whipped cream cake as well. Usually Jungle Jim's has a selection of 10 items.
A sign, at least 2 feet by a foot and a half, with the upscale bakery's name, is on the service counter over its dedicated section. It sports a pink-and-white Bon Bonerie logo, and is framed in wrought iron.
Jungle Jim's alerts its customers to Bon Bonerie's presence every week through store circulars. Arata usually decorates the point-of-sale sign with a seasonal theme, she said. For instance, heart-shaped balloons could be the addition as Valentine's Day approaches.
The recent holiday sales late last year exceeded everyone's expectations.
"On New Year's Eve, in the afternoon, everything was already sold out," Arata said.
Although Jungle Jim's launched the Bon Bonerie service case before Christmas time a year ago, it's impossible to make any meaningful sales comparison from then to this past holiday because the weather played havoc a year ago, officials said. A heavy snowstorm swept across that part of the state just before Christmas 2004 and literally paralyzed Cincinnati for a couple of days.
"It hit the day before Christmas Eve and killed business," Wollenweber said.
Bon Bonerie's owners launched their business over 20 years ago as a wholesale operation supplying upscale area restaurants. Four years later, the owners added a retail site where they've since put in a tearoom. They've been careful not to overexpand, Butler said. The deal with Jungle Jim's works, she and Pace said, because there's little overhead, and a lot of exposure.
Bon Bonerie's sales to Jungle Jim's make up a small percentage, less than 5%, of the bakery's total sales, which hit $2 million last year, but the exposure at Jungle Jim's is valuable, Pace said.
"We've been approached by other [supermarket] chains here, but right now our production space is limited," Pace said. "We haven't taken on any others."
In Cincinnati, Bon Bonerie has a lot of company - and competition - in the upscale retail bakery category.
The Cincinnati phone book lists 88 retail bakeries, not counting supermarket bakeries. That's a lot for a town with fewer than 2 million people, SN's sources agreed. Some residents attribute the preponderance of bakeries to the heavy German population.
"There's a tremendous German heritage here," said Sharon Butler, co-owner of Bon Bonerie. "Immigrants brought their recipes and talents from Europe. Many of them were bakers in their country and they went into business here."
Some of Cincinnati's bakeries have been in business for nearly a century, said Mary Ann Acree, secretary of the Greater Cincinnati Retail Bakers Association.
"We've been lucky that in many cases the young people have chosen to stay with the family business," Acree said. "Some of our bakeries are third and fourth generation. I know St. Lawrence is fourth generation and Busken's is third."
With so much competition, each company has created a niche that's kept it going. Some credit customer service for keeping their businesses alive and thriving. The owners of Bon Bonerie believe the bakery's outstanding quality and a carefully chosen array of products that spans a wide range of price points makes the business successful.
"Everything we have is not expensive," Butler said. "We have cookies for 50 cents and scones for $1.25, as well as our cakes."
Not all opera cakes are created equal.
Although they represent the epitome of sweet indulgence, the cakes don't follow a standard mold. Some are round, some are square, a few are rectangular. Not only that, but some of them feature three layers of double-chocolate cake, others rise up to five layers of almond sponge cake. Some varieties are brushed with liqueur or vanilla syrup, with French mocha cream or heavier vanilla cream between the layers. Most are enrobed in a dark chocolate glaze and some are decorated with a scripted "opera" on top.
Legend has it that an "opera cake" was first made for a French-American reception at the Paris Opera in the 1930s, according to the Williams-Sonoma catalog. Williams-Sonoma offers a rectangular version of the upscale treat.