WEST LINN, Ore. -- West Linn Thriftway here knocked floral out of the top spot to make room for bakery as the first department in line as customers walk in.
At a recently renovated store here, the former floral area at the head of the shopping pattern was gutted and handed over to the bakery department, and now has become the location of a cake-decorating station that shows off the department's high-volume wedding cake business.
The point was to create a sense of theater in the bakery and in the store, and to allow for better merchandising of gourmet and imported baked goods, according to John Smolders, bakery director for West Linn Thriftway.
"[The pastry chef is] making wedding cakes about 75% of the time," said Smolders. "With those five- and six-tier wedding cakes being piled up there, as far as bakery advertising goes, that's marvelous. People gather around her to watch, you can't keep them away. They're all lined up like ducks in a row, watching them."
Smolders said that since the renovation, bakers at three separate decorating stations spaced throughout the department are active five days of each week applying roses, ribbons and multicolor greetings on up to 200 decorated layer cakes a week.
They are also finishing off gourmet cookies and six-tier wedding cakes, all of which is attracting customer attention and stimulating enthusiasm and sales of bakery items, said Smolders.
At the wedding cake station, the baker works behind a plexiglass partition, which is close to a case-protected 6-foot tall wedding cake that Smolder assembled as a focal point for the department.
At another decorating station, a baker sculpts and ices special-order cakes into the shapes of hot dogs, tacos, hamburgers and other unusual forms, Smolders said.
For the renovation, the retailer tore out the fresh sections of the 31,000-square-foot store, located in this suburb south of Portland, and expanded and redesigned them to allow room for more high-priced, exotic, gourmet and international items.
Marketing efforts like the giant wedding cake, frequent baking demonstrations and advertising circulars focusing only on the bakery and distributed separately from the Thriftway circular have helped raise the profile of the Thriftway bakeries operating under the store brand "Taste of Holland" throughout the Portland area, Smolders said.
He said he's already felt an increase in sales since the renovation. Business in the bakery had previously accounted for about 6% of the store's overall sales, said Smolders.
Manager Craig Harris said combined sales of bakery and deli had been around 14% of the total store sales before the project; and with the interior portion of the renovation completed in mid-September, sales for the two have jumped by about 50%.
The bakery's sales have had to rebound from a business slump created by construction hassles during the May-to-September renovation, Smolders said. But they've surged back above normal now, due to both increased sales at this store, and to much higher volume at the six other Thriftway stores in the small chain serviced by the West Linn store.
The West Linn store bakes cookies, cakes, pastries and gourmet specialties for all seven Thriftways owned by Philomath Foods, a Portland area independent. Breads and rolls are baked for all stores at the one other hot bakery operated by Philomath.
Even the breads and rolls have gone upscale now. "I don't make any white or whole wheat bread," said Smolders. "Sun-dried tomato bread, apple-cinnamon, cracked-wheat, buttermilk, yes. But no white bread.
"Dropping those things, and not carrying hard rolls, hasn't hurt me," he added. "Pushing up the quality more has really helped me get a bigger ring and a bigger markup. And that's why we're all in business.
"And I don't believe in this low-fat, low-salt, no sugar stuff. If you come to me, you're going to get a goody. People come here for something special."
In addition to the theatrical decorating stations, Smolders tried to highlight bakery's profile in the store by breaking the department down further into minisections focused on different items.
Artful signage distributed throughout the department reemphasizes the division, reading "Java," "Decorator" and "Breadworks" and heralding the cappucino, cake decoration and bread sections, respectively.
Smolders said he now carries about 400 bakery items, having done away with most of the lower priced baked items he previously sold. He's replaced inexpensive cinnamon rolls, for instance, with a 6-ounce all-butter variety that sells for $1.49. He's also added a self-serve donut section.
"Everybody else does it, and while we didn't want to be like everyone else, the economics almost forces you to do it," he said. "Either you go up with the price of donuts, making you more expensive then everybody else and you won't sell any, or you keep the same price and cut costs some other way." He opted for cutting costs via the self-service format for donuts.
New European-style showcases have replaced discarded merchandising tables throughout the bakery, allowing more room for display.
The 40 or so varieties of gourmet cookies sold here, like the chocolate dipped French cookies, are all handmade with butter, said Smolders. He routinely carries about 28 cookie types at one time, rotating the varieties depending on season and sales. He also has established a seasonal display case, now filled with Thanksgiving items.
Smolders is also busy converting the seven store bakeries under his control to the Taste of Holland brand name. "With a Taste of Holland, we're run like an independent retail bakery operating inside the store. We have our own separate identity and name. I'm left pretty much alone to decide on the things we bake, the prices we charge, and any changes we make," he said.
The Taste of Holland brand has regularly attracted customers seeking more authentic imported Dutch baked goods, so Smolders took advantage of the store remodel to introduce some upscale imported Dutch items. He now stocks Dutch windmill cookies packaged in delft blue tins, Dutch almond cake, honey waffle cookies and Dutch rusk toast, all of which he reports move well. The 15 or so items are displayed on an 8-foot merchandising table.
Smolders also bakes some Dutch-style specialties in the store, like a group of pastries similar to a French petit four, sized 4 inches by 4 inches, rather than 3 inches by 3 inches.