DESTINATION: BAKERY

In-store bakeries continued their evolution in 1999 as a destination department for specialty items like artisan breads, wedding cakes and ethnic or regional favorites. Focusing on the ethnic background of their customers, ISBs scored big by introducing their shoppers to someone else's custom.While carnival-goers in New Orleans have celebrated Mardi Gras with king cakes from Rouses Supermarkets, Thibodaux,

In-store bakeries continued their evolution in 1999 as a destination department for specialty items like artisan breads, wedding cakes and ethnic or regional favorites. Focusing on the ethnic background of their customers, ISBs scored big by introducing their shoppers to someone else's custom.

While carnival-goers in New Orleans have celebrated Mardi Gras with king cakes from Rouses Supermarkets, Thibodaux, La., for about 25 years, customers at Wooster, Ohio-based Buehler Food Markets were introduced to the traditional cakes for the first time this year.

Steve Bakey, supervisor of bakery operations for Buehler, credited the successful launch in part to special king cake boxes that carry the colors of the cake and have the story behind the cake printed on their sides.

"The king cake boxes are very important," he said. "They give the product a special identity, and because they're so brightly colored, customers can see them from a distance. Actually, the colorful boxes gave us incentive to try [the king cakes] this year."

Some of Buehler's 10 units even had bakery associates dressed as the three kings offering samples and explaining the meaning behind the cakes.

Back in the Bayou, where the cakes need no explanation, Rouses' 11 ISBs reportedly produce about 100,000 of the festive cakes each year, boosting gross bakery sales by about 20%.

"It gets very busy in this area for the Mardi Gras season, but we love it," said Donald Rouse, president of the chain. "It's so much a part of our history. It's a very exciting time."

The winter holidays proved successful for supporting several other ethnic bakery items as well, like Poland's paczki, Danish Kringles and hot cross buns. Retailers found their customers to be very interested in the different traditions of the season and such ethnic items attracted shoppers to their department.

Another hot item, and perhaps the birth of a new tradition, was a basic, iced sheet cake topped with full-color scanned photographs. A drastic change from the traditional sugar flowers and hand-drawn designs, the PhotoCakes, as one company calls them, were popular with both bakery employees, for their simple and quick production time, and consumers, for the ultimate in personalization. The cakes brought further options to the department and helped sales of sheet cakes to rise.

At Steele's Markets, Fort Collins, Colo., bakery director Barb Harner said within just of few months of their introduction, sales of the cakes went from six a week to upwards of 12 a day.

Action stations helped showcase special talents more this year than in the past. At Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio, a specialty cake shop turns out wedding cakes that rival local independent bakeries. Julie VanPelt, manager of the shop, said trends for the ceremonial cakes are more simple and elegant than in the past, an opinion shared by others.

"We see a lot of people going toward rolled and poured fondant, and even marzipan," said John Gallagher, a certified executive pastry chef and instructor at The Restaurant School in Philadelphia. "Brides are getting away from bright, garish colors and going for a more pristine, classic look."

Creativity won in the bread category as well, as retailers brought in specialty artisan breads to please their increasingly selective customers.

Without stealing any business from other baked items, sales of their new Ecce Panis-branded artisan breads went above expectations at Wayne, N.J.-based Grand Union Co., totaling 7% to 9% of total bakery sales.

And Holiday Market, Canton, Mich., turned its six-month-old Stone House Bread artisan-bread program into a destination point for its shoppers. Holiday installed a 35,000-pound wood-burning oven that churns out small batches of bread every hour, equaling thousands of loaves every week.

The outsourcing of various branded items brought a boost in income to many ISBs. Brand-name recognition went a long way for retailers like U Save Supermarkets, Tampa, Fla., which more than doubled its doughnut sales with the addition of Krispy Kreme-brand products. Consumers in Southern California delighted at the opportunity to purchase souffles, made by the infamous Bistro Garden in Studio City, Calif., in local supermarkets like Gelson's Markets, Encino, Calif., and their subsidiary Mayfair Markets. And Kings Super Markets, Parsippany, N.J., added appeal to their cookie selection with the addition of Dancing Deer Baking Co.'s gourmet cookies, which won twice in the cookie category at the New York-based National Association for the Specialty Food Trade's Fancy Food Show.

While items like these, and others found in the bakery, are geared to the individual, some ISBs benefitted by slicing up their cakes and pies and selling them in individual portions.

"Our customers really like the single-serving idea," said Greg Wozniak, certified executive chef and meal-center director for West Bend, Wis.-based Prescott's Supermarkets. "This way, they don't have to purchase a whole cake or pie and end up with waste."

Individual service and outsourcing didn't stop at baked goods alone. This year it would seem many retailers asked themselves, "What goes best with treats from the bakery?" The answer: a nice, hot cup of fresh coffee.

Stop & Shop Supermarkets, Quincy, Mass., partnered with Waterbury, Vt.-based Green Mountain Coffee Inc. to bring their branded coffee program into the bakery departments of their stores.

Customers can purchase coffee by the cup or in preground, premeasured packages for home use. The stations are situated near individual-size bakery items like muffins and doughnuts.

Draeger's Marketplace, San Mateo, Calif, took a different route by bringing a coffee roaster into their stores and roasting green coffee beans on-site, providing their customers with the freshest beans available.

The chain wanted something unique to differentiate them from the competition. They found it with this new roaster manufactured by Petaluma, Calif.-based Fresh Roast Systems.

Draeger's positioned the roaster in the front area of a U-shaped department that houses items such as candy, chocolates, refrigerated desserts and various other bakery items. "It's great because the customers can sample the coffee by the cup, and see the machine that roasted the beans right in front of them," said Rebecca Draeger, vice president and bakery buyer for the chain. "Our customers have shown quite an interest and are asking a lot of questions."

Keeping the customers interested, and excited, was the common successful thread among the trends that surfaced this year proving that, even among the sweetest of items, variety is the spice of life.