LAKELAND, Fla. -- In-store bakeries are the future of the baking industry. That unabashedly strong statement was made by Herbert Waschull, an industry veteran who rose through the ranks to become bakery director for Publix Super Markets here, a chain known for the excellence of its bakery departments.
After 32 years with the 477-unit Southeastern chain, Waschull, 60, retired from his position earlier this year.
Recently, Waschull spoke to SN about his years in the industry, the evolution of in-store bakeries, what the future holds for them and, most important, the ingredients necessary for them to turn a good profit.
The foot traffic provided by supermarkets, the advanced technology available and increasingly educated management teams combine to make the in-store bakery's best days still to come, Waschull said.
"The renaissance of the baking industry is taking place right now in supermarkets. It's as if they've been outside looking for an appropriate place to be and now they've found it. We're seeing the rebirth of what was a dying industry in this country, and now bakeries are where they belong," Waschull said. He made a comparison to the Middle Ages when "the bakery was in the center of the marketplace." Supermarkets are the modern-day marketplace for today's busy population, he said.
In-store bakeries' potential is unlimited, he said, but warned that changes must be made. More frequent baking during the day and good record keeping are prerequisites to achieving the sales and profits that are possible, he said. "Fresh" will be the key, he said.
"That's the next step in the equation. Supermarkets have been putting bakery products on the shelf and leaving them there for two or three days. It will take major revamping, but top management must step in to change that. Product should be baked twice a day, at least.
"And it's necessary to keep a daily log of throwaways so you'll know what your customers are buying. Even hourly sales results should be reviewed," he said, stressing that practice as a guide to making up work schedules.
"Service is part of quality," he said. "It's important to have associates there when they're needed to help the customer. I have often seen several associates behind the bakery counter in the morning, and then in the afternoon when it's busier, there may be only one person behind the counter," he said. On freshness, he said, it doesn't matter how the product is sourced. "Bake-off and parbaked products qualify as fresh. What matters is how they're handled. Don't leave them on the shelf for four days and expect customers to like a loaf of stale bread. They won't come back." Even thaw-and-sell items can be top quality. "But they shouldn't be thawed way ahead to make a mass display that's not going to sell out for days," he said. Some bakery departments' display cases even work against them, he said.
"They try to keep them filled up and then the product gets stale. They should evaluate closely how much money is made with each case, and maybe eliminate some," Waschull said.
He predicted that by the year 2000 the typical supermarket bakery -- based on return on investment -- will be smaller, will have less display space and more self-service. The amount of scratch baking will have diminished, and parbaked and thaw-and-sell products will be the norm, he said.
Technology continues to produce top-quality products in all forms, he said, stressing that it's how long the item stays on the shelf that counts. A good-tasting product can surmount any stigma customers may have associated with supermarket bakeries, Waschull said.
"If a customer is convinced that the quality and the service are equal to what he would get at his corner bakery, he'll pay. It's when those factors are not equal that price becomes an issue," he said. Asked if developing a signature product is a necessity for success, Waschull said, "No, but every single item should be top quality. Quality and freshness should be your signature."
In the evolution from stand-alone bakeries to more in-store bakeries, supermarkets have added their own twists to bakery products, he said. Consumer-friendly packaging for bakery products started in the supermarket. And there's more flare, more color in cake decorating, for example, and more variety of product, he added. "The entry of women and multiracial and multicultural personnel into the baking industry has been a major plus," Waschull said. "They've brought new ideas, new products. And women are particularly economically minded," he said, adding that they are a big factor in the success of the in-store bakery. "Women watch costs, they pay particular attention to sanitation and they're good supervisors."
On training, Waschull said the aim should be on finding the right person, not on forcibly molding a baker out of a person who wants to be something else.
"It's difficult to make a baker out of someone that's just been circulated to your department. It's better to hire a person who wants to go into baking," he said.
Waschull himself became enamored of the baking industry in his youth. His decision to pursue a baking career was spurred by something that could have repelled others: the work hours and the number of tasks that had to be accomplished within a precise time limit. "I loved it that you had to get so much accomplished between four and six in the morning. In Germany, the law said you couldn't begin working before 4 a.m., but freshly baked products had to be ready to sell when the store opened at 6," Waschull said. It was like running a race and winning it every single morning, he added.
Slated for a civil service job after graduating from high school in his native Germany, Waschull, after getting a taste of baking in a part-time job, decided instead to become a baker's apprentice. He subsequently became a journeyman baker before he emigrated to the United States in the 1950s.
His supermarket career began in an in-store bakery at a supermarket in St. Louis. There, he worked his way up to head baker for the chain that was the forerunner of Schnuck Markets. But at the time, Waschull said, he kept hearing about Publix Super Markets, whose founder "had a good philosophy about management and customer service, a philosophy I agreed with."
After doing extensive research on Publix, which in 1969 had about 30 in-store bakeries, Waschull put his career on the line. He moved to Florida and took a job at an hourly wage in a Publix in-store bakery. Within half a year, he had been promoted to bakery manager. Later he became a supervisor for the chain's Miami division.