BRONX, N.Y. -- Morton Williams Associated Supermarkets here has re-invented the old-fashioned, corner bakery at a store in Manhattan where apple dumplings take the cake and sales are getting sweet.
The idea is to stand out in a market where retail competition can be fierce. Other supermarkets in the area tend to focus on price, not dumplings or hand-rolled, butter-bathed Danish dough.
At the store on 23rd Street and Second Avenue, the seven-unit independent has added a full-time baker who has boosted the roster of baked goods by 40% with the likes of from-scratch, Russian coffee cake, almond horns and pineapple cheese puffs. As a result, bakery sales have doubled in the last five months, officials said.
Attracting consumers with baking aromas and eye-catching pastries that taste good is the next step in a successful effort the company began a couple of years ago when it decided to make on-premises hot food preparation its "fresh" messenger [see "Morton Williams Unit is Heating Up Its Image for Hot Meals," SN, 5/19/98].
"This is a continuation of our strategy that's built around cooking. All but one of our stores have a full, state-of-the-art kitchen where we produce a variety of food fresh every day," said Avi Kaner, vice president of Morton Williams Associated, which has six stores in Manhattan and one smaller one in the Bronx.
He described the bakery's particular role in the company's strategy as image-defining.
"It's what people want and it's turning this store around. When we expanded this location, we incorporated enough space so we could have a staff baker making things on the premises. It reinforces the message that the food we sell is fresh. And the bakery is beautiful to look at, too."
Baker Michael Castrataro's cakes and pastries are spotlighted in, and on top of, a pastry case that's an attention-getter, and when customers get a taste of the sweet treats they come back for more, Kaner said.
"We've developed a core of loyal customers from the neighborhood. There are institutional customers, too, like schools and hospitals, who come to us for their celebration cakes."
While there are two stand-alone bakeries in the area that Kaner calls "excellent," Morton Williams is looking to give consumers the convenience of one-stop shopping as well as great baked goods, he said.
In addition to satisfying customers' yen for good, fresh-baked stuff at this store, the bakery also supplies the rest of Morton Williams' units in Manhattan.
"We're treating [the 23rd Street location] as our bakery commissary. We need to do it here and distribute the products to our other stores because in an urban setting like this, not all stores have the space for this [a production bakery]," said Kaner.
In fact, half the items baked at the store are delivered to the other units, he said. All of this became possible when the company hired Castrataro last summer. Not only have sales doubled at the production store, but bakery sales at the other units are up significantly as well.
That sales success can be largely attributed to the wider and interesting variety and the quality products themselves, said Richard Travaglione, fresh foods supervisor for the chain.
And then there are less-measurable benefits that come with having an experienced baker on site. Enhanced image and customer service are among them. Also, the presence of a baker, working in full view of customers and talking about his products, just engenders trust, Travaglione said.
"We needed someone who knows the bakery business," he added, pointing out that Castrataro had owned and operated a retail bakery shop on Long Island for several years.
Castrataro told SN he's trying to build Morton Williams' bakery sales literally piece by piece. He initiated selling several varieties of sheet cakes by the slice for $1.25. Strawberry shortcake, which he bakes year-round, is by far the favorite, he said. Just recently he introduced a chocolate strawberry shortcake which also has developed a following. At the one store, he sells up to 60 to 70 shortcake slices during lunchtime alone.
"The lunch trade here is big, and our cafe customers like the slices. I think it's helped that [cafe] business. People sometimes want a slice cake or something else after work. A lot of them buy it and take it to a table in our cafe. They really like it that we have single portions of a lot of things," Castrataro said.
Castrataro -- who, in addition to his own retail bakery, worked in the past for Waldbaum's (a division of Montvale, N.J.-based A&P) -- has gotten a particular feel for what sells and what doesn't, and he put that experience to work for Morton Williams when he joined the retailer.
"I pretty much knew what people would want and I started baking it -- the Danishes, the crumb cakes and buns -- and customers love it that I actually bake the cakes here."
At least 70% of production at the store is scratch, with some bake-off bread and some items, like muffins, made from a mix.
Castrataro brought the recipes for most of the new items with him when he joined the company. Pineapple cheese puffs and crumb buns are among them. So is Russian coffee cake, a top seller and also one of Castrataro's favorites.
This cake is made from Danish dough, soaked in butter, filled with an almond paste that itself is made on-site. Then the whole thing is soaked in butter again. Raisins, walnuts and pineapple are added. Baked in a sheet pan at a low temperature, the coffee cake is frequently bathed with melted butter as it bakes. It retails for 99 cents a slice or $5.99 a pound.
Alerting grocery customers that they can now get their cakes and other fresh baked favorites at Morton Williams' bakery is an ongoing effort, Castrataro said. He frequently announces over the store's public-address system that the store now has its own baker who makes products in the store's own bakery.
Castrataro said he also makes good use of the PA system to lure people into the bakery to sample products. In the morning, customers are apt to hear via the PA that hot cheese pockets are just coming out of the oven. In the evening, it's hot bread time. Baking is scheduled throughout the day, both for the sake of freshness and for the purpose of keeping the store filled with the aromas of fresh-baked product, Castrataro said.
"I also try to keep a lot of action going on behind the counter so people can see that things are being made here. I'll be rolling out Danish dough or decorating a cake or we might be whipping up cream."
The display case has a low profile so customers have a clear view of the open production area. Since no display fixtures have been added, Castrataro has had to improvise to adequately display his bolstered menu of baked goods, he said.
"I utilize the tops of the cases, which they hadn't done before. The Danishes, the Russian coffee cake goes up there on trays. And the pies. What we don't have room for, we pack out for self-service."
As he geared up for the holidays, he was adding new seasonal items. Topping the list were apple dumplings, wheat pies, stollen and honey balls.
The apple dumplings, at $1.59 each, were an instant success, Castrataro said. He sold 72 of them at the one store the first day he made them, and that didn't surprise him. They were also best sellers at his store on Long Island.