MARK OF EXCELLENCE

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Signature products. They're the stars of their departments -- those few, special items that seem to attract the most attention, sell just by being themselves and earn the happy devotion of customers and retailers alike.For many bakery retailers, such products -- whether a fruit tart, special-occasion cake or dressed-up brownie -- epitomize the spirit of their bakeries and represent

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Signature products. They're the stars of their departments -- those few, special items that seem to attract the most attention, sell just by being themselves and earn the happy devotion of customers and retailers alike.

For many bakery retailers, such products -- whether a fruit tart, special-occasion cake or dressed-up brownie -- epitomize the spirit of their bakeries and represent a source of pride that keeps customers coming back for more.

"A signature product is something that's special to your organization," said John Barnard, director of bakery operations at Seessel's by Albertson's, a 10-store chain here that gives the signature stamp to its decorated cake program.

"It's something that your competitors can't create to your standards or can't create, period," he said. "Quality is a major determinant in attaining signature status, but customer demand has the final word."

At V. Richard's, a one-store independent in Brookfield, Wis., signature success comes with its fresh fruit tarts. Freddi Rodgers, the store's production manager, agreed that "superior quality" and "customer demand" are necessary components of any signature program.

"A signature product is something that's unique to its area -- whether it be a product that can't be found elsewhere, or a common product, such as a chocolate chip cookie, that's unique for its superior quality," she said.

Such products, report retailers, establish loyal customers that help make their stores true destination points.

According to Ed McLaughlin, merchandising manager of in-store bakeries for Genuardi's Family Markets, a 29-store chain based in Norristown, Pa., such loyalty creates a win-win situation.

"Signature products bring customers into the store, and while they're there, they buy other things, too," said McLaughlin, whose company recently introduced a line of private-label European bread that he considers to be signature.

Like most retailers contacted by SN, Janet Kreiner, bakery manager at West Point Market, a one-store independent in Akron, Ohio, knew immediately which product held the "signature" honor in her department.

"It's our Killer Brownies," she said. "West Point Market and Killer Brownies go hand-in-hand."

The brownies are so good that the store's upscale, health-conscious clientele clamor for them, despite the fact that they're "very, very rich and fattening, high in calories and sinfully decadent," Kreiner added.

The retailer, which introduced its first two varieties about 1980, makes about 21 trays of brownies -- with more than 60 brownies to a tray -- during a typical week, and about seven times that amount during the holiday season.

The brownies, which now include a total of six varieties that sell for $4.89 per pound, have been so successful that the company has built a brisk mail-order business around them, with overnight and two-day shipments going out year-round, but especially during the holiday season, she said.

And true to the favored special status of the product, the brownies are shipped in a white "special brownie box" that features a round logo of an angel and the words "West Point's Brownie Co. -- A Taste of Heaven."

They are also featured on the company's Web site and even have their own toll-free ordering number, 1-800-ASK FOR BROWNIES.

Customer demand has also secured the signature status of the special-occasion cakes created at Seessel's by Albertson's and the fruit tarts made at V. Richard's.

At Seessel's, demand for the company's decorated cakes is so strong that a crew of 14 full-time decorators works busily each night, turning out about 3,000 special-occasion cakes throughout a typical week, and about 4,000 during busier times, according to Barnard.

The cakes -- about half of which are special orders -- are made completely from scratch at the company's central facility and are "far superior to anything you can buy in a typical grocery store," according to Barnard.

The program, which was introduced at the 138-year-old company "at least 70 years ago," currently consists of 40 varieties of cake and 25 varieties of icing in its standard fare. Additional varieties are also available.

Although the company offers a range of sizes (including wedding cakes as high as six tiers), the most popular size is the quarter-sheet cake, which typically runs from $14.99 with standard decorating to $24.99 for more elaborate and customized designs.

Rodgers of V. Richard's remembers the "overwhelming" customer response that greeted the introduction of her company's fresh fruit tarts about a dozen years ago, soon after the store first opened.

"The response was so strong that we knew within a month that we had a signature product," she said, adding that it usually takes a longer period of time to reach such status.

Like many of the signature products carried by retailers, V. Richard's fresh fruit tarts are made entirely from scratch, attain the "highest level of quality," and are unique to the company's marketing area, according to Rodgers.

The tarts, which range in size from individual portions to 11 inches in diameter, are made daily from five varieties of fruit taken from the store's produce department. The mini, because of its size, features only one of the five fruits, whereas the larger tarts feature a combination of all five fruit toppings -- strawberry, raspberry, kiwi, blueberry and mandarin orange.

During a typical week, the store sells about 120 of its 9-inch tarts -- which is the most popular size at $14.99 -- with weekly sales surpassing 1,000 during the holidays, according to Jody Schardt, the store's assistant manager of bakery production.

"During the holidays, we can hardly keep up with the demand," she said. "We have employees that come in at 3 a.m. and work solely on the tarts until they leave at 3 p.m."

The importance of maintaining a consistently high level of quality cannot be underestimated when it comes to protecting a signature item's favored status, according to retailers contacted by SN.

At Seessel's by Albertson's, employees who express an interest in art and display a similar aptitude are encouraged to become apprentice decorators. As such, they begin to learn the skill of cake decorating under the company's three master decorators -- who have attained the company's highest level of skill -- and the journeyman decorators, who comprise the bulk of the decorating staff and represent the next attainable level for the apprentice.

There is no time limit for an employee's progression through the three levels. The only criterion is that the necessary skills must be mastered before promotion to the next level, according to Barnard.

V. Richard's also places a high premium on the quality of its fresh fruit tarts, said Rodgers.

"Employees see very quickly that any tarts found below our established level of quality are thrown out," she said, adding that such perfection even extends to the way in which kiwi fruit is peeled. "If it's not peeled into a nice cylinder, we won't use it.

"When employees understand that we're serious about the product, they quickly become serious themselves," she added.

Rodgers said she also substitutes more suitable fruit when one of the five produce staples is not up to her standards for the day, and refuses to extend the product's 24-hour shelf life, because of the its fast deterioration.

At West Point Market, only the finest ingredients are used in the company's brownies: Nestle's semi-sweet chocolate chips, Kraft caramel, fresh butter, Belgian chocolate and Swiss jam, to name a few, according to Kreiner.

In addition to using such high-quality products, Kreiner said, the company "[keeps] a really tight rein" on product control, catching inferior batches and other problems "very quickly, because it's important to us.

"We've thrown out entire trays of brownies because they've been underbaked, overbaked, didn't have enough caramel, or the like," she said. "It hurts, because they're always full trays, but it's necessary, because once quality starts slipping, customers stop buying your product."

Genuardi's Family Markets is controlling the quality of its newly introduced line of bread, called Zagara's European Style Bread, by creating and parbaking all 17 varieties, along with five complementary rolls, at its central commissary, McLaughlin said.

Quality may be especially important in maintaining the popularity of signature items, since much of the customer base seems to be based on word-of-mouth advertising, according to retailers. Many said they seldom, if ever, advertised or promoted their winning product.

"We don't promote or advertise our fresh fruit tarts, because we don't need to," said Schardt of V. Richard's. "If we did, we probably couldn't keep up with customer demand."

"Years ago, we may have advertised, but at this point, our business is built mostly on word-of-mouth advertising," said Barnard of Seessel's by Albertson's, adding that the company does, however, run an occasional $2-off coupon around graduation time.

Cross merchandising signature items with other products has also become a viable strategy for many retailers.

During strawberry season, Judy Carroll, director of bakery for O'Malia Food Markets, an 11-store chain in Carmel, Ind., pairs the company's signature angel food cake with the seasonal fruit.

"While we probably sell about 250 angel food cakes during a typical week, the figure jumps to 400 during strawberry season," said Carroll, who says the cakes are usually merchandised in the produce department.

McLaughlin of Genuardi's has cross merchandised his company's new bread line by sampling olive oils, garlic oils and even tomatoes with the various breads.