UP TO SCRATCH

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. -- While many supermarkets are adding bake-off and thaw-and-sell products to their bakery mix to counter labor shortages and consistency problems, at least one retailer is sticking with scratch.That retailer, Melmarkets, based here, recently opened a store in Great Neck, N.Y., an affluent New York City suburb, where it features an extensive scratch bakery with new bread-producing

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. -- While many supermarkets are adding bake-off and thaw-and-sell products to their bakery mix to counter labor shortages and consistency problems, at least one retailer is sticking with scratch.

That retailer, Melmarkets, based here, recently opened a store in Great Neck, N.Y., an affluent New York City suburb, where it features an extensive scratch bakery with new bread-producing equipment designed to make production more efficient.

"We want to be known as the best bakery around, and we can only do that with a

scratch operation," said Jerry Happ, director of fresh bakery for the 17-unit retailer. He said the bakeries, with an extensive variety of products, are intended as a customer draw. "That's why the owner decided in the beginning to have scratch bakeries," Happ said. "He wanted to differentiate us from other supermarkets." Early in the evolution of its bakeries, which started off with scratch cakes and pastries, the retailer tried sourcing bread from outside. That idea was abandoned quickly, however, because the quality wasn't up to the retailer's standards, Happ said. Today, bread is the top seller, and sales are especially strong at the new store.

Happ said commercially produced breads are processed too quickly. Mass producers often don't allow enough time for proofing and fermentation, and the result is bread that's "mushy," he said.

In addition to producing better quality bread and other products, a scratch operation offers flexibility. "We can try new items without getting stuck with a lot of product we can't move," Happ said. "We can make just the variety we know we can sell."

Happ said he gives bakery managers the chance to try new recipes. "Most of the items we have are made from recipes that I've accumulated over the years, but if somebody here tells me they have a great recipe, we may try it and see how people like it," he said. All Happ requires is that it sells and that it's cost-effective.

The retailer's strategy is to streamline with equipment where it can in order to save on costs without compromising the scratch-made touch, Happ said. Melmarkets installed one of the new bread machine systems at another high-volume unit last year and was pleased with the results. The $15,000 system paid for itself quickly because it replaced a full-time baker, Happ said.

The system here is the chain's second, and others will be added in new and remodeled stores where space permits, Happ said. Scratch bread is made with less sophisticated equipment in the chain's other bakeries, he said.

The new system includes a scaler and a molder. But there's still a lot of hand preparation. The chain's old-fashioned, crusty corn bread, for example, requires a "mother starter," or base similar to that used to make some Italian breads.

The base, which ferments, has to be refreshed each day with water and more flour. "Using this makes a corn bread like nobody else around here has. It's the kind bakers used to make in Brooklyn 30 years ago," Happ said. The store here sells about 60 pounds of the rounded corn bread loaves each day at $1.69 per pound.

Rye is the most popular bread at this store, which is in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood directly across the street from the railroad station where many residents commute to work.

Challah is the top seller on Fridays, which leads into the Jewish sabbath. "We sell 350 challah breads on a Friday, which is our biggest sales day at this store," Happ said. "We expect to sell at least 4,000 challah breads on Rosh Hashanah," Happ said, referring to the Jewish New Year. "We sold that many on that day at [the Oceanside, N.Y., store] last year."

Happ said the store's variety of 19 breads and huge assortment of rolls stands Melmarkets well in competition with two nearby specialty bakeries. "Everybody loves good bread. I don't foresee sales leveling off," he told SN. "I think they'll just keep growing."

Accounting for more than 60% of bakery sales, scratch-made bread and rolls have helped push bakery sales to new heights at the new store. Two and a half months after the store opened, the bakery was ringing up more volume than any other in the chain. "It's been phenomenal from the beginning," said Happ. "We had sales here of nearly $20,000 the first week, and we've held at $16,000 to $17,000 a week ever since."

That compares with an average of less than $12,000 a week at other Melmarkets units, where bread and rolls account for only about 35% of bakery sales, he said.

What Happ likes particularly about bread is that "you bake it, pack it and put it out, " unlike cakes that have to be cut and iced and decorated. And the margin's good. "The ingredients in a pound loaf of rye cost about 30 cents and we sell a loaf for $1.49," Happ said.

It hasn't been bread alone that's led to strong department success. Scratch cakes, cookies and pastries also play a role.

"We sold three full-sheet cakes this past weekend for separate occasions -- they were retirement parties -- and Monday all three people came back to the bakery to say they'd never had better cake," he told SN during a recent tour of the new bakery. Melmarkets' full sheet cakes retail for $60.85.

Customers see a large array of baked goods -- typically an assortment of 200 is offered daily -- almost immediately upon entering the 55,000-square-foot store.

From the entrance, the produce department is off to the left. A salad bar and hot entree island is set at an angle in a wide aisle that slants to the right. But a 12-foot European-style case showing off decorated cakes and other pastries is clearly visible straight ahead.

In the brightly lit service case, a tall carrot cake was positioned with a cut side facing out so the filling could be seen.

The assortment in this case and an adjoining one included eclairs and trays of cookies and a variety of pies. One standout item on the top shelf of the case was strawberry shortcake for $7.75. Strawberries decorating the top had been partially dipped in chocolate. Such touches as that are made possible by another new piece of equipment, a chocolate warmer, added at this store.

The warmer keeps chocolate at the right temperature for dipping. "That saves a tremendous amount of time when we're making cookies," Happ said.

Behind the service counter a variety of breads is displayed on open shelves. To the right of the bakery, three three-tiered tables hold sliced breads and rolls in clear bags.

A full two-thirds of bread sales are from those tables, Happ said. But cakes and pastries are sold only from the service case. "We only put dry goods out on the table, never cakes or anything with icing because they get messed up," Happ said. As people pick the cakes up to look at them, icing gets stuck to the dome packaging, Happ explained. The integrity of products is also protected as they're packed at the service counter.

"We use superior quality boxes," Happ said. The sturdy, glossy white boxes carry the Melmarkets Foodtown logo in red and blue. The extra thickness of the cardboard boxes not only protects the product, but anything around it, too, Happ said.

"We don't want any greasiness coming through the cardboard onto someone's car seat," Happ said. And the boxes, which cost 2 cents more per box than the nearest grade down, look good. "They're part of presenting a quality image," Happ said.

The up-front location for the bakery at the new store is different from the placement in other units, where the bakery in most cases is at the end of the fresh food traffic lane. "It's very important that you see the bakery when you come in," Happ said. "If it's in a corner somewhere, people are apt to just pass it by."

Whether it will be placed up front in other new stores depends on space and the store configuration, Happ said. While business is brisk at the self-service tables, staffers work hard at providing top service behind the counter, Happ said.

"We emphasize to our bakery managers the importance of keeping associates knowledgeable about the products," he said. "They need to know what kind of filling each cake has, for example."

Some things are made easy for the staff as well as for the customer. In this neighborhood where many people observe kosher dietary laws, it's important to know which products contain dairy products and which don't. Nondairy items are displayed on trays of a different color from those that hold products with dairy ingredients. Signs call attention to the distinction.

Other signs include a list of the week's specials on a large, orange background. And over the service counter, attractive, framed, permanent signs with three-dimensional lettering proclaim, "All breads baked daily on premises," and, "For special orders, call 773-6135."

A sign also lists "standard" birthday cakes with prices for different sizes. And nearby, birthday candles are offered on a peg rack.

As part of its commitment to customer service, Melmarkets is particularly responsive to customers' requests, Happ said. Some three-quarters of the retailer's baked goods are made without dairy products because of customers' requests, Happ said.

"We had people asking if, for instance, we had this or that product nondairy. If we didn't, we developed one," he said.

"I can't sell cheesecake in this store, but it really goes well in some of our others," Happ said.

Stores' product mixes are tailored to their neighborhoods. The bakery here, like those at several other Melmarkets stores, is a kosher operation, visited weekly by a rabbi.

While Melmarkets hasn't added nutrition labels to its self-service bakery products, Happ has addressed customers' nutrition-consciousness. He introduced dietetic pies made with sorbitol rather than sugar, and they're good sellers, he said. And he recently developed a no-salt sponge cake and a no-salt, no-cholesterol yogurt loaf.

When asked how he gets responsible help, Happ said, "We try to promote from within."