VETERAN SEES GREAT IN-STORE POTENTIAL

BOSTON -- The potential is still great for in-store bakeries, a relative newcomer to the supermarket fresh foods line-up.That is according to Eric Berndt, director of bake shop production and sales for Stop & Shop, a 128-unit retailer based here. He has seen in-store bakeries develop and change in his more than 20 years with the company.Berndt, 64, recently announced he will retire from his position

BOSTON -- The potential is still great for in-store bakeries, a relative newcomer to the supermarket fresh foods line-up.

That is according to Eric Berndt, director of bake shop production and sales for Stop & Shop, a 128-unit retailer based here. He has seen in-store bakeries develop and change in his more than 20 years with the company.

Berndt, 64, recently announced he will retire from his position May 1 "in order to pursue special interests of my own."

On the eve of his retirement, SN spoke with Berndt about how he's seen the in-store bakery evolve over the years -- there was no such thing when he began his career -- and how he predicts it will change in the coming years.

"We don't even know what they can do in terms of sales," said Berndt. "There's still so much that can be tried." "We've had [bakeries] at Stop & Shop since 1986, and sales keep on growing," he said. He said it's always a challenge to have the right products, quality products, the ones people will buy. Most recently, he said, specialty breads are showing their stuff. "We introduced hearty, European-style breads a few months ago. We were already doing well with crusty breads, and now I think American consumers are ready for these." He said the new line particularly lends itself to variety.

"There can be any number of variations. We can try prune bread and apricot bread. We have 10 varieties now, and we'll subtract two and add two others occasionally in order to keep interest up," Berndt said.

European-style breads and crusty, French-type breads are both going strong at Stop & Shop, he said. "I can't say that one is ahead of the other."

Asked if there have been any surprises in his career, Berndt said, "Most recently, I've been amazed at the additional sales that can be had by offering smaller portions of a product."

Stop & Shop, responding to customer requests, now offers half pies and smaller cheesecake slices, among other items, said Berndt.

"Sales are great and they're not cutting into sales of the whole product," Berndt added.

Not only does he see portions getting smaller, he sees the entire in-store bakery losing weight by the year 2000.

"They won't need the space, because I think they'll limit themselves to fewer products, some specialized ones maybe, in order to make a profit," Berndt said. Signature products will be important and self-service will increase, he said. "Supermarkets are finding it's not easy to make a profit with an in-store bakery." For that reason, he said he believes that supermarkets will bring in more products that are partially baked.

Quality has had a major hand in pushing sales at Stop & Shop, Berndt said. It has been a surprise that supermarket customers will pay the price for top-quality baked goods, he said.

Traditionally, he said, shoppers have thought products should be less expensive in the supermarket than at the corner retail bakery. Thus, it's been a challenge to lure shoppers into the supermarket for baked goods, because the prices are generally comparable with the neighborhood bakery, he said.

"Our aim has been to get them to try our products and have them realize they're every bit as good as they could have gotten at their neighborhood bakery, and we have succeeded," he said.

A lot of demos and cents-off coupons when a new product is introduced and a regular blurb in the chain's bakery ad that says "Fresh-batch baking all day" help do the trick, he said.

Convenience for the customer, too, counts for a lot, he said. The one-stop shopping in-store bakeries offer is the obvious convenience, but that's not all.

"I think one reason our sales continue to grow is that our customers have found they can get a loaf of warm bread just about any hour of the day in our stores, and that's not true at the small, retail bake shops. They're winding down by three or four in the afternoon," Berndt said.

Being able to hand the customer a loaf of bread that's still warm is more important than the fresh-baked aroma that so many retailers talk about, he said.

While most breads and rolls are baked off from frozen dough at Stop & Shop, its new line of European-style breads comes already proofed and partially baked. Production for this kind of hearty bread is "just too delicate a process, and the loaves are actually hand-rounded," said Berndt. If the company tried scratch or bake-off production of the line, he said, "among more than 100 stores, there would be too much variation." All the breads are made, however, to Stop & Shop's specifications.

When Berndt joined Stop & Shop in 1972, his responsibilities included developing a line of commercial bakery products for the chain's own manufacturing plant. Stop & Shop was still 14 years away from in-store bakeries at that time. When the decision was made at the chain to have in-store bakeries, Berndt developed lines of products for them.

Prior to joining Stop & Shop, he was employed by National Biscuit Co. in its research facility, located at that time in Fair Lawn, N.J. Berndt's bakery experience, however, goes back much further.

"My first job was cleaning angel food cake pans in my father's bakery in Fort Lee [N.J.], when I was in the fifth grade," he said. Later, he worked in a variety of capacities in other bakeries, particularly learning how to bake different types of ethnic products. Then, for several years, he owned his own retail bakery in Teaneck, N.J.

Berndt's plans for the future are uncertain at this point, he said. "But I will stay, in some capacity, in the baking industry."