AKRON, Ohio -- Mustard Seed Market & Cafe here is betting on its improved crusty, European-style bread, baked in a new French oven, to draw customers back more often.
Phillip Nabors, who owns the all-natural gourmet-food operation with his wife, Margaret, sees the addition of "true, European, artisan breads" as a magnet.
"Sure, the margin is good on these breads, but what's more important is they bring loyalty," Nabors said. "They're a frequency driver. Everybody eats bread, and usually everyday. The idea is to get them addicted to our bread."
The single-unit operator pushed aggressively into the home-meal replacement arena last year with a renovation and expansion that tripled its space, bringing the store and cafe to 31,500 square feet. The centerpiece of the updated retail section is an expanded repertoire of meals and meal components made on-site.
Customers who come to Mustard Seed Market & Cafe for ready-to-heat prepared food often pick up a loaf of bread, Nabors said; he theorizes that if they get hooked on it, they'll come back quicker and probably buy additional fresh items, too.
Nabors admitted that there are other retailers in the market who offer good quality breads made from scratch; but, he pointed out, the certified organic ingredients in Mustard Seed's breads set them apart, as does their quality.
The new bread program had been in the planning stages for more than a year. When it came time for making decisions about equipment, Mustard Seed's operators knew they had to acquire an oven capable of producing a superior product that would grab people's attention.
"We decided if we're going to be known as a real, quality bread store, we needed a good oven. Customers are apt to pick up a loaf of bread with their prepared food and we want to get them saying, 'You know what? Your bread's better. I'm going to buy it all here from now on.' It was a piston we weren't firing on, and we needed to be," Nabors said.
He and associates were on the hunt for the better part of the year for an oven that would fit Mustard Seed's needs. Finally, earlier this year they decided on a Pavailler oven from France, which fit into their plans in more ways than one.
"We knew the kind of equipment we needed for the bread we wanted to make, but it also had to fit our physical requirements. We had some height limitations in the area where we wanted to put the oven. The Pavailler met our needs. It was the best quality and best value we looked at, and it fit our physical needs. And it has a U.S. distributor," Nabors said.
The French-built Pavailler oven that Nabors installed is about 8 feet wide, 8 feet tall and 15 feet deep, and "has a shiny, food-service look to it." Mustard Seed paid $30,000 for the oven alone, not including installation costs.
"The steam function on this oven works particularly well," Nabors said. It doesn't require a boiler. Instead, it employs heavy-gauge metal tubes in which water is heated. And it doesn't require a separate steam-injection process, he pointed out.
"The oven injects all the steam you want in a simple way," he said. It's also a gas-fired oven, which Nabors said produces a better quality bread than an electric oven.
Mustard Seed had previously been baking its from-scratch breads in five convection ovens. According to Nabors, the product out of the new oven is a step up.
"This oven adds that 'Old World' quality. It gives you the extra crustiness. The kind that makes the loaf explode when you cut into it and gets crumbs all over your dining room," he said.
Customers appreciate Old World texture and taste. "You can watch them fall in love with the product when we're sampling or demoing."
And sales reflect that. The company is easily selling twice as much bread as it had prior to installing the new oven, Nabors said. The average now is 300 loaves a day at $3 to $4 a pound.
The oven also gives Mustard Seed capacity that will serve it well into the future. It can turn out upwards of 1,100 loaves in a day, he said.
At this point, just two months after the installation, Mustard Seed is making six varieties of bread: seven grain, seven grain focaccia, Jewish rye, honey and cracked wheat, country wheat and Old World French -- which is the best seller.
But this is just the beginning, Nabors stressed, and varieties will be added to the bread menu.
He also said as volume increases and he trains more people, the bread baking activity will be spread out over the day. Currently, baking begins about 4 a.m. in order to fill the service case and self-service displays by the time the store opens.
"We've been producing the bulk by noon, but we do pull out some breads [from the oven] during the day. As this progresses, we'll be able to do it during a greater part of the day. My intention is to spread out production so people can see, smell and feel hot bread all day. It'll be demonstrably fresh," Nabors said.
"If you can buy a loaf of bread that's handcrafted and has all those superior qualities you get when you do it right, and also sell it to customers while it's still warm, it's a big deal. Bread that's still warm evokes the security of home."
Nabors said Mustard Seed is sampling the breads all day long everyday, and does manned demonstrations on weekends. Depending on the variety of bread, tastes of it are offered to customers with olive oil and freshly grated Parmesan, or with honey butter, Nabors said.
"We're also introducing our regular customers to our new oven," he said. The oven is in full view just behind the service counter.
The loaves of bread are merchandised from a 5-foot, three-tiered service case adjacent to the prepared-food case, and also from 8 feet of self-service slant racks.
"Actually, we didn't allow enough display space. We're still learning; we're taking baby steps," Nabors said.
He pointed out that it's important to display the loaves naked in the service case so customers can see what they look like and choose the one they want. All varieties are random weight, sold by the pound.
"Customers want to find 'The One Loaf.' It's like picking out a head of lettuce. Some want a smaller loaf or maybe they want one with crusty peaks on it, so they can pull them off and eat them on the way home," Nabors said.
"The loaves are delightfully crude looking; they're like awkwardly shaped pillows," he added.
The from-scratch program is supplemented with bake-off rolls and croissants that meet Mustard Seed's requirements for all-natural ingredients. But baking off anything here may be a thing of the past.
"We're definitely going to make rolls [from scratch] and I intend to tackle croissants someday. I don't know if the economics [of doing croissants] is going to work, but we're planning to attempt it," Nabors said.
He said that one of the major challenges ahead for the company is finding people with aptitude that can be trained for scratch baking.
"We're going to hire a human resources professional to help us recruit," he said, adding that it will be a necessity as the company continues to grow. Nabors presently employs 150 people, 100 of whom are "full-time equivalent," he said.