San Fernando, Calif. — The growing Hispanic population has many in-store bakery operators adjusting product lines and modifying merchandising tactics, but the nation's oldest Hispanic supermarket chain is addressing demographic changes of a different sort. An evolving economic base and an expected influx of non-Hispanic residents are spurring 63-year-old Tresierras Supermarkets to adapt its proven marketing strategy to the new conditions.
The late Frank Tresierras, a native of Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, opened his first store here, north of Los Angeles, in 1944. Currently, his surviving sons operate four stores with three bakeries and tortillerias here and westward through Ventura County to the Pacific Coast.
The family has built the company's reputation on providing the area's Hispanic consumers, most of whom are engaged in vegetable farming, with high-quality food, especially meat and fresh bakery products, at reasonable prices.
Tresierras introduced on-premises baking with the opening of his first store.
Lote Thistlethwaite, director of food service, which includes bakery, explained that freshness is important to Hispanic consumers.
“Just as in their native countries, Hispanics shop for food almost daily, and those trips generally include purchasing bread or tortillas,” he said. “Our emphasis on fresh product will be important as the company grows.”
Bakeries offer about 100 items daily from 250 available products, mostly Mexican items, including specialty and variety breads and rolls, cookies and pastries. In recent years, Tresierras added Anglo-oriented items, including decorated cakes, doughnuts, pies, puff pastries, cookies, bagels and cheesecakes.
The company developed its Hispanic bakery line with the authenticity of its hot prepared foods menu. Tresierras adapted family recipes for inclusion in its stores' cafe menus, dominated by meat entrees and bean and rice dishes. The in-store bakeries supply authentic breads, while the tortillerias provide tortillas.
“These dishes are truly traditional Mexican food,” Thistlethwaite said. “In many cases, they have become home meal replacements and thus must be authentic. We're using all of our departments to complement one another to attract customers. This makes for a more rewarding shopping experience.”
The most popular items are traditional tres leches cakes, bolillos (mini baguettes) and conchas (sweet breads). Sales of decorated cakes, which were introduced two years ago, have surpassed bread sales.
SWITCHING FOCUS TO CAKES
“When I joined the company [in 2003], we were trying to beat our competitors by offering good bread, better than what they sold,” explained Thistlethwaite, a restaurateur and graduate of the Cordon Bleu program at California School of Culinary Arts. “We decided to focus on products that the competitors don't offer, like decorated cakes and pastries, and then get customers to buy our bread.”
Hispanics have “a zillion feasts, holidays and celebrations that call for decorated cakes and desserts,” he added. “Every event, no matter how large or small, has some type of sweet, such as a cake, flan or gelatina [flavored gelatin cubes combined with tres leches, the three milks used with tres leches cakes].”
Before decorated cakes were added, the cake line was limited to a few varieties of dessert cakes. The company introduced custom-decorated and all-occasion cakes not only to increase sales but also to add color to the bakery. “They have made shopping the bakery more festive,” Thistlethwaite explained.
Most cakes are filled quarter-sheet cakes; single-layer cakes are mostly limited to sales promotions. “We would rather be known for and sell filled cakes,” he said. “Plus, they're more profitable.”
Character kit cakes, featuring popular children's TV and motion picture characters, sell especially well. “Every child recognizes these characters on the cakes, which we display at eye level in the cases,” he added.
Cake sales are especially strong in Tresierras' westernmost store in Oxnard, in Ventura County. The company remodeled the bakery with curved-glass showcases for better cake displays and to show off the decorators' talents at a decorating station open to customer view. The combined efforts have yielded a 60% gain in cake sales during the last two years to 200 cakes a week.
Alejandro Cano, store director, said increased cake sales have contributed much to the bakery's sales growth. Year-to-date, cake revenue has increased by 40% to 53% of bakery from 2006, he says, and bakery sales as a percentage of store sales run from 4.5% to 6% in the store, which has nearly 30,000 SKUs.
The strategy of using cakes to introduce customers to breads is working. The bread lineup currently includes 75 different types of bread products, largely different shapes and sizes from five different doughs, which, with the pastry doughs, provide great flexibility, Cano said.
An example is pan fino, a moist, slightly yeasted dough with crushed cinnamon and other spices and filled with pasta, or paste, made with flour, sugar, shortening, baking powder and food color. Bakers mould pan fino into several different shapes, including pan de elote, or corn bread. After rolling a dough piece around an oblong piece of pasta, they turn down one end of the dough into three sections to expose the pasta. The effect emulates a partially shucked ear of corn.
Pan de elote is an example of the bakers' creativity, which has helped Tresierras' bakeries distinguish themselves from other Hispanic operators and boost bread sales.
The crews prepare most products from scratch and mixes. “We believe in scratch production to make the products that our customers expect,” Cano observed. “These are the products that they would see back home. We want to keep the tradition alive.”
To help maintain scratch and mix production, Thistlethwaite brought in automated equipment to produce bread products in volume and keep a lid on labor costs. “We can dedicate more labor to cakes, which are more profitable and are growing,” he said. “With more cake sales, we can add another baker to handle scratch baking and still keep our labor costs within an allocated percentage of sales.”
The Oxnard bakery installed a semi-automatic divider-rounder and sheeter-molder to increase productivity of high-volume items, such as bolillos. This has enabled the bakers to make up and retard product for proofing and baking the next day.
In addition, the bakery recently replaced its single-rack oven with a rotating double-rack unit, largely to handle increased bread sales.
To enhance productivity, Tresierras cross-trains sales associates and decorators to handle proofing and baking, such as during afternoons after the bakers have left. At the Oxnard store, one baker and cross-trained decorators and bakery sales associates handle most of a day's production.
THE RIGHT PRODUCTION MIX
When Thistlethwaite joined the company, he introduced several thaw-and-serve Hispanic items to add variety and spark sales. Since then, the bakeries have dropped about one-half of those products because the bakers began producing freshly baked versions.
“We would much rather display our own products — they're better and we make more money,” Thistlethwaite said. Ingredient manufacturers are responding to bakers' needs to produce authentic Hispanic products, yet “many products are not there. But, they're getting better, especially frozen dough and mixes,” he added.
Though scratch and mix are the primary methods, the bakers fill in production with frozen items. For example, while bakers use a mix for tres leches cakes, the top-selling sweet item, decorators prepare other cakes with frozen layers. Frozen items also give the bakeries a chance to introduce new products, such as non-Hispanic items like macaroons.
“We've had a challenge to introduce Anglo products to Hispanics,” Thistlethwaite said. “However, the Hispanic community is changing. Second- and third-generation families are becoming more educated and have more buying power. They are more inclined to shop at Vons or Whole Foods, compared with their parents, who shopped exclusively at Hispanic stores.”
Store director Cano added that the area, notably Ventura County, is gradually moving away from agriculture as the land becomes more valuable for real estate development. “This will encourage more education as Hispanic consumers recognize they will need to prepare to work in higher-skilled jobs,” he said.
With more education, newer generations are more health-conscious, Thistlethwaite said. “They're more inclined to cook with vegetable shortening, not lard, and are learning about trans fats,” he continued. These and other health issues have spurred the company to offer more health-oriented products.
For example, Cano noted, diabetes has become a major problem within the Hispanic community. During the winter holidays, Tresierras' bakeries offer sugar-free pies. “We give customers with diabetes an option to enjoy dessert,” he said. “Though we promote these and other healthful products, it will take some time to educate large numbers of customers. Old habits are hard to change.”
As commercial land development supplants agriculture in Ventura County, Cano said more non-Hispanics likely will move into the area. Asians, to cite one segment, are a fast-growing consumer group in the area. “The challenge will be offering the products they and other groups will want,” he said.
To help the bakeries handle the changes, Tresierras plans to remodel its other bakeries to improve merchandising, production and efficiency. The benefits of remodeling the Oxnard bakery have shown what can be done, Thistlethwaite said.
Also, he is working with the company's human resources department to develop a more structured bakery training program, which will include a path for promotion and opportunities to reward good performance of employees who want to make bakery a career. “We want to encourage people who want to learn,” Thistlethwaite said. “This, in turn, will enable us to build really strong bakery teams.”
Tresierras Supermarkets has established itself well within the Hispanic community. “Our stores have all the products that the other supermarkets have. We just carry fewer SKUs within the categories,” Thistlethwaite said.
“More importantly, we offer products that the other stores don't sell. Food service cooks everything from scratch. Produce has the freshest fruits and vegetables. And, in bakery, we bake nearly everything we sell.”
The company is in the business of changing consumers' perceptions of “what we do and how we do business,” he continued. “Our challenge is to increase the number of consumers in our stores who are unaware of the products that make us different. This is coming.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of Modern Baking, a Penton Publication.
At a Glance: Tresierras Supermarkets
HEADQUARTERS: San Fernando, Calif.
BAKERY MANAGEMENT: Lote Thistlethwaite, food-service director; Rigo Garcia, bakery supervisor
MARKET SERVED: San Fernando Valley west through Ventura County
NUMBER OF STORES/BAKERIES/TORTILLERIAS: 4/3/3
STORE/BAKERY SIZES: 7,000 to 25,000 square feet/500 to 1,100 square feet
NUMBER OF BAKERY EMPLOYEES: Six to eight per bakery
BAKERY SALES: About 7% of total store sales
PRODUCTION METHODS: Mostly scratch and mix, supported by frozen dough and thaw-and-sell products
BAKERY SUPPLY DISTRIBUTORS: Puratos, Unified Grocers