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The wholesale bakery for Colson Patisserie
The wholesale bakery for Colson Patisserie
Colson/Michael Harlan Turkell

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How Five Small New York City Bakeries Got Into the Wholesale Business

For artisanal bakeries, feeding the masses with handmade pastries takes more than just a good recipe

Breakfast for many New Yorkers means picking up a pastry at a local coffee shop, and many of the city's most popular cafes source their baked goods from local purveyors. Over the last two decades, some of the city's best independent bakeries have gone big, expanding beyond small retail shops into large-scale operations churning out thousands of handmade pastries every day.

Bakeries that end up scaling to the wholesale level see their wholesale business pay off and outgrow the retail shop. But getting into wholesale, from the commissary space to the deliveries, is a bigger investment, too. Eater talked to some of of the most prolific homegrown bakeries feeding coffee shop denizens about their path to getting big, from how they maintain quality to lessons learned from early mistakes.


1) Bien Cuit

Essential Information: Wholesale in Sunset Park, Brooklyn; retail in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Founded by Chef Zachary Golper and wife/business partner Kate Wheatcroft in 2011

Number of clients: Fewer than 100, including several dozen cafes and coffee shops like Joe and Toby's Estate

Best sellers: plain, chocolate, and almond croissants; danishes; raisin walnut rolls

Bien Cuit
Zachary Golper at Bien Cuit
Bien Cuit
Bien Cuit

[Zachary Golper makes eclairs. For more on the eclairs, click here.]

How they got into wholesale: Golper and Wheatcroft never meant to get into the wholesale business. A few weeks after the opening, Print Restaurant approached them for some breads, and they slowly took on a few wholesale clients. It was a blunder with their first coffee shop client, Ninth Street Espresso, that made them realize they needed to make a decision about whether or not to keep going with that side of the business.

"We totally bungled it," Wheatcroft says. In the beginning, Wheatcroft was delivering the pastries to Ninth Street herself. She quickly learned that coffee shops have a very small delivery window time, and they were missing it. "It was just a mess," Wheatcroft says. Ninth Street, which was very patient about the situation, ended the relationship after eight weeks or so.

Setback aside, it was "the perfect lesson" for a new bakery, Wheatcroft says. They realized they needed to commit to the wholesale business if they wanted it to succeed. "Just dabbling was a money losing proposition," Wheatcroft says. The wholesale business "is really an economy of scale," she says. The selling price point is lower, and hiring delivery drivers is only worth the cost if they're going to a certain number of stops. Only taking on a few clients here and there didn't make sense.

Wheatcroft and Golper decided to dive in, and now wholesale makes up more than half of their overall business. They work with a lot of restaurants on the wholesale side, and being able to collaborate with chefs like Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern has made it worth it. They eventually opened a facility in Sunset Park to meet the demand.

How they maintain quality: Bien Cuit always stops taking on new clients if they feel like growth will impact the quality of their baked goods, Wheatcroft says. They've had to start a waiting list or tell larger clients that they can't deliver for a while as they figure out operations. When Bien Cuit was moving the wholesale bakery from the retail shop to the Sunset Park bakery, one client waited nearly six months, Wheatcroft says. "Quality comes first," she says. "If you have to take a break, you do that."

They also structure the wholesale bakery like a fine dining kitchen, with an executive chef, a senior sous chef, etc. The goal is to make employees feel like they're not just in manufacturing but in a restaurant, creating breads for a specific person, Wheatcroft says. "Sometimes that vision can get lost when you're in the space that isn't the space where you're serving the client," she says. "We try to really keep that vision front and center." Bien Cuit mostly hand makes its products, and it's important for employees to envision each one as "a baby," created from start to finish.


2) Ovenly

Essential Information: Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Founded by Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin in 2010

Number of clients: More than 130, mostly coffee shops and cafes

Number of pastries sent out daily: Between 5,000 and 6,000

Best sellers: Vegan salted chocolate chip cookie, gluten-free peanut butter cookie, whole wheat banana bread, blueberry cornflake muffin

Ovenly
Ovenly/Mark Weinberg
Ovenly

[Ovenly's wholesale and retail operation. See how to make Ovenly cookies by clicking here.]

How they started in wholesale: Kulaga and Patinkin actually started in the baking business as a wholesaler, while still working their day jobs. A friend opening a cafe asked for pastries, and after that, word spread. "It was really perfect timing for us," Kulaga says. "Around that time, the coffee culture in New York City was really changing. People were caring more about the coffee that they drink. People were also looking to match the quality of the pastries to the quality of coffee."

They started off baking in an oven at Paulie Gee's, but after they got their first major client, Joe Coffee, they had to expand operations. The duo went to a kitchen in Red Hook, serving about 20 small coffee shop and cafe clients every day. When it came time to open their current retail shop in Greenpoint in 2012, they'd already built name recognition. Today, they still bake all their wholesale items in a commissary behind the retail shop.

The biggest challenges in wholesaling: Ovenly prides itself on its unique products, and it can be easier to sell them at the retail level, when the bakers have a more direct relationship with the people who are eating them. "It's easier to convey the message that you want to," Kulaga says. "When you're selling through wholesale, it's a little bit different. It's a little less personal." In particular, people are more likely to try more experimental goods when the baker is there to sell it herself, versus when the goods are just sitting in a pastry case.

The company employs a wholesale manager who dedicates time to educating the cafes and coffee shops. The manager, Lea Faminiano, hosts trainings to discuss tasting notes and ingredients and checks in regularly to make sure "our story is more understood," Kulaga says. They also offer suggestions on the best way to display baked goods to keep them fresh and sellable.

And Ovenly won't sell wholesale to just any cafe, to make sure their brand and quality is maintained. They want to know that the cafes also have a sense of pride in the quality of their business. "It's important to work with people who appreciate the craft of what they're doing," Kulaga says. They've turned away wholesale customers before based on this criteria.

How they maintain quality: Kulaga says a highly trained staff and positive working environment has been the most important aspect of helping to keep things going. They employ 50 people now and hand-make everything using small equipment, instead of switching to larger scale items like big mixers.

A positive work environment means things like offering free yoga for employees, free family meal, and a partnership that will eventually offer produce to employees at a discount. Plus, the founders, who both used to work in social justice, think it's important to keep a social mission with the company as well. More than 30 percent of Ovenly staff is made up of political refugees and formerly incarcerated young men. "We want to make sure we’re growing in a way that’s responsible," Kulaga says.


3) Balthazar

Essential Information: Wholesale in Englewood, New Jersey; retail in Soho. Founded by Keith McNally in 1997, wholesale run by head baker Paula Oland

Number of clients: About 750, including coffee shops, restaurants, markets, catering

Number of employees: About 180

Best sellers: About half of the wholesale business is bread, and the other half is pastry. Large and mini croissants, danishes, and puffy pastry items are most popular. There's a lot of laminated dough at the Balthazar wholesale headquarters. "It's all butter," Oland says.

Balthazar


How they ended up in Jersey
: The original basement space that the wholesale business had got too small — and the lack of temperature control was messing with the yeast, Oland says. "We needed to get out so that we could make a better product," she says. They've been in the bigger space in Englewood since 2000, with a retail component attached.

How they maintain quality: Balthazar's wholesale operation has probably grown about ten times the size since they started, but they still hand-make croissants and use the same sized mixers and ovens. Larger mixers are rougher on the dough, meaning tougher flour, and machine cut croissants just aren't the same, she says. As the company's grown, they've just purchased more ovens and more mixers, she says. "We're a little bakery times several," Oland says.

That said, they have made changes if the old way is counterproductive. For example, they used to stir flour and water in buckets by hand during the fermentation process. Now, they use a tank that stirs the flour more frequently, making the yeast stay "lively and fresher," Oland says. "It eases up the labor," she says. "People don't have to lift things the way they used to, and we get a better product."

Most of the staff has also been around for a long time, growing up through the ranks. They all know a lot about the business, which helps the 24-hour cycle of running a wholesale bakery run smoothly.


4) Colson Patisserie

Essential Information: In Sunset Park's Industry City and Park Slope, Brooklyn. Yonatan Israel opened it in Brooklyn more than nine years ago, based on baker Hubert Colson's Belgian outpost that debuted in 1986. Andrew Hackel runs the wholesale side.

Number of clients: More than 100, mostly coffee shops, including Blue Stone Lane and Irving Farm, but also hotels and grocery stores

Best sellers: Croissants, Belgian waffles, yeast doughnuts

Colson Patisserie Colson/Michael Harlan Turkell
Colson Patisserie
Colson Patisserie

[Colson Patisserie's wholesale operation]

How they've managed growth: Israel built the commissary in Industry City about three years ago, and Hackel came on shortly after solely to manage the wholesale business. At that point, there were about 30 deliveries daily. Now, there are nearly 120, Hackel says. Increasing the amount of space from 200-square-feet to the 3,000-square-feet of the commissary was critical to taking on more clients, he says. "We got to a certain size where we couldn't maintain quality out of the shared location with our cafe," he says.

Hackel initially went out selling the pastries by knocking on doors and walking into coffee shops, but since then, the growth has been more organic. Most people are now reaching out. The wholesale side has gotten so big that they've had to stop actively selling, Hackel says. "We only have so much bandwidth left," he says. Soon, they're planning to upgrade to an 8,000-square-foot kitchen that will allow them to take on more clients.

The biggest challenges in doing wholesale: The greatest challenges have been adding space and keeping up quality with growth, Hackel says. More than a year ago, they had doubled their growth over the course of two months, and they had to shut down sales briefly to make sure employees could keep up with the pace. "It was too much too fast," he says. "We were worried about the quality of our product." They retrained staff to make sure everybody understood how each pastry is put together. A move to a larger bakery later this year is also partly to keep up with the pace of growth.

Why the retail shop still matters: Even though the wholesale business has surpassed retail by two-and-a-half times, keeping a cafe matters for a public face of the company, Hackel says. They just remodeled their shop and signed a ten year lease. "The cafe is what allows the wholesale to be," Hackel says. "People know of the cafe and what it does. The quality of the pastries that come out of there, it's our flagship."


5) Ceci-Cela Patisserie

Essential Information: Wholesale bakery in Williamsburg; retail shop in Soho. Opened more than 20 years ago by Laurent Dupal. Wholesale, started in 2008, run by operator Yann Henriet.

Number of clients: About 350, including coffee chops, restaurants, and hotels

Number of pastries sent out daily: About 9,000

Best sellers: Muffins, danishes, and most of all, croissants. After Serious Eats named Ceci-Cela the best croissant in NYC, sales for the breakfast items jumped.

Ceci Cela Ceci-Cela

How they got into wholesale: The first wholesale customers were largely coffee shops in the neighborhood of the retail shop in Soho, Henriet says. They would go into the shop on Spring Street and make deals directly with the bakery. Eventually, business spread outside of Soho, and in 2008, they opened the bakery in Williamsburg for wholesale baking.

The biggest challenge in doing wholesale: "Doing 100 croissants a day is one thing. Doing 10,000 the same way you do 100 is much more complicated," Henriet says. It took a few years for the wholesale bakery to nail down the process of making croissants as delicious as they are on the smaller scale. It took training, buying the right mix of semiautomatic equipment, and a series of protocols before business started to pick up. "When everything is in place, you can be very aggressive in looking for customers," he says. "If you go too fast, you can produce a lot. But if you don't have the quality and consistency, you're probably going to fail."

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