This article was published in Modern Baking on April 18, 2006.
By Heather Brown
Hamburger buns as dry as hockey pucks. A problem for Minnesota hockey fans turned into an opportunity for Saint Agnes Baking Co. of St. Paul, Minn. Learning that the Excel Center’s catering company was battling dry buns, Saint Agnes bakers went to work. They substituted shortenings with oils and higher egg percentages to achieve hamburger and hot dog buns that would withstand the dry environment of an ice arena and feed thousands. Pitching Wildside Caterers with the single bun opened a new client relationship for Saint Agnes, which has grown to include a line of bakery products that serve rock concerts and other events held at the center.
Developing specialized products for its customers has become the specialty wholesale bakery’s expertise. Under its current ownership since 1996, Saint Agnes has grown its business by customizing breads for restaurants and other foodservice operations in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area.
“We design breads. That’s what has become more popular,” says Klecko, the bakery’s production manager (Dan McGleno) who prefers to use his nickname.
Although 95 percent of Saint Agnes’ business comes from wholesaling, the company has built its business by marketing itself as a bakery retailer might: by developing a “neighborhood” of bread fans, being personally connected to its customers’ needs and relying on its team of experienced bakers to develop quality products.
Becoming a profitable wholesale business was not instant. But, after years of pursuing its niche as a custom bakery, Saint Agnes has grown business in both specialty and “regular” bakery products to reach $1.9 million. Last year, Saint Agnes Baking Co.’s annual sales were up 16 percent over 2004.
“We had to reach a critical mass of sales to operate in the black,” says Gary Sande, Saint Agnes co-owner who handles the financial end of the business.
Co-owner Larry Burns, who oversees operations and sales, attributes the bakery’s new found success to tenacious leg work and having the right staff in place. “We knocked on a lot of doors. Our biggest asset is our customer service,” he says.
Customer service for Saint Agnes runs through its entire process, from taking orders to delivering the products. Burns credits competent, long-time employees, like Bill Cahlander who manages customer orders over the phone and brothers Alfredo and Osieol Armenta who oversee morning and night baking shifts.
Klecko has been with Saint Agnes since it began, and also worked for the bakery under its previous owners when it operated under another name. Klecko has emerged as Saint Agnes’ recognized face in the Twin Cities’ chef and food community through his involvement in area associations and by writing a column in a local restaurant tabloid.
“The thing with wholesale is knowing who’s who in terms of buyers,” Klecko says.
Using burger buns to open the doors of wholesale clients is a deliberate strategy.
“I was taught early in this business to create the best hamburger bun,” Klecko says. “If you’ve got the best burger bun, you’ll own the city.”
Klecko estimates that 65 percent of breads being served in any city are hamburger buns, so capturing part of that business offers great potential. “Plus, 85 percent of them want a better bun, one made with sweeter doughs, no shortenings, better quality,” he says.
The 7,500-sq.-ft. bakery produces 7,000 to 13,000 lbs. of dough a day, and about 65 percent of the dough becomes hamburger, hot dog or sub buns. The bakery uses five hamburger bun doughs, producing as many as 60 different products daily.
Hamburger buns may open doors, but sourdough and European-style specialty breads keep clients hooked on Saint Agnes. Klecko, who received much of his bakery education from Polish bakers, uses sourdoughs in most of his breads, including pan breads.
Many of Saint Agnes’ regular products derived from special events. For example, the bakery created its popular Hungarian Raisin Rye bread for a Hungarian-Austrian conference that was held in St. Paul several years ago. The bread has become Saint Agnes’ top-selling retail bread at farmers’ markets and during its Saturday events.
The bakery runs on about a 35-hour production cycle with 13 baker shifts. The production crew receives paperwork for the next day’s orders by 2 p.m.
Bakers begin mixing doughs and elaborating starters in the afternoon, and all doughs go through a proofer. “Our proof box is like the highway,” Klecko says.
Most breads are finished by hand with some shaping and dividing help from a conical rounder, baguette moulders and bun divider/rounders. The night shift begins at 5 p.m. when most products are baked in two rack ovens, a deck oven and two revolving tray ovens for early morning delivery.
Saint Agnes’ four delivery trucks work about six hours, beginning at 4 a.m. to get products to more than 100 accounts throughout the Twin Cities. Although orders are supposed to be in by 2 p.m., the bakery’s flexibility and ability to accommodate late orders and mistakes has earned loyal business from chefs. Saint Agnes stays flexible by tracking regular orders and “guessing” which products the bakery needs to produce each day.
“In the mornings, we’re punting,” Klecko says. “But, you have to punt right because you don’t want to over bake.”
By having the right organizational systems in place, Saint Agnes Baking’s production capacity required a larger location. The bakery doubled its size when it moved to its current space in 2003. Saint Agnes Baking Co. has reached a profitable production capacity, Burns says, and the company’s promotional efforts are getting results.
“Our prices are a little bit higher than most, but it is really good product,” he says. “We have more people calling on us now than ever before. That’s a good thing.”
Saint Agnes at a glance
Headquarters: St. Paul, Minn.
“I’ve taken it upon myself to educate the Twin Cities about bread,” says Klecko, Saint Agnes production manager. “If you educate people, they go out and tell their chefs what they want.”
(That’s what Saint Agnes’ “Retail Saturday” is all about.) The event gets the Saint Agnes name out to the public, brings in additional revenue and builds a community (and mailing list) of bread fans. The bakery brought in more than $1,200 on a recent Saturday.
The invitation sets the light-hearted mood for the Saturday Club by showing the bakery’s Saint Paul Sourdough breads against San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge skyline. It tells guests to, “Leave the bread in San Francisco, we’ve surpassed the legend.”
“It’s important to have fun with this,” Klecko says.