September 14, 2020 - by John Unrein, Bake Magazine - A baker's life during a pandemic can follow many different paths. Later this year in December, Andrew's Pastries in Marion, Ohio, will celebrate its 25th year in business.
As the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head across America's Heartland, this independent retail bakery located 120 miles southwest of Cleveland nearly shut its doors for the very last time.
"Overnight, we lost $100,000 worth of business," recalls owner Andrew Swartz, adding that the bakery lost all its wholesale accounts in a single day. "That's a big chunk."
Versatility proved a critical answer. Swartz has worn many hats over his time in the bakery business, including work in pastry shops, hotels, and high-end restaurants. All this experience came into play in the COVID-19 world.
"We are fortunate enough to be versatile. Positives came out of negatives," he says. "We stayed open. I've had people come in who have never walked into our bakery before."
In small-town Ohio, the local Panera Bread, Perkins and Bob Evans closed, and local patrons turned to the comfort and joy of Andrew's Pastries. They pay full retail price for carry-out donuts, whereas before they may have bought their donuts at the gas station.
"It's just survival," Swartz says. "The majority of my business has always been carryout."
Never an option
Closing his beloved business was never an option. "Initially, people were just upset. They did not know which businesses were still open. When they learned they can still go to the bakery, they were happy."
Immediately, Andrew's wife, who runs marketing, began scheduling specials every day, such as 99-cent cream cheese brownies – "anything to bring people in."
Biscuits and gravy, big sheets of focaccia, and anything else they could produce in volume without a lot of labor proved extremely popular to fans of the bakery.
Andrew used the same formula – using all butter and milk powder – for biscuits and gravy that he learned while studying decades ago at the Culinary Institute of America. They sold 15 gallons of sausage gravy a day. "It was crazy."
They also turned to making quiche and pepperoni bread, opening the door to serving new customers who were not coming in before.
"All of these things helped us stay open," he says bluntly. "You have got to step out of your comfort zone. Offering value is critical right now."
Staying the course
Andrew's Pastries first opened in 1995 and has been at the same location during its entire time in Marion. Originally from Cleveland, Swartz and his family had moved to Marion in 1982 when his father purchased a fast-food restaurant. Swartz graduated from Tri-Rivers Career Center in 1984 with a degree in culinary arts and later studied at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
Today, operating an open kitchen in his bakery lets customers know clearly that there is nothing to hide. This helps boost business. Trust is a bigger deal in the COVID-19 world. They greet every single person who walks into the bakery. That's a given. But the customer service extends above and beyond the call of duty.
"You've got to provide the best customer service anywhere," Swartz says. "That goodwill has kept us open."
Having a trusted bakery supplier also does wonders for success. Swartz credits Dawn Foods for providing the product innovation and exceptional service needed to overcome challenging times.
"We do a lot of business with Dawn Foods, and they are really good to us," he says. "We switched to Dawn's Extend-R (extended shelf life) donut mix, which gives us 24-hour shelf life with no compromise in quality."
Swartz has implemented a series of changes to make his business run smoother and more profitably. They make more cream horns and "pecan diamonds," a signature that traces back to his time at the Culinary Institute, made with shortbread crust using butter, brown sugar, and honey.
"I want to go to more seasonal menus," he says. "Chop down the number of items on our everyday menu and really try to simplify."
As he looks ahead, the bakery owner can't help but wonder what's next around the corner. Still, he is satisfied with the direction that his business is heading and remains optimistic that there are better days ahead.
"My operation is simpler to run now," he says. "I sleep a little better, even if we are making less money."
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