By Christina Griffin
There’s a pastry for every palette in Boston’s baking scene: Turkish, Spanish, Italian, American, paleo, gluten-free, vegan and more diet-friendly, cultural delights are scattered throughout the city. There’s sweet, sour, salty and savory.
Those palettes–those customers—matter to Boston’s bakeries. Without a healthy customer base, a bakery will crumble—and not into a peach cobbler.
The Houston Chronicle published a story highlighting the positives of opening a bakery as a loyal customer base, high profits with a popular location and low barriers to entry.
For every upside, there is a downside–including maintaining health and safety standards, battling competition and at times limited growth opportunities. Opening a bakery is like trying to balance a teeter totter–you have to have the right ingredients to create a successful enterprise.
The first rule of building a customer base is being conveniently located. Researchers have found customers travel an average distance of 1.5 miles from work or home to get their hands on decadent desserts. Tourism is another market for bakeries, even though it doesn’t help with regular customers.
Brian Nagai and Rob Daroff traveled from San Francisco to Boston. The two ate sushi at a vegan-advertised restaurant on Newbury Street in Boston before strolling over to the Boston Public Market for dessert. Nagai and Daroff were dismayed when the waiter told the two the restaurant planned to remove the vegan sign out front.
Nagai and Daroff were upset to hear it—they like restaurants that are bold and own the vegan message—especially as regular travelers. It makes it easier for them to know what the options are when they are in a new city.
So when Nagai and Daroff saw Jennifer LaSala’s 110-square-foot stall boldly touting vegan signs, they knew they found their afternoon dessert. “It matters what we eat,” said Nagai, who is passionate about animal rights and unashamed about his vegan lifestyle.
Jennifer LaSala estimates 60% of her customers are new, whereas 40% are returning. People find her bakery from Facebook groups, such as one group for moms with children with food allergies, or simply by passing through the market. With Haymarket offering a produce sale on Friday’s and Saturday’s, the Italian section of Boston being just up the street and sitting a few blocks from the popular tourist-stop of Faneuil Hall, LaSala is ideally positioned for tourists and locals alike.
A traditional, artisan-style bakery has a different customer breakdown than LaSala–and very different customers.
Clear Flour Bread in Brookline, Massachusetts offers thirty different kinds of bread and a seasonal selection of pastries. The bakery hasn’t changed much since opening in 1982, but there are more breads and a pastry department–which the bakery didn’t have when they first opened. The same recipes are used–give or take a pinch of salt.
The bakery was successful without pastry before, but with pastry, Jon Goodman, Co-Owner of Clear Flour Bread with his wife Nicole Walsh, estimates 60% of their retail is pastry.
“In interest, I feel like bakeries are becoming more, they’re talked about a little more,” Walsh said.
“Everyone’s watching the British baking show…food is very big right now,” said Goodman.
Goodman and Walsh took over the bakery two years ago, so they didn’t go through the difficulty of opening a bakery, trying to build a customer base and purchasing a storefront. The two have colleagues who have gone through the experience of purchasing a storefront and it can be somewhat daunting.
“It’s just so difficult to find a storefront that not only fits your needs, but your financial threshold as well,” said Goodman. “To open a place without anyone having had your product, or you having made it or develop it over time—and really understand what you think you want your business to be—that’s really difficult. So to be able to have a built-in product line and a fan base, that’s where you want to be.”
A risk in finding a storefront is finding a gracious landlord, too. Many landlords are looking for prospective buyers to sign a five- or eight-year lease. Unfortunately, for bakers just starting out, they cannot risk signing a lease for that long without knowing how many customers they will attract.
Hillary Sieber, a Harvard University business student, looks at bakeries differently from San Francisco tourists Nagai and Daroff. For Sieber, bakeries provide her with sustenance, function and indulgence. She does not follow a specific diet and stops in bakeries once or twice a month close to work in Cambridge for an on-the-go option.
Sieber closes her eyes and sighs sharing her favorite treat is a croissant. She also loves cookies and grabbing a cup of coffee with her treat. She only stops into bakeries for a quick breakfast or an afternoon pick me up—she’s a quintessential bakery customer. Sieber does not follow a diet like Nagai and Daroff. In fact, she doesn’t really notice when bakeries offer specialty items that are gluten-free, vegan, or paleo.
“I don’t pay super close attention, but I’m not one of those people,” she said.
Sieber would probably not walk into a bakery that made allergen-free products without a friend, unless she heard it was really good. She does love bakeries that source local products and connect to national trends—like Tatte Bakery and Café’s Rainbow Pride Cake—which was available at select locations in June.
Nagai, Daroff and Sieber are all different types of bakery customers—and both want baked goods available for everyone no matter what diet they subscribe to, but not all bakeries can provide products totally free from gluten. Nicole Walsh feels uncomfortable selling a flourless product to a customer with celiacs because “flour is in the air”, she said.
The city of Boston attracts tourists, vegans, health nuts and customers simply looking for a traditional bakery spread. For bakers, they have to have a near unattainable aspect to their food–something people can’t create in their own kitchens.
“You have to have a little certain something that people want to frequent. And [Clear Flour Bread] has it, people keep coming back from generation to generation,” said Goodman.