Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Community Bakery, at 12th and Main streets, opened in 1947 in Rose City, but it had moved to a small storefront on South Main when Joe Fox found it in the early 1980s. Since buying it, he moved the bakery into its current space in the Cohn Building and added a second location in West Little Rock. His kitchen pumps out thousands of cookies, cakes and any other baked good you can imagine 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We met with him recently to talk about the bakery business.
How did you get into the bakery business?
I wasn't looking to. When I first came back to Little Rock in the '70s from Boston, I wanted a place where I could go and read the New York Times and get a bagel and coffee. The Sunday New York Times came by bus to Newsmart downtown on a Wednesday or Thursday. So the only way I could figure out to get the New York Times on a Sunday was to become a distributor. And here, almost 30 years later, I am still the distributor for the New York Times.
Also, I thought there should be a dessert coffee house in town. Being a customer of Community Bakery, I went in one day and asked to speak to the owner and said, 'Any chance we could rent the facilities on the evenings, when you're not here?' And Agnes Bargiel, who was the owner then, said, 'Well, there's hardly any time when we're not here.' And I thought that was just a brush-off. But then she said, 'Why don't you just buy the whole bakery from us?' Eventually I decided to go for it. I didn't think I'd still be doing it 29 years later, but here I am.
Did you wake up in the middle of the night wondering, 'What have I done?'
No. I was here in the middle of the night. But I wasn't scared. The bakers came to work at 2:30 a.m. And I came in with them. I knew that I needed to learn how to bake right away. I was not a stranger to the kitchen. When I was in business school, to relax on Friday after classes I'd come home and whip up a batch of brownies or something like that. Plus, in college I lived in a co-op where we made all our meals for 40 people. So I was comfortable with producing stuff in larger volumes. But I've learned how to do most everything here. I can't decorate, but I can make the breads, the Danishes, all the cookies.
Where do your recipes come from?
A lot of them are the recipes that the bakery has always used. Agnes, she baked with the recipes she used when she got here. I would say roughly half of what we do here is the same as it was when I bought the business — the sand tarts, the cocoons, the small chocolate chip cookies, the sugar cookies.
How has Community Bakery evolved in the past 30 years?
It grew by leaps and bounds when I got here. All I had to do to do that was two things: unstop bottlenecks and put more people to work at the front counter. The other thing was introducing new products that were already being sold around the country. We started doing croissants way back when there was not a croissant in Little Rock. And bagels. And cinnamon rolls. We went through all those crazes. This was in the second half of the '80s and the first half of the '90s. All we had to do was turn out a good product.
The world has changed now. Even eight to 10 years ago, we had remarkably little competition. We have far more competition now. We were the first ones to do artisan breads here in town, then Boulevard Bread opened up, hired away our artisan bread baker. I went in and recruited another from out of state, and they hired him away too.
Eight to 10 years ago there was no other place to get espresso. We had a line out the door in the morning of people getting espresso drinks, lattes, cappuccinos; there was no Starbucks here or Panera. But now we've got tons of competition.
You manage any hobbies outside of the bakery?
I've tried to do a lot of other things. But the bakery sucks me back in. Unlike my newspaper distribution business, where I hired a general manager who runs it. We have a general manager of the bakery, but the bakery operation is so management-intensive that I can never get much distance from it.
Why is that?
For one thing it's food service, and I think all food service demands constant focus, day in and day out, otherwise you start to veer off-track. ... and I've always got a quality improvement list that's longer than I'm comfortable with.
Part of it is what I've created: an operation where we do so many products, and it's very complicated to bring it all together each day. I do the opposite of what a franchise does. They narrow down and focus on a very small range of products, and they get it down to a science and mechanize it as much as they can and take away as much possibility for human error as they can. We do way too much stuff. We do muffins, bagels, Danishes and croissants — all that breakfast stuff. We do cookies, pies, desserts, wedding cakes, decorated cakes, artisan breads, fancy pastries. Then we have a whole restaurant side where we do sandwiches and soups and paninis. Then we do the whole espresso bar thing. It's so difficult to stay on top of all that.
Probably half of our product gets ordered over the phone. We have a whole order-taking system where we have three workstations with computers. I have a lady who comes in for two hours every night — she's a called a production planner — and she aggregates all of the orders from our West Little Rock store, and from our stores down here. She puts all of that into a master production order that then gets taken back to the baking department where they produce all these things. Our operation goes on 24-7.
How many bakers do you have?
Our baking department has 12 or 13 people. On a given night we have five to seven. Some are part-time, but most are full-time. But just to be able to staff the place and run the place — produce seven days a week — you've got to have 10 or 11 bakers to staff all of that. So there's always a lot going on. Last week I got a call at midnight that the donut fryer wouldn't start up. There's so much equipment in the operation that if each piece of equipment breaks down once a year, that's one piece of equipment every week. I've made it too complicated and I know better because I went to business school and know you shouldn't do it this way if you want to grow.
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