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Bakin' in the Sun

Six words sum up NexStore MarketPlace's bakery operation: They make their own biscotti, fercryinoutloud.

They also make from scratch — no par-baked, baked-off, thawed-and-displayed stuff here — muffins; croissants; Danish; bagels; cookies; pies; specialty tarts; coffee cakes; cheesecakes; birthday and wedding cakes; pastries, breads and nearly any other baked good one could imagine, from German tortes to crisped rice treats. As both a supporting player to the store's gourmet takeout business (which includes salads, sandwiches, sushi, Chinese food and a showcase of more than 80 chef-prepared items for take-home consumption) and as a big profit center on its own, NexStore MarketPlace's bakery operation has grown like a slab of dough left on the counter overnight.

"We found that having fresh baked products is a great way to bring people in to get their cup of coffee and really, really good breakfast items," said Roger Bowles, general manager and executive chef of the Boca Raton, Fla., store. "Most c-stores don't bake in the stores, they outsource it all or it is prepackaged. We don't grab everything out of a box, put it on a sheet pan and let it defrost. When people are buying our muffins, they are still hot."

The high-quality bakery items — no artificial ingredients or life extenders in this kitchen — are leading a.m. coffee regulars to try the store's gourmet lunch and dinner foods. "Our morning customers are coming back because everything is freshly made in front of their face," he said.

The bakery menu is vast. "Variety is so important," Bowles said, noting the store offers low-carb muffins and other products to satisfy a diverse crowd. "We give people more options to choose from, so they keep coming back."

A typical breakfast rush will find nine different muffins, 12 types of bagels, six kinds of Danish, half a dozen breakfast sandwiches made with freshly baked croissants or bagels, and breakfast pizza made in the store's wood-fired oven. The latter is one example of using the bakery to create a unique offer. From-scratch pizza dough is topped with goat cheese and salmon or a breakfast Alfredo-like sauce, scrambled eggs, sausage or crispy bacon, breakfast potato and Colby cheese. The pizza is sold as individual pies or by the slice (at $2.50 per).

Each day, the store runs a number of bakery specials. Working closely with closely with vendors to use seasonal produce, Bowles and his team in July, for instance, created strawberry Napoleons, shortcake and individual and large fruit tarts.

To accomplish its goals, the bakery operation starts at 5 a.m. and stops around 8 p.m. Bowles oversees a professionally trained pastry chef (who hails from Bulgaria), his assistant (from London) and three other bakers.

"My background is culinary, not gas," Bowles. "When we started, frankly, we didn't know what to expect. But customers are making food a priority now and gas is just another part of what we do."

More than $100,000 was invested in the bakery equipment alone — not including the wood-burning stove, small mixers, working tables and other equipment shared by other food departments. Among the tools of the trade: dough sheeters, two large proofing boxes, two heavy-duty mixers with water pumps that dispense water directly into the mixer to cut measuring chores, a four-deck oven that injects water to create steam for optimum bread baking and another oven that spins the racks to ensure even baking.

Visually the look presented to customers is very un-c-store-ish. Cakes are decorated in view of the public and hungry patrons can see and smell the breakfast pizzas coming out of the store's dramatic hearth oven.

Granite countertops display baskets of chocolates. A 12-foot display case offers up showstoppers such as flourless chocolate cake; peanut butter, pecan and chocolate tortes — both large and individual-sized — "Category 5" chocolate cake, Key lime cake, carrot cake, various cheesecakes and other delectable treats. Pastries are lined up on gold trays and white platters. Cakes are underlined with doilies. There are risers with muffins, Danish and cream-cheese stuffed croissants and a large back-wall shelf holding a variety of breads.

"Our display case features all of our whole cakes and whole pies," Bowles explained. "If after two days, they don't sell, we slice them up and put them in a case that showcases our sliced desserts."

Customers can buy a slice of cake for $1.99. "That helps us rotate the product and controls waste," the chef explained. "Everything we bake has a packed and sell-by date. If it doesn't sell by then, it is donated to charity."

If bread is not sold the day it is baked, it is used for croutons at the salad station or for retail sale. Raisin bread is sliced, crisped with cinnamon and sugar and bagged for sale.

Four dedicated employees serve up the baked goods and make coffee; a cashier station is nearby, next to a beverage station. "There are four people behind the bakery counter at lunch time," Bowles said, noting the pastry chef will pitch in and serve customers during the peak.

Indeed, though breakfast is the bakery's key day part, the business is being spread more throughout the day. "We sell a lot of cookies during lunch and the pastries and cakes pick up during the afternoon and evening. People who want a sheet cake or birthday cake for the office make us their stop. I'm even doing wholesale for other restaurants," Bowles said. The bakery also takes orders with the store's catering department.

To track costs and control waste, inventory is tracked daily. Once a month, Bowles visits local bakeries to see what competitors are doing and check their retails. "We don't compete with the large grocery stores because their bakeries make things out of a bag or box. It's a whole different world."

For example, the store's Category 5 chocolate layer cake is topped with ganache and is decorated with tempered chocolate cones, adding height and drama, and retails for $25. The store's most popular cake, a white chocolate layer, is decorated with white chocolate shavings and dollops of raspberries.

Despite these high-for-a-c-store tickets, the store's pricing is competitive. Muffins and croissants sell for $1.19 each. A 10-pack of homemade 3-ounce cookies — peanut butter, macadamia nut/white chocolate, raisin, chocolate chip or caramel crisp — goes for $3.99; singles are 99 cents. Crisped rice treats are tagged 99 cents a bar; chocolate-dipped ones a few cents more. A 4-inch mango cheesecake goes for $5.49, a 6-inch version for $10.99. A larger version sells for $21.

Upscale Convenience

If all this sounds a bit out of place steps away from motor oil and maps, NexStore's customers don't agree. They've had had no problem reconciling the gas and convenience store concept with an upscale food emporium. Recently, monthly sales for the bakery department alone reached $26,000.

"The gas is convenient for travelers coming off the highway. Then they get the option of healthy prepared foods. It's convenient for them, but they don't have to go to a fast-food place where the food is not that good. Travelers want antifreeze or a map. Our local customers want aspirin because they are at work and have a headache."

Being in well-to-do Boca Raton, surrounded by businesses, certainly contributes to the success of the store's unique positioning, Bowles said. "We have many families who are very busy with two working parents," he noted. "But would it work outside of Boca? Absolutely. We have customers asking us every day, 'When are we going up north? Out west?'

"We are the talk of the town. People say, 'Let's go to the gas station and eat.'"
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