Hometown Hero

When you think New York City bakery, you think Magnolia. In San Francisco, it’s Tartine. A lot of communities have beloved local bakeries. And the popularity of many extends well beyond their own ZIP codes, attracting out-of-town customers seeking local treasures and unique food experiences.

So, how do bakeries become local institutions? Make products people love, then stay true to your mission, says Amy Emberling, managing partner at Zingerman’s Bakehouse, part of the Zingerman’s family of businesses that have been revered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, (and beyond) since 1982. “We want people to regularly have our food in their house and to turn to us for holidays and special events,” she says. “That’s how we’ve become a part of generations of families.”

Gaining regional or national recognition may be the goal, but it’s important to start at home—and know what makes the bakery special in its community. Bakery professionals who have gained local-hero status share these eight tips.

1. Create a Signature Product

The Blue Owl Restaurant & Bakery in Kimmswick, Missouri, is famous for its Levee High Apple Pie, a 9-inch-tall pie stacked with 18 thinly sliced apples and covered in caramel and pecans. Owner Mary Hostetter created the signature dessert after a flood in 1993 as a nod to the sandbag levees constructed on the banks of the river that kept the town dry. “There’s no other pie like it in the whole world,” says Hostetter. 

The Blue Owl has served guests from as far away as Sweden and Greece while remaining a place where locals come to celebrate special occasions. “There are certain things you do in St. Louis and visiting our bakery is one of them,” Hostetter says. Over the years, media coverage has helped the bakery gain notoriety, and in 2007, it began shipping frozen pies and cheesecakes across the country.

Like the Levee High Apple Pie, successful signatures often have a meaningful story. Once a bakery develops such a product, it should communicate both its signature status and the meaning behind it across marketing channels—from the website to the backs of menus and on social media.

2. Make Service Personal

Customers may first come to Zingerman’s Bakehouse for magic brownies and funky chunky chocolate cookies, but many return for the service. Employees greet customers warmly, learn their names and get to know them. “It’s very basic and being enthusiastic is a big part of it,” says Emberling. “We want people to feel comfortable and cared for.” The result: “When we survey our customers, service is usually the top reason they say they come back—often over the food.”

To encourage more personal customer service, consider having staff use a mental checklist of items they must accomplish when interacting with visitors, such as smiling and learning the customer’s name.

3. Support the Community 

To be engrained in the community, get involved. Hostetter gives local groups that ask for donations a $10 gift card. The bakery also sponsors a 5K run in August and awards pies to top finishers. Hostetter says it’s an easy way to give back, and it makes good business sense. “It helps people get to know you and continue to know you,” she says. “Keeping that contact makes such a difference.”

4. Source Locally When Possible

Greg Hoyt, owner of Minneapolis-based Rustica Bakery, sources local ingredients for his breads, croissants and pastries, and he calls out suppliers on menus and signage. For Rustica’s top-selling eggwich breakfast sandwich, Hoyt uses organic eggs from local farmer Larry Schultz, a well-known name among Twin Cities chefs and foodies—even though they cost more than conventional eggs. “Customers talk about it and reward us for using local eggs,” he says. “There’s an intentionality behind how we source our products and that matters to our customers.”

And it’s not just bakery visitors who pay attention to local sourcing; employees care too. “We have a tight labor market, and it comes up in interviews,” Hoyt says. “People want to know that we source locally and with integrity.”

5. Show Customers Some Love

During its annual Customer Appreciation Day in July, Achatz Handmade Pie Co. in Chesterfield, Michigan, sells its Michigan 4-berry, Dutch apple, cherry crumb and other pie varieties at 30 percent off the regular price. With six stores in the metro Detroit area, co-owner Wendy Achatz says she sells almost as many pies in one day as she does in November for Thanksgiving. “We don’t make a profit, but it’s a great way to say thank you to our customers,” she says. Another benefit: “Many of our customers buy six or eight pies at a time and give them as gifts to the mailman, the person who shoveled their snow in the winter and friends in other communities,” she says. “It’s a great way to introduce our product to new people.”

6. Host Events

Throughout the year, Zingerman’s Bakehouse runs baking classes and cooking demonstrations with visiting chefs. Emberling has a core group of customers who have attended more than 50 of these in-store events. “It’s a fun and interesting way to extend the feeling of connectivity so the focus is not only purely transactional,” she says.

How bakeries can become local superstars and destinations for visitors.

The Levee High Apple Pie from Blue Owl Restaurant & Bakery in Kimmswick, Missouri

7. Listen to Feedback

A mainstay at the Minnesota State Fair for 39 years, Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar bakes scratch-made chocolate chip cookies on-site for 12 days each summer. Without a year-round retail location, co-founder Martha Olson says many customers stock up on cookies as they’re leaving the fair. In response, the company created a decorative take-home pail that holds about four dozen cookies, which is now its top seller. And after fielding hundreds of requests from customers clamoring for Sweet Martha’s cookies throughout the year, Olson launched a line of frozen cookie dough that’s now available in more than a dozen local grocery stores. “We wanted to offer the same fresh-out-of-the-oven experience as at the fair, without adding preservatives to make them shelf-stable,” she says.

8. Be Social-Savvy

A redesigned website and a greater emphasis on social media has helped Shatila Bakery increase sales and reach new customers, says Nada Shatila, vice president of operations at the landmark Middle Eastern bakery her father started in 1979 in Dearborn, Michigan. Employees post on Facebook and Instagram daily, sharing videos and photos of just-made cakes, baklava and other sweets. Many customers respond by posting their own photos of the bakery’s goods, and customers can order products directly through social media messaging. The reboot has paid off: Online sales for gift boxes of assorted sweets doubled in the two months following the redesign, which Shatila attributes to more attractive photography and an easier-to-use site.

Truly engaging with the community—and creating successful signature products—can be the start of cementing a bakery’s place as a local institution.