Mix It Up

Among the many cake flavors sold at Sapienza Bake Shop, devil’s food was never a personal favorite for Paul Sapienza. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the flavor—the other cakes sold at his parents’ bakery in Elmont, New York, just seemed more special. So when he took over the bakery in 1973, he decided to tackle the lackluster devil’s food cake recipe head-on. "We tried all different kinds of tweaks and recipes," he says. "Then, one day we decided to try a mix. And, lo and behold, it was great."

While the new cake made his own taste buds dance, he worried the revamped recipe would irk customers. The opposite turned out to be true: Customers loved the new cake’s flavor, and orders have since edged up. "Everyone liked it more,” he says. “We decided: If the mix is working, why try to reinvent the wheel?"

Many independent bakers—strapped for time and facing high labor costs, food waste and slim margins—have found themselves asking the same question. Using premeasured ingredients ensures consistency, controls labor costs and frees up owners to spend more time on the parts of the business they love, Sapienza says. And mixes can accomplish all that without sacrificing taste or customer satisfaction.

"I get that people like the idea of a 100 percent scratch bakery, but the reality is that cake mixes save you steps and eliminate scaling errors," says Beth Fahey, co-owner of Creative Cakes in Tinley Park, Illinois.

Fahey makes her chocolate, chiffon, apple and pumpkin cakes from scratch, but she finds mixes produce the best yellow, red velvet and carrot cake results. She says consistency is her top priority and notes that certain scratch recipes are notoriously tricky, so mixes can save the day.

Cut Costs, Stay Consistent 

Bakery mixes

Along with ensuring consistent flavors and textures, using top-notch mixes can help bakeries from a variety of cost control perspectives. First, it helps rein in inventory. "Some of a baker’s product offerings include very unique ingredients, and it can be cost-prohibitive to store all of them," says Kevin Mooi, bakery director at Bud’s Best Cookies in Hoover, Alabama. That’s especially true of rare spices with short shelf lives, he says.

The more consistent a bakery can be with process, the better and more professional the quality of the result, according to Mooi, who's been working in bakeries for 45 years. "Finding the right mix for the right recipe removes all the measuring headaches,” he says.

A more consistent product also means less food waste because bakery staff isn’t throwing out batches of burned cookies or a cake that didn’t set the way it should have. And judicious use of mixes can also reduce labor costs. Fahey, who employs one overnight baker to prepare buckets of dry ingredients, says she would have to hire a second person—and pay a second salary—if Creative Cakes stopped using mixes.

"Labor is 48 percent of our expenses. Anywhere you can save labor without compromising the quality is a huge win. Mixes are really a no-brainer."

—Beth Fahey, co-owner, Creative Cakes in Tinley Park, Illinois

For bakeries unsure about the benefits of mixes, crunch the numbers, Fahey advises. Determine how long it takes to prescale scratch dry ingredients the night before, and factor in a margin of error (because someone will inevitably forget to add the baking soda). The answer will be pretty clear.

"Labor is 48 percent of our expenses," Fahey says of Creative Cakes. "Anywhere you can save labor without compromising the quality is a huge win. Mixes are really a no-brainer."

Mooi agrees, saying there are many upsides to using mixes for smaller bakeries, especially considering the industry’s high turnover and the costs of constantly training new staff. “With an unskilled workforce that turns over quickly, mixes make training easier and the food safety safer,” he says.

Making the Mix Your Own

Maintaining consistency and quality is paramount at any bakery. That’s why many veteran bakers try several mixes before selecting one and why they make the mix-versus-scratch decision on a recipe-by-recipe basis.

In addition, using mixes doesn’t mean bakers can’t still put their whole heart into their products. Fahey says she handles her mix cakes as carefully as any handmade treat. That means baking them in a revolving oven, so they’re browned slowly and evenly, and wrapping the cake layers in saran wrap as soon as they cool down before popping them in the freezer to lock in moisture. "Those tactics have far more effect on the final product than mix versus scratch," she says.

The real key to successfully using mixes, then, is identifying what sets the bakery apart—and ensuring bakers focus most of their time on those differentiators. Fahey funnels the time she saves with mixes into creating her famous Italian meringue buttercream frosting. "It’s a very persnickety icing to make, and a lot of people don’t want to go to the time and expense, but that’s where we’re different from most bakeries,"she says. "It’s how we make sure we’re special."

Along with cutting costs and ensuring consistency, mixes afford bakeries the time and resources to get creative and truly focus on perfecting their competitive edge.