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Independent bakeries struggle to stay relevant in gluten-free, Cronut-crazed America

Mandi Woodruff

In the nearly four decades since Frank Roscigno, Jr., 53, took over his father’s bakery in 1979, he hasn’t had much time for relaxing.

“I wasn’t just the boss that goes in during the day and leaves,” says Roscigno. “It was a 24/7 operation. I had a night crew, a day crew and we worked all holidays. We were never closed.”

Traditional bakeries like Roscigno’s have been on the decline for years. Since 1993, the number of standalone bakeries in the U.S. has dropped by 68%, from nearly 21,000 to just over 6,700 in 2013, according to a report by Sundale Research.

When Frank’s Bakery opened on a busy avenue in the Astoria section in Queens, N.Y., in 1959, it swiftly became a staple among the neighborhood’s close-knit Italian and Greek communities.  Around the clock, they pumped out fresh loaves of their signature breads and Italian pastries.

Frank Roscigno, Jr. and his father roll out their last loaf of bread together on May 24, 2014. (Photo: Frank Roscigno, Jr.)
Frank Roscigno, Jr. and his father roll out their last loaf of bread together on May 24, 2014. (Photo: Frank Roscigno, Jr.)

Roscigno spent most of his teenage years working with his dad behind the counter, but he enrolled in college with plans to study criminal justice and find a place for himself outside the business of butter and flour. When he was just a year into his studies, however, his father, Frank Sr., was badly burned in an accident and could no longer work.

“Once my father got hurt and I came home to help, I just never left,” says Roscigno, who was 19 at the time. Business was good for many years, due in large part to community support and lucrative catering deals he struck up with companies in New York City’s financial district. Investors routinely walked in with offers to buy the bakery, which Roscigno’s family owns, along with the building that housed it. One by one, he turned them down.

But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, sent the city to a standstill, much of his business stalled as well. By the time things began to pick back up again, the Great Recession came around to deal him another blow. On top of sluggish sales, the neighborhood — and his customer base — was rapidly changing as well.

Priced out of increasingly expensive areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan, an influx of 20-somethings had turned the once-quiet street Frank’s Bakery occupied into a bustling bar and restaurant scene. Frozen yogurt shops and sleek cafes popped up on every corner. Younger customers, he realized, were less interested in classic cannolis and loaves of fresh Semolina bread than they were in Instagram-worthy cupcake displays, gluten-free menus and the Cronut.

His crew of 15 slowly dwindled to fewer than 10. And in May, Roscigno decided to cut his losses and close his doors for the last time. In a few months, an upscale Greek restaurant will take its place.

“It was really sad but I had to do it,” he says. “Once you start hitting your 50s, it’s very hard physically and mentally. Financially, it was the right thing to do.”

A dying breed


Chicago, Ill.'s Angel Food Bakery closed its doors in March. (Photo: Guy Bauer Productions)
Chicago, Ill.'s Angel Food Bakery closed its doors in March. (Photo: Guy Bauer Productions)

“We’re dinosaurs,” says Paul Sapienza, a veteran baker of 41 years from Elmont, N.Y., and director of finance for the Retail Bakers of America. “Nobody’s opening a full-line bakery anymore and the ones that are here are just hanging on. It’s a very difficult animal to run.”

Stephanie Samuels, 52, had been a chef for years before she decided to fulfill her lifelong dream of open her own bakery, Angel Food, 10 years ago in Chicago. With her emphasis on using only natural, high-quality ingredients and her bakery’s family-friendly atmosphere, Samuels became something of a local celebrity. Her quirky personality and camera-friendly cakes attracted the attention of Food Network, which featured her on a few baking specials.

Samuels says she was overwhelmed by the costs of using high-quality ingredients. Photo: Angel Food Bakery
Samuels says she was overwhelmed by the costs of using high-quality ingredients. Photo: Angel Food Bakery

But in all those years, she was never once able to write herself a paycheck.

“I started getting overwhelmed with how expensive it was to run a business,” she says. “Commodities and supplies have been getting more and more expensive, and if you have a commitment to quality it’s difficult to keep your prices the same and maintain that same quality.

Making matters worse, a slew of unexpected construction projects around her bakery made her storefront hard to access on and off for seven years. When she attempted to raise prices on her signature $3 cupcakes, customers balked. At the end of March, she turned her oven off for the last time.

“I wish I didn’t have to close but I think I fought the good fight for 10 years,” she says. “The food world is very fickle.”

Like Samuels, retail bakery owners may have a signature pastry or bread that they’re known for, but many stock their display cases with hundreds of different products made fresh daily – a costly enterprise that became even more so when flour prices spiked over the last decade, along with labor costs. When big-box retailers entered the ring and began undercutting retail bakery prices, competition really ramped up. A full-sized sheet cake at Sapienza’s shop costs $65 today, but he knows customers can go down the street to Costco and pick one up for $18.99.

“We can compete with supermarkets because we always have a better product,” Sapienza says. “But big-box stores took our own bottom layer out from under us. They make the basic muffins, cakes, croissants and breads that were our core business.”

Consumers have also been rapidly changing their tastes for sweet stuff.

Families used to come by Sapienza’s shop and order a pound of biscotti or cookies to take home for the week, never questioning whether they had any trans fat or contained gluten, a wheat protein that gives dough its elasticity. These days, one in four U.S. households report at least one family member who eats gluten-free products, despite the fact that only 1% of Americans are considered to be allergic to it.

The Cronut took the nation by storm in 2013.
The Cronut took the nation by storm in 2013.

Retail sales of gluten-free foods grew 44% in 2013, bringing in an estimated $10.5 billion, according to market research firm Mintel, which predicts the industry will bring in $16 billion by 2016.  And while a bakery could easily meet the demands of the cupcake craze, appeasing the tastes of the gluten-free fanatics is far from simple — or cheap, for that matter.

'You can't be stubborn'

As traditional bakeries dwindle, specialized bake shops and cafe-bakery hybrids have stepped in to fill the void. When Roscigno closed Frank’s Bakery in May, he found jobs for his crew at Leli’s, a glossy new bakery a few blocks away. On top of pastries, it offers a full-service coffee bar, serves customers at a dozen French-inspired cafe tables, and keeps a fridge stocked with ready-to-eat sandwiches and salads.

“Unless you have something new in today’s market, running a regular bakery is pretty much miserable as far as business goes,” says Werner Simon, secretary for the New York State Baker’s Association.

Enter the age of gimmick baking. Cupcake shops took the nation by storm in the early 2000s, and while many thought the trend was on its way out when cupcake giant Crumbs began to fumble, it’s still a fad that sells. Millions of viewers watch bakers battle it out on the Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars,” and the sisters behind TLC’s “D.C. Cupcakes” have expanded their popular Georgetown Cupcake shop to six major cities. Baked by Melissa, famous for its thumbnail-size cupcakes, has opened several new locations in the U.S. You can even get cupcakes at ATMs today.

And who can forget the Cronut, the doughnut-croissant brainchild of French pastry chef Dominique Ansel. The invention skyrocketed to fame in the summer of 2013 and sent bakeries scrambling to come up with their own wacky treat recipes just to stay relevant. In an increasingly competitve market, bakeries that don't innovate are often left in the dust.

Buddy Valastro, host of TLC's Bakery Rescue, helps failing bakeries. (Photo: TLC)
Buddy Valastro, host of TLC's Bakery Rescue, helps failing bakeries. (Photo: TLC)

Buddy Valastro, owner of Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, N.J., helped keep his century-old family establishment relevant by taking on complicated custom cake orders. He caught the eye of TLC, which has featured him on a slew of reality shows, including “Cake Boss,” which follows his family business and his latest, “Bakery Rescue,” in which he helps traditional bakeries find their way into the 21st century.

“You have to be able to adjust your menu and not be stubborn,” Valastro says. “If [customers] want cupcakes, make them cupcakes. If you don’t think macarons will sell, then make apple pie. You can’t try to shove things down people’s throats. “

Despite the challenges today’s retail bakeries face, there may be some hope for those who are sticking to tradition — so long as they find a way to balance the old with the new.

“As business owners, bakers must realize we are in an ever-changing world,” says Rich Reinwald of Reinwald’s Bakery in Huntington, N.Y. “You also have to be a little thick-headed and stick to your core values of both baking and how you run your business.”

When Joe Navarino, 40, learned that the owners of Parisi Bros., the Queens, N.Y., bakery where he spent his teenage years working, were looking to retire, he and his brother decided to purchase the 50-year-old establishment in 2009. Their storefront is just a few blocks away from Frank’s Bakery in Astoria.

The Roscigno family gathers to bid their family bakery farewell on May 24, 2014. (Photo: Frank Roscigno, Jr. )
The Roscigno family gathers to bid their family bakery farewell on May 24, 2014. (Photo: Frank Roscigno, Jr. )

“We’re old-fashioned. We have employees that have been with the bakery since they were kids,” Navarino says. “We use the same bread recipe and we hand-roll every loaf we make in the same brick oven.”

But they’ve also added new menu items like iced coffee, espresso and breakfast treats. A couple of years ago, he started to research gluten-free and organic bread options.

“We see where our society is going and we totally get it,” he says. “I want to get new products here for our customers and for our own future potential.”

As for Roscigno, losing the family business was as much about dollars and cents as it was about finding a fresh start for himself — and, with any luck, some much better work hours.

“I went fishing with my son last week,” he says. “I can’t even remember the last time I did that.”


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