Bakeries perfect recipe for success during holiday rush
Oakmont Bakery owner Marc Serrao said his team has the holiday rush down to a science.
“The day after Thanksgiving is when we kick into Christmas mode,” Serrao said. “This isn’t just about buying baked goods: It’s an experience. The experience starts from the minute (customers) pull in the parking lot.”
The popular bakery is celebrating its 30th anniversary in the borough and the final Christmas season at its Allegheny Avenue location.
Operations move under one bigger roof to the intersection of Third Street and Hulton Road in January.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” said manager Michael Sullivan. “There’s so many benefits to this new location it’s unbelievable.”
But workers have to get through the Christmas season and fill New Year’s orders before the ribbon can be cut next month.
Serrao recalled the shop’s first holiday season at its original location along Allegheny River Boulevard.
“We were in a 1,000-square-foot building,” he said. “At that time, we had about 14 employees, and we were so overwhelmed it was unbelievable. Now that would be comparable to half of a Monday here. We didn’t have enough people.
“I wasn’t really prepared. Our claim to fame here is we’re very prepared.”
The current facility at 531 Allegheny Ave. has about 12,500 square feet and 115 employees.
The bakery serves between 800 to 1,100 people on a weekday and around 2,000 to 2,500 on a weekend day.
“In Christmastime, that jumps about 20 percent higher than that,” Serrao said. “By the time we get to Christmas week (Dec. 18-24) we quadruple our business. It’s insane.”
Serrao said the bakery goes through about 150 pounds of butter cream icing a day during an average week.
That bumps to 300 pounds a day during the few weeks leading up to Christmas.
Other supply usage such as Turner Dairy whole milk goes from 40 gallons a week to nearly 160 gallons a week.
Sugar cookies alone can go from five batches, or roughly 100 pounds, a day to 25 batches in December.
Serrao said he receives great support from bakery supply companies including Sover & Co. in Harmar.
“They’ll deliver to us every day if we need them to,” he said. “We have a warehouse, but we also have limited space in our coolers and freezers. Companies that deliver once or twice a week will deliver five times these weeks. We try to stay very local as much as possible.”
Mike Sullivan has been a manager for the past 12 years. His focus has been boosting employee morale, which improves customer service.
“When I became manager, we had a lot of people that were really cranky,” he said. “We’ve changed that whole mentality. The people that are here now want to work together as one large unit. We really appreciate each other.
“The power of laughter is huge, making sure people are having a good time but also focusing on the customers.”
Part-timers get moved to full time, and management puts in around 100 hours a week during the holiday season.
While in “Christmas mode” the bakery hires between 20 to 30 extra people just to get through New Year’s, with most working in production.
“We have a bunch of college kids that work in the summer (and) we take them back in December,” Serrao said. “We do hire some seasonal help. It’s a rough time to get through, but it’s fun.”
The front line is stationed with more employees waiting on customers. Everyone chips in and does their part regardless of position.
“We mop the floors before the maintenance crew gets here all the time,” Serrao said. “We salt the parking lot, shovel, whatever. We’ve trained ourselves to walk the line of showcases just like a customer would.”
Half of the store’s indoor café gets taken up by hundreds of cookie trays and other orders in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
A separate register called “the sweet line” is moved to that area for such orders as well as shoppers getting prepackaged goods so they don’t have to wait for their number to be called.
Serrao said shrinking seating creates a temporary inconvenience for customers who want to eat in or sit while waiting, but the move helps overall service and streamlines operations for everyone.
“We go through on our very busiest times about 225 to 300 customers an hour, and I would say the longest wait time is maybe 15 minutes,” he said.
Brooke Summers of Fox Chapel started working at the bakery in July.
She said she’s excited for the holiday rush.
“I’ve experienced Thanksgiving so far,” she said. “That was quite hectic, but we’re a well-oiled machine. I think Christmas (business) is going to be fun. It will be really packed. I expect to see people lined up outside the doors. I’ve heard all kinds of crazy things.”
Summers said she’s been coming to the bakery as a customer for years.
“It’s really cool to see it on the flip side,” she said. “I still come in as a customer even though I’m an employee. We have a million more racks out there during the holidays, and it’s cool to see all the products. Everybody hustling and bustling through it all.”
Bakery officials use two key software programs, BakeSmart to track orders and inventory and manage operations and OneNote to mark down any developments.
Serrao said they are able to plan better each year based on the data.“We’re prepared to make whatever we need to make,” he said.
More information about the Oakmont Bakery is available at oakmontbakery.com .
A few towns over in Millvale, from behind the counter at Jean-Marc Chatellier’s French Bakery the pastry maker executes a cheerful holiday season despite the crowds and rush, laughing as he explains the simple solution for navigating it all.
“Work more,” said Chatellier, who has become a pro at managing the holiday rush since opening his doors in 1992 along North Avenue.
“Not really, you just have to be more organized. You have to let customers know that there is a deadline and you are sticking to it.
“I used to agree to one more order, one more order; and then you start going crazy.”
Customers who hope to nosh on nut rolls and macaroons should order ahead and stash the items in the freezer.
“They know that they have to order a month in advance,” Chatellier said. “They’re just as good and that way, you know you have them.”
The baker said his most requested items through the holidays are those that are painstakingly prepared, such as poppy rolls and Breton cake.
“’Cause grandma is not there anymore, or her fingers don’t work as well, and it’s a pain to make,” he said.
Michael DiVittorio is a
Tribune-Review staff writer.