A Masterful Juggling Act
Baking Buyer
June 1, 2010

Amy Scherber, owner of Amy's Bread, successfully oversees three bakery locations and multiple product lines.

If you have ever seen a professional juggling act, you know that by the time it is over you are awestruck and your head is spinning, trying to figure out how the amazing feat was accomplished. A juggler in her own right, Amy Scherber, the owner of Amy's Bread, has multitasking down to a science. In this, its 18th year, Amy's Bread occupies three New York City locations and carries multiple product lines—breads, sweets, sandwiches, salads, beverages and more—from the fanciful to the hearty. That has not always been the case, though. This successful business started as nothing more than one woman's dream and passion for good bread.

In the Beginning
A born entrepreneur, Scherber always thought she would become a restaurateur and a chef. As time went on, however, she began to feel more strongly about savory baking. That, coupled with a lack of good, crusty bread in New York City, contributed to the launching of Amy's Bread.

The Hell's Kitchen neighborhood housed the first storefront, which sold only coffee and bread. "The foot traffic was pretty slow, so I really pushed my wholesale business," Scherber says. Then, on the bakery's second anniversary, an article in the New York Times changed everything. "It really put us on the map and we got busy after that," Scherber says.

Location and Product Expansion
While the bakery has always mixed 12 to 14 different types of bread dough every day, the menu originally stopped there. However, "Customers continued asking for sweets, so we started making Irish soda bread, coffee cake, biscotti and a cinnamon roll twist," Scherber says. "Anything that was possible to make in the overnight." An industrious employee then volunteered to make cookies, which eventually led to the addition of cakes and other pastries, as well. Since there were already so many great breads, sandwiches evolved naturally and were also added to the menu.

With the new products and consistent quality, store traffic con-tinued to increase. After four years, one storefront was no longer enough and Amy's Bread expanded to a 7,500 square foot space in Chelsea Market. "Our new space finally allowed us to display our full menu selection and give people a place to sit down and eat what they bought," Scherber says. Store hours were eventually lengthened, and because of the diverse product offerings, both locations stayed busy from open to close. That was when Scherber decided to open a third shop, which found immediate success in the Village.

Regardless of whether it is her locations or products expanding, Scherber is meticulous in her decision making. "We always do a slow, controlled growth with a lot of cost analysis, training and testing," Scherber says. "We're very detail oriented to make sure the addition is going to live up to our standard of quality and our reputation."

Product Control
The production at Amy's Bread is divided between the two largest locations for efficiency. The bread is baked and the sandwiches are assembled at Chelsea Market, all behind huge glass windows where customers can watch. The sweets, on the other hand, are made in Hell's Kitchen. Transfer drivers then transport the products between the locations two or three times each day, like a well-choreographed dance.

A set schedule exists that determines which items are made when. "We have certain products that we only make on certain days, and they're definitely changing from one day to another," Scherber says. A history log is kept every day, and the supply orders are based on the previous week's sales to reduce waste. "But when the holidays flow in it confuses everything," Scherber says. "We do keep holiday histories separately, though, so at least we have an idea."

Knowing exactly what to make when is a work in progress and always will be. "You really have to think ahead. You have to watch the forecast and plan for the weather," Scherber says. "There are inevitably days when there's stuff leftover, but we've gotten to be pretty efficient."

Loyal is an accurate description of the staff at Amy's Bread. More than half of the 180 employees have been around for at least 10 years. "We're all very proud of what we do," Scherber says. "I try to instill a sense of pride and community into the staff."

Scherber does that through quarterly company meetings, as well as annual performance reviews and raises. She also maintains a 40-hour work week for all employees so no one has to work long hours, which can often lead to burnout. "We treat people well all along the way and they really appreciate it," Scherber says.

Typically, the employees hired at Amy's Bread have culinary school experience, which Scherber likes because they have already learned how to work with others in a professional kitchen. "They know how to move, how to conserve ingredients, how to weigh things, and all that sort of thing," Scherber says. Although when people show up with no experience but an amazing natural ability, Scherber does not turn them away. "We have them try out and if they have good hand skills and a real pas-sion you can feel, we let them do it," Scherber says.

The hiring process at Amy's Bread is meticulous, but when all three stores are staffed 24/7, it needs to be. "This is what I do. I have to love it and I need to have people who are excited to be a part of it," Scherber says. "The reason I'm able to do what I need to do is because I trust my staff."

The attention to detail at Amy's Bread extends from the products and employees to the merchandising. Scherber planned and decorated everything in all three stores. "I chose the fixtures, the bread dis-plays, the signage, everything," Scherber says. "I'm a stickler for how the store looks."

Scherber's style preference is mountainous, abundant piles of products. Since displaying bread can be tricky—moving one loaf can create an avalanche effect—Scherber is constantly trying to create better racks. "You want to have it look like a lot, but if it's too much it will fall over. If it's just a couple of loaves, it will look stale. You have to take all of that into consideration," Scherber says.

Beyond the bread, Scherber sticks to consistent merchandising themes. "It's important to have a clear vision of what your business stands for, and to convey that to everyone else in all of your merchandising," Scherber says. Her storefronts, bags, business cards, t-shirts, menus and more are all done using the same colors, images, fonts and messages. All of that helps to keep the brand a cohesive unit in customers' minds, which leads to increased recognition and business.

The Juggler
Scherber is, without question, a hands-on owner. She is involved in everything from staff hiring to product development to public relations and media. "You can't really imagine when you create something that it's going to become a well-known brand. But when it does, it has to have a representative," Scherber says. "I try to always be the one to speak for the company."

As she kept adding locations and spreading out production, Scherber quickly learned that she needed to implement some kind of plan. "For my own sanity, I've found it's best to set a daily schedule for myself," Scherber says. "That way, the staff can know when expect me, we can schedule meetings, and I can have a flow of when I work on different things. I think the predictability makes everyone calmer."

Although "calm" may be a stretch. As many business owners know, work could be done every hour of every day and there would still be more to do. "You learn over time what your boundaries are, what really needs your attention and what can be managed by other people," Scherber says. "I've reached the point in my business where I can delegate, and that's a nice place to be."

Scherber is grateful and proud of how her bakery has grown and how her responsibilities have changed over time. However, she sometimes gets nostalgic about the early years when she was more baker than business woman. "There's something really satisfying about getting your hands in the dough," Scherber says. "But even though I don't bake every day, I still feel really connected to all of it."

To other bakers who may be interested in expanding locations or product lines, Scherber offers this advice: "Make sure your quality can stay high before you expand. It's tempting to get wind of an expansion opportunity and jump at it, but if you expand and your product suffers elsewhere, it's not worth it. Choose long-term growth over a quick fix every time."

The following words are often used at Amy's Bread to describe bread:
Shape: Round, batard, oval, long, open cuts, pointy, plump, flat, skinny.
Color: Dark, golden brown, medium brown, deep brown, golden, light yellow, bubbly, shiny, glossy.
Aroma/Smell: Wheaty, nutty, honey, sweet, herbaceous, fragrant, tangy, sharp, sour, mild, milky, buttery.
Taste/Flavor: Buttery, sweet, sour, salty, tangy, salty, sharp, wheaty, bland, complex, one-dimensional.
Crumb Texture & Color: Dense, dark, cream colored, big holes, chewy, small, cakey, airy, shiny, even texture crumb, gummy, small, holes, yellow.

Amy's Bread prefers to serve its bread warm for the fullest flavor, but offers these tips if storage is necessary:
Storage: To store fresh bread, leave it at room temperature in a paper bag, or if cut, leave the cut side down on a bread board or shelf. The crust will stay firm and the inside soft. After two days you may wrap it in plastic to maintain its freshness.
To refresh: Sprinkle or mist lightly with water and place it in a preheated 400F oven for 6-8 minutes or until crusty. You may also choose to slice and toast the bread for delicious results. Refrigerating and microwaving bread are not recommended.
Freezing: Our bread also freezes well wrapped in plastic, then in foil. Defrost it at room temperature inside the plastic, then refresh it as described above before eating.

By Anna Comstock