Ace Bakery’s Winning Hand
Written by Jane Ayer
In light of the recent sale of
Toronto’s Ace Baker to an American private equity firm, we offer a
reprint of our 2003 profile of the business.
Ace: (noun, verb and adjective) a person who excels in some activity; can also be a fighter pilot who has shot down many enemy aircraft; in tennis it’s a serve that one’s opponent cannot return; to play one’s ace is to use one’s best resource. (Oxford Dictionary)
Since 1993, ACE Bakery owners Martin Connell and Linda Haynes, a husband and wife team with a vision of bringing European-style, artisan breads to Toronto, have set out o make their bread-making business all of these things — and more.
It all began in 1992, when inclement weather, an isolated country house, and an early morning conspired to inspire Connell to the challenge of making the perfect baguette.
“And from there it became a more serious hobby,” says Haynes. “We built an outdoor wood brick oven and we could do about 25 loaves in it. But you know it was a full day to bake you bread. Martins just got more serious about it. We did more research and for one of his birthdays I arranged for him to apprentice with two of the top bakers in New York (Noel Comess at Tom Cat Bakery and Eli Zaba of Eli’s) and that was the start.”
Although the business’ focal point would be about making great bread, Connell and Haynes had a secondary vision for ACE Bakery. As founders of Calmeadow, an organization committed to helping micro-enterprises in developing countries, the two had a heart for social activism, for helping out the dispossessed and less fortunate. And so they decided to dedicate 10 per cent of ACE’s profit to Calmeadow.
“Calmeadow is now self-sufficient, so we are no involved in food security, which is basically that everyone should have the right to food and enough food,” says Haynes. “We just thought since we’re in the business of selling food that it would be nice if some of our profits could go back into that.”
A portion of those profits now also go toward funding community food banks, community kitchens, and community gardens, along with scholarships for cooking and baking schools and help for organic farmers (through an organic farming organization). ACE is a bakery with a huge heart. Which, aside from the face the bread is just so darn good, is probably why the company and its products have lodged themselves so well into the hearts of consumer across Ontario, and have started spreading into Quebec and New York (Buffalo).
“We’re really fortunate that people own our bread and feel strongly about it. I mean we even get calls from customers who will say, “I was just in so and so’s store, and I don’t think they’re treating your bread right, I think you should be talking to the bakery manager,” says Haynes, smiling.
That feeling of ownership is due to a number of reasons. One is an absolute insistence on quality from everyone who is a part of ACE.
“We have incredible quality control here,” Haynes says. “I get a different kind of bread delivered to my house every day, first thing in the morning, so I know what’s going out and I can call at 7:30 in the morning and say, ‘I hope it’s just my cheese twist that looks like this,’ or, ‘this baguette looks wonderful today, I hope they’re all like this.’ Everyone on the team knows that the biggest reason that we’re successful is because we keep the quality up and we’re policemen about it; we’re rapid about it.”
Another reasons consumers feel possessive about ACE products is the knowledge the company is people-driven and people-operated. The packaging makes it very obvious that there are people involved in the business and that it’s not simply an operation that is robotic and automated.
“The packaging is unbelievably important to us. It’s very important to us that people know they’re eating ACE. I think branding is really important: if you have a good product, you stand behind it. Martin’s and my signature is on every bag and we say call us direct if you have a problem. We mean it,” Haynes insists.
While freshly baked bread still goes out to a number of businesses (from hotels to restaurants to neighbourhood stores) in the Great Toronto Area, in 2001 ACE launched a line of frozen dough products aimed at in-store bakeries and stores outside the reach of ACE’s central bakery.
Haynes says they took their time making sure the par-baked products would match the quality and flavour of their freshly made products.
“It took us almost a year of working on the product and freezing it and testing it and we went through all the problems you can possibly imagine,” she says. “It’s baked about 85 per cent and then quickly flash frozen and, when it goes out, we go to those areas and we go into ever store and we work with whoever’s going to be baking it off. We give them sheets, we tell them what to look for, we ask them to bake it for a certain time, we always do a launch when we go anywhere and we’re there for three or four days in the beginning.”
Haynes also believes that demo-ing products is the way to go and the way to introduce the company and its products to new customers.
“We’ve got an expensive product, so we’ve always felt that if we can get people to taste it, they’ll buy it. It’s worked very, very well for us, so we do a lot of demo-ing. We have a large group of part-time demo people that come in and get training and then they go out. We do it every weekend.”
Next on the agenda is a bake-at-home product line from ACE, currently offered in the small retail store at the front of the ACE building (where lunches and snacks are also available). Haynes says a shortage of manpower (a staff of 110, including part-timers) and space are the present obstacles for that line of products.
What else does the future hold for ACE?
Haynes has a cookbook coming out in the fall. But growth, she says, is their main target.
“To just keep on growing, but keep the quality up. We don’t know how big we can get, and still keep the quality there,” she admits. “It’s a journey for us to see.”
This article first appeared in the July 2003 issue of Bakers Journal. ACE Bakery was recently sold to an American equity firm. Read the news brief here .