Making creative cakes

Julie Fitz-Gerald
September 11, 2013
Written by Julie Fitz-Gerald
In 1986, brothers Michael and Martin Givens opened a small, family-owned bakery in Woodbridge, Ont., where they began creating delectable, high-quality cakes based on a LaRocca family tradition that started in Naples, Italy, over 60 years ago. Today, with the Givens brothers still at the helm, LaRocca Creative Cakes has grown to become a North American success story. President and co-owner Michael took time to chat with Bakers Journal about new flavours, top sellers and the secret to turning a small business into a big success.

Dulce-Napoleon  
LaRocca introduced the Dulce Napoleon cake about a year ago and the company reports that it has done very well for them.  

 

Michael, what have been your best-selling cakes over the last year?
We have our classic Super Caramel Crunch. We are the originators of that; we’ve been making it for about 20 years and it continues to sell really well. One of the newer cakes in the top 5 is Red Velvet. In the last two years it’s become very popular here, especially in the last year. It’s hard to crack our top 5 cakes because we’ve been here for so long and there’re a lot of classics that consumers have grown to love, but the Red Velvet really shot up and is our number 2, I believe. It’s a very simple cake with the cream cheese frosting and butter cake; people seem to like its simplicity.

What flavours are consumers snapping up?
Peanut butter is making a comeback. I remember a few years ago you couldn’t give away a peanut butter product, but nowadays it’s huge. Our new line of brownies includes a peanut butter and jelly brownie and we’re doing a peanut butter and jelly cake that’s doing really well. The Dulce Napoleon has also been doing really well. We launched that about a year ago and it has puff pastry, whipped cream, dulce de leche – which has been around now for a few years and is a very popular flavour – so that cake is doing great.

How do you stay on top of new and emerging trends in the creative cake market?
As far as following trends, we look at them, we enjoy them as much as anyone else, but we don’t jump on the bandwagon as quick as most people. For example, Greek yogurt has become very popular. Typically people are replacing sour cream in cheesecake with Greek yogurt and calling it a Greek yogurt cheesecake. We developed a whole new category by creating a Greek Yogurt Cake, which is basically 100 per cent Greek yogurt. We blend it and mix it in such a way that allows us to bake it. It looks and has the texture of a cheesecake, but it’s 100 per cent Greek yogurt. As a result it has a lot less sodium and a lot more protein and is a product that’s totally different. We look at a trend and we see how we can make it better, bigger and very unique.

LaRocca5-2  
In 1986, brothers Michael (right) and Martin Givens opened a small, family-owned bakery in Woodbridge, Ont. Today, that small bakery is LaRocca Creative Cakes. 

 
With LaRocca cakes being shipped across North America, how do you ensure that each cake meets the standards that you’ve become known for?
When choosing what to send nationally or across North America, it’s a matter of choosing the right products that can ship well. So our entire menu is not available across North America; we choose products that can withstand the challenges faced during shipping. Having the right packaging is also important. Knowing how it performs, testing it and not skimping out on packaging are key. There are many layers that are required to properly preserve the product and protect it. They add costs, both in labour to apply those layers and also in the raw material, but they’ve got to be factored in. I see too many products out on the market that are packaged in a minimum amount of packaging and it just doesn’t work. Also, knowing the customer is important. Don’t just ship product for the sake of shipping it. Know who the customer is. Even though a frozen cake might have a six- or 10-month shelf life, if the customer is not going to be using it within the next month or two, then maybe they’re not the right customer for that product.

How were you able to turn a small, family-owned bakery into a big dessert supplier across Canada and the U.S.?
The plan was just to open up a little bakery in Woodbridge, sell some cakes and make a living. One thing led to another and people really gravitated to our product. It’s really all about the product. It’s a family business and everything we have goes back into the business. We’ve been around for over 25 years and we’ve been doing everything in small steps; we haven’t overextended ourselves. If something’s not right for us – it doesn’t matter if you’ve got five stores or 500 stores – the decisions come from what’s best for the company, not what the biggest sale is going to be. We’re in it for the product. That’s what comes first and I think that shows. We’re not an assembly line; we’re a high-end specialty bakery making a lot of cakes.

What can customers expect to see in the future from LaRocca Creative Cakes?
We’re very proud of our core products and people love them. I want to get them to more people and more places, so our challenge is to be more efficient in making these very complex products. Continual improvement is huge for us. We also develop at least two new products a day. Most of that is just for our own creative fun; we’re a very creative bunch here. My brother Marty heads up the R&D and he is a true artist; he develops from his heart, it’s a passion of his and he’s fantastic at it. We’re all foodies here so we’re often guinea pigs and he enjoys bringing food up every day and seeing what we like, what we don’t like and what gets us excited. A lot of stuff just stays here, but we do select some things to try out throughout the year.

We’ve been able to grow in a way that we’re proud to call ourselves LaRocca. There are cakes that we make five of per day, literally five cakes, because that’s what we love to do, and then there are cakes that we make 5,000 of per day. Are we going to be able to maintain that kind of style over the next 20 years? There are a lot of people that say “no,” but as long as my brother and I are here, we’re going to grow and we’re going to grow in this way. We’ve been breaking a lot of rules over time, in a good way.


Julie Fitz-Gerald is a freelance writer based in Uxbridge, Ont., and a regular contributor to Bakers Journal.


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