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Tasting success

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Posted: Sunday, December 9, 2012 4:30 am | Updated: 9:07 pm, Sat Aug 3, 2013.

More and more entrepreneurs are discovering that opening a high-quality bakery is a viable local business venture.

During the past 10 years, several bakeries have popped up in the Killeen area. Not all of them make it, but the owners of those that do believe the market has plenty of business for everyone.

“Five years ago, there weren’t any other bakeries like us,” said Katherine Robbins, owner of Cookie Addiction in Harker Heights. “We have definitely noticed an increase in bakeries in the area. When we opened the store five years ago, there were not little bakeries all over the place. Now they are popping up all over the place. Some have come and some have gone, but it is pretty obvious the market is there.”

Ralph Spriggs, owner of Heidi’s German Bakery in Copperas Cove and Killeen, is the elder statesman of independent bakers in the Killeen-Fort Hood area. He has run his bakery since 1994 after leaving his position as head baker at a local H-E-B.

As somebody who has seen the industry from the belly of the beast and as an independent entrepreneur, Spriggs knows how indie bakers can make it despite the presence of behemoths that can spit out cookies, cakes and pastries at an industrial rate.

“All my products are scratch-based,” Spriggs said. “We make everything from scratch. I don’t bring in anything to slice and sell or anything ready to sell. That is an edge I have over the big chains.”

Tamara Freeman has run Sweet Eats in Killeen for nearly seven years. The chemist-in-training-turned-baker also offers made-from-scratch baked goods. But Sweet Eats is not a walk-in bakery. Freeman makes her living selling cookies, cakes and pastries to local cafes and businesses, as well as handling special orders for events.

“My main source of revenue is supplying retail and commercial businesses with pastries and cookies,” Freeman said.

So far, that strategy has been enough to keep her one-woman show profitable.

“Honestly, word of mouth has done it for me,” she said. “When a new coffee shop opens in town, they will talk with the established coffee shops, who will tell them about me. Or their customers will walk in and let them know. Cafes are my base because they do a set amount every month that is guaranteed. But I also do a good deal of business baking for office parties, meetings and that sort of thing.

“From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, it is crazy,” she added.

Just because the holiday season is busy doesn’t mean everything is sweet in the baking sector. A lagging economy and soaring costs have made it increasingly hard for local bakeries to make it.

“It used to cost me $3.95 for a bag of flour,” Spriggs said. “That has gone up 600 percent in the last few years. And it is even higher for some of the specialty ingredients.”

Compounding the problem, it can often be hard for independent bakeries to get a good deal from suppliers. “It would help a lot if there were more local suppliers,” Robbins said. “Sometimes you feel trapped by suppliers. You can get stuck with a product that isn’t quite right.”

Robbins said that for the first three years Cookie Addiction was open, she couldn’t get the quality of brown sugar she wanted. She took picture after picture to show to her supplier, who told her brown sugar was supposed to come in rock form. Robbins did not agree.

“It took three years of pictures and complaining, but now we have good brown sugar,” she said.

Robbins said the problem is small bakeries do not have the clout to get suppliers’ attention. She said a lot of them do not care if they lose a small business here and there as long as their larger clients are happy. As a result, Robbins and many other indie bakers find themselves spending a lot of time getting raw materials.

Long hours in kitchen

Patrick Pfeifer, owner of Pfeifer’s German Bakery in Harker Heights, is not one of those bakers.

Pfeifer seems above it all when it comes to problems the industry is facing. He said he has not even noticed an increase in locally owned bakeries.

Of course, since he bakes from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and then spends several hours doing office work every day, it is perhaps excusable that he is oblivious to the competition.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” Pfeifer said. “There is not a lot of pressure. Heidi’s opened a long time before us, and the German community is big enough to support two bakeries. Really, new bakeries are not something I pay attention to.”

Pfiefer said the secret to his success is simple: He works his fingers to the bone.

“The key to success for a small business like mine is you have to be willing to do what it takes to make it,” he said. “You can’t just invest money and not show up and work.”

Right now, every baker in Killeen had better be working as hard as Pfeifer. The holiday season will likely decide whether 2012 was a good year for all of them.

“It’s survival,” Spriggs said. “Christmas is survival. Christmas will make or break you.”

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