Alessi Bakeries celebrates its centennial
Tampa institution invests in its rapidly expanding wholesale bakery operation.

Everything Phil Alessi Jr. needed to know in life he learned not in kindergarten but by working at his family’s bakery in Tampa, FL. From age 6, he grew up in his father’s small retail bakery by mixing in a little fun with work as the old-time bakers from Europe taught and mentored him. “Instead of playing on weekends, I was in the bakery working,” Mr. Alessi Jr. noted. “That was my playtime because we also played in the bakery as a youngster with egg fights and stuff like that.”

At 18, Mr. Alessi Jr. ventured out on his own as a “sophisticated carny,” operating concession stands at regional and state fairs and festivals and selling everything from colossal onion blooms, lemonade and Cuban sandwiches to, of course, the family’s signature éclairs, chocolate-covered strawberries, jumbo cookies, brownies, pastries and other baked sweet goods.

After dabbling in the restaurant business and satisfying his own entrepreneurial spirit, Mr. Alessi Jr. remained destined to play a key role in the future of the bakery. “At the age of 39, my father asked me if I wanted to come back into the family business, and it was like a dream come true,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”

Mr. Alessi Jr., 44, is the fourth generation to work in the industry during the past century. In fact, the family bakery bloodlines date back to 1912, when his great-grandfather, Nicolo Alessi, emigrated from Sicily and started a small bakery in Tampa (see “100 years and still going strong”).

While Mr. Alessi Jr. still owns the concession stands, now overseen by a business partner, he currently serves as president and CEO of Alessi Bakeries. He runs the baking company with his cousin John Nick Alessi, who is executive vice-president, and Sefik Turan, veteran baker and now COO, who Phil Alessi Sr. sponsored to come to the US from Turkey 39 years ago.

In recent years, Alessi Bakeries has become much more diversified in response to changes in the market. The company still operates the iconic and highly successful family retail shop, although much expanded in size and popularity over the years and still selling a variety of signature cakes, wedding cakes and a full line of desserts and baked goods. However, the company’s major growth comes from a steady stream of wholesale volume at its 100,000-sq-ft facility on the Northwest side of Tampa.

Writing on the wall

Alessi Bakeries invested $20 million to build the current wholesale operation five years ago. It replaced a smaller, 40,000-sq-ft bakery Mr. Alessi Sr. opened in the 1990s after a regional supermarket customer approached him with a request to produce its signature desserts.

“My father saw the writing on the wall with in-store bakeries taking over,” Mr. Alessi Jr. explained. “The retail bakery industry was falling by the wayside. They couldn’t compete with in-store bakeries anymore.”

Alessi Bakeries’ wholesale division carved a niche by specializing in the production of miniature fancy pastries and elegant single-serve desserts inspired by some of the family’s most popular recipes. These thaw-and-serve items such as its best-selling tiramisu and tres leches cakes come in a standard 40-count box as well as a variety of bulk packaging formats.

The company also assembles platter kits with 120 individual brownies, tartlets, mini-éclairs and small puff pastries for in-store bakeries. To serve retail accounts and its burgeoning convenience store business, Alessi Bakeries produces individually wrapped snacks such as iced chocolate cakes, carrot cakes and banana cakes packed in 12-count boxes. Mini-parfaits come in 3-oz plastic dessert cups.

The wholesale plant even supplies 90% of the desserts and other baked goods for its Tampa retail shop because it can make them more efficiently at the large bakery than in the smaller retail shop. Alessi Bakeries distributes its upscale desserts primarily throughout the Southeast, although the bakery plans to raise its presence in Texas this year, according to Mr. Alessi Jr.

“We’re not the cheapest, and we’re not the highest-priced products in the market,” he said. “We have a nice quality product with a true flavor profile. If it’s a carrot cake, it tastes like a carrot. If it’s a chocolate one, it is pure chocolate.”

Some newer products include cheesecake lollipops — round dollops of chocolate-enrobed cheesecake bites on a lollipop stick. Additionally, the bakery co-packs and custom-designs baked goods for specific accounts through its R&D center.

Quality through automation

In many ways, Alessi Bakeries’ wholesale plant runs like an oversized retail bakery, but that’s slowly changing. The often labor-intensive, semiautomated operation relies on small batch mixing and moveable equipment that it can mix and match to create lines tailored to its formulas’ specifications. For instance, it assembles three production lines to make its tres leches cakes and four lines — two on one side of the plant and two on the other — to put together its tiramisu squares. Most products require some handwork such as adding icing to mini-éclairs or dusting the word “tiramisu” with fine cocoa on every mini-dessert square to create a signature product.

“We’ve become flexible with our automation,” Mr. Alessi Jr. noted. “We don’t have a conveyor for just one item. We interchange them. On depositors, we use different nozzles and tips. We have 20 stainless steel tables, and we can move them where we need them. But we can produce a lot. Our éclair machine can make 100,000 units a day.”

This year, Alessi Bakeries actively seeks new ways to control costs and improve consistency. “The mentality before was that we cannot automate because it would take away from quality, but there is so much good automation out there that won’t touch the quality,” he said. “It will actually enhance it, and that’s what we’re looking at.”

Specifically, the bakery plans to make strategic equipment purchases and adjust its approach to scheduling by combining production runs to increase capacity, make new products and enhance efficiency in a way that lowers the production costs per unit. “We won’t sacrifice quality,” he noted. “I don’t look at cheapening our products. I look at cost-reducing them. That’s everybody’s mentality. Our motto is, ‘Where quality ruled since 1912,’ and that’s something we live by.”

About 120 employees work in the wholesale operation on a single shift, starting at 5:30 a.m. five days a week. All batches are assembled by hand either first thing in the morning or sometimes the previous day, especially for long-run products such as tres leche cakes.

Four 140-qt Hobart spiral mixers create small batches that can provide better front-end control, according to Mr. Alessi Jr. The bakery uses four steam-jacketed, 240-qt kettles for making icings, fillings or even freshly brewed coffee for tiramisu.

Depending on the product, the operation relies on a battery of depositors and icing machines, including a Polin depositor and a Fedco waterfall icing system. Alessi Bakeries plans to upgrade its depositing capabilities to reduce handwork and minimize waste, which now stands at 2.5%. It’s adding an enrober for a new product later this year, Mr. Alessi Jr. said.

The bakery also uses a Hayon pan greaser and installed a Douglas Machines pan washing system that cleans 20 trays a minute. The 2-lane, continuous-cleaning tunnel washer includes a special gas-heated, water-saving design, according to Kevin Lemen, vice-president at Douglas Machines. It features a recirculating wash tank, recirculating rinse tank, a final sanitizing rinse section and a high-pressure blow-off module. The system’s modified lanes can hold up to 3.5-in.-deep pans for added versatility.

In addition to saving water, energy and cleaning chemicals, the washer significantly reduced labor at the bakery. “We now have only two guys washing trays,” Mr. Alessi Jr. said. “Before, we used 18 people. The system paid itself off in six months.”

Alessi Bakeries bakes its products in five Sveba Dahlen double rack ovens from Gemini Bakery Equipment, and it expects to purchase three additional ovens this year to meet the demands for the company’s projected growth plan, according to Mr. Alessi Jr.

An ultrasonic cake cutting system portions 75% of finished products before they’re frozen and packaged. Once again, the bakery combines different equipment such as a Texwrap shrinkwrapper, Autolabe labeling system and Safeline or EZ Tec metal detection systems to provide versatility at the end of the line. A mechanical freezer set at -17°F holds up to 300 pallets of finished product. For larger accounts, the company uses an offsite cold storage facility.

Focus on the future

Because of the nature of its products — many of them dairy-based desserts — Alessi Bakeries invested significantly in a quality assurance lab with incubators for shelf life tests and systems for swabbing and microbiological testing of products. A kosher facility, the bakery is certified by AIB International, Silliker, the military and the Florida Department of Agriculture. Last year, the bakery also achieved SQF Level 2 certification by the Safe Quality Food Institute.

In all, Alessi Bakeries offers more than 150 SKUs. Although this number is down from the 350 items it produced a few years ago, the company would like ideally to increase production on its 20 core items. This approach would allow it to focus on longer-run items while adding selected new products for existing customers.

“We can’t look at ourselves as a retail bakery,” Mr. Alessi Jr. said. “We have to look at ourselves as a manufacturing plant.”

Nevertheless, the retail bakery and its heritage play an integral role in supporting the company’s wholesale initiatives. Alessi Bakeries routinely uses the retail shop to test new product concepts or new formulations of existing ones. The retail bakery also provides a vault of proven flavor profiles for developing future products.

Although his childhood prepared him to head the bakery’s operations, Mr. Alessi Jr. noted his days as a carny and even a restaurateur helped him as well. “I’ve learned a lot from hard work and trial and error,” he said. “I learned it all from experience. That made me qualified to run the company.”