‘Oprah Effect’ opens doors for California bakery

by Laurie Gorton
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A mention by a popular TV host moves Galaxy Desserts into all-out production.

RICHMOND, CALIF. — When a well-liked television personality name-dropped her preference for Galaxy Desserts’ all-butter croissants, the company’s business exploded. Hand methods couldn’t keep up, and earlier this year it started up a high-volume, highly automated croissant line to get ahead of demand.

“The croissant part of our business is much bigger today than the mousse products we started with,” said Jean-Yves Charon, the company’s founder, partner and pastry chef, “and we still do plenty of those products, too.”

Galaxy almost single-handedly created the mail-order frozen croissant craze. Well, Oprah Winfrey helped, too. She featured the Richmond-based company’s French Butter Croissants during her show’s Favorite Things 2002 episode.

“That catapulted us into a much bigger market,” said Avi Hangad-O’Shaughnessy, the company’s marketing manager. “We had to go into 24/7 production to meet demand.”

Galaxy president and chief executive officer Paul Levitan added, “People called and called and called. At the time, we were making the best croissants around, but they were a side business. We went from hand-rolling the dough to buying seven sheeters. And now we have Line No. 23 in place that outputs croissants at the rate of thousands per hour.”

The Oprah Effect transformed nearly everything.

“At the time, we were mostly a food service supplier,” Mr. Charon explained, “but now the business is 60% retail and 40% food service.”

That ratio continues to shift as Galaxy adds more major retailers as national accounts. The company is currently upgrading its Internet store.

“And we are one of the top sellers carried by Williams-Sonoma,” he continued. The national culinary mail-order house added Galaxy croissants in 1995. To mark the 20th year of this relationship, he is working on a special anniversary product for 2015. The Williams-Sonoma holiday catalog features Galaxy products prominently and included a “Meet the Baker” profile of Mr. Charon in the 2013 edition.

Holiday mail orders for frozen croissants and dessert items keep the Richmond plant humming around the clock during November and December, but the croissant business actually made Galaxy less seasonal.

“Croissants helped even us out,” Mr. Levitan said.

The past year’s multi-million dollar investment in new technology sets the stage for even more growth. That’s Line No. 23 mentioned by Mr. Levitan, called so because it was 23rd line built by Galaxy’s partner company, Brioche Pasquier of Les Cerqueux, France.

The new line is capable of up to 14,000 pieces per hour and makes full-sized and mini-croissants, chocolate croissants and the laminated “butter bread” pastries introduced in 2013.

Among the newest items is a pastry from Mr. Charon’s childhood: Kouign Amann (pronounced “quee’ ah-mon”), which means “butter bread.” Native to the Brittany region of France, it consists of layers of puff pastry with a sweet butter center and a crisp caramelized-sugar coating. It was a 2013 finalist in the baked goods category for the sofi Award, an annual competition sponsored by the Specialty Food Association honoring the best in specialty foods and beverages.

Over the years, Galaxy Desserts found its products in the winners’ circle many times.

The sofi Awards honored the company’s Chocolate Truffle Marquise cake in 2003 as “outstanding dessert.” Other products named as sofi finalists include the company’s Chocolate Ribbon Mousse cake (1998), Triple Mousse cake (2000), Grand Sequoia Mousse cake (2001), French Butter Croissants (2003), Mini Butter Croissants (2012) and Kouign Amann (2013).

The croissants graced Oprah Winfrey’s lists of Favorite Things in 2002, 2005 and 2010, with Chocolate Lava cake achieving such recognition in 2003. The croissants also made the 2006 edition of Breakfast with Oprah.
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