VERNON HILLS, ILL. — For more than half of the 1990s, Bill Skeens tried to get people to buy muffin tops. His fledgling company, Vernon Hills, Ill.-based Prairie City Bakery, was the first national distributor of the product. The appeal seemed obvious to Skeens and his partners — everyone knows the top is the best part of the muffin, so why not just sell that?
“Women got it more than men did,” Mr. Skeens recollected. “Guys thought they were getting cheated. ‘Where’s the rest of my muffin?’”
Then Prairie City got a boost — arguably one of the all-time great boosts, at least in the world of baked foods. And the company didn’t have to pay a dime for it.
On May 8, 1997, an episode of “Seinfeld” aired that made muffin tops instantly famous. In the episode, Elaine tells her ex-boss that she only eats the tops of muffins, and wouldn’t it be a great idea to open a store that sold tops only? The boss steals the idea, opening a business called Top of the Muffin to You! Additional hilarity ensues. And the marketing gods smile down on Prairie City.
“What I had been trying to do for six years, ‘Seinfeld’ did overnight,” Mr. Skeens said.
But not all — or even much — of Prairie City’s success the past two decades can be attributed to good luck. The company had the foresight to notice a big hole in the baked-goods market — and they proceeded to fill it.
Fifteen to 20 years ago, c-stores started upping their coffee games in order to keep pace with the Starbucks of the world, Mr. Skeens said. But they didn’t make comparable improvements to their baked food offerings — and consumers noticed.
“People don’t want a Ding Dong with their gourmet cup of coffee,” Mr. Skeens said. “That’s where we fit in. We realized that people would stop by for the c-store’s gourmet coffee if the bakery was better.”
From that point on, Prairie City focused on finding baked foods that can hold their own against the best coffee.
While it does do some grocery business, Prairie City’s retail focus is c-stores. The company’s unwrapped bulk food service program for c-stores features a full line of cinnamon rolls (three varieties), muffins (four), donuts (five each in two categories: premium and classic), Danish (two) and butter cake.
Wrapped products include cinnamon rolls, Danish, strudel, bear claws, muffins, pound cake, butter cake, cookies, brownies, fudge, donut holes and pretzel sticks.
Prairie City’s Dulce Pradera (Spanish for “sweet prairie”) program features a full line of Mexican bakery favorites, including conchas, danes cuernos, puerquitos, galletas, mantecadas and cuernitos.
In addition to coffee-shop quality, another key to Prairie City’s success has been its adoption of a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) approach to packaging. The company’s philosophy, Mr. Skeens said, is to have as little as possible separating the consumer from the product.
“We supply the cookies at the Chicago Cubs games, and people always ask me: ‘Why don’t you put your name on the front of the cookie?’ And I tell them, ‘People aren’t buying the name.’”
Seeing as much of the product as possible is the first step in the selling process. Once the eyes are engaged, the feel takes over, Mr. Skeens said. Prairie City counts on the softness of its products to also get consumers’ attention.
“From day one, we’ve had a one-word slogan — ‘Wow!’ — and people actually do pick up our products, feel them, and say ‘Oh, wow,’” he said.
If the feel test leads to purchase, the wows multiply, Mr. Skeens said, and there’s a good chance Prairie City has found a return customer.
Most of Prairie City’s c-store offerings are packed under the Prairie City brand, but some of the company’s customers opt for private label packaging, Mr. Skeens said.
And while much of Prairie City’s lineup is merchandised in individual packaging, bulk to-go is another popular option for both coffee shops and instore bakeries. Muffins sold in tulip-style cups, premium donuts and butter cakes are among the examples of instore-targeted items that provide the illusion of being made on site.
One-stop shop service
Another thing that separates Prairie City from its competitors, Mr. Skeens said, is a thorough understanding of its customers’ inventory-related needs. When packs are too large, for instance, c-stores run the risk of ending up with a lot of stale product on hand. As a result, Prairie City’s packs are 4-count, not 12-count like those of many of its competitors.
“We pack them how they use them,” Mr. Skeens said. “The right place, the right time, and not too much of it.”
Prairie City also has a good handle on customers’ logistical needs, Mr. Skeens said. He said few c-stores are willing to pay an individual vendor $80 for baked foods every morning of the week. And even if they were, how could that vendor ensure delivery to multiple locations every day by 5 a.m.?
The solution for Prairie City is flash freezing. As soon as the company’s products are baked, they’re frozen and shipped frozen to their final destinations. C-stores thaw only what they think they’ll need in a given day, and if demand is greater than expected, they can always thaw more.
“If 10 guys come in and wipe you out, you can go to the freezer and bake some more,” Mr. Skeens said.
As for the quality of flash-frozen baked foods once they’re thawed?
“It’s really almost fresher than a fresh product,” Mr. Skeens said.
Prairie City’s combination of technology, inventory control and product variety gives c-stores the option of filling an entire bakery case with one supplier and not having to worry about product going stale, Mr. Skeens said.
“Convenience stores want a one-stop shop, and we provide it,” he said.
Another part of being a one-stop shop is providing c-store customers with merchandising solutions. Smart merchandising creates strong impulse purchases, and Prairie City offers a variety of attractive and space-conscious displays that are effective and easy to set up, Mr. Skeens explained.
Prairie City’s bulk merchandiser options include three- and four-tier bakery cases and cookie warmers. For wrapped product the company offers six-tier floor racks, three-tier counter racks, in-line racks, self-merchandisers, snack racks, clip strips and donut hole displays.
The company couldn’t do all that it does, Mr. Skeens said, without close partnerships with its distributors, industry leaders like McLane, Eby-Brown, Associated Wholesale Grocers, Sysco and U.S. Foodservice.
Among the more recent successes for Prairie City are donut hole cups and a grab ‘n go take on traditional Belgian waffles. The donut hole cups, available in several varieties, are “a little bit of a sleeper,” Mr. Skeens said.
The portable Belgian waffle product, sold under the brand name Walkin’ Waffles, was introduced in October at the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) annual convention in Chicago. Mr. Skeens described the whole wheat, clean label product as more dough-like, like brioche. It’s made with pearl sugar, which caramelizes, giving it a crunchy texture, and it’s sweet enough not to need syrup poured on top of it. Hence ‘Walkin’ — the product can be eaten as is, only one hand required.
As usual, Mr. Skeens said, Prairie City was a big hit at the NACS show.
“People seek us out, wondering what’s new at Prairie City Bakery,” he said. “We want to make products that are as easy as possible for the consumer, the store and the distributor. For anyone who’s looking for a fresh bulk solution, we offer the quality of a gourmet coffee shop.”
While Prairie City can fill entire bakery cases for its c-store customers, the company is also happy to provide whatever solution the customer needs, no matter how small.
“If a store has a commissary that can’t make apple fritters, they can supplement with us,” Mr. Skeens said.
For Prairie City, it all comes back to quality and the “wow” factor. The company didn’t get where it is today by cutting corners.
“We’re not interested in being the lowest-priced guy out there,” Mr. Skeens said. “What happens when you sell quality is that people come back for more.”
Butter cake boom
Prairie City Bakery has a lot of big sellers, but its current superstar is a product that’s still relatively young. The company had long heard about the famous butter cakes of St. Louis. About five years ago, Prairie City launched its own version, the Ooey Gooey Butter Cake. The rest is history. Prairie City now offers seven varieties of it, and even added an Ooey Gooey Butter Cake Finder to its web site, so customers can find a store nearby that sells them.
The cakes are sold individually wrapped and in two unwrapped bulk food service versions — a 45-oz tray and a 10-oz pan.
“This product has really taken the industry by storm,” Mr. Skeens said. In social media mentions and calls received on Prairie City’s 800 number, comments about the product run about 20:1 in favor.
It’s no surprise Ooey Gooey Butter Cakes hit it off with Midwestern consumers. They were also an instant hit in the South, Mr. Skeens said. But the company wasn’t sure how they would fare in the East. The reaction from a leading Eastern c-store chain gave them a pretty good indication.“It’s blown out of Wawa,” Mr. Skeens said. “Some say it’s the fastest-moving item in the store.”