NEW HAVEN, CONN. — In foodie culture, New Haven is a beacon. Legend has it that the hamburger was born here. And just a few miles from neighboring East Haven, which touts the country’s highest concentration of Italian-American population, New Haven is famous for pizza.
There’s also a gem hiding in this quaint Connecticut township. On Grand Ave., Something Sweet has been quietly cranking out decadent pies for two decades.
The bakery itself has been in business for 25 years, but near the turn of the 21st century, hand-made pies made an unlikely acquaintance with bagel production.
“When I first met Joe (Montesano, the bakery’s founder), he and his wife and two other women were making pies by hand and loading them into rack ovens and packing them up,” said Tom Kores, a member of Something Sweet’s board of directors.
The house that Tom built
A veteran baker and graduate of AIB International in Manhattan, Kas., Mr. Kores spent practically his entire career in the plant on Grand Ave., just not as a pie producer. The building began as a Lender’s Bagels facility … and Mr. Kores was the mechanical engineer who designed it.
“What happened was that Lender’s was owned by the Kellogg Co. at that juncture,” Mr. Kores recalled. “They elected to sell the business to Aurora Foods in the Midwest, and Aurora decided not to take the local Lender’s facilities, including this one.”
Mr. Kores was charged with selling off the building, and he ultimately came with the sale of the company. Going from hand-making pies in a storefront bakery to mass-producing them — in a former bagel plant, nonetheless — was no small feat. Something Sweet had its work cut out.
About a decade after taking over the plant — and after a futile attempt by Mr. Kores to retire — he began consulting and found himself back on Grand Ave., assisting Something Sweet with its pie production. The owners upgraded from rack ovens to a 90-foot Thermotron tunnel oven, along with a two-story Frigoscandia (now JBT) spiral freezer. Both machines are still in use today.
“The equipment upgrades and the ability to deposit, bake and freeze without a lot of hand operations revolutionized the business,” Mr. Kores said.
From there, the bakery successfully sold its pies up and down the East coast and in some parts of the Midwest.
The owners eventually sold the bakery to Saybrook Corporate Opportunity Funds, a Los Angeles-based private equity firm, and the company now sells pies and New York-style crumb cakes in supermarkets and big box outlets from coast to coast, all from those humble beginnings in the plant that Mr. Kores built.
Pies without borders
Despite its quiet headquarters nestled in an area of New Haven on the brink of gentrification, Something Sweet’s ambition for market penetration is boundless.
“The pie business is a very small group,” said Greg Menke, chief executive officer of Something Sweet. “Bakery itself is small, but it’s especially so for pies in particular.”
With a total of 140 s.k.u.s, the bakery’s signature items include pumpkin pie, its No. 1 seller, and its New York-style crumb cake has made its mark as a specialty item in California and other areas of the West coast.
“We frequently get emails from West coast ‘transplants’ — people originally from New York or New England — who are thrilled to find an authentic New York product like ours,” Mr. Menke said. “So long as the shipping costs are recoverable, we consider ourselves geographically agnostic. Obviously, it has to be a win-win for both sides, and our current cost structure and the quality of our products allow us to make that happen.”
The company has considered expanding operations westward, but nothing has come to fruition just yet.
Similarly, Something Sweet considers itself to be “demographically agnostic,” as well. Pies are seasonal, so producers in this segment often find themselves thinking outside the box to generate interest throughout the year. Something Sweet accomplishes this by having an R.&D. facility located onsite.
“We get a lot of requests from customers asking us to come up with something new and different,” Mr. Menke said. “With an R.&D. manager who’s a baker by trade in a department with decades of experience, we can stay agile and respond quickly to these customer requests.”
The company also is exploring new opportunities in fast-growth markets such as Hispanic, so the bakery relies on that R.&D. expertise for rapid and creative innovation.
“No one product is a fit-all solution, and based on our research, ‘Hispanic’ is a broad term that encompasses different geographic influences like Caribbean, Cuban, Puerto Rican or Mexican,” Mr. Menke said.
With innovative product development, Something Sweet can capitalize on Hispanic-influenced flavor trends such as mango, coconut or dulce de leche by merging them with the bakery’s popular cream pies that already have a loyal following.
“We have a solid starting point because we already make good pies,” Mr. Menke said. “Whether you’re Hispanic or not, it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is they taste great.”
Bursting at the seams
As Something Sweet approaches its 25th anniversary, the pie maker is experiencing not only growth but also perhaps some of the pains that come along with it.
“We want to be more efficient in what we do — faster speeds, more cost-effective — so we can stay competitively priced and maintain the quality we’re known for,” explained Mr. Menke.
While the bakery is exploring its options for growth beyond its 25,000-square-foot facility, it’s cranking out anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 pies a day, depending on the product, whether it’s an open pie or merengue topped, running two shifts up to six days a week.
For nearly 20 years, the facility and equipment has remained tried and true for Something Sweet. The pie fillings are mixed in three 2,200-lb Chester Jensen kettles; meanwhile, dough is mixed in an 1,100-lb Shaffer, a Bundy Baking Solution, horizontal mixer. The filling and dough are each transported via trough to the two Colborne processing lines, where the dough is divided and cut by weight: During Baking & Snack’s visit, dough was cut into 11-oz pieces for 10-inch pumpkin pies, a hot item during “pie season” and the height of all things pumpkin-flavored.
Once placed into pans, the dough is pressed, and filling is administered from the Colborne depositors, which run two across.
When merengue pies are on the line, they’re topped and run through a Babbco browning tunnel at 500°F. Otherwise, the pies head directly to the 90-foot oven. After about a minute of ambient cooling, they cruise 1,300 feet and up two stories inside the spiral freezer.
When the pies descend, they are welcomed by a team of six operators ready to place the pies into boxes. This is an area of the bakery where automation is on the horizon. But the quarters are tight on Grand Ave., so space is a concern when considering automated packaging equipment. On the bright side, a dozen eyes get a final look at the product before the boxes are sealed, ink-jetted and manually palletized before heading out the door.
“We have a lot of activity in a small footprint,” Mr. Menke observed.
The bakery has its process down to a science, but Something Sweet’s growing business demands more. For example, the positive response to smaller crumb cake sizes is opening doors for smaller pie sizes, too … but the current footprint isn’t friendly, and there’s simply not room for expanding the line.
Something Sweet began its due diligence for scouting a new location, and Mr. Menke dreams of what the future holds.
“We’ll still have one line, but we’d like it to be multifaceted,” he said, noting that keeping up with growth means investing in technology that will increase efficiency without letting go of the eminence the bakery has maintained since the pies were made by hand.
“Costs keep going up, so the only way to remain competitive is to win more customers and become more efficient,” Mr. Kores added.
Something Sweet hasn’t forgotten how the company got to where it is today.
“We are proud of our existing equipment, and we look forward to investing in our future,” Mr. Menke said, noting that the next facility will remain in its hometown. “We are located in an opportunity zone that provides jobs that help the local economy. Something Sweet is a proud citizen of New Haven; our roots are deep. Over the next 25 years, we hope to make New Haven as famous for our sweet pies as much as it is for pizza pies.”