Before she opened her retail bakery in Montclair, NJ, Rachel Wyman engaged in community baking — only she didn’t know it at the time. Every Thursday, she would hand out 30 loaves of bread to moms who she met at a prenatal yoga class to share with their families. They would provide feedback for her job as a research and product development manager for Tribeca Oven, a nearby artisan wholesale bakery in Carlstadt, NJ.
It didn’t take long for those families to encourage Ms. Wyman to open Montclair Bread Co. (MBC) in 2012, and in fact, become investors in her new venture. Today, the bakery’s brand and its reputation are flourishing because of its support of the local schools, partnering with other neighborhood businesses, and even organizing 5K “Fueled by Doughnuts” run that attracts 3,000 participants to the annual event.
In return, the bakery has been featured in local newspapers, Runner’s World, The New York Times and Forbes magazine.
“You can grow your brands by building your community,” Ms. Wyman told an audience during the American Society of Baking’s BakingTech in Chicago. “It’s free marketing. I just do crazy stuff and people notice.”
Ms. Wyman said the key to becoming a successful community bakery is to create enjoyable experiences that neighbors can share and rely on social media to get the message out. Montclair Bread Co., for instance, provides live music from local artists who perform at the bakery’s outdoor patio each week.
“When people hang out, they spend money, which is kind of cool,” she said. “We only do it one night a week, so it doesn’t get old.”
Despite its name, Montclair Bread Co. is most known for its signature donuts. In fact, Ms. Wyman described the business as “a bread bakery with a donut addiction.” Shortly after opening the business, the bakery began making gourmet donuts on Sundays only. Word got around and lines soon spread down the block before the limited supply of donuts ran out.
Noticing that a vast number of most loyal customers were runners, Ms. Wyman organized an annual running event. The initial one was only 4K in honor of the bakery receiving 4,000 likes on its Facebook page, but changed to a more standard 5K run the following year.
Initially, 250 people participated, but the bakery had to cap entries at 3,000 three years ago because of its popularity and the bakery’s ability to make only so many donuts. Finishers receive a medal, a long-sleeve T-shirt and, of course, MBC’s donuts and coffee. Proceeds go to a rotation of local charities.
Noticing that 75% of participants had never run in a 5K event — most were loyal customers there for the donuts — Ms. Wyman organized a running club that meets at the bakery. Ms. Wyman, who joins the group on runs, noted that everyone shows up promptly because of the “fear of missing out” — or FOMO — on the photo that’s taken of the group before each run.
Ms. Wyman noted that creating a sense of FOMO is one of the successful tools in building a brand and marketing a community bakery. MBC changes its menu each month and provides regular limited-time offers. The current one is an Irish Coffee donut with a coffee glaze and a Baileys whipped cream filling. The most popular is a Butterbeer donut that’s sold for only one week around Harry Potter’s birthday on July 31.
“It’s the most coveted donut I ever made,” Ms. Wyman said. “I’ve seen grown men turning into toddlers and throwing tantrums when they can’t get it.”
MBC also offers contests. It partners with a local third-grade teacher who assigns her students an essay assignment to persuade the bakery to make a specific flavored donut for the school.
“I have not put pickles in a donut yet, but it gets brought up year after year,” Ms. Wyman said.
MBC prefers to partner with — instead of competing against — local businesses to bring the community together. In the past, the bakery’s brioche donuts have become a key ingredient in a co-branded beer and its jelly donuts in a limited-edition ice cream.
“People see you play well in the sandbox, and they’re going to patronize both of your establishments,” she noted.
Ms. Wyman acknowledged that many of her ideas came just by accident. During the federal government shutdown last year, she reached out to the Transportation Safety Administration offering to provide coffee and donuts for the agents at Newark Airport. She didn’t realize that meant supplying food to 2,000 airport agents. However, by allowing community members and local businesses to “sponsor” lunches, the bakery was able to cover its costs as well as reap in publicity.
Another popular event involved honoring International Women’s Day. The bakery picked 12 influential women, such as honoring Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a donut that looks like the jeweled collar she wears when submitting a dissenting opinion.
In supporting charities, she recommended that companies come up with a mission statement for which organizations the bakery supports. MBC, for example, focuses its charitable contributions on local schools.
“When you start giving, people want more so you have to set boundaries,” she advised. “If this is a path you want to go down, I recommend coming up with a mission statement like you have for your business.”
Ms. Wyman also gave tips on how to harness social media, specifically urging bakers to post pictures of the community events they sponsor.
“The more you can document, the better,” she said.
One year, she used social media to play an April Fool’s joke, declaring the bakery was rebranding itself as the Montclair Burrito Co.
“And people believed it,” she said. “I made the staff new shirts. I covered up the sign on the front and we served burritos all day.”
Because April 1 fell on a Monday, typically a slower day for most retail bakeries, there’s wasn’t much risk involved and MBC received coverage in the local newspaper about its prank.
“We sold a lot of burritos on that Monday, and I answered the phone to a lot of tears,” Ms. Wyman said.
The only downside for Ms. Wyman today is that she doesn’t have as much time to bake as she did in the past.
“I’m not baking much at all,” she said. “I’ve turned into an event planner.”