In 1977 Stephan Wechsler was in construction and it was dying. “My family had been in the baking machinery industry for years and I was encouraged to take a look,” he says.
After checking out several alternatives, and starting to hang out in bakeries, Steve found he enjoyed the atmosphere and the machinery. “I’m a bit of a gear head and although I had sworn that selling machinery was something I would never do, I found it fascinating. I also saw there was a need for a company that would focus on quality machinery and service on a smaller level than some of the larger companies with machinery for bigger production,” he says. And so Empire Bakery Equipment was born.
“I decided to focus on small, family-owned ethnic bakeries,” says the company president. “It seemed a good idea, and 38 years later, it looks like it was!”
Now his company has moved into foodservice, including large supermarkets and multi-unit operations that do the bake in-house.
“As our business started to evolve, we saw that the type of production equipment we were offering to small, privately held bakeries was also applicable to supermarkets and the foodservice end of the industry,” he says. “Small supermarket chains were interested in making a quality product and making it fresh, and we found that we had a niche with the particular equipment we were bringing in to make that quality product.”
But as times change, baking needs change too. “The baking industry is not insulated from the influences of society as a whole and nutritional aspects of food have become much more important over the last 38 years,” he says. “Unfortunately, they’ve also changed from year to year, sometimes month to month. First it’s Atkins, then gluten-free, then allergies. The winds and tides change and the industry has to follow or get left behind. Sometimes it works in the bakeries’ favor, sometimes not. Take, for example, the Atkins diet. They needed bread substitutes. We spent hours formulating, experimenting, working at it, and it fizzled. It did not have a lasting impact. By the time we got it right, it was over.”
But that doesn’t happen too often. And as for the trends today, it doesn’t seem to be going that way at all. “Gluten-free has staying power,” says Wechsler. “It’s a medical condition and it’s not going away. It’s not someone’s opinion like no carbs. You have proof, positive feedback, so that led to the birth of some new products, like gluten free pizza, gluten-free bread. We found that requires different handling, different machinery. You can actually make gourmet gluten-free breads on cookie machines because it’s more like cookie batter than a bread dough. All the bread comes out like bread but the process is more like a batter.”
Empire’s decision to get into foodservice happened as a part of their evolution. “We had thought about foodservice for many years. We had people calling us in as bakery experts — a lot of times after the fact, after a job was really messed up, where something had been spec’d or equipment had been purchased that was not suitable for what the bakers wanted to do,” says Wechsler. “And we began to see there was a need for our bakery expertise in the foodservice space.”
“The more we spoke with consultants and foodservice dealers and reps, we realized they had minimal experience in that area because baking is a smaller industry than food itself. There wasn’t the focus or the time or the opportunity for those involved in foodservice machinery to know a lot about bakery machinery, so that’s why they started calling us. We got calls from large foodservice dealers or reps asking for help, and the more we saw that, we said ok, here’s an opportunity for us.”
Empire Bakery Equipment helps restaurants make a statement. “Restaurants want to have signatures,” he says. “People’s first impression when they walk into a restaurant, besides the décor, is the bread because that’s the first thing they serve you. Restaurants wanting to make a great first impression started buying great breads from terrific bakers but they wanted signature items so some started baking their own, especially the chains. They decided they wanted to get into supplying their own so now they’ll build a commissary to supply their own restaurants, on all levels of ability, all levels of craftsmanship. On any part of the spectrum, people wanted to be part of this movement.”
While the company’s approach to the foodservice industry’s needs had been reactive in the past, they finally decided to take a more pro-active role. “We knew if we were to be successful in foodservice we needed to have someone with the expertise, knowledge and relationships to help with the distribution network and the mechanics of the industry. One individual who had called on us over the years and encouraged us to enter the market possessed these attributes, so we brought him on to lead the effort,” says Steve.
“Our goal is to meet the consultants, get them aware of what we do, who we are, and more importantly, why it’s to their client’s advantage to involve us in their process,” he says.
Wechsler touts the versatility of the company. “We do 50,000-square-foot plants as well as small retail stores. We have the capability of solving baking problems at every size.”
Empire isn’t sector-specific, he says. “Our goal is to develop and nurture a rep group, have quality reps around us, which we have now done. We want to make them more knowledgeable about the baking industry, more educated. We solve baking problems, and our goal is to expand that into foodservice.”
As for restaurants in New York City, where space is limited, new equipment is making it easier. Having someone available to spec it is golden. “In the old days everyone had big revolving ovens. That was great because they were versatile but they were 10’x10’. Now you can put in a deck oven for bread, a convection oven for pastries, and maintain it in space half that size, using half as much energy,” he says