TAKING THE CAKE: LaSalle Bakery owner Michael Manni has watched the business grow since he purchased it 37 years ago. Above, he's pictured with employees Nicole Dellagiovanna, left, and Paula De Certis.
When Michael Manni bought LaSalle Bakery on Smith Street in Providence 37 years ago, business peaked Sunday mornings when ladies coming home from Mass would form a line out the door and leave balancing pastry boxes tied up with string.
Now LaSalle is filled seven days a week with Providence College freshman clutching giant iced coffees and office workers grabbing breakfast sandwiches on their way downtown. Always busy around traditional holidays, LaSalle’s diversified offerings now prevent mid-winter dead periods.
“The similarity is that we bake on the premises, but the business is strikingly different,” Manni said about the LaSalle Bakery he first knew as a 15-year-old “cleanup boy.” “In the old days, we didn’t serve coffee and espresso – we didn’t have tables and chairs. Now that’s a growing part of our business.”
With an expanding selection of prepared, savory foods, café items and sophisticated cakes, LaSalle is adapting quite well to the contemporary bakery business, which now involves competing with chain coffee houses and gourmet supermarkets.
A few years ago LaSalle opened a second location on Admiral Street. Last year the bakery was named national bakery of the year by Modern Baking Magazine over more thans 24,000 bakeries across the country.
Now with the business expanding, Manni is exploring the possibility of opening another location, possibly outside Elmhurst.
“The change has happened gradually, but when we first opened the second store, we were bursting at the sides on Smith Street,” Manni said. “We thought we would open a small, second store, then it became a bigger store, and then when we did open the sales were bigger than the original.”
Through all the change, LaSalle, which first opened its doors on Smith Street in 1935, has maintained its traditional techniques for making Italian bread and baguettes, even as it has added items like pizzas and sandwiches to the menu.
One of the biggest changes to the business came about two and a half years ago when, on the advice of a consultant, Manni took himself out of daily baking in order to focus on management.
“I do miss it somewhat, but the place has never run so well now that I am out of there,” Manni said.
With a more formal management structure in place, LaSalle is now marketing itself more than ever.
Perhaps the most significant promotion came from Manni’s son, who suggested offering all incoming freshmen students at nearby Providence College a $5 gift card.
As new students rolled in to their dorm rooms the first year, new business started rolling into the bakery and LaSalle has continued the promotion each year since.
“That year we saw a spike in sales of iced coffee, pastries, breakfast sandwiches, everything,” Manni said.
College students are just one market that has grown for LaSalle in recent years.
Propelled by the popularity of television food shows, the demand for complex custom cakes with elaborate icing constructions has grown dramatically, although Manni said he is reluctant to go too far into the cake-sculpture business. Some customers, he said, come in with elaborate drawings of cakes resembling all kinds of items unaware of the tremendous cost of trying to execute them.
One area LaSalle is very interested in is the corporate market, where Manni said there are increasing opportunities for growth serving downtown offices, law firms and banks.
Right now LaSalle makes all of its food at the kitchens at the Smith Street and Admiral Street stores, but as both have become busier and expanded their offerings, Manni is looking at new production space.
A reconfiguration of part of the Smith Street store is now in the works that will take away some production space in favor of more room to serve food. That production capacity will eventually need to be replaced.
While expanding comes with its challenges, it also comes with advantages.
After a salmonella outbreak from another local bakery’s zeppoles last spring, LaSalle this year bought a $55,000 machine that makes and quickly cools gelato, butter-cream ganache and zeppole cream safely.
While there might not be as many neighborhood bakeries in Rhode Island as there used to be, Manni said pessimism about the future of independent bakers, which had been common a decade ago, is waning.
“People used to complain that everyone was shopping in supermarkets,” Manni said. “I don’t feel that way and I don’t hear that as much anymore. Customer service is very important and I think that differentiates us.” •
OWNERS: Michael and Cheryl Manni
TYPE OF BUSINESS: Bakery
LOCATION: 993 Smith St. and 685 Admiral St., Providence