“We Don’t Make Brownies” (or Cupcakes, or Bagels, or Muffins)

Posted by jlubans on September 12, 2019

Caption: The Old Town shop on a wintry day.

On my frequent Riga rambles, I’ve got a regular go-to-place. A cafe on the edge of Old Town: Mārtiņa Beķereja. (Martin’s Bakery).
I stop in for tea and my favorite pīrāgi (bread rolls filled or topped with a variety of flavors, some sweet, some savory).

Caption: Inside.

A convivial place, Martin’s interior colors are warm and welcoming. There’s mixed seating: banquettes along the walls and window counters with a view onto pedestrian-busy Vaļņu street.
And, as you can see from the photo, small tables, mid-floor. More often than not you’ll find me along the divider in a cozy chair savoring the flavors with notebook and pencil in hand for any loose thoughts/inspirations that might spring forth while I linger.
Latvia has a reputation for introversion, but that’s not to say Martin’s has planned seating for introverts. Let’s just leave it that one’s eating alone is a normal, not an anti-social activity.
You order at the counter and then take it to a table or you get it bagged or boxed to take away.
There’s ceramic, glass and metal-ware for all but take out. Apart from the serviettes, there’s no paper.
A tiny dish washing machine, in the back, labors mightily all day to keep up.
No foodie, me, I should note before we go much further this is a not a restaurant review.
Instead my aim here is to write of an organization I’ve observed first hand for a decade.
Here’s what I have seen:
Consistent high quality
Very good prices
Little turnover in staff, and
Friendly counter service.

My questions: How do they achieve this? Even more important, how do they maintain this? What is the role of leadership? What are the corporate values?
Thanks to my cousin Dace – who agreed to translate - I was able to set up a visit with the owners.
So, one rainy morning in mid-June my cousin and I made our way to Martin’s Bakery’s headquarters on the heavily trafficked Brivibas Boulevard, about a mile northeast from the old town branch.
On a corner, it sits across the wide street from Riga’s famous Dailes Theater.
The headquarters incorporates one of the company’s six stores. The store was there first in leased space. Just recently the business purchased the entire building. A major restoration and renovation are in the works and the store will remain.
Along with Mārtiņs, in his early 40s, I got to meet his mother, Vija Kalniņš (the founder). Mārtiņs deals with finances, accounting, and operations.
The other owner, Dins, was not there. In his late 40s, he’s the chief of production and a practicing baker. I’ve included two of his photos of Martin’s products.
Ms. Kalniņš now serves as an advisor and as a supervisor. After many years of dealing with banks, she has happily turned over bank loans and other financial matters to her sons.
Two years after Latvia broke from the Soviet Union in 1991 she founded Martin’s Bakery using recipes and techniques she had developed over many years as a renowned baker/pastry chef.
The first Martin’s Bakery – with three employees - was located two kilometers outside of Old Town and would even today be considered peripheral to City Centre, the business region.
Still, she made a go of it.
Her sons, 15 and 23 at the time, helped from the beginning.
Not easy, that first year was during the chaotic changeover - “privatization” - from a communist economy to democratic capitalism. One large issue was how workers got by under communism. It was not unusual, in order to survive, workers would help themselves to resources; after all, they were the “owners”, it was theirs to take.
This view was not limited to retail shops but was prevalent in factories and in collective farms. This kind of “sharing” helped people persevere in an economy burdened with shortages, centralized planning and corruption.
Today, at Martin’s Bakery, there are 105 staff in six locations, and the business has a 3 million Euros turnover with tax returns of more than 700 million*.
Caption: What it’s all about: Foto by Dins Kalniņš, 2019.

Well then, what did I learn? What’s Martin’s Bakery’s secret to success?
Freshness and quality.
Each branch is self-contained. All baking is done on site from start to finish. Assuring freshness, each location bakes everything, every day, using only natural, fresh ingredients including seasonal fresh fruits and berries – additives are verboten.
And, yes they use only fresh cream. (During the interview, Mārtiņs offered Dace and me a plate of gorgeous raspberry tarts with whipped cream. Heavenly!)
Prior to my interview, I was under the wrong impression that there would be centralized pre-baking with delivery to each branch for finishing. Not so!
I witnessed kitchen staff making the pastries by hand and baking them, staying just ahead of demand.
When a store shelf is depleted, the retail staff signals the kitchen and up comes more. When you are in the store you’ll often spot a baker coming up the kitchen stairs or along the kitchen hallway laden with a tray of fresh out-of the-oven baked or prepared delicacies.
Of course, fresh inventories are more difficult to manage than those treated with shelf-life extenders; Martin’s does so through minute attention to quality, very rapid turnover of the product (excellent prices help) and a devoted, regular clientele.
Value Employees.
Knowing how difficult it is to find staff, the company works at retention and maintaining a “stable” group.
And, when you hire good people and treat them with respect you can expect a “good mood” (to quote Mārtiņs) in the workplace.
A personal note: even during busy times one of the counter staff takes time to enunciate in clear Latvian the amount of change from my purchase. It’s her friendly effort to help me learn to count in Latvian!
Overall, I was told, Martin’s Bakery pays more than other confectioners. And, during several seasonal highs there is extra remuneration for workers.
Importantly, every morning Ms. Kalniņš goes to each of the six branches to check for quality and other business matters.
That connection makes clear that the owners are present. While each shop is independent with its own working manager, Ms. Kalniņš provides the necessary link back to the owner’s traditions, goals and vision.
Suggestive of how employees are valued, in June, two of Martin’s bakers were in Australia giving lessons to Australian-Latvian bakers about how Martin’s does what it does. Martin’s Bakery was among the trip sponsors.
“We don’t make brownies”
That was Mārtiņs short hand way of telling me they are a traditional bakery. While others may chase what’s “trending” – like cupcakes - they know and stick with what they do best.
Arguably, their pastries are the “best in town” offered at “very acceptable” prices to a large client base. Nobody comes to Martin’s Bakery once only; the return business, I would guess, is central to the bakery’s financial success.
While not closed to innovation Martin’s Bakery is slow to move away from traditional items. Staff ideas are considered and tried out.
Caption: The sweet: Foto by Dins Kalniņš, 2019.

A family business.
Decisions are made as a family. “We all have the same vision”, I was told: “the truth is always in the middle.”
Sometimes there are disagreements, differences of opinion, but they get resolved; there’s mutual respect for each of their roles.
I asked about how they came to decide on their no alcohol policy. This is unusual for Riga; many bakery or lunch cafes here offer an assortment of vodkas and whiskies, a “bracer” for the early morning or afternoon crowd.
After a short family discussion, the no alcohol policy was set, and no alcohol is served.
Ditto for the early-on decision for a cash-only retail model. That policy was only recently revised since clients began demanding the use of payment cards. The family adjusted and now a customer can use his or her debit or credit card.
Caption: The cute! Fanciful hedgehogs. Foto by Dins Kalniņš, 2019.

What’s next? An outsider’s reflection.
When I asked Martins if he was familiar with the S-shaped curve for depicting an organization’s growth and decline, he told me the business was already on its 3rd or 4th curve!
Obviously, if they have successfully navigated the risky waters of being a family business, then chances are they are in good shape for the future and unlikely to succumb to conditions like the Founder’s Syndrome, or short-term profit goals undermining long term good will and eroding the customer base.
Given the apparent robust health of Martin’s Bakery, I expect few negatives in the short term. That’s would be more than OK with me, as I'll be back in Riga to teach, April-June 2020!
Caption: A sunny ending. Foto by Dins Kalniņš, 2019.

*If that seems like a lot of tax, keep in mind that Latvia - like many, if not all, EU countries - has a VAT (Value Added Tax) of about 21%.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

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