Taking over a beloved community institution can be a double-edged sword: The new owners benefit from that love, but they also want to put their own stamp on the business and must keep up with the times, particularly if those times include a pandemic.
John Brandenberger and his wife, Juli, are the new (relatively) owners of Community Bakery, the bakery and restaurant at 1200 Main St. founded in 1947 and one of the linchpins of Little Rock’s SoMa neighborhood. Its former owner, Joe Fox, who’d owned the bakery since 1983, brought the Brandenbergers on as partners in 2018, with an eye toward the couple succeeding him. “I’ve been trying to identify a successor for a long time,” Fox told Arkansas Business at the time. “And I hope he’ll be that person and I think that’s what he hopes as well.”
John serves as CEO, and Juli is chief financial officer and majority owner. The couple bought out Fox completely in October 2019. “The original plan was for us to work with Joe as partners for three years, and then buy him out, just so that we could learn the business,” John Brandenberger said. “I guess we’re over-achievers because we accelerated that. And he was happy too. He felt good. He felt like we were capable and had the ability to do it.
“The blessing we have, though, is that he has an office here, and so we see him every day.”
Asked about changes since the takeover, Brandberger said, “I think if you walked in here, you wouldn’t notice much of a difference except we have gotten rid of the giant menu board.” They had planned on doing it pre-pandemic, and then when the coronavirus hit, “we just accelerated all of our strategies up into the first 12 months as opposed to three years.”
“The challenge we had with Community Bakery … you really want to capture the magic of what this business is and what it’s about, and a big part of it were the recipes, the processes, and though they’re very antiquated and old, they’re magical, so we’ve kept them,” Brandenberger said.
“Now from a technological aspect, we are rapidly evolving,” he said. “We have a whole new point-of-sale system. We’re online.”
During the transition, including during the pandemic, the couple has kept about 90% of the staff, Brandenberger said.
That wasn’t easy, particularly during the first months of the pandemic in spring 2020, “however, it’s paid off because we had a level of continuity that I don’t believe many restaurants have been able to attain, only because we kept our team.”
As did many other restaurants during the time dining rooms were closed, Community Bakery offered takeout and delivery, and it also invested in training staff and streamlining tasks.
The restaurant and bakery’s dine-in service was shut down for a year, reopening only this March, but unlike other restaurants it has not struggled to find employees because “we kept all our staff,” Brandberger said. “It was as if we never shut down, so I’m really proud of that.”
Business has almost returned to normal, with 2019, pre-pandemic, representing normal, he said, although the surge of the delta variant has suppressed dine-in traffic lately.
And now that Community Bakery’s new (relatively) owners have successfully guided it through a pandemic, they’re poised to make their own magic.