Made in the Berkshires | Pittsfield Rye: A legacy of baking that continues on South Street
Photo Gallery | Made in the Berkshires: Pittsfield Rye
PITTSFIELD — Berkshire County's economy has transformed so much over the past century, that few family-owned businesses still operate that predate the Great Depression.
But up on a hill that overlooks South Street at the Pittsfield Rye and Speciality Breads Co., Rick Robbins is plying the same trade that his father and grandfather did before him.
Robbins and his wife, Renee, are the third generation of the Robbins family to run Pittsfield Rye and Speciality Breads, which Rick's great-uncle, Max Schreck, originally started as a small bakery on Columbus Avenue in 1929.
Rick's grandfather, Charles Robbins, and father, Arnold Robbins, also ran the business with their wives before Rick and Renee bought it from them in 2002.
In the U.S., the bakery products industry includes about 2,800 commercial bakeries with combined annual revenues of $36 billion, but the 50 largest companies generate 75 percent of the revenue, according to a 2014 overview by the Small Business Development Center's National Information Clearinghouse.
The smaller players, obviously, have had to adapt to survive, and Pittsfield Rye and Speciality Breads is no exception. The bakery has a small retail store, but commercial operations comprise the majority of the business.
"Renee and I made a conscious decision when we bought the business from my parents," Robbins said. "Our philosophy was to try and make less items, try to make them more unique, and in some way try to automate that if we could."
During the ownership of the first two generations of the Robbins family, the bakery was essentially a Berkshire-centric operation. That model was no longer viable, Rick said.
"This is part of our philosophy to try and be able to sell to supermarkets and food services out of the region, so we're not dependent on the area and the seasonal fluctuations as well," Robbins said.
"My parents and my grandparents were full-service bakeries — cakes, pastries, bread, doughnuts, cookies, wedding cakes, everything," Robbins said. "We had about 50 employees. It was very labor intensive to make a lot of the danish and pastries and cakes. The formula for running a successful business had changed and we needed to change as well."
Pittsfield Rye Bakery currently employs 18 workers at its 10,000-square-foot plant, a 17-year-old former warehouse located on 14 acres above Guido's Fresh Marketplace on South Street, where the couple moved the business in 2007.
Rick and Renee jettisoned Pittsfield Rye Bakery's baked goods business 13 years ago, and now concentrate solely on making bread and rolls.
They sell to regional supermarket chains, regional and local food distributors, and restaurants. Teo's Hotdogs Restaurant and the Angelina's Submarine Shop chain are the bakery's biggest local customers.
Pittsfield Rye and Speciality Breads makes between 20 and 30 different kinds of bread, according to Renee. Annual sales are in excess of $2 million, according to Rick. The bakery's products are sold in 10 states, and can be purchased as far south as Florida.
Rick paused when asked if Pittsfield Rye and Speciality Breads would still be in existence if he and Renee hadn't changed the company's business plan.
"Well, let's just say, as a wholesale business, it would have been extremely difficult to rely strictly on this area alone," he said.
"Although it's been said many times, you can't be everything to everybody," Rick said. "We really tried to find our niche."
Rick and Renee also tried to rein in their utility costs. In 2014, they added a 540-kilowatt solar array on 3 1/2 acres adjacent to their South Street plant that produces the majority of the bakery's energy supply.
"Powered by the sun" is written on a sign next to the building's main entrance.
"These factors, although they were always there, didn't exist like they had in generations before," Rick said. "Gas and electricity didn't need to be fit into your formula."
Concentrating on baking bread, "in our eyes, was the easiest item to try and make more efficient," Rick said.
The bread-making machines in Pittsfield Rye Bakery's manufacturing facility are capable of making 1,500 loaves an hour.
All of Pittsfield Rye and Speciality Breads recipes feature a unique, proprietary all-natural starter, either wheat flour, rye flour or yeast extract, in liquid or powder form. Those ingredients are used at different amounts to create or enhance the flavor profiles, Rick said. They are baked on the hearth of a deck oven and are placed in a cooler to add shelf life, dough tolerance and flavor.
The finished products are popular with customers.
"My employees love Rick's bread," said Susan Gordon, who owns Bagels, Too on North Street. "It's the chocolate bread that they really rave about."
New breads, new business plans, different sites. Change has been a constant in Pittsfield Rye Bakery's history.
Rick's grandfather, Charles Robbins and his wife, Tillie (Max Shreck's daughter), originally established a combination wholesale/retail operation known as Robbins Bakery on 84 Columbus Ave. In 1948, the Robbins purchased the former E.F. Fish Bakery on North Street, and moved the retail operation there in February 1949. The North Street shop featured a special "cake box" display window that hung from the ceiling directly behind the large display window in full view of passersby.
In 1954, the Robbins' re-combined the retail operation with the commercial bakery on Columbus Avenue. When that storefront was targeted for urban renewal in the late 1960s, the Robbins' moved the business again in 1968, this time to a building on East Street that had been designed specifically for a plate-glass company. That building featured a circular showroom for display that the Robbins' converted into a retail sales and coffee shop.
In July 1984, the business was run by Rick's parents, Arnold and Linda, when a two-alarm fire that took three hours to bring under control gutted the structure, destroying everything except the former circular showroom. The Robbins' originally hesitated to rebuild because their insurance wouldn't cover the more than $1 million in damages. But they reconsidered, rebuilt the facility, and reopened in September of that year.
"My dad was an amazing man," Rick said of his father, who died last June. "When he set his mind, he could accomplish anything."
Rick was attending Syracuse University when the fire took place. He'd grown up doing odd jobs at the bakery, but after graduating from Syracuse with a degree in liberal arts, Rick went to work as a stockbroker on Wall Street. He moved back to Pittsfield in June 1992.
"Ultimately, I knew that baking was always in my blood," Rick said. "I always wanted to come back into the family business. It is nice to get a well-rounded background. I did enjoy being in the financial world for a couple of years. But ultimately, I like to create something that's real, do something that's good for people, instead of selling blue sky.
"I don't have any regrets," he said. "It means more to me as I get older."
Rick has a 13-year-old son, Ryan. Will there be a fourth generation running the Pittsfield Rye Bakery?
"It seems wicked hard," said Ryan who, at the moment, wants to be a sports play-by-play announcer.
But it's also very rewarding. Just ask his father.
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