By never compromising its quality, this European bakery has maintained a place in the hearts of Los Angeles residents. In the last 100 years, Viktor Benes Bakery has become such a staple in Los Angeles that even the mention of its infamous Alligator cake is enough to make mouths water. Ugo Mamolo, the bakery’s president, said the pecan coffee cake sells in such high numbers, it’s almost as though people are addicted.
“We have a full line of bakery items, anything from cookies to Danish, coffee cakes, and wedding cakes,” said Mamolo. “You name it, we do it. But what we’re famous for is the Alligator. People can’t get enough of it.”
Mamolo became owner of Viktor Benes Bakery in 1967 after the bakery’s founder and namesake decided to retire. Benes had been in the business for nearly 50 years before Mamolo took over but had kept his business small because of his age. Regardless of its size, however, the bakery’s popularity grew due to Benes’ talents.
“He was well known, especially in West Los Angeles,” said Mamolo. “He sold the bakery to my partner, Ruggero Terzuolo, and myself, and we’ve been running the business using his name ever since.”
Nine years after taking the helm of Victor Benes Bakery, Mamolo connected with Gelson’s Markets, an upscale chain of supermarkets in Los Angeles. Prior to that, the bakery had only one location in the Vicente Food Market. The relationship with Gelson’s proved to be the upswing the bakery needed to further establish its footprint.
“We started with a few places, and then Gelson’s got bigger and continued to expand,” said Mamolo. “Today, we’re in 16 retail locations, all inside Gelson’s, except for the original location at Vicente Food Market.”
The relationship with Gelson’s grew as naturally as Mamolo’s relationship with Benes. Mr. Gelson started out as a customer of Viktor Benes Bakery, and although he had his own in-store bakeries, he bought bread from Mamolo’s bakery.
“Many times, I asked him why, and he told me he wasn’t satisfied with the way his bakeries were running,” Mamolo said. “He asked me to take over the rest of his markets, which at the time were only five. As Gelson’s continued to expand, so did we.”
Along with the number of locations, the popularity of Viktor Benes Bakery and its Alligator coffee cake continued to grow. Throughout the years, the bakery has grown between 10% and 14% each year, but the past year’s financial crisis caused a slowdown of roughly 16%.
To handle the slowdown, the bakery cut out overtime, reduced its 345-member workforce by three employees, and eliminated one driver and one truck from its delivery fleet. What it didn’t lose, though, was its focus on its quality. “When things go bad, you improve your quality,” said Mamolo. “On the business end, I think we’ve succeeded because we’ve never lost sight of our quality.”
Quality ingredients make for quality goods, two of the most important aspects of the business for Mamolo, which is another reason the partnership with Gelson’s has worked so well over the years. As an upscale supermarket, Gelson’s is particular, precise, and proud to deliver the best service to its customers.
“Our high-quality baked goods went along with Gelson’s philosophy of selling and stocking only the best,” said Mamolo.
In recent years, Viktor Benes Bakery has worked to improve the quality of its products from a health standpoint. As people became more aware of the detriments of eating hydrogenated fats, the bakery eliminated them from its recipes.
“One of my daughters is a nutritionist,” said Mamolo. “She was after me to change how we made the food, and with that advice, we slowly changed our recipes. Now we only use real butter, no margarine.”
To keep a handle on the consistency of its products, 25 years ago, Viktor Benes Bakery invested in a production facility to make it easier for the bakery to provide the basics, including cake layers, doughs, and fillings, rather than having one person do it at each location. Mamolo said his focus on freshness has not been compromised with the advent of the production facility.
Layers, doughs, and fillings are made at the factory, and at 4:00 a.m. each morning, the bakery’s truck delivers the layers fresh, and each location handles the finishing. “If we were to make the layers today in each location, by the time they cooled off, it would be the next day before we’d put the finishing touches on,” he said. “Our process hasn’t changed.”
The production facility has enabled Viktor Benes Bakery to also maintain a healthy amount of independence from Gelson’s. Although the bakery guarantees exclusivity to the supermarket, Mamolo felt it was important to not rely too much on Gelson’s for control of what was being brought into the market. “We figured if anything should happen, we’d still be able to produce undeterred,” he said.
Although Mamolo inherited the bakery from Benes, he came to the business with years of experience and know-how. He came to the US as a trained baker Italy in 1958. All of his recipes were from Europe, so he brought a unique flavor to the baked goods business that most in Los Angeles hadn’t seen in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
“Bakeries in Los Angeles basically had a coconut cake and a chocolate cake,” he recalled. “I brought the little fancy pastries and miniature products we’d made in Rome to the market, and they became very popular.”
Mamolo continues to hire European bakers to staff his locations and train the rest of his workforce on how to do their jobs according to his standards. This constant training enables Viktor Benes Bakery to stay on its toes and keep up with whatever baking trends pass through its region.
“From time to time, new items come out,” said Mamolo. “Lately, there has been a craze for red velvet cake. At any of our locations, when people request something, we do it, and we’ll continue to do so for many years to come.”