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Saturday, April 6, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Two bakers find right mix for success

Seattle Times business reporter

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If there's a recipe for business success, Debbie Pezzillo and Tina Brettholle believe they've found it — and it's a sweet one.

Their inconspicuous Rainier Valley warehouse has become a baking powerhouse, making cakes and biscotti sold at grocery stores and restaurants in Western Washington.

"There are a lot of good bakeries that can make a good product, but they can only make one, and we started out that way," Brettholle said. "Our success has been being able to find a good product and mass produce it."

Seattle Baking Company doesn't sell to the public, but chances are, you've had its goodies: perhaps tiramisu from a grocery store or cake at a Seattle restaurant.

Trucks roll out at 2 a.m. daily, headed for Seattle-area stores such as Costco, QFC, Larry's Markets and Thriftway. The desserts also are available at local restaurants, sold through distributors. The company's sales are up to about $2 million a year.

All of this from humble beginnings.

Pezzillo, 51, and Brettholle, 50, worked in separate bakeries in the late 1980s. But they had the same landlord and after the two met, they discovered similar baking ideas and business goals. They launched Seattle Baking Company in 1992.

The company has grown by staying within a niche, even if it has meant turning down new business, Brettholle said. Some bakeries fail because they expand their product line to include deserts they can't bake well.

Cakes are the company's specialty; when a grocery store asked Pezzillo and Brettholle if they could make bagels, they said no.

"You really have to know what you can do and what you can't do," Brettholle said. "The worst thing to do is to take an order and not be able to fill it."

Machines have helped the company increase its capacity to thousands of cakes a week. But even with machines that can melt chocolate or deposit predetermined amounts of batter, cake making is still a hands-on process. The company's 20 employees spread shaved chocolate by hand and dip pecan bars in melted chocolate.

Pezzillo and Brettholle get baking ideas from magazines and cookbooks, but most of their desserts are variations of family recipes, tweaked for mass production.

Finding the proper measurements for tiramisu, for example, took two months of daily baking and tasting.

But even with successful recipes, the cake business is somewhat restricted by pricing.

Unlike the changing prices of meats and produce, once a price has been set for a cake, grocery stores expect that price to stay the same.

So the company can't adjust prices to reflect business costs, such as changes in ingredient prices or fluctuations in electricity rates. The company must, well, eat those expenses.

Despite the economic downturn, Brettholle and Pezzillo have expanded their business by offering the same cakes in various sizes. The company also recently launched a co-branding effort with Seattle's Best Coffee. The tiramisu is now made with Seattle's Best, and the cartons bear labels with both logos.

The company's success has won recognition from business groups; the Service Corps of Retired Executives, a program of the U.S. Small Business Administration, presented them with an award last month.

Pezzillo says the company is successful because the cakes taste great. And the secret to great tasting cake is quality ingredients.

"If you make the right choices in the beginning, you will have the same product in the end, whether it's one cake or a thousand," Pezzillo said.

Frank Vinluan can be reached at 206-464-2291 or fvinluan@seattletimes.com.

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