With a scoop of creativity and determination in a pinch, Neat-O’s Bake Shoppe is rising above the challenges of COVID-19.
Tony’s Nieto was born to bake. Some of his most fond memories are of his Grandparent’s bakery where he worked on quality control (sampling the goodies was the best technique). His wife Amanda puts her interest in art into the pastries by designing award-winning cakes.
Eight years ago, the Nietos followed their dreams and opened Neat-O’s Bake Shoppe in Baraboo.
“We worked in the industry for a while,” Tony said. “The shop came open, and it was close to our house just at the right time and the right moment in our lives.”
The fresh foods are crafted using equipment that dates back to the 1920s. The Nietos pride themselves on giving an ‘old-school’ feel while staying current on quality and consumer expectations.
“There’s a lot of recipes that we developed for the conditions,” Tony said. “When we first opened, it was that summer where it was like 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity. There’s no air conditioning here, and some of my recipes just didn’t work. They were meant for controlled conditions. You have to be able to change to meet your conditions.”
The same thought process proved true for a pandemic. Before COVID-19, most of Neat-O’s customers were people stopping in for breakfast on their way to work or possibly during lunch. Kids going to school would swing in for a donut before the first hour. That all changed when schools closed and businesses encouraged employees to work from home.
“Overnight, they were gone,” Tony said. “All of a sudden, you got people coming that were staying at home. We used to have five people come in with small orders. After COVID, it was just one person coming in, and they were doing bigger orders, and they wanted different items. Our product lineup just changed overnight.”
Neat-O’s was ahead of the curve on some changes, but Tony admits they fell behind on others. One innovative example was creating cookie kits to make at home with kids such as dinosaurs and unicorns. Take and bake items such as pot pies became a big hit.
“We tried to concentrate on things that bring comfort when we did our new lineup,” Tony said. “We wanted to do things that were reminiscent of somebody’s grandparents and their moms and their grandmas. It’s a different customer. Their habits are different. They’re having a lot more family time. We were just trying to do our part to stay relevant.”
Overall, Neat-O’s Bake Shoppe daily sales actually improved Despite their quick thinking, the bakery was still burned by COVID-19. About 30 percent of sales were lost with weddings, parties, and other catering events canceled.
“I’ve always stood by our product, and we didn’t want to cause any additional worry,” Tony said. “We just always said 100 percent refund under any circumstance. Even though our community was supporting us a lot and our sales were good, it hurts when you have a $1,000 order cancel and you have to pay that out. You’re looking at not making money for that day, or possibly not even making money for that week.”
The ingredient supply was also a twist to the mix. For the most part, their basic necessities were pretty consistent. Then in late May or early June, egg prices spiked. Tony noted eggs were around $0.90 a dozen one week and up to $3.00 a dozen the next.
“We crack our own eggs, so we go through 45 to 60 dozen a week,” he said. “That really hit us hard. We didn’t feel comfortable passing that along to the customer. It didn’t seem like the right time to increase your price during a pandemic, so we just took that on ourselves, and it was scary.”
For the most part, their other ingredients stayed the same, but suppliers have randomly come up short on some. For Tony, that just adds to the adventure of being a business owner.
“I look at stuff like that as an opportunity,” Tony said. “It tests my knowledge on how to make it a different way, and that keeps my job interesting. I’ve looked up some old books and found some different techniques and recipes, and I’ve gotten to the finish line just a different way than I might have before.”
However, it makes planning almost impossible. The bakery normally liked to be thinking months ahead in the calendar year, but now the Nietos run their business in the moment.
As the economy slowly starts to reopen, Neat-O’s is starting to see a mix of old and new customers. Serving as vice president of the Wisconsin Bakers Association, Tony stays connected with fellow bakeries across the state.
“Sometimes you feel like you are on an island and problems are unique to you and you are drowning,” Tony said. “The Wisconsin Bakers Association is like that life preserver. At the end of the day, we are not competitors. There’s enough for all of us. You’re always stronger together.”
The association’s most famed pastry treat is the Original Cream Puff sold almost exclusively at the Wisconsin State Fair. Although State Fair was postponed until 2021, the Wisconsin Bakers Association is working on ways to still provide Original Cream Puffs this summer.
“They’re too iconic of a Wisconsin dessert to let go by the wayside,” Tony said.
Despite uncertainty about when Wisconsin can stick a fork in COVID-19, Neat-O’s Bake Shoppe said it will continue to be a staple for the community.
“Your bakers care about you,” Tony said. “We care about our community. We’re in this together.”