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A growing neighborhood bakery in South Portland's Willard Square is beginning a major renovation to keep up with demand — and to relieve customer crowding that no longer seems acceptable in the pandemic era.
Scratch Baking Co. has been steadily expanding its customer base since opening in 2004 at 416 Preble St.
“It’s a very cool space,” said Bob Johnson, who co-owns the business with Allison Reid and Sonja Swanberg. “But we never thought that we’d be as busy as we are.”
Before the business closed to inside service last year, customers were often waiting in line outside, then snaking into a cramped retail space, crossing in and among each other.
“It’s kind of a cramped space,” said Johnson. Over the years, “We kind of knocked down walls to do what we could to make room. You come in the door to the bagel table, then the line snakes to the deli area, then to the coffee area, then to pay.
"If someone were doing a retail customer experience layout, we’d all get fired. We were just figuring it out as we went along.”
Now the three partners have hired Barrett Made Architecture + Construction, a Portland-based company, to come up with a rational redesign.
“We really wanted a strong team to help us think outside of ourselves,” said Johnson.
Renovations, in two phases, are expected to begin Jan. 4 and to be completed in May.
Johnson declined to cite costs and financing for the project.
Swanberg, Reid and Johnson are all transplants to Maine. Swanberg and Reid met in the 1990s in Asheville, N.C., and bonded over a love of baking, according to the company’s website.
Reid moved to Portland and opened a South Portland bakery/cafe called One Fifty Ate. Swanberg and Johnson visited her and liked the area and the business. They noticed 416 Preble St. was for sale and decided to buy it and become partners.
They reopened in June 2004 as One Fifty Ate at Willard Square, with Reid and Swanberg handling the baking while Johnson handled front-of-house and business operations.
In December 2006 they changed the name to Scratch Baking Co.
In 2015, as the business was bursting at the seams, the partners converted a nearby building, at 205 Broadway in South Portland, into a new bakery. It's known as the “Bread Kitchen” and specifically dedicated to bread and bagel production.
“In order to continue to grow that business, we needed more space,” said Johnson.
The partners subsequently converted a neighboring building, at 207 Broadway, into a café called the Toast Bar.
Throughout, the Willard Square building has remained the company’s primary location, where pastries and savory products are made and all of the products, including the bread and bagels made at the Broadway location, are sold.
The building at 416 Preble St. dates back to 1918 and had always been a center of the Willard Square neighborhood. At various times, it housed an A&P grocery, a pharmacy, a heating company, a children's clothing store and other businesses.
A mission in the redesign is to respect its history, said Johnson.
“It’s a beautiful, historic building and a centerpiece of Willard Square, which is a historic area in South Portland,” he said “There used to be trolleys that ran through here. There are pictures of an old horse watering station in the middle of the square. We’re one block from the beach. It’s a really lovely neighborhood that’s continued to grow and evolve.”
When the partners bought the two-story building, there was a commercial space on the left side, which is where they installed the bakery’s early iteration.
There were apartments on the right side and upstairs, and a carriage house out back, which had a tenant. At the time, Johnson and Swanberg moved into the upstairs apartment and, soon, Reid moved into the right-side apartment.
Living with their business was handy.
“We worked about 120 hours per week,” said Johnson. “Sonja would go down at 3:30, 4 in the morning and get the bake going. I’d go down at 5. Allison was baking bagels and bread all day. You do what you do when you’re young.”
Over time, they converted first the apartment and then the carriage house to expand their bakery space. The upstairs is still configured as an apartment but is used as administrative offices.
Today the business occupies 1,000 square feet of front retail space, plus production space out back, for a total of about 2,400 square feet. Most customers are regulars. Before the pandemic, the business saw 200 to 300 customers per day.
They had started discussions with Barrett Made before the pandemic. Although Johnson had done his own build-outs for businesses he was previously involved in, as well as the Broadway buildings, he didn’t want to tackle another construction project.
“I said, I don’t have another one in me,” he recalled. “I want to use people who are a lot better and a lot smarter than me for this go-round.”
The folks at Barrett Made are customers at Scratch, and there seemed to be a “cultural fit” between the two companies, he said.
“They’ve been fabulous to work with,” he said.
The driver of the project was to reconfigure the space to create better customer and production flow.
“Then the pandemic hit,” he said.
The partners dropped their renovation plans, laid off their employees and geared up for online sales with curbside pick-up, delivery and, eventually a walk-up window. Before the pandemic, the staff was about 45 full-time-equivalents. But Scratch has been rehiring and now has 31 employees.
With the vaccine rollout and “some sort of light at the end of the tunnel,” Johnson said, they resumed talks with Barrett Made.
“Now the real driver is how can we create flow not just for flow’s sake or for customer experience sake, but for safety,” he said.
The new design is something of a horseshoe, with customers coming in one door and exiting another. For those who just want coffee, a station will be set up in a position that won’t hold up the main line.
Johnson declined to cite revenue trends but said the business has been consistently profitable since day one.
Since reopening during the pandemic, customer numbers are off about 40%. Hours have been reduced from seven days a week that utilized two shifts of employees, to five days a week and shorter timeframes.
“So there’s significantly fewer dollars flowing, but we’re profitable as a percentage,” he said.
The plan for the renovation will involve closing the Willard Square operation, probably for four to six weeks, and giving all staff a paid vacation for the month of January and part of February.
“We’ve told staff that we’ll be paying them their average wages during that time. We don’t want to lose anybody,” said Johnson.
That first phase will involve knocking down some walls and installing new flooring in the back pastry area.
Once that’s complete, the plan is to get the baking area back up and running, then wall off the front retail area. Scratch will transfer its morning pastry bake to the Toast Bar on Broadway while the retail renovation is finished.
That's tentatively slated for May. It’s unclear whether Scratch will continue to keep the Toast Bar open at that point.
The renovation involves a fair amount of demolition, including removal of a front staircase that will open up the downstairs. Installations will include new flooring, counters and lighting.
“Function is key,” said Johnson. “It doesn’t need be fancy. But it will look nice. It’s important to us to respect the historical aspects of this building and what I like to refer to as the ‘ghosts of commerce’ here. As we choose surfaces and flooring and lighting, we’ll keep that in the front of our mind.”