Le Bus Bakery: Handmade Baked Goods

David Braverman started creating delicious meals out of a converted school bus on the University of Pennsylvania campus in 1978. Naming his business Le Bus, Braverman continued on with endeavor. He went on to add two pizza trucks and a cafeteria in University City, a stand in Reading Terminal Market, a sandwich shop in Center City and a full service restaurant in Manayunk; he opened his first stand-alone baking facility in 1992.

Le Bus quickly grew out of its humble 5,000-square-foot bakery by 1994, but it wasn’t until January 2000 that Braverman relocated Le Bus to a much larger home in King of Prussia. Also growing at a fast-pace was Braverman’s interest in baking perfect loaves of bread and exquisite croissants. Other than the sandwich shop, he sold all of the company’s locations, allowing him to concentrate solely on baking.

Today – 35 years after baking his first loaf of whole-wheat bread in the original Le Bus – Braverman boasts a team capable of producing breads and pastries for retailers and restaurateurs up and down the East Coast, as well as for distribution to select markets across the country. Though Braverman still owns and operates the Le Bus, he shares leadership responsibilities with Anthony Labetti, vice president of operations at Le Bus.

“A lot of our product is made from scratch and everything is done by hand,” Labetti explains. “We use all-natural starters and no preservatives. Fewer and fewer bakeries use that process in the U.S. We have a full line bread and pastry department. Two people work for us who do nothing but croissant dough all day. Two others roll them out. There are no machines that can do it as well as the human hand.”

Labetti acknowledges the importance of his team’s dedication and attention to detail. “We have 190 employees,” he says. “There are bakeshops all over the country doing similar volume, but with much fewer people. We’re not using 1,000-pound mixers; we use smaller ones. We pack our rolls by hand; the right way. That care and attention is what brought me to Le Bus.”

Better Breads

The Le Bus team has developed a major niche in the frozen breads market. “For our artisan breads, we take fresh peppers, cilantro and other spices and grind them up ourselves,” says Labetti. “We roast the garlic ourselves. Multigrain is a staple; Braverman founded the bakery on it. We’ve created our own mix of grains and we soak them ourselves to prepare them.”

Labetti and Braverman work closely with the head baker, Moussa Doumbia, who is in charge of production, facility wide. “We go through the bakeshop every day,” Labetti explains. “We work on financials to keep ourselves in business. We have a strong purchasing department. We’re in the trenches every day. From purchasing to collections to time keeping, we need everything on time. David is involved as the creative force, always working on new recipes, development and fine-tuning.”

Le Bus’ single facility is divided into departments to accommodate daily fresh deliveries of breads and pastries throughout the tri-state area, as well as frozen breads and rolls for national distribution and fresh sandwiches for the region’s Sunoco shops.

“We just got our first account in Alaska,” details Labetti proudly. “Braverman has put an emphasis on non-GMO [genetically modified organism] and organic products. We’re slowly converting because we believe that wherever we can source, we can find better. That’s the goal for quality. We’re always trying to buy in on the right firm, and now we can have better control over our products.”

A Changing Market

Of course, there are other forces contributing to Le Bus’ success, as well. “The economy is also a constant factor,” Labetti continues. “Much of our product goes out to restaurants and markets. As long as the economy is doing well, we’re OK. But we are broadening our reach into different types of food service providers, so that no matter what, we have a solid base of customers.”

With fluctuating commodities prices, economic challenges are a constant for manufacturers in the food industry. “Cost of goods is always complicated,” says Labetti. “Right now, we are working hard to diversify our regions and customer base. Hurricane Sandy took down one of our major customers, but fortunately, we were able to supply bread to the Red Cross, and now we have a good relationship with them. We’re always looking at ways to keep the bakery as busy as possible.”

Despite any obstacles, Le Bus’ business is steady; the team continues to diversify operations at a steady pace. Certain markets flourish, keeping Le Bus stable. “Our bread division has undergone expansion due to healthy demand,” Labetti explains. “We just added a large retarding box where we hold the dough. We’re putting in a 25,000-square-foot freezer across the street because our frozen bread division is booming. We’re hiring new salespeople for the New York Metro area and then Maryland and Florida. We sell it ourselves instead of through brokers.”

With decades of experience, Labetti and Braverman recognize that controlled growth maintains stability. “We’d like to hit more regions in the Carolinas and broaden what we already do in Florida,” Labetti says. “We’re building a big freezer for our supermarket niche and looking to venture into private label production.”

As Le Bus expands, its core principles remain unchanged. The once tiny school bus operation has proven that by striving to make the freshest handmade natural products, growth is always possible, no matter what the challenges may be. This belief has served Le Bus well for 35 years, and it will continue to guide Le Bus Bakery’s growth far into the future.