One-on-one with Michael Givens, President and Co-owner of La Rocca Creative Cakes
When La Rocca Creative Cakes was founded in Woodbridge, Ont. in 1986, the family-run bakery was continuing a tradition of dessert making that had started in Naples, Italy in the 1950s.
“We never dreamed our business would ever be as big as it is today,” says La Rocca’s president, Michael Givens, who co-owns the bakery with his brother Martin.
Now operating out of a 40,000 sq. ft. establishment in Richmond Hill, Ont. that blends efficient, high-end machinery with hands-on, artisan talent, La Rocca has since become one of Canada’s largest independent bakeries. Their award-winning desserts can be found across Canada and the United States, at hundreds of grocery stores, cafés and specialty shops.
La Rocca’s key ingredients for success
While Michael and Martin have certainly made a number of bold moves along the way to building their family’s business into what it is today, the brothers have always operated on two foundational principles:
First, desserts are for celebrating and bringing people together.
And second, they want to create nothing but the best desserts for their family and friends.
Going beyond the bakery walls
Soon after opening, La Rocca launched a line of premium cakes targeting foodservice operators. Then in 1999 they entered the retail market with key partners such as Loblaws, Metro and Sobeys.
“The thing that we could do better than anybody is make a lot of cake without compromising the quality,” explains Michael.
He recalls the key early relationships they built with farmers to access the best raw materials and the critical decision they made to never control their costs by substituting dairy products like cream and butter with cheaper alternatives.
“The Canadian marketplace is made up of very sophisticated consumers who aspire to eat well,” Michael says. “This extends to the dessert category where a blend of new and unique solutions drive interest, while traditional, premium desserts are still very much appreciated.”
Instead of sacrificing quality, La Rocca has invested in a team focused on streamlining processes, which is introducing technology, reducing waste and implementing continuous learning and training to improve the bakery’s bottom line.
When asked to talk about one of the biggest hurdles that La Rocca has had to face as a growing business, Michael’s response was immediate: “Finding skilled workers and keeping them engaged has always been something we have had to stay on top of.”
This is why La Rocca regularly recruits new, highly skilled Canadians who are looking for meaningful work in the dessert industry. For instance, La Rocca’s head pastry chef, Jeroen van Helvoirt, is a welcome addition to the team. Originally from the Netherlands, he brings 15 years of international experience to the role.
Recognizing that recruitment only addresses half of the issue, Michael also launched an initiative in 2017 to tackle the challenge of retaining talent. The La Rocca Creative Kitchen is a hub for R&D and community engagement — a professional baker’s playground. Not only is this innovative space successfully keeping staff happy and engaged, it has also provided the company with the opportunity to live-test new recipes with consumers who enjoy patronizing the coffee shop side of the kitchen.
Hungry for more?
We wanted to get a better taste of what running La Rocca Creative Cakes is like, so we asked Michael a few additional questions. Check out his answers below.
What are some of the different strengths that your team members bring to your business?
With a diverse workforce speaking over a dozen languages, our team brings a 360° world view. Dessert is loved by all cultures and they all bring a different perspective and skill set to the bakery.
What did you think running a business was about when you started?
Quite simply, making a product we can be proud of and enjoy with our family, and all other issues will be secondary.
What are the most important or surprising lessons you have learned?
Three things: Invest in great people, focus on what you love, and never stop innovating! Organizations must continue to strive to optimize their operation. Those that do not will not last.
If you could go back and change anything, what would it be?
We would be less risk-averse and would have built a larger bakery in the spot we are in now. Driven by a conservative, quality-focused approach, we wanted to ensure that all the families that count on a career at La Rocca would be secure. So at the time we didn’t make bold moves. Turns out, the market for our desserts has been much greater than we could have ever dreamed!
What do you love most about having your own business?
The constant challenge and working with smart, ambitious people with the same passion for food as I have.
Every day brings a new opportunity!
What’s your favourite customer story?
My favourite stories are generally those shared by loyal customers who will go above-and-beyond to get their favourite La Rocca cake for every celebration.
What are some goals that you have for your business?
Driving long-term growth via the foodservice trade across Canada and fine food retailers in the United States.
What is your proudest business achievement?
We recently opened our innovation centre — La Rocca Creative Kitchen. This came from our need to grow a skilled team and the importance of R&D for our business. I can’t think of another place that gives chefs the freedom to create new products like this one. Here they have the freedom to play, test their creations and connect with customers personally. We are very proud of it. It keeps the staff happy, creative and their creations relevant to our customers.
What are some of the ways that your business contributes to your community?
Beyond hiring many new Canadians to good, long careers, La Rocca supports countless food-related programs throughout our trading areas. We also are actively supporting young talent and small new businesses looking for support.
What trends do you see impacting your business most over the next year?
- Inflation of all inputs
- Advantageous currency exchange
- Consumer 1:1 connection
What is your favourite inspirational quote?
“Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction, and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives…”
– Will A. Foster.
What is one piece of advice you would give to somebody thinking about opening their own business?
Storytelling and being relentlessly focused on your winning vision will carry you far.
But ensure to surround yourself with critical thinkers who can help you take your vision to the next level.
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