In our latest installment of the SBC’s small business of the month series, we meet Robert Jucker, 52, second-generation owner of Three Brothers Bakery in Houston, Texas. Jucker recently spoke with business writer Susan Caminiti about the challenges of running a family-owned business, the need for change, and why he’s pushing his own children to find careers outside of the bakery.
SC: With your parents and two uncles running the bakery, did you think you might have a different career as your were growing up?
RJ: I graduated from the University of Texas and thought I’d go into the oil business. But in the early 1980s, that industry wasn’t doing too well, so I started working at the bakery.
SC: Did you think that was just a temporary move?
RJ: I really did. But then when I got there, I saw that they could really use my help. Then I thought this really isn’t such a bad place. I think I’ll try to make it work and try to take it to the next level.
SC: In what way? Where did you see the need to improve or modernize the bakery?
RJ: My dad, Sigmund, and his two brothers started the business in Houston in the 1940s and were really bread bakers. That’s what they knew. They really didn’t take advantage of their cake business. I saw that we could revamp the whole cake aspect and make it more exciting and creative, especially for kids. I didn’t want to keep doing the 1950s style wedding cakes with the little figurines on top.
SC: What did you do to make it more creative?
RJ: I looked to see what was popular with the kids. One thing that was big in the 1980s was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We went to the toy shows and bought a ton of them. I’d then create a backdrop scene on the cake to make it look like the Ninja Turtles were in the sewer. We sold a lot of cakes like that. We were making so many cakes with toys on them—Barbie’s for instance—that we had accounts with Hasbro and Mattel in order to buy the toys in large quantity.
RJ: Absolutely! It was like pulling teeth all the time with my dad and his two brothers. I’ll give you a great example. Back in the early 1980s, I met a salesman who was pretty sympathetic to what I was going through in terms of trying to modernize the business. He sent me three machines worth about $40,000 just to try. They were designed to do what we had always done by hand. I had to wait until my dad went on a six-week vacation to Poland to actually pull the machines out to start to use them. Meanwhile, I had my dad’s brother, Sol, yelling at me that customers were never going to buy Kaiser rolls made by a machine. Finally, I said to him that I wasn’t going to sit there for four hours a day making Kaiser rolls by hand when I had a machine that could do it faster. I said we’re going to try the machine.
SC: What was the outcome?
RJ: We started making the rolls with the machine and we’ve been using one ever since. The customers didn’t know the difference. Maybe in the beginning the rolls were more perfect in shape, but the taste was the same. Plus it saved me three hours a day. Now when I’m away for a few days, I have the younger people who work for me doing the same thing.