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.
SC: How so?
RJ: For example, almost all of our cookies are non-dairy because when my Dad and uncles started the business the bulk of their customers were kosher. But over the years, we’ve had a lot of people ask that we put butter in our cookies. And they have a valid point. Butter makes things taste better. So when I was away one weekend, my younger employees started making dairy-based chocolate chip cookies. And they tasted so much better. Now we offer both dairy and non-dairy cookies, but keep them separate. It’s just so funny that they’re doing to me what I did to my dad and uncles.
SC: Is there an aspect of the business that you still find particularly enjoyable after all these years?
RJ: I really like doing the cake decorating. It’s creative and artistic. I like to invent stuff. Let’s face it—a bagel is a bagel. But cakes allow you to be very creative. The stuff that you see on TV now on the Food Network, well, we were doing those kinds of elaborate cakes back in the 1980s. To make a cake that is unique and that people come to Houston to buy is a really nice feeling. About 30 percent to 35 percent of our business now comes from those specialty cakes.
SC: Three Brothers has truly been a family-run business for decades, but you recently hired an outsider to be part of management. How did that come about?
RJ: My wife, Janice, and I hired a business coach in 2009 and learned that we’re terrible managers. We also learned that a business coach for a family business is pretty much a therapist. I’m good at the baking part and Janice is great with the marketing and sales, but we discovered that we’re just not great managers. So we hired a general manager in 2010 and that was a really big step for us. Making that move is the reason we started expanding again and why we were able to open our second location in February.
RJ: He changed our inventory mix and helped improve our packaging. He’s also done a really great job of making sure we have the right employees to put out high quality products. In the old days, Three Brothers had no competition, but times have changed. Now we have to provide a good experience for our customers and create a sweet memory for them. He’s brought us back around to that way of thinking.
SC: Are any of your children interested in getting involved in the business?
RJ: I have two kids and I have strongly pushed them away from the bakery. It’s tough. This is a weekend and holiday business. I haven’t had a weekend or holiday off since college and that’s about 30 years ago. It’s not fun when everyone around you is off celebrating and you’re working. I don’t want my kids to experience that.
SC: So if passing the business on to your kids isn’t in the cards, what do you see for yourself down the road?
RJ: We’ve had offers from people to buy the business, but we’re just not ready to sell or get out of it yet. Maybe we can franchise it—I’m not sure. Right now we’re trying to grow the business. When you’ve put so much time and energy into something you always want to see what it can become.
This interview has been condensed and edited.