Written by Gabriel Dillard
Editor’s note: Brownie Baker received the Rising Star Award at the recent California Family Business Awards dinner in Fresno. This piece originally appeared in the May 26 edition of The Business Journal.
One of Jackie Ireland’s first memories of the family business was at age 4 or 5, sitting on a stainless steel counter placing muffin cups in a pan.
She also remembers her big brother Ryan Perkins trying to whip her with a towel.
That’s how things were at The Brownie Baker during summers in the 1990s. The Fresno business was like a part-time day care for the Perkins kids as their father, CEO Dennis Perkins, built a business that today supplies baked goodies — muffins, brownies, donuts, cookies, you name it — for grocery and convenience stores in all 50 states with a workforce of about 115 people.
It wasn’t always like that. When Dennis Perkins bought the business in 1990 there were only four employees, and the bakery business was struggling. Through hard work, sacrifice, good decision-making and investing in the right people, The Brownie Baker is a nationally recognized wholesale bakery that is expanding and finding new opportunities at every turn.
And of those four original employees, two still remain with the business nearly 30 years later.
“It’s so important to retain good employees,” Dennis Perkins said.
It may be cliché for business owners to say they treat their employees like family, but at The Brownie Baker it sure seems that way. Many of the employees have been there 10 years or more, and time is marked by when certain employees had babies or experienced other life milestones.
There are more than a couple multi-generational employees — a father or mother whose child also works there.
Now Jackie Ireland, 31, and Ryan Perkins, 33, have children of their own — “little Brownie Bakers,” as Gina Leneé Perkins, Dennis’s wife of nine years, puts it. They come and visit what must be a wonderland for any young child — a commercial bakery, with all of its sights, smells and product everywhere, ready to be shipped and enjoyed.
Things could’ve been a lot different for the Perkins kids. Before he bought the business, Dennis Perkins was an executive for Pepsi (his father, Eldon Perkins, owned the local RC Cola franchise). He received a sales and marketing assignment from Pepsi to relocate to Singapore. Not wanting to upend his kids and take them to a foreign place where they couldn’t speak the language, he decided to take the entrepreneurial route and purchased a business.
Ryan and Jackie remember all of the hard work and long hours their father logged to build it. Even though they spent a lot of time there, it wasn’t until Ryan and Jackie were adults that they even considered working there. And even today, it’s hard for Dennis Perkins to talk about succession planning.
“There are all of these stresses. Buildings, taxes,” Ryan said. “He doesn’t want to see that inflicted on us.”
Dennis Perkins can actually relax a little these days. He has a good team behind him. He sees his kids often — Jackie handles accounts receivable and Ryan takes care of marketing — and gets to enjoy his grandkids. In a cutthroat foodservice industry where products are often copied or stolen, Dennis instead has chosen to partner with potential rivals, creating a favorable outcome for everyone.
But he doesn’t relax much. About a year ago the bakery got into the co-packing business — manufacturing and packaging products for other food companies. He’s also in the process of opening a new facility near his existing one near Golden State Boulevard and West Shaw Avenue. He hopes it will be operating by the end of June.
But as Dennis gets a chance to reflect on his path, and how it was similar to his father’s, and now that of his own children, he comes to a humble conclusion.
“We are very lucky and blessed,” Dennis said.