CLEARWATER — It takes a small platoon to make brownies.
On one side of a large room with chalk-white walls and ceilings, a team of workers at the Barry’s Gourmet Brownies manufacturing plant off Roosevelt Boulevard pours ingredients into industrial stainless-steel mixing bowls big enough to stir cement.
Next to that team, another pumps batter into rectangular, cardboard baking sheets that move on a conveyor belt. The semi-sweet chocolate chips are sometimes so numerous they clog the depositor that oozes the rich, fudgy mixture into each pan.
A third team spreads the batter evenly and sprinkles additional chocolate chips on top by hand from pre-measured cups, weighing each pan for accuracy before taking it to an adjacent room filled with enormous baking ovens. A fourth group packages and labels each brownie in 2-ounce and 4-ounce sizes.
At another nearby facility, employees stock pallets and ship deliveries from what Barry’s President and CEO Doug Byrd claims is Pinellas County’s largest freezer.
Earlier this month, Barry’s was named a finalist in the snacks and sweets category of CSP Magazine’s 2014 best new product contest. The magazine reports on trends in the convenience store and petroleum industry.
That much of the Barry’s operation — the 100 employees working three shifts, the 100,000 square feet of manufacturing operations, the homemade brownie brand featuring eight flavors — has been in existence for just 15 months makes the scope even more staggering.
“No one would ever believe it would grow into this,” Byrd said.
The story goes that Byrd, a retired furniture sales and marketing executive, was friends with Barry Wax, a retired attorney living in Gulfport who 40 years ago created a brownie recipe from scratch as part of his cooking hobby.
Through word of mouth, Wax was invited to showcase the brownies during the annual Festival of Chocolate at Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry. Byrd tagged along in 2013 to help.
Response was so strong to the brownies at MOSI, and at a subsequent event in Orlando, that Byrd bought the recipe and brand from Wax. In April 2013, he started DJ Brownie Enterprises.
The company started production in a small commercial kitchen in Largo. Not long after, the treats were sold on QVC. Sales soon took off, and distributors came calling for restaurants, convenience stores, groceries and universities, requiring the move to two Clearwater manufacturing facilities.
Byrd projects the privately held brand will gross $40 million to $50 million in revenue during the 2014 calendar year.
Pricing is one factor propelling sales, Byrd said. The 2-ounce bar sells for a suggested retail price of $1.19, while the 4-ounce bar and the Barry’s Brownie Bite Cups sell for $1.99. The prices are higher than the marketplace average, he said, “but since it’s a gourmet brownie, its completely different. People are willing to pay for better ingredients.”
The snack’s portability and size also has brownies thriving in grab-and-go and convenience settings. Brownies are enjoying a cyclical resurgence that rotates with such items as cupcakes and cheesecake, Byrd said. Mass-producing a thick, moist-yet-chewy treat normally made in the home taps into a consumer’s need for comfort food.
“Once they bite into our brownie, they become repeat customers,” Byrd said. “The brownie is in a league all by itself.”
Bakery manager Mike Kalupa, owner of Kalupa’s Bakery in Tampa before it closed in 2012, said training production employees has been key to maintaining operation efficiency. Most have never worked in a bakery, so training them for teams that specialize in each task has made precision more possible. Automation may be necessary in the future to keep pace with orders, but for the moment, every brownie is spread, decorated, baked, packaged and shipped by hand.
“We still have the human touch,” Kalupa said.
Byrd said the company didn’t reinvent the brownie, but it did hit at a moment in the marketplace when very few bakeries were able to mass-produce a gourmet version of a homemade treat. Food titans like Sara Lee and Pillsbury also produced brownies, but they didn’t specialize.
“Do we compare ourselves to an Apple or a Microsoft?” Byrd said. “No, but that’s how they began. We’re in the same category.
“We’re bringing something to the market that is unique in its own way,” he said. “We’ve created something the public is really craving, which is a gourmet homemade brownie. It’s amazing. It really is.”