Engel’s Bakeries Ltd: On the Rise

Engel’s Bakeries Ltd., headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, hasn’t always been in the Harji family, but it seems that way. Originally founded by Gunther Engel in 1978, Engel’s was purchased by the Hirji family in 1988 after a decade of established business. Twenty years later it was purchased again, this time by a second generation of Hirji – Hanif and Karim – sons and nephews of the owners at the time.
 
As current co-owners of Engel’s, Hanif and Karim are willingly entangled in the daily ins and outs of bakery ownership. They are driven by plans for expansion, and hope to continue building on the company’s long-time success. With around 60 employees, Engel’s Bakeries is “small yet large,” says Hanif, who notes the company is a modest, tightly managed operation, but has a steadily growing reach.
 
Adjusting to Hard Times
 
Both brothers had previous lives before committing to Engel’s – Hanif worked in accounting, logistics and business planning, and Karim was an IT systems analyst. And the combined variety of experience troubleshooting complex systems and balancing information exchange helps them to joint-manage the bakery business, and survive the harsh business climate of late.
 
As Alberta was dealt a blow by the oil crisis, Engel’s primary cliental – the food service industry – was also gouged by province-wide cutbacks on catering and restaurant services.  In response, Engel’s has become a streamlined operation in order to best weather the economic downturn.
 
Hanif illustrates how business has been hit by a ripple effect created by the widespread tightening of belts across Alberta, due to the downturn: “What do you give up first [when on a budget]? You might have a coffee instead of a latte, or no coffee altogether.” And as the owner of a business who supplies coffee shops with breads and sweets, Hanif shares that, in his experience, “It is also the pastries that [coffee shop customers] give up.”
 
Whittled-down business with its existing food-service and coffee-shop customers has led Engel’s to capture new markets, including recent placement within the retail sector, something that Hanif calls “the most interesting [of the company’s] recent projects.” Engel’s relationship with food chains allows these partners to replace frozen produce with fresh sweets and breads.
 
Thanks to diversifying its markets, the company and the Hirji brothers are now more secure as they work to build up the business. However, the brothers aren’t alone in the work; they also rely on the input of their father to “referee” tough calls regarding company direction and day-to-day operations at the bakery facility.
 
A Soft Spot in the Kitchen
 
One particular mark of pride that Engel’s markets is its commitment to freshness, which keeps the company’s product attractive even without the liberal expense accounts. “We’re a job shop, so we bake every day for next-day delivery,” says Hanif. Customers have until 2 p.m. to ensure these deliveries, which are made within a 100-mile radius of Engel’s baking facility.
 
Because of the nature of Engel’s business, “There’s very little [product] put in a freezer or cooler,” explains Hanif. Instead the company supplies fresh product for immediate sale. No added chemicals go into Engel’s products either. “Whatever chemicals there are in the raw materials is all [that is allowed],” Hanif says. “So our shelf life is low, and our quality is high.” 
 
Customers get a high-quality product from Engel’s and also a generous amount of flexibility – they don’t have to commit to whopping orders in order to secure delivery. “We have very small minimums orders,” says Hanif. “There is a $35 minimum Monday through Friday, and a $50 minimum for selected clientele on Saturdays.”
 
In order to keep customers happy, in addition to offering them high-quality products and flexible servicing, Engel’s continually focuses its efforts on new-and-improved baked goods. The company has recently rolled out new buns – including a savory cheese and green onion variety – as well as new lines of pastries and a smaller-sized bread loaf.
 
Partnering its Way to the Top
 
Engel’s products are 90-percent made in-house, with inputs that are sourced from under a dozen trusted suppliers. Many of the same suppliers are used year-to-year, as the business relationships are well established and built on multifaceted criteria; lowest price does not drive the Hirjis' decision, service is just as heavily weighted.
 
Good business partnerships are essential, as they help smooth the internal workings of business and help tame what can at times feel like a larger than life entity. Ownership can be stressful, and Hanif acknowledges that thoughts about the direction of business can steal sleep, but “that’s the nature of the beast,” he says. It helps to have his brother and his father in the business currently, and also his uncles, who have been there before him.
 
It is family support and knowledge that undergirds Hanif and Karim’s next move – which they are always planning in advance. “We’re in a 16,000 square-foot facility and I would like to see us expand into a 20- to 25,000-square-foot facility,” says Hanif. As always the focus is on fresh product. The continued cultivation of their niche – fresh product – is smart, as Hanif explains “there aren’t that many people who do that well in Alberta.”
 
There is a proven market, even in tight times, for fresh, superior product. By focusing on growth and expansion Karim and Hanif Hirji are keeping Engel’s Bakeries Ltd. one step ahead of its competitors, and busy capturing new customers.