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Reluctant baker rises to success

Patrick Bernunzio owns Leo’s Bakery & Deli in East Rochester. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)

If there was one thing Patrick Bernunzio knew at age 18, it was that he did not want to go into the bakery business.

His father and uncles owned Ran-Cora Bakery Inc. on Central Park. When his father, Sam Bernunzio, told him a new location in Webster would be for the younger generation, Bernunzio was not interested.

“I said, ‘Dad, don’t do it for me because I’m not going to be in the bakery business,’ ” Bernunzio says.

Decades later, Bernunzio, 65, has done almost nothing but open and operate bakeries, culminating some 20 years ago when he bought Leo’s Bakery, which is now officially Leo’s Elite Bakery LLC but better known as Leo’s Bakery & Deli.

Sales have grown from some $2 million in 2004, when he moved Leo’s from Atlantic Avenue in the city to its current location on Despatch Drive in East Rochester, to $10 million last year.

“Years ago everybody said, ‘Did you ever think you can get this big?’ and I said, ‘Oh, yeah,’” Bernunzio says. “And now I’m saying, ‘No, not where we are now.’ The last three or four years I just say, ‘No, I did not.”

Strong team
Matthew Livernash, Bernunzio’s banker and vice president of business and professional banking at M&T Bank Corp., says Bernunzio is not afraid to take risks to expand his business.

“Pat is a pure visionary,” Livernash says. “He looks at something and he can see where it’s going to go and he knows it’s going to work. I always tell him he’s got the Midas touch.”

Bernunzio’s wife, Kathryn, meanwhile, pays careful attention to the financial details and makes sure all the bills get paid, Livernash says.

“They make the perfect combination of business owners,” he says.

They have certainly had practice.

When Bernunzio opened his first business—responding to an ad about a bakery for sale or rent attached to the Food Towne Market in East Rochester when he was just a few years out of high school—they had to scrounge through his wife’s purse to come up with $100 for the cash drawer on opening day. He named it Bernunzio’s Bakery.

For years, it was mainly just the two of them. He would go in at 3 a.m. to bake. She decorated the cakes and answered the phones. They had only two or three other employees.

Bernunzio did not intend to stay in the bakery business even then, he says, but opportunities seemed to find him.

When his father got sick, Bernunzio took over a little pastry shop that his father had purchased after leaving Ran-Cora and made it into a second Bernunzio’s Bakery. Then he bought a building near his childhood home in Webster and decided to open a third Bernunzio’s Bakery there.

“So I had three bakeries and I was 28 or something,” Bernunzio says. “I didn’t know what I was doing.

“Thinking back, I didn’t even have a manager of any of the bakeries. I was the manager of all of them. … So it got a little hectic.”

Eventually, Bernunzio closed his first bakery in East Rochester and sold the other two.

“I said, ‘I’m done, I’m not going to be in the bakery business anymore,’” he says.

It did not last long. He took a job with VR Business Brokers, the company that had sold his bakeries. Soon a listing for another bakery crossed his desk. It was a tiny wholesale cookie business in Rochester called Gail’s Cookies. He bought it and renamed it the Rochester Cookie Co.

Midlife crisis
Around age 40, Bernunzio had what he describes as his midlife crisis. His father, who was his mentor and best friend, had died. Bernunzio had the sudden, inexplicable urge to drop everything and move to Hawaii.

After waiting a few years, until his daughter finished high school, he and his wife moved to Maui and opened a 600-square-foot bakery across from the ocean.

“It was an adventure,” Bernunzio says.

Three years later, their son’s wife was having a baby and they decided they had had enough. They sold everything—the business, their house and furniture, their cars—and came back to the mainland, eventually settling in Fairport.

It was then that Bernunzio bought Leo’s Bakery, which at the time was open five days a week and specialized in pies.

The business had started as the Balta Pie Co. in the 1940s. Two of the founding brothers later moved the pie factory to Henrietta and eventually sold to General Mills Inc., but another brother, Leo, stayed at their original Atlantic Avenue site and opened the retail store.

When Bernunzio bought Leo’s Bakery, he began expansions almost immediately.

The bakery building had a large junk room, and one day Bernunzio decided to clean it out. When he was finished, he thought it looked big enough for a second business. So he bought Watermark Specialty Foods LLC, which at the time was a small food distribution company based near Fairport that had one truck and a few employees.

Some four years later, Bernunzio saw the building on Despatch Drive in East Rochester for sale.

“I bought it, even though it was twice as much money as I thought I could afford,” Bernunzio says. “And honestly this building, ever since we did this, it put us on the map.”

At the same time, he bought Elite Baking Co., a former neighbor on Atlantic Avenue, and brought it along to the new building.

In the current location, Bernunzio’s business has grown from 15 to 60 employees.

The retail shelves of cookies and pies, cannolis and cupcakes are just a small part of what happens there. Behind the bakery counter is a warehouse filled with racks of pies and sweets, bustling workers and a 2,000-square-foot freezer.

Past the sweets in the other direction is a deli and an 80-seat cafe.

Bernunzio added the deli in 2009 because one of his top managers, Salvatore DiPerna, had experience in delis and thought it would be a good idea, he says.

They expected to sell roughly 20 sandwiches a day, Bernunzio says, but it turned out to be more like 120. People were lining up.

The cafe was a logical next step, he says, because deli customers often asked if there was a place to sit.

DiPerna, who is known as Sam, thought 60 seats would be a lot, Bernunzio says. He built for 80.

“We fill it up pretty much every day at lunchtime,” he says.

The cafe has since expanded to add cooks, a grill and hot sandwiches.

“It just keeps evolving,” Bernunzio says. “It’s turning more into a restaurant than I thought it was going to be.”

The next expansion will be a 13,000-square-foot addition, mostly for production and warehouse space.

“Everybody always thinks I’m a risk-taker, but I don’t think I am at all,” Bernunzio says. “I seriously don’t. … I’m not risking anything because, if I do it, I’m sure it’s going to work.”

DiPerna, his manager, credits Bernunzio’s success to his old-school work ethic. Bernunzio and his wife both are still as committed to the business as when they were just starting out, he says.

“They’ve earned every accolade they possibly could have, in the maturity of the business, the growth, the profitability,” DiPerna says. “They earned it all. … Nobody handed them anything.”

Also, Bernunzio is very patient and supportive of his employees, DiPerna says.

“He treats everybody with respect, down to the custodian,” he says. “He lets people do their work. If they happen to make a mistake, he’ll bring them off to the side and tell them nicely, and the mistake normally never happens again.”

As his 65th birthday approached, Bernunzio briefly considered selling the business but ultimately decided to keep it.

Arizona retreat
Instead, he and his wife bought a house in Arizona. This past winter, they spent a few months there and left the daily operations to their managers.

Of course, the bakery was never far from their thoughts.

Bernunzio called his managers every day or two. His wife continued to keep the books remotely.

“We’re hands on,” Bernunzio says. “We’re here all the time. We’re attentive to the businesses.”

In Arizona, where he was supposed to be relaxing, Bernunzio could not help but strike up a conversation with a woman selling homemade cookies at a farmer’s market. They are now working on a deal for large-scale production involving Bernunzio’s equipment and a broker from Aramark.

Yet for all the new ventures, Bernunzio still quietly maintains some family traditions at his store.

French bread comes out of the oven several times a day and he sells it for a dollar. A few old favorite family cookies are on the shelves.

“Everybody says, ‘Your father would be so proud of you,’” Bernunzio says.

Julie Kirkwood is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

Patrick Bernunzio
Title: President and owner of Leo’s Elite Bakery LLC and Watermark Specialty Foods
Age: 65
Education: Took some liberal arts courses at Monroe Community College
Family: Wife, Kathryn; daughter, Judy, 43; son, Dan, 45; three grandchildren
Home: Fairport
Hobbies: Spending time with his grandchildren and following the Buffalo Bills
Quote: “We’re here all the time. We’re attentive to the businesses.”

5/13/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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