Baking it Right:
Koffee Kup Bakery and the Roberge Family
The story of Koffee Kup Bakery is a good one. In fact, you might want to sit back with a Koffee Kup donut or cruller in hand right now, and read on …
By Hand and Horse
For the Roberge family, making fresh-baked goods is a tradition that began as soon as Cherie Roberge set foot in the United States. Cherie emigrated from Canada in 1925, settling in Troy, Vermont. He opened a small bakery, making bread and rolls which he delivered to local stores via horse-drawn wagon.
When Cherie passed away, his son, Romeo, took over the bakery and ran it for a time until he decided to move to Burlington to work for the National Biscuit Company. Romeo’s son, Rosaire, began his career working at Fassetts Bakery while still a student. But, as would be the case throughout the Roberge family history, Rosaire would find himself drawn back to the idea of baking it his way—perhaps like people are drawn irresistibly to the aroma of fresh-baked bread. So, in 1940, Rosaire started Koffee Kup Bakery.
Then and Now
Rosaire would make a fresh batch of donuts each night, then early the next morning, deliver them by bicycle to select mom-and-pop stores in Burlington.
World War II brought supply shortages of all kinds, including baking ingredients. With flour and sugar hard to come by for a small baker, Rosaire went back to work for Fassetts and continued to make his donuts there.
After the war, when ingredients again became widely available, Rosaire decided it was time to make his move. He put down $150 to buy a small panel truck, frying kettle and bowls from a small bakery called Barnes and Fay’s. His first hire was his brother-in-law, George Griffin. Smart decision—George would work for Rosaire, and later for Rosaire’s son, Ron, until his retirement.
Rosaire handed off the rolling pin (so to speak) to Ron in 1969. Ron had begun his baking career at 14, and, over time, he worked every job in the bakery. Officially retiring in 1995, Ron is an active and vibrant presence at the bakery. Today, Koffee Kup relies on a fleet of trucks to distribute a wide range of baked goods to five states. And every so often, Koffee Kup relies on the postal service, too, when a customer far away writes to say, “Please send me a taste of home!”
Recipe for Success
Every product of Koffee Kup Bakery has two ingredients in common: A family’s unwavering commitment to quality; and good-old fashioned New England mechanical ingenuity. Koffee Kup uses fresh ingredients. And, unlike the bigger-faster-cheaper approach of factory-style bakeries, Koffee Kup makes every decision based on one measure—taste.
Growing up, Ron Roberge always thought he’d go off to engineering school. However, the bakery quickly became his passion. When Koffee Kup moved into its current Riverside Avenue location in 1964, he got a whole facility to tinker with. It would become his lifelong engineering project. For his entire career, Ron has developed ovens and techniques that, to this day, exist in no other bakery anywhere; all machinery is designed or re-designed in house to live up to the Roberge family’s handmade standards. If Thomas Edison were a baker, his workshop might look a little bit like the place on Riverside Avenue.
A Local Commitment
Family-owned businesses really are different. Part of the reason is that when you call a place home, you tend to take good care of it. If you’ve seen the 50,000 square-foot bakery on Burlington’s Riverside Avenue, it’s probably hard to imagine the days when just six employees worked in a much smaller facility on the location, and when customers watched donuts being made by hand. But, the Roberge family’s commitment to the local area has grown that facility into a modern, high-tech wholesale operation with 150 employees. Same location, same values, just a bigger family.
A Taste of Home
In 1968, war would once again impact the business. Ron went to Vietnam with the Vermont National Guard. A bunch of homesick young men found it a little easier to be away from Burlington when Ron fashioned his own donut cutter from a tin can and a light bulb socket and made Koffee Kup donuts and crullers for his fellow soldiers.
Not long after Ron’s return from Vietnam, his father passed away, leaving him with 12 employees making donuts by hand. Things would change very quickly.
The Rise of a New Business
Louis Roberge, Ron’s uncle, always had a passion for breads, so much so that he wanted to do it his way, on a large scale. So, Ron took him into the business, and on Christmas Eve day, 1971, Koffee Kup rolled out its first bread. Soon, Koffee Kup would be baking grinder rolls, dinner rolls, fresh bread and more. Even as Ron tinkered with the bakery ovens in his endless pursuit of the perfect system, Louis insisted on making the bread by hand. Finally convinced the machinery was up to his exacting standards, Louis embraced the equipment that today makes Koffee Kup a perfect blend of technological efficiency and human touch.
That was a good thing, for between 1971 and 1977, Koffee Kup expanded rapidly as demand for the bakery’s fresh-made products grew region-wide. But, even as small bakeries everywhere went out of business or were bought up by conglomerates, and even as pressure grew to make breads and donuts in a certain “modern” way, the Roberge family insisted on doing it the right way.
Family Pride and the Birth of Mr. Cruller
In 1965, Carol Roberge (nee Parizo), made a decision to marry not just a man, but a bakery. Because the work was a seven-days-a-week affair. Joining the company as a part-time office worker in 1978, Carol was soon working full-time helping throughout the bakery. Due to Koffee Kup’s rapid growth, there was a never-ending need for production staff. Carol now works in human resources and does the books. Along the way, she also created the iconic Mr. Cruller, a crowd favorite wherever the mascot goes. Three of Carol and Ron’s kids work in the company today. Son Steven (21 years at the bakery) in the maintenance department. Daughter Laurie (18 years) in the office. And Ron, Jr. (26 years) is the plant manager.
But, Koffee Kup isn’t only a place where family members work; it’s where workers are like family. Take Scott Mongeon. Scott joined Koffee Kup out of high school in 1974, and one by one, learned every manufacturing job in the facility. He later became a supervisor, then eventually a long-time route sales associate.
Ron, Sr. says, “To be in the baking business, you really need to be in the people business first. It’s your people who make your product what it is. The reason for our success is that we’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by dedicated, hard-working people; they’re just the best.”
You could call Ron, Sr. obsessed with quality. He claims he can break open a cruller and tell if it’s up to snuff. But, perhaps more importantly, he says, “Our customer keeps us policed. They know the product, and they expect the highest quality.”
Even in a highly mechanized age, “feel” is critical to Ron. “You walk in and feel the temperature of the bakery and know if it’s off by a degree or two. You put your hands into dough and know if the mix is right. You can see and smell and feel and taste the difference.”
Rolling Down the Road: Mr. Cruller Goes on Vacation
The seven-day work weeks are history for Carol and Ron, Sr., but the love of what they do travels with them each year when they take their annual winter vacation. They go to Florida, and along with their luggage, they pack something most tourists don’t—150 pounds of donut mix that they use to hold impromptu donut bakes for lucky communities. It’s all free, and as they commonly do, the Roberges share the credit. “Many willing volunteers help make it happen,” says Carol. “It’s a great way to give back, and we really enjoy doing it.” In that way, maybe Koffee Kup isn’t so far removed from those horse-delivery days after all.
For Ron, Sr., happiness is an ongoing project, and there’s nothing more satisfying than improving the baking process, so he’s still active in machinery design and implementation. Ron and Carol both agree that Koffee Kup Bakery has been blessed with many good people through the years. They thank all the people mentioned in this brief history, as well as all the others too numerous to mention. They say simply, “We couldn’t have done it without them.”
Finished with that donut? No problem. There’s a fresh batch at a store near you.