This story begins at the Ribbon Cutting for the new Hope Baking Company when observing owner Dan Serra gently wiping away tears as he prepared to speak. He did so with his arm tightly wrapped around his mom, Idalina. She too was crying.
It wasn’t just those two expressing their emotions, but one could notice one or two employees in their familiar white work clothes dabbing their eyes too. They were experiencing a “rebirth”, of sorts, in their working world which could prove to have a promising future for all involved.
The reason for tears is that Serra is reinvesting in the employees who stayed after Southern Bakeries closed and more importantly, has been able to coax back several key employees who had chosen to retire.
It’s an investment that has very good odds of paying off. For everyone.
“Our biggest asset here isn’t the building, it’s the people inside,” Serra told the crowd. “People who care and are devoted.
“This building has 300 of them. And, when you find that many in one place, it’s a no-brainer. There are people here with 30 to 40 years of experience and you just can’t buy that.”
So how did Serra get to Hope? Hold on. It’s sort of a wonderful but painful ride.
He is the owner of East Baking Company located in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Folks, that is 1,496 miles to the east. Talk about a commute!
Serra’s story and his eventual immersion into the bread baking industry began at a young age.
From native Portuguese parents, Dan was born in the U.S. in 1980. His father, Madail, worked for the Portuguese military early on in Portugal. He and his wife Idalena had very little education and were surviving in a third-world country where many necessities, such as shoes, were in short supply. They left for America in 1969. Trying to gain a foothold inside the nation of dreams.
“My mom and her sister-in-law were able to come to America, due to some great uncles of mine,” Serera states. “One of the ways of getting here was going to work in the textile mills in America.
“Large mills had housing for their employees,” he continued. “The housing my parents had was a one-room loft with no door.”
Faced with language barriers and physical limitations with living quarters soon had the Serra parents in search of better work and living conditions.
“There was a seam stewardess at the mills who took sympathy for their cause and saw how their physical and mental health conditions were so poor. So, she helped get my mom and my aunt intentionally get “dismissed” from their job at the mill which meant they didn’t have to return to their home country and could blend naturally into the U.S.
Serra’s parents eventually joined more family members in Massachusetts with Idalena becoming a seamstress for Chickadee Undergarments and Madail a steady employee for Moore Drop Forge which primarily produced Sears Craftsman wrenches and ratchets in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Dan was born in 1980 and had a good life growing into his teens, but it all changed quickly in the blink of an eye.
In early 1995, Dan accompanied his father to a doctor’s appointment expecting all to be routine with the visit. However, some of the tests needed further evaluation. Within a few weeks the news came back. Chronic Leukemia.
His father’s health deteriorated and with the massive amounts of medicine he was no longer able to work. He came home and never returned to work again.
On January 8 of the next year, he was forced, after a medical emergency, to the hospital. Very soon after he passed away.
“I had 10 minutes to speak to him,” Serra recounts through tears. “He said to me, ‘Danny, you are going to have to be the man of the house and to take care of your mother,’”. On January 16, when Dan was only 15, his father died.
Dan does not disappoint his father.
While going through the remainder of high school and looking for ways to distract himself from the trauma he had endured, Serra would spend extra time at his uncle’s artisan style bakery where he cleaned the place and began mixing bread on the weekends while finishing high school.
He graduated 10th in his class and with already built-up AP college credits, he accepted a full-ride scholarship from the University of Western New England in Springfield, Mass.
“I lived at home during college, which was 18 miles away, but to fulfill what my dad asked me to do,” Serra recalls.
He made the most of his time in the college classroom and came away with a Management, Finance, and a third degree.
When he graduates from college, Mass Mutual Life Insurance is waiting and offers him a position in their Corporate Finance & Treasury division as a director. He was 22.
Young Serra bringing home plenty of money didn’t necessarily make him happy. Deep down happy.
“I’m bored out of my mind,” he recounts. “I’m not an office person.”
Serra returned to college and received his MBA, but afterwards remained “bored out of my mind”, as he recalls.
“So, I bought a coffee shop,” he beams. “On November 14, 2003, I’m the owner of a coffee shop in Ludlow, Massachusetts.
But he still works for MassMutual. It’s hard to run a coffee shop from a desk in another building, so he began communicating regularly from the office to the coffee shop. A hard “no-no” in the business world.
“Well, on March 17, 2004, Mass Mutual graciously paid for my MBA in full and then an hour later fired me for conflict of interest,” he says sort of proudly.
Folks, if you haven’t garnered it by now, Serra’s sharp.
He’s sharp, but he’s as warm as a dinner roll. An inviting and devoted human who now has parlayed his education and drive from his earlier years to now constantly be in motion between, can we say, the locations of his bakery empire?
By a timely stroke of opportunity, Serra receives a call regarding the University of Massachusetts needing a bagel supplier after the previous provider went out of business. After a brief meeting, Serra launched into the future with his biggest decision to date. He began a wholesale bakery business, and the university was his first account.
“East Street Bakery was our first location, and when we graduated to a bigger space, we incorporated into East Baking Company,” Serra states.
He now owns nine bakeries.
“As we grew, we kept taking on what I call “opportunities” or distressed assets or underutilized facilities,” he reveals. “When we can find a facility to utilize to manufacture products for our customers, we go in and assess the opportunities that exist, then we acquire it and bring it into our system and continue to grow.
There, folks, is his secret recipe.
That is how he made it to Hope and the former Southern Bakeries plant and property.
What made Serra step up and take that chance on a longshot facility?
“It was the people,” Serra declares. “When I came here last October and November and saw more than 50% of the people have been here for more than a decade. From a company standpoint, you can’t buy that.”
So that is why some of the employees at the ribbon cutting were wiping their eyes.
How instrumental were the folks with the Hempstead County Economic Development Council in securing Serra while convincing him to put down a few roots?
“There’s a wonderful lady working for us named Debbie Marsh and she was instrumental in getting state financing in 2005,” Serra recounts. “When I asked her about it, she contacted Steve Harris and Mark Ross and from them came more help in the form of Steve Atchley, State Representative Danny Watson and other key figures. If it wasn’t for them, this wouldn’t be happening.”
“Steve Atchley is my neighbor now,” Serra exclaims. “We like to be part of the community. The cost of hotel living is too expensive. So, I asked for help from Steve for some real estate and he had a neighbor who was selling their house nearby. I went to look at it and bought it the next day.”
When it was time to figure out the name of the bakery, it was Dan’s mom who suggested since they were now in Hope, Arkansas to take the obvious name of Hope Baking Company, now part of the East “family of bakeries”.
So, what is baked at Hope Baking Company?
“In this industry, if you have a pan that can go in the oven, you can bake just about anything,” Dan describes. “In this plant, we produce breadsticks, a brown and serve roll, English muffins, loaf bread, hamburger and hot dog buns, sliders, and brioche buns. If it’s in a pan, then it can be done.”
Serra’s persona as the owner could never be construed as a fat cat in a stuffed suit.
“A suit?”, Sarra replies with a laugh. “How can you relate to your employees? The first thing I instill in our managers is I drop my bag, then go inside that bakery. Your employees need to know you are committed to them. If they don’t see you on the floor and making rounds. How can you ask them to do their job unless you are willing to do it too.”
Serra plans to be in the office locally a couple of days each week. He understands words are good but putting eyes on his “investments” at work and vice versa establishes an accountability between the owner and employee. Over time, it establishes trust and dedication.
Because Serra is community-minded, that should bode well for the future endeavors of the city utilizing another business leader who takes their community seriously and invests their time and money into projects. He’s got all the makings of a new member in one of our local civic clubs.
“Our plant manager had been living in Texarkana, commuting back and forth every single day,” Serra remarks. “So, I approached him and said ‘since you’re in Hope so much with work and part of that community, why are you driving an hour everyday to work? So, we ended up buying him a house here too because that travel time is wasted and you can’t get time back,” he concludes.
That’s a sizable step to take but will likely pay off long term for both employer and employee.
So, would Dan’s dad be proud of him now? There were promises made by Dan. There were promises kept by Dan.
“I’ve said before that I would give up everything to ask him that one question. But I can’t,” an emotional Serra says. “But my mom is amazing. She retired to work for me. She’s 77 and now goes with me everywhere, every week. She’s always with me.
Look back at the photo of the ribbon cutting. Idalena is by her son’s side.
This story is ultimately about the people that work at Hope Baking Company. Because the owner has now bought into them and he’s doing everything right to have them buy into him too.