Ribbon cut for grand opening of Hope Baking Company under stewardship of Dan Serra
As the ribbon was cut today at the official grand opening of Hope Baking Company, new owner Dan Serra was emotional as Hope Mayor Don Still asked him if he had a few words.
“When we first came here to Hope, it was October,” Serra began. “And when we saw the number of people in this building that has been here for years and years and years, it was a no brainer for us. I’ve said this a million times to people: our biggest asset isn’t a building. Anybody can buy a building. Anybody can buy a truck, anybody can buy a silo, anybody can buy flour, but it’s people.”
Many of the 300 employees of what was then Southern Bakeries, but has now become Hope Baking Company, a renaming that Serra said occurred to him immediately, gathered near the end of the noon hour today in front of the Hope plant’s offices on 2700 East Third. A sumptuous buffet lunch, many of whose courses had been prepared by Dan’s mother Idalina, was served. You could pick from hamburgers or barbecue sandwiches, both with Hope Baking Company bread, or from chicken parmesan or pasta courtesy of Idalina Serra.
After the ribbon cutting, Dan was asked how it felt to finally reach this day. “Overwhelming, a lot to take. Just a lot going on, the big undertaking,” he said. “Everybody’s been welcoming and wonderful. Southern hospitality is very different and unique in Hope.”
Just before the ceremony, Serra said, he had been solving a problem hands-on. “I was in an oven. … We had a pan jam. The ovens are 400 degrees. So I literally had the hairnet on and the beard net, and I crawled into the oven to get a pan jam and then I come out drenched in sweat and the guests are here,” he said.
The story and the streak of flour on his shirt was an exhibit of what he had told us in a February interview, that he would not ask an employee of his companies to do anything he would not do himself. That includes crawling into ovens as well as working weekends and holidays.
Serra strikes you as a man who does not do a lot of sitting. “I don’t sit behind a desk, and I don’t have an office to call a home office and ask for me. They literally will tell you call his cell phone. He doesn’t have an office,” he said after the ribbon cutting.
Dan is the son of Portuguese immigrants, his mother Idalina and her sister having arrived in America in 1969 to work in a Philadelphia textiles factory and soon moved to Massachusetts. By the mid-70s, both had gone through the process to become citizens. Idalina continued as a seamstress until retiring a few years ago. But now her job is to help her son.
“Mom comes with me everywhere I go. Every week she’s on an airplane for airplanes to get here. Takes 14 hours. Twice a week to get here,” Dan said back in February.
Idalina’s brother owned a bakery himself. Young Dan used to help out there. “I used to clean after high school. So I’d go in from 2:30 until six, seven at night. And then on the weekends on Saturdays and Sundays, I’d go in at three o’clock, two o’clock in the morning, and I’d make rye bread. And [there was] something about mixing rye bread, picking up 50-pound bags of flour, 100-pound bags of flour and mixing the dough. For a very long time, I did that. Until I went to college.”
In the middle of these years his father, also a Portuguese immigrant, died. Dan was 15.
His first college degree came from Western New England University in 2002 where he took on an altogether unheard of triple major in Accounting, Finance and Management, despite being warned about the workload. But, as Dan said, he has a tendency to take no as a challenge and therefore completed the degree in four years, being the only graduate from WNEU to earn such a degree.
After that, his first post-college job was for MassMutual Life Insurance, a job he loved. While there, he completed in ten months a Masters of Business Administration degree from the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. After his second college graduation in 2003, he began to build a business of his own. This got him in trouble with MassMutual Life.
“On November 14 2005, I bought a coffee shop in Ludlow, Massachusetts. And I ran the coffee shop until March 17 of the following year. And on that date, at 9:00 a.m., MassMutual, [who] was gracious enough to pay for my MBA, fired me for conflict of interest, because I was using the company phone to call my deli,” Dan said.
That meant a hard conversation with Idalina back home. “She said to me and I quote, ‘What are you going to do? What would your father say, with all those initials behind your name?’ And I said to my mom, ‘I’m going to run a business.’”
That is what he did, having already seen how the work ethic he had inherited from his parents was an advantage, growing his business from a single café to East Baking Company, in the span of about 18 years, a company that trucks fresh and frozen baked goods to 49 states and has five locations in Burlington Iowa; Holyoke, Massachusetts; Piffard and Syracuse, New York and now Hope Baking Company, whose staff immediately impressed Dan, as he said in his ribbon-cutting speech today.
“When you find people who care, and you find people who are devoted, and this building has 300 of them, when you find that type of workforce that actually cares in a small town, it’s a no brainer for us,” he said, later pointing out that staffers who had retired or were retiring had been persuaded to come back to help Hope Bakeries.
Dan also told the assemblage the plant needs help. Signs to that effect have been visible for a few weeks near the office complex. As he said at the ribbon cutting, “We’re not interested in making jobs for our employees. We’re interested in making careers.”