By Alex Province
I walked into Atkins on a bustling Sunday morning and stepped from a full parking lot into a surprisingly busy store. I saw people picking out produce, requesting deli cuts, waiting in line for check out, and strolling around the store. But I knew what I was there for: the famous Atkins Bakery. Not unlike the rest of the store, the bakery was quite busy. I linger about to take in a view of the beautiful delicatessen baked goods.
I stared through the glass window into delight. Tea cakes, cherry pie slices, peanut butter fudge squares, and rocky road brownies stared back at me. I made the mistake of not eating at that point, and my stomach was getting irritably uncomfortable. I turned to the cake section — Red velvet, double layer chocolate heart cake, 8-inch layer cake, chocolate raspberry, peanut butter cake; the options are endless. The cooler was filled with banana and chocolate crème pies, and a selection of blackberry, rhubarb, peach, blueberry, or raspberry pies. I was getting distracted, and it was time to meet Holly.
Atkins is a local pillar in the neighborhood, and the proof is in their longevity. Holly started by telling me that the baking facility was built in 1967 with the baking line following shortly after in the early 70s. Today, that very same baking line served as my behind-the-scenes introduction to the Atkins bakery process.
A common theme inside the baking kitchen was stainless steel. The massive stainless-steel oven spanning at least 20 feet was so big it felt like an additional wall in the bakery. Many metal rolling carts held rows and rows of freshly baked apple cider donuts and apple pies, cooling off and waiting to be packaged. The center of the room was taken up by an equally humongous wood-top island that seemed to function as a prepping surface. On one side, you could see the donut prep area — fryers, metal cross-section racks, and an appliance that looked like a small stainless-steel box. The inside of the box was filled with donuts, soaked in glaze with glaze dripping down the walls of the box.
What a sight to behold- it was every child’s dream (or mine). Aromas of cinnamon, apple, nutmeg, chocolate, and freshly baked pastry filled the air. Holly told me about how food aromas inspired her to pursue her passions in professional cooking.
Holly attended Johnson and Wales and worked in a Springfield bakery with her mom. “I just was fascinated by what everybody did there, and it just inspired me to want to learn more and more, the smell of the baked goods, the smell of the rye bread, the way my mom smelt when she came home, I wanted to know more, and that’s how I ended up doing what I’m doing… And now my kids say that to me, which I think is fantastic — Mom, you smell like a donut.”
Now, Holly’s son Aaron works at Atkins too! Aaron started off in his mom’s footsteps at 14 years old, bagging cider donuts in the bakery but later transitioned to a salesperson. A high school senior now, he works as a dishwasher for the bakery only on the weekends, while pursuing his career in automotive work and study five days a week.
“It’s family!” Said Holly, after introducing me to her coworker Paula. Like Holly, Paula also has family ties to Atkins. She got the job because of her daughter who worked there, and now Paula’s son works in produce too.
Holly has worked at Atkins for 22 years, and it’s no fluke. I asked her about how she makes such rich, authentic pies that taste like they came out of your grandma’s kitchen. “It’s lots of hands on experience, it’s knowing what the dough should feel like, how crisp the apples need to be, knowing when things aren’t right is important too, temperatures, quality of our equipment, and then just experience.” I tried to get the full ingredient list of what’s inside the pies, but cinnamon and nutmeg are the only spices she would mention. I have a feeling there’s some secret spices that I don’t know about.
With 40 employees working throughout different roles in just the Bakery, the Atkins Bakery functions almost as a separate entity from the conjoined Atkins Farms store. It was at this moment when I found out about perhaps the most impressive feat from them — in the four days before Thanksgiving between Monday and Thursday, they make 5,000 – yes, 5,000 – apple pies.
I was shocked. I asked her how she did it. “It takes months of planning and scheduling. We have staff from other departments helping box pies all night on Tuesday into Wednesday We double up on production of all our other products the weeks prior [so] everyone in the department can make and bake pies… The bakery crew is fantastic, they truly have a passion for what they’re doing and this is the week they shine.”
Holly talked to me about their business model that has guaranteed them successful reception from the community for more than 50 years. She said they take customer feedback very seriously. She said they always read customer emails, take criticism, improve upon weak areas, and involve customers when they request things (like the paczkis, a polish donut that’s served before Lent, or king cakes, a Mardi Gras tradition). Atkins wants their customers to give feedback if they’re disappointed, as they use criticism as a business model to adhere to customers requests. As she put it: If there’s something they did wrong, they want to know.
Clearly Holly’s success at Atkins Bakery has been no fluke. “Oh absolutely,” she said, “our customers have high standards…That makes us want to achieve to their standards.” By adhering to local tradition, fostering family ties, and developing strong relationships with their customers, Atkins continues to thrive in the local Hadley and Amherst community.
Essentials: Atkins Bakery can be found at 1150 West St, Amherst, MA 01002. Atkins Farms is open Monday through Sunday from 7 A.M. to 7 P.M. Their new bakery drive thru is open for breakfast and lunch from 5 A.M. to 1 P.M. daily.