When Sam Scelfo purchased Joe Gambino’s Bakery in 1977, he had one goal: to not change a thing. “Joe Gambino built a great template when he started the company in 1949,” Scelfo says. “The employees knew exactly what to do. I was smart enough to know not to mess it up.”
Scelfo has largely kept to his original plan. The 45-person staff still makes the company’s signature king and doberge cakes and other desserts by hand. Many of those employees have been with the company more than 40 years. And Gambino’s remains a beloved New Orleans establishment.
But for all of this respect for tradition, Sam and his son Vincent have also transformed Gambino’s into a thoroughly modern business — one that seamlessly employs e-commerce to sell and ship its creations around the globe.
Thousands of Cakes Per Day
Step inside the back room of the Gambino’s flagship store and you could well be stepping back in time a few decades. In one corner, a hulking industrial mixer slowly stirs cake batter. White-aproned bakers move about purposefully, rolling and folding dough with an efficiency honed by years of repetition. Sam grins as he observes the scene. “Most of our employees have been with us a long time. By comparison, I’m a short-timer,” he says. “They still do everything from scratch with fresh ingredients. They bake six days per week. And they make sure the quality is consistent every day.”
That consistency is part of what’s made Gambino’s a citywide institution. While business is steady year-round, activity really starts to heat up in the months and weeks before Mardi Gras. By the time the two-week festival starts each year, Gambino’s is turning out thousands of king cakes (a Mardi Gras staple) per day at its locations around the city. And in the last few years, an increasing number of those cakes has been going to customers from outside the New Orleans area.
Bringing New Orleans to the World
Six years ago, Vincent returned to Gambino’s after a stint in corporate banking. It was a happy return; he’d grown up in the bakeries and worked there as a teenager. And although he shared his father’s love for the traditional side of the business, he also saw opportunity in e-commerce. While Gambino’s had been shipping cakes since the early 1990s, Vincent beefed up the company’s online store — and orders soon took off. Today the company ships to all 50 states and to international customers, and also sells more than half of its king cakes online. “I think it was just the right place and right time,” he says. “In many ways, we’re still a small business, but e-commerce allows us to reach beyond New Orleans. And it has really changed our business for the better in the past few years.
“There are a lot of transplants from New Orleans all over the country,” he adds. “Many of them were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and a lot of them have strong emotional connections to the city and Mardi Gras. They look at a Gambino’s Mardi Gras king cake as shipping a slice of Louisiana to them.”
The Scelfos have turned to FedEx for help getting that slice of home to customers. Sam notes that the company now ships close to 40,000 cakes per year. “FedEx has helped us shrink the world,” he says, “and that’s done more for our business than anything else.”
Even though the Scelfos have expanded their business around the globe, their hometown roots still run deep. “Gambino’s is a special part of New Orleans,” Sam says. “We’ve been here more than 60 years, and we believe in giving back to our community. We do charitable work for more than 300 local nonprofits. The other thing that makes this place special is our employees. They’re not just great employees — they’re great people. It’s fun to come to work every day and be with them.”
The King of Cakes
King cakes have put Gambino’s on the Mardi Gras map, and many New Orleanians would say the cakes are as much a Fat Tuesday tradition as the parades, costumes and beads. Variations date back 300 years, but the New Orleans version is made of sweet Danish dough with cinnamon swirls topped with fondant (stiff icing) and purple, green and gold sugar — and baked with a tiny plastic toy baby inside. According to tradition, the person who receives a slice with the baby is responsible for providing the next year’s king cake. And, chances are, they’ll be ordering it online from Gambino’s.
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