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For the Love of Pie

Pie is the classic American dessert. And if you’re from the North Bay, chances are you’ve enjoyed your fair share of Kozlowski Farms pies over the years. Lovers of these homemade-style pies and tarts will be happy to know that while the farm store, a local institution since 1949, is now closed, the legacy of Kozlowski baked goods will continue on thanks to a new partnership with Healdsburg’s Costeaux French Bakery.

The Kozlowski family was searching for the right partner to keep the business local and officially announced the new partnership in July. “We are delighted to have partnered with the Seppi family of Costeaux to continue our family legacy of quality locally made pies and pie tarts,” said Carol Kozlowski-Every, in a statement, describing Costeaux as “the perfect suitor to carry the family legacy.”

Costeaux French Bakery and Café of Healdsburg traces its roots as a bakery back to 1923 when it started as the French American Bakery. The bakery changed hands, names and styles over the years, before it was transformed, once again, in 1973 by a couple from Reims, France. Jean and Anne Costeaux dubbed the bakery “Costeaux” and it became a local source of authentic French baked goods, continuing to this day. In 1981, Karl and Nancy Seppi bought the bakery and continued the tradition as real French bakers, thanks to Jean Costeaux, who taught Karl, a former golf pro, how to bake. Karl and Nancy Seppi worked together for 25 years, growing the bakery into a prize-winning enterprise and regular winner at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. Then, it was time to sit back and relax.

About that time, Will Seppi, now president and chief executive officer of Costeaux, who followed a career in public accounting and corporate finance, was about ready for a lifestyle change, too. Though he was raised in Healdsburg, he spent most of his career in the South Bay. “I’d learned a lot in the corporate world, in Silicon Valley,” says Seppi, laughing. “I’ve been through ups and downs of the technology boom and bust and was ready to make a change. I don’t look back at all.” Karl and Nancy welcomed the opportunity to have additional resources and skillsets come in and take over where they left off. In 2006, Seppi took over as general manager. Over the next few years, Costeaux raked in awards and expanded its offerings to include a satellite retail bakery in Big John’s Market in Healdsburg and a production center in Santa Rosa. They now distribute throughout the North Bay, covering Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino Counties.

The evolution of food
When Seppi returned to Sonoma County, he saw that Healdsburg, was still the same in many way, but there were changes. There were more visitors, and more interest in local artisanal foods. Even a traditional item such as bread undergoes its own kinds of evolution, says Seppi. “We’ve overhauled bread products over the last decade, looking at ingredients, going to cleaner labels, which is a big and necessary thing.” They’ve upgraded their ingredients to using all butter, real eggs, 100 percent wheat flour, with no “enrichments” or additives. “It’s a differentiator,” he says. “It comes at a cost. You have to look at the environment we’re in and what the consumer wants and continue to adjust and adapt to those changes.”

How do you keep up with change? “It’s very sophisticated,” he says. “My aunt, who relocated here years ago from Santa Fe New Mexico, always would say that Healdsburg is a sophisticated town, even with Ford trucks and farmers in blue jeans.” A visitor today will still see a blending of old and new fancier styles. “I think Healdsburg still embraces common values,” says Seppi. “As a community. There is dialogue. We have challenges like every other municipality, but the town still is a good, strong community.” Several community events such as the Tuesday on the Plaza, music festivals, Harvest Festivals, adds Seppi, and the numerous nonprofit events, draw locals and visitors together. As for his contribution, “We have lots of different [bakery] items that we make that bring in people from all over.”

Kozlowski Farms’ family story
Carmen and Tony Kozlowski began offering home-style pies and tarts on their apple farm on Gravenstein Highway in Sonoma County in 1949. Through the years, as they prospered, they added jams, jellies and other items made from the surrounding orchards and other fruit purveyors. In 2017, after nearly 80 years serving Sonoma County at the farm and at retail outlets, the Kozlowski Farms property was put up for sale. The family began looking for the right partner to carry on their legacy.

Seppi recognized the transition had to be done just right. “We spent a great deal of time with the Kozlowski family prior to inking a deal,” he says, “getting to know them better and getting to know philosophies of business, their account management [processes], their employees and their tenure as well.” He discovered that both families share the same core values. Each has a strong commitment to the quality of their product; each family is committed to the way they run their companies, treat their employees and support their community. This was of critical importance to the Seppi family. “We’ve always been very committed to core values,” says Seppi. “I say that repeatedly when talking about the Kozlowski company – whose core values and culture are very similarly aligned to ours.”

While there is a clear and distinct difference between American homemade-style baked goods and French breads and pastries, there is a similarity in the cultures of the two companies, and how they view their presence in the community. The Kozlowski brand, backed by generations of family integrity, would be a natural addition for the Costeaux French Bakery’s retail offerings. For the Kozlowski brand, Costeaux would be a highly regarded and well-suited home. Seppi views the acquisition as an opportunity to expand and also to preserve, improve and promote the locally famous brand, while keeping loyal Kozlowski patrons happy, and attract new clientele. “For me, it was an opportunity to take a business that had an 80-plus-year legacy associated with it and tell the story a little bit,” says Seppi. “We wanted to reinvest in the community and reinvest in the company itself and the employees, too.”

Merging two cultures
“From a tactical point, we have professional bakers and the employees of Kozlowski came with this marriage or this opportunity,” says Seppi. “So, when it come to the tactical side of making and distributing the product, that’s something we do. There’s not a huge learning curve on the production side and distribution side.”

At his side, for 16 years, chief baker Ramon Santana is happy with the new challenges. Ramon is working with two Kozlowski bakers to enhance the product—not changing the recipes, but bringing the Kozlowski ingredients up to the new Costeaux standard, which include using only 100 percent butter (no shortening), and 100 percent wheat, grown in California (with no enrichments or additives). “It’s a cleaner label,” says Seppi. As for production, it’s not a problem incorporating the new brand as part of their retail line. “There’s a level of simplicity on the pie side that doesn’t exist on the things we’re doing [with French pastries]. As he and Ramon describe the different types of dough used in French baking, and the multiple layers and rolling out techniques used in making croissants, it is clear that this sort of baking has little to do with the concept “homemade!”

Kozlowski Farms enjoyed having employees who were loyal members of a family operation. “We’re no different,” says Seppi. “We have employees that have been with us for 20-some years.” He welcomes bringing in new employees. “To provide opportunities for people for personal and professional development, we’re very fortunate.” Currently, they have 130 employees working at various locations, including the new Kozlowski employees and those working on another of their brands, Tia Maria. Currently, the company serves a 100-mile radius with fresh baked products daily. It distributes throughout the Bay Area, covering Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties.

The Costeaux distribution network has a varied clientele; Kozlowski pies and tarts are available in many independent grocers and markets. However, Kozlowski products won’t be available in the French bakery. At the Healdsburg location, the atmosphere at Costeaux has an authentic French café feeling, open and spacious with woven-backed bistro chairs. The word “Boulangerie” is written on a wall in faded red letters, and the menus, written in French, are part of the composition. This is why you won’t find a Kozlowski pie sitting on the Costeaux retail shelf. “It wouldn’t make sense,” says Seppi. A French bakery and café is a French bakery and café. It has to maintain its integrity. Kozlowski Farms Pies and Tarts will continue to be prepared and distributed as they’ve always been.

A local gathering place
The Cousteux French Bakery and Café, centrally located on Healdsburg Avenue, down the street from the Plaza, is an obvious place for community gathering. On a Sunday morning on a nice day, by brunch hour, people are lining up outside. “We refer to it as a community hub,” says Seppi. “When there have been natural disasters in recent history, it was important for us to be open, despite whatever was going on. Because people know they can have a safe place, a welcoming place, it’s a place that bring some normalcy in challenging times for people, so that’s one thing our staff has embraced.” Keeping the doors open during challenging times is embraced by the Costeaux staff, according to Seppi. It’s a responsibility they don’t take lightly, he adds. When something happens, and people are in need, they get there early. “[We] greet people, pour them a cup of hot coffee and give them the staff of life,” he says.

For Costeaux, tradition is more than the way they roll the dough, and with Seppi at the helm, patrons of both business can expect the same attention to quality as always, but he’s not averse to making changes when needed.

Seppi credits his folks for instilling their values in him over the decades. “Those roots inspire me to keep moving forward and keep engaged in the community,” he says, but also notes that it’s important to embrace change. “I’ve got three little kids, [so] raising my own family, I reflect back on what’s created and the desire to keep moving forward.” For Seppi, the key core values for him are much the same as those that withstood the Kozlowski family for nearly 80 years: family, community, service and quality. Those are the values that guide him and his staff in all decisions, “whether making products, hiring people or participating in community events.”

What’s his advice for someone looking to start a business? Be flexible and aware of what’s happening in the surrounding environments and beyond, he says. “We live in a global economy, and that will impact business—whether that’s paper products for packing something, or ingredients that we’re purchasing. So, be flexible.”

Flexibility means being friendly with change, and this is what Will Seppi seems to thrive on. “Being able to adapt to changes is super-important,” he says. But he acknowledges that the crew behind Costeaux and Kozlowski Farms is what makes the magic happen. “We’re a people-first organization. We’re as strong as the group we have on the front line, on the production side, or driving the trucks.”




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