Neither Milton nor Esther Fried were bakers, but that fact didn't stop them from opening a bake shop in Las Vegas in 1959 in their name. They eventually changed the spelling to Freed's, to match the pronunciation of the family name.
Within just over a year of opening, the business grew from one bakery to seven with locations throughout the Las Vegas Valley, focusing on mostly breads and donuts.
What quickly made their bakery a local favorite was the quality (they used only the finest ingredients, sourced from as far away as Chicago), their welcoming customer service, and their faithfulness to exceptional recipes, which Milton collected from the pool of culinary talent working in Vegas's high-end hotels.
“My dad would ask bakers to make something they were proud of, something they thought was delicious, and little by little they came up with the recipes," recalled Joni Fried, Milton and Esther's daughter.
Now, half a century later, customers find Max Fried behind the dessert cases, the third generation leader who runs the family business with the support of his Aunt Joni.
With only 12 percent of family businesses surviving into the third generation, the Frieds have managed to do what many others have not. And not only has their business made it to the third generation, it's also continuing to grow.
Their business's revenue has tripled since Max joined in 2006, and there's no sign of that slowing down. "My success is built on Joni," Max said, noting that the bakery was flourishing when he took over operations 11 years ago.
Freed's recently opened a dessert shop in Centennial Hills and a dessert cart at the T-Mobile Arena, in addition to their main store on Eastern Avenue. Two more bakeries are planned to open: One in Summerlin in the fall of 2019, and one at The Bend in southwest Las Vegas in 2020.
All the while, the company has maintained a 35-year streak on the “Best of Las Vegas" list published by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
What's made the business so successful has been each generation's ability to find a balance between honoring the legacy that Milton and Esther created while also evolving with the times.
Both Joni and Max had new ideas they felt would improve the already successful business when each of them stepped into their leadership roles, as do 75 percent of next-generation family business leaders, according to PWC's Family Business Report.
Although Freed's had already been creating beautiful custom cakes, when Joni, who grew up working in at the bakery under her parents' guidance, first took over, they were known not only for their delicious baked goods, but also for their ability to whip up cakes within an hour — an especially useful service in a town famous for last-minute weddings.
Sensing an opportunity, Joni invested in professional marketing, creating printed brochures that were distributed alongside flyers for wedding chapels.
The investment was well worth it — Freed's wedding cake business boomed.
Joni also embraced the marketing power of the internet before most, purchasing ads in the '90s on bridal websites aimed at Californians planning a Vegas wedding or bachelorette party. Joni explained, "Every year the internet was in use, cake sales galloped." During this time, they were also featured on many Food Network shows, which increased public demand for custom cakes.
By 1997, 11 years after she took over the business, the small bake shop that originally focused only on breads and ready-to-go desserts had become a well-known luxury custom cake studio, specializing in wedding cakes and over-the-top creations in addition to maintaining the quality of their initial staples.
The Food Network even created a television series about Freed's custom cakes, Vegas Cakes, which ran for two seasons and further enhanced Freed's reputation. The bakery now sells more than 40,000 cakes annually.
Another significant portion of the business's growth can be attributed to the digitization that Max implemented. He built a proprietary cake-ordering database and an e-commerce site that increased sales by approximately 25 percent annually since its implementation.
Not surprisingly, some of the ideas that brought the bakery the most success were initially met with hesitation by some family members. It's understandable that current leadership tends to resist new ideas in an attempt to protect the success they've created.
When Joni first began advertising their wedding cakes, for instance, she remembers her dad disagreeing. “My dad was very upset with me," Joni explained. “They didn't do any advertising at all at that time."
Max experienced something similar when he updated the company's technology. In addition to the ecommerce platform, he introduced computers and integrated spreadsheets, which greatly improved overall productivity, but made for a difficult and risky transition time.
Each new computer upgrade meant teaching digital technology to employees who had been with Freed's for decades, some of whom had never used computerized systems and were reluctant to learn, Max recalled.
"Employees would threaten to leave. Whenever we made an overarching change, we risked blow back," he said. That was a shock to a business that prides itself on treating employees like they're part of the family.
“We have people that have worked for us for so long, they're proud of what they do and it's like a piece of them," Joni said. “We have almost no turnover."
Joni also recalled how the tech upgrades impacted customers. In the beginning, employees who were learning new technology slowed down counter service, causing long lines out the bakery doors — something that worried Joni.
She even considered returning to the company's former, manual processes to keep customers and employees happy. But since Max had a background in technology and knew its potential, he didn't waiver on the importance of the upgrades.
The two family business leaders had to find common ground.
“The most important thing is trying to understand the other person's position, even if you don't agree with it, so you know where they're coming from and can let go of all the drama," Max said.
Eventually, after realizing how the technology would actually enhance the customer and employee experience, Joni agreed that Max's changes were necessary to help the business grow. Their employees also eventually found that the upgrades made their jobs easier.
“You can spend a lot of energy fighting each other, or you can spend a lot of energy going in the same direction, and I think we figured out how to keep going in the same direction," Max said.
One thing that kept them aligned is the long-term vision for Freed's: to remain a Las Vegas landmark.
Nothing makes them happier, they said, than getting orders from families whose parents and grandparents celebrated their weddings with Freed's cakes, or meeting college graduates who remembered the wonderful Freed's birthday cakes they grew up with.
“Freed's is a tradition for them," said Max. “That's probably my favorite part of the business."
So far there are seven great-grand children, and Max and Joni are waiting to see if one or more of them will emerge to lead the Freed's into the fourth generation.
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