Galaxy Desserts

Some spend lifetimes crafting their trade. Others gain fame after one premiere. Galaxy Desserts, with its passion for creating decadent desserts, has reached award-winning status, prompting a move to a new, 52,000-sq.-ft. facility.By Maria Pilar Clark
The art of baking is an endless transformation in which talented chefs draw from years of experience to create sumptuous desserts that are innovative and impressive, year-in and year-out. Richmond, Calif.-based Galaxy Desserts already has graced the culinary red carpet numerous times with its gourmet tarts, mousse cakes, cheesecakes and pastries, turning heads throughout the dessert category not once, not twice, but many times since its nascence in 1998.
Men At Work
Galaxy Desserts consistently reflects incomparable elegance in its spectacular sweet-tooth teasers thanks to a dynamic leading troika: Jean-Yves Charon, Paul Levitan and Danny Rubenstein.
Charon, company founder and an acclaimed master pastry chef, honed his craft in Brittany, France, at age 16, before wooing gourmands around the globe with his sweet treats. In 1988, he started his own company, Paris Delights, specializing in the production of single-serving desserts. His rapid success led him to expand his company with the help of two friends.
Cue Levitan, president and CEO. He and Charon met at a food show. At the time, Levitan owned The Cheesecake Lady, a small, independent cheesecake producer.
“We knew the same distributors, the same retailers, we visited the same food shows,” explains Levitan. “We started shooting the breeze, and it went from there.”
Rubenstein, chief orbiter (a title which encompasses his jack-of-all-trades responsibilities) and head of business development, sales and marketing, joined the troupe as a partner after a mutual friend in the industry brought him and Charon together. Rubenstein also was the co-founder of Naked Juice, an all-natural juice company, prior to his Galaxy Desserts foray.
“I knew right away that there was complementary talent between the three of us and that it made sense for … us to figure out a way to partner up together,” explains Rubenstein.
Soon afterward, the entrepreneurial trio took off. In the ultimate moment of kismet, Levitan and Charon thought of the same company name while brainstorming separately in their own homes.
In 1998, the like-minded gents merged to form Galaxy Desserts. The show had just begun.
A Sweet Intermission
Galaxy Desserts has experienced rapid growth and is a shining star in the industry limelight. As such, it needed room to grow. A well-coordinated, one-week intermission allowed Galaxy to move from its original 18,000-sq.-ft., San Rafael, Calif. plant to its current USDA-certified, 52,000-sq.-ft. facility in Richmond, complete with dazzling views of the San Francisco bay.
“This has really been our breakout year,” adds Rubenstein. “With the move, everything is really coming together. We’re becoming a bigger player while never forgetting what has gotten us here, and both the foodservice and retail operators have responded well.”
The facility came with a glitzy pedigree, including Hollywood and historical ties — “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “The Joy Luck Club” were filmed there, Rosie the Riveter worked in a neighboring warehouse, and World War II-era battleships were assembled in the nearby bay.
Levitan says good fortune is on Galaxy’s side. The $10 million company is growing faster than Jamie Foxx’s career and, at the end of its fiscal year, will have seen sales rise 50% above last year — a rise, that Rubenstein indicates is a bit of a slowdown for the company.
“We are positioned for fast growth,” he says. “The business really has a momentum of its own, and our products are now being asked for by name.”
Galaxy has made substantial investments in and around the new facility, and its potential to produce an even larger volume of product has skyrocketed.
“We’ve expanded our production lines, adding two additional freezer tunnels, more ovens and mixing equipment,” says Rubenstein. “The main production rooms have positive airflow, … which helps to ensure product integrity and reduce the risk of contamination. We can now hold nearly 300 pallets of finished product in our freezer, permitting us to schedule even longer, more efficient production runs.”
Galaxy reaches a wide audience, distributing to 46 states on a regular basis, with a concentration in most major and secondary metro markets. A strong presence in mass-market, specialty and natural-food retailers, gives the company a combined total store count close to 3,000.
The majority of Galaxy’s sales are to in-store bakeries, under the Galaxy Desserts brand, and select private-label vendors.
Foodservice is another important channel for the company.
“The business was founded by servicing the ‘white tablecloth’ segment of that market, and it is a segment where we continue to excel,” explains Rubenstein. “Hotels, country clubs, caterers and other larger-format operators make up a lot of that volume, as well as plenty of street business to restaurants and other small operators.”
Catalog and Web-based sales are another significant resource.
“Our strength is reflected in steady, growing customers, such as Williams Sonoma, Neiman Marcus, Harry & David, as well as several others,” explains Rubenstein. “We are a perfect fit for these kinds of retailers as our product quality and positioning is a match for how they and their customers see them as well.”
Rubenstein notes that although Galaxy engages in some private-label work, its Galaxy Desserts brand is building a broader, stronger presence in addition to becoming a value-added brand for its customers due to the trio’s visionary ideation sessions.
Galaxy presents new product ideas to an exclusive group of retailers and chefs six to eight months in advance.
“We show them prototypes of our products,” explains Rubenstein. “In working collaboratively, we come up with better products, [and] that’s really our model of thinking. Involving the customer is key. For us, it’s more than [just] we sell and they buy.”
Although Galaxy is considered a “smaller” company, it applies large-company technology as much as possible. Its mixing, baking and freezing processes are completely automated, in addition to a large volume of product. Galaxy utilizes a fully integrated MRP system and various QA/QC processes to ensure consistency throughout the entire production process.
Back to the Future
The years have seen trends come and go within the dessert category, but some styles remain classic throughout the decades.
Galaxy Desserts’ growth strategy caters to the crème de la crème — A-list consumers with cosmopolitan tastes and sophisticated palates. However, appealing to a broader range of consumers while maintaining a certain price point is a challenge for the company.
Yet current trends are making that challenge a cakewalk for Galaxy, as American tastes take on a decidedly European flavor.
“We’re fortunate that Americans are becoming more sophisticated,” says Rubenstein. “They’re dining [out] more, traveling more, wearing more sophisticated clothes, … so they’re trading up. Jean-Yves [Charon] continues to create products that are familiar enough so not to be intimidating in any way, but they’re better than what people are used to.”
Galaxy’s latest and greatest — Pineapple Upside Down cakes, mini Chocolate Lava cakes and Mango Mousse cakes — are rolling onto the culinary red carpet, leaving foodie fanatics swooning. The company’s modern takes on retro American classics make its traditional-but-trendy products irresistible.
In Charon’s hands, Pineapple Upside Down cake is redefined with a light French accent. A golden ring of Hawaiian pineapple tops a rustic caramelized cake made with, as Charon likes to say, a touch of Gran Mere’s love. A signature Galaxy product, the Chocolate Lava cake, is newly bite-sized and encases a molten, European chocolate filling in a dense outer cake layer. The company’s velvety Mango Mousse cake offers a taste of the tropics with refreshing, exotic fruit flavors on a light, airy sponge cake.
Galaxy’s chic versions of old favorites gave rise to Rubenstein’s concept of “upscale rustic” to describe the company’s latest additions to its award-winning array of mousse cakes, tarts, cheesecakes and pastries. The desserts are classically French, with fresh California cuisine adding touches of contemporary flair.
“The Pineapple Upside Down cake has been extremely well-received as an answer to the … ‘upscale rustic’ trend,” Rubenstein explains. “Familiar products done very well, desserts that have a handcrafted finish — [they’re] something you might find in your favorite bistro. The bistro format is a hot category in foodservice right now, with growth reportedly running at 30%.”
Galaxy’s products are celebrated as the “Tiffany’s” of the dessert category and are consistently on trend. The Mango Mousse cake channels nouveau spring/summer flavors and addresses the Pan-Asian/Nuevo-Latino trend that’s becoming de rigueur on luxe upscale menus.
“The majority of our products have a handcrafted finish,” adds Rubenstein. “This difference separates us from the truly low-cost producers who offer more machine-made desserts, while making us more competitive than the smaller, more-customized but less-automated competitors.”
In three classically retro moves, Galaxy’s 100 products are 100% natural and certified Kosher, and some are presented au naturel to the customer — without a garnish — allowing them the option to personalize the dessert.
Behind the Scenes
Production at the new Galaxy Desserts facility has been up and running since Feb. 1. The company currently uses 37,000 sq. ft. of its new space, but plans to utilize all 52,000 sq. ft. in the next two years. The USDA-certified facility is nearly three times the size of the company’s original, 18,000-sq.-ft. San Rafael plant, and enthusiasm has grown right along with it.
“We have new truck bays,” says Levitan. “It’s the first time we’ve had those. When our truck drivers saw that we had actual loading docks, they all applauded.”
The company also has had little turnover, another reason to smile.
“We were happy that everyone came along with us in the move,” says Rubenstein. “We didn’t lose one person.”
The facility houses four production lines and three packaging lines, with 10,000 sq. ft. of warehouse space assigned to receiving, which includes limited packaging and shipping functions, a mail-order area and a purchasing office. Adjacent is a refrigerated dock, where last-minute orders are picked and packed.
A 1,000-sq.-ft. cooler stores ingredients — allergens are segregated and kept at a constant 38°F. The company’s main 3,000-sq.-ft. freezer is kept at -3°F and can fit 240 pallets.
The 1,800-sq.-ft. chocolate storage room is kept at 70°F and stores imported Belgian and German chocolate in chip and block forms. Galaxy uses 300,000 lbs. of European chocolate per year.
A unique control/product management room has a 360° view of all production processes.
Bruce Dauer, plant manager/big shot — his official title — says, “This was the best move we could have made. … A USDA-certified food facility lends itself to existing food regulations.”
Galaxy adheres to strict Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) guidelines, and considers sanitation paramount. Hardly any cardboard is allowed in the facility, and plastic-wrapped ingredients are emptied into plastic bins, in accordance with HACCP guidelines. All areas of storage are clearly marked with an ingredient name and date to prevent errors and cross-contamination.
Some Like it Hot
The company has two main production rooms — the Cold Room, for non-ovenable products, and the Hot Room, for baked products. The Ingredient Room sits in between.
The 5,400-sq.-ft. Hot Room has a mold greasing area and a proof box kept at 112°F, for tempered chocolate and butter.
Various products are baked in four revolving rack ovens at 300°F for 10 to 55 minutes. Volume is large: 1,200 4-oz. cheesecakes fit a rack, and 30 trays of 40 cheesecakes are baked daily. Smaller tarts fit at 1,600 per rack. Cooling times vary, and are determined by product type and density. Afterward, product is frozen in a 30-ft. CO2 tunnel freezer for 12 to 16 minutes at -50°F.
New equipment includes two steam-jacketed kettles (150 and 200 gal.), which melt chocolate via rotating agitators, ensuring even ingredient blending and ultimately, a higher quality product.
Be Cool
The 4,000-sq.-ft. Cold Room is equipped with HEPA-filtered positive airflow, ensuring sanitary conditions. Every process occurs in a designated area to prevent cross-contamination. Perishable and non-perishable ingredients are batched into buckets and placed on white pallets. Red pallets hold clean utensils and pre-mixed ingredients used during daily production.
Every product from Galaxy is 100% traceable, starting with the ingredients. Batches are pre-measured, weighed, assigned a batch number and placed in plastic buckets in the Ingredient Room.
There are three production lines in the Cold Room. Fruit tarts and Tiramisu are assembled along the handmade line. Mousse cakes are produced along the second line. Finishing touches are applied to products on the Cold Cart line.
During SF&WB’s visit, Mango Mousse cakes were in production. Ingredients are blended in a mixer for 81 seconds, providing real whipped cream for the cake. The whipped cream is then hand-folded into a real mango puree. It takes 3 to 5 min. for one 120-qt. barrel to be fully blended.
Dauer notes, “Mousse is all about even distribution and waiting to make sure that its ready.”
Before the mousse is deposited, a master mixer performs a taste-test to ensure that the company’s stringent “gold standard” has been met.
“We want the mousse to taste the same at the beginning as in the middle as in the end,” explains Dauer.
Once deposited on sponge cake bases, trays of product pass through a CO2 tunnel freezer.
Forest Berry tarts also were in production, and are made with red and black currants, blueberries and blackberries imported from France. Charon and Levitan favor the lower water content of the berries for thawing purposes.
“They have a better flavor profile,” notes Levitan. “They thaw better than conventional berries and make for gorgeous presentation.”
Tarts are finished with a light sugar glaze, and then pass through a smaller 25-ft. CO2 tunnel freezer. Custards, curds, mousses and tarts freeze faster than ovenable cakes and require a shorter freezer.
Other Cold Room equipment included an oil-jacketed warming and cooking kettle, keeping ingredients at 180°F. A tilting skillet also kept ingredients at a constant temperature in a hot-water bath. A 300-lb. chocolate kettle revealed melted cocoa liqueur wafers, pliable and ready for use.
Once frozen, product goes to one of three packaging lines and is shrink-wrapped and inkjet-coded. Batch-coded thermal labels are applied to each package, making traceability consistent.
Employees are trained to spot-check product at the end of each process, and imperfect products are donated to various local charities.
The Credits
As Galaxy Desserts stands at center stage, anticipating added growth in the future, Rubenstein says it best: “We’re really in a sweet spot. Small companies can’t expand production of specialized products, and big companies don’t customize. We’re in that sweet spot where we can do both. It’s also important to recognize that it’s because of our exceptional team of middle management, supervisors and floor people that we’ve gotten where we are today and are ready to lead the company into it’s next evolution.”
With that in mind, the “Tiffany’s” of the dessert world could soon become the nation’s “Cartier” of the category, and the premier gastronomer’s guide to a galaxy of truly decadent desserts.
At a Glance
Company: Galaxy Desserts
Headquarters: Richmond, Calif.
Brand: Galaxy Desserts, some private label
Products: Gourmet fruit tarts, mousse cakes, cheesecakes, pastries and French-style croissants.
Plant: 52,000-sq.-ft., USDA-certified facility
No. of lines: 4
No. of employees: 100
Key Personnel
Founder, Master Pastry Chef: Jean-Yves Charon
President, CEO: Paul Levitan
Chief Orbiter: Danny Rubenstein
Plant Mgr./Big Shot: Bruce Dauer
Production Mgr., Distribution: Tony Lee
Production Mgr.: Gus Hamou
And the Award Goes to …
Galaxy Desserts boasts a long list of award-winning desserts, some of which have become celebrity favorites. Among its famous fans are Oprah Winfrey, Mick Jagger, Janet Jackson and Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Celeb picks include Galaxy’s Chocolate Lava Cake, Grand Teton Dulce de Leche Mousse Cake, Chocolate Grand Teton Mousse Cake and Triple Mousse Cake.
In addition, some of the company’s desserts have appeared on the big screen, and a food fight using the desserts aired on the reality TV show “Average Joe.”
The National Association of Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) honored the company five times — Galaxy knows how to take the cake! The Chocolate Truffle Marquise won Outstanding Dessert in 2003. Finalists in the same category included Galaxy’s French Butter Croissants (2003), Grand Sequoia Mousse cake (2001), Triple Mousse Cake (2000) and Chocolate Ribbon Mousse cake (1998).
The French-style croissants were featured on a special “Oprah’s Favorite Things” show and list in 2002, along with the company’s Chocolate Lava Cake, which made its debut on the show and list in 2003 — it’s now the company’s No. 1 selling product.
In fact, Galaxy’s stint on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” incited Chocolate Lava Cake hysteria! Call centers were flooded with orders. Extra cargo planes had to be called to the airport to accommodate the influx — a definite high point for the company.
All because Oprah had declared the dessert as tasting “divine.”  Charon notes that she has excellent taste.