March 9, 2015
In July 1990, Marvelous Market opened and was a nearly instant success. Just nine months later Uptown Bakers opened in Cleveland Park and not too long after that Baker’s Place joined us and began to open stores very quickly. Then Marvelous Market’s first baker left and opened Firehook in Alexandria.
For a moment it appeared that Washington might become a city of neighborhood bakeries and I was really happy about that prospect. But during the next decade expansion gave way to contraction and neighborhood bakeries faded.
Uptown Bakers turned to the wholesale distribution business and Firehook’s founder left his bakery. Baker’s Place was bought by Marvelous Market and by 2005, just a decade later, Marvelous Market had sold off its bakery and neighborhood bakeries had disappeared. Then Marvelous Market itself disappeared.
I was partially responsible for the failure of my own vision. I expanded Marvelous Market far too soon and lost it; and it was taken over by someone who didn’t understand its virtues. But among the reasons small bakeries failed was that major potential wholesale customers, markets and stores, didn’t buy breads from the new bakeries.
Small bakeries must sell their breads to restaurants and stores. Their economics compel it in this city. It shouldn’t be that way. I have written here about small neighborhood bakeries in, say, Paris, that offer breads, desserts, and a sandwich or two and from 7 am until 7 pm have a line in front of their doors.
But that’s France where bread has always been a major source of cheap nutrition. In every American city other than New York and San Francisco, small bakeries have a hard time.
In the U.S. bakery sales are constrained by the absence of a bread tradition, by the easy access to other inexpensive (although not necessarily healthful) foods, by the reputation of grain-based foods as fattening foods, and by the currently fashionable aversion to gluten.
Bakery sales are most of all constrained by the way we buy food for our homes – nearly always in supermarkets.
Washington used to have strong independent food stores but they have mostly died away. People now like one-stop shopping and are reluctant to make special trips to a bakery just to buy a loaf of bread or a brownie. Instead they make the perfectly rational decision to buy breads and pastries where they are shopping for other foods even if they believe those baked goods are not quite as good as those they could buy in independent bakeries.
In 1996 I was traveling monthly to Napa Valley to teach bread baking and I visited the first San Francisco Whole Foods as it opened. I stood in the bakery section looking enviously at the displays of local bakeries – Acme, Semifreddi, and Metropolis Bakeries all of whose breads were available for sale at Whole Foods to the sophisticated bread-eaters of San Francisco.
I was about to open The BreadLine when Whole Foods bought the 22 stores of Fresh Fields and I thought that, as committed to quality as it was, Whole Foods would do what hadn’t been done by the other supermarkets of Washington: I thought it would buy bread from the small bakeries.
But it didn’t. Instead, having inherited in-store bakeries, it continued producing its own bread in each store and didn’t buy the breads of others. And I believed that strategy capped the development of small bakeries here. I have remained always critical of that corporate decision.
I was wholly unprepared, therefore, when Whole Foods wrote to me a month ago to ask if we would like it to begin selling some of our whole grain breads. And it is astonishing to me that we are going to begin doing that – on Thursday at the P Street store.
This means is a greater stability for Bread Furst. But more important it means that more customers will have easier access to the kinds of breads they might like or learn to like: Organic whole grain breads.
If customers do like our breads I hope we’ll begin selling them at other Whole Foods stores. And if that happens we will pretty quickly run out of production capacity. And if that happen other bakers and would-be bakers may see the unfilled opportunity and perhaps a few of them will open other small bakeries in other neighborhoods of Washington from which they too can sell to Whole Foods.
What a contribution to the city that would be!