Bread On the Table
June 8, 2015
Some people in the food business (although not nearly enough) read The Art of Eating, an erudite quarterly periodical available also at very few newsstands. It carries stories on bay leaves and on pork in Southwest France, about bread, about butter, articles that go deeply into food. It has about 10,000 subscribers and is produced by Edward Baer, a Washingtonian who has spent most of his life in Vermont.
In a recent issue Baer bemoaned the gradual disappearance of bread in restaurants. Although I think he is being somewhat apocalyptic, it is certainly true that many restaurants now do not serve bread.
Imagine it! Practically as long as there have been restaurants, bread has been served virtually as soon as guests sit down. Although it is still the practice in lots of restaurants it is now far from universal.
The first question you are asked when you go to a restaurant nowadays is, “Will you have sparkling, still or tap water.” In other words, would you like to buy our (disproportionately priced) bottled water or settle for the free water that comes to us in very old pipes from the District of Columbia?
I confess to you that the offer of water – whether sparkling, still or tap – is a hospitality practice I simply don’t understand as I am not a great enthusiast of water as a beverage. (My grandmother used to say, “Water is for bathing.”) But even putting aside my peculiar view, why do restaurants think that offering to give or sell water is a generous way to greet their customers?
I think being offered bread is a real gesture of hospitality. Bread, after all, is the most traditional, even sacred of foods and offering it is a way of saying “I am offering your something of great value. Welcome to my home.”
Some restaurants, respecting this tradition, try to make their own bread. But many learn that they don’t do that very well. They don’t have the skill or the equipment, particularly the oven to do it. Others conclude that making bread requires too much labor and is too costly. Some decide to charge for bread and others try to do without.
Other restaurateurs argue that too many people complain about gluten sensitivity and don’t want to be offered bread. Why should we bother having something that offends customers upon their arrival?
Then there are those who think bread doesn’t belong in their restaurants because their concepts are small plates or…molecular food…or something else.
Most good restaurants do still serve bread and treat it as a cost they must absorb. Sometimes it’s a very significant cost. A busy restaurant can spend $ 200 a day or more to buy bread from bakeries.
Bread Furst is the beneficiary of some of that restaurant generosity to its customers but we sell bread to just a few restaurants. Even though it’s only a few, I am once again violating a commitment I made to myself – to make this bakery strictly retail and to avoid the wholesale business altogether.
When I became a baker in 1990 I didn’t know enough about the bakery business even to think of baking for the wholesale trade. I wanted Marvelous Market to be a neighborhood bakery. But when it became such a success so quickly, the world came to our doors – at least it seemed that way. The parade was led by Jean Louis Palladin.
I received a telephone call one day and the voice on the other end of the line, raspy and heavily accented, said, “Ziss ees Jean Louis Palladin. My vfife bought your baguette and I wont your bread for my restaurant.”
This was call for which in every respect I was entirely unprepared and I thought it was the joke of a friend pretending to speak English with a French accent, but one so thick it wasn’t believable. But it was in fact M. Palladin who had the unbelievable accent and that is how my wholesale career began.
Bread wholesale grew at Marvelous Market and in 1993 I built a big bakery to accommodate it. (A mistake of hubris that dunked my career after only four years.)
At The BreadLine I did not repeat the mistake of expansion but once again I did build a wholesale business. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
Bread-making equipment is expensive. A mixer like ours costs $12,000 and altogether a bakery of our size requires an investment of $150,000 just in equipment. Once having bought it all, one is tempted to use it as much as possible to justify expenditures of that magnitude.
So at The BreadLine wholesale bread to restaurants and stores grew to be a third of the revenues.
But making bread and selling it to restaurants and stores is a business quite different from what we do at Bread Furst. Baking bread for wholesale requires a delivery establishment including vehicles, drivers, packers, and additional insurance. It means that breads must be baked in time for their delivery early in the morning. Inevitably some breads don’t proof quickly enough, and rushing to meet delivery deadlines, the bakers bake too too soon. Those breads are then packed hot and lying atop one another are crushed on the truck and arrive at the customers’ doors smelling of hot, wet bag.
And then for certain some restaurant customers pay slowly and some not at all. So there’s a lot more bookkeeping and accounting. And the boss (me) spends his time on the telephone trying to get payment commitments from customers who bob and duck and make excuses. So gradually making breads and foods becomes less a priority than making collections.
But Bread Furst a neighborhood bakery. Making breads and pastries for our customers is what we do. So although because restaurants call it’s tempting once again to build a wholesale business. But we’re really not doing that.
I intended Bread Furst not to sell breads at wholesale.
But even before we opened, even before we began to practice baking, Fabio Trabocchi, owner of Fiola, began to send regular text messages to my telephone: “When will you sell bread to me?”
He sent texts to me two or three times a week.
Ed Sands, the owner of Calvert Woodley Wines and Spirits walked up the street to us with his son to tell us he wanted our breads.
Calvert Woodley? It’s 350 yards away from us. All we had to do was walk a couple of bags of bread down the street. And having our breads in a neighborhood institution like Calvert Wodley fit my notions about being a service to the neighborhood.
When we opened a year ago Fabio paid a visit to insist we send our breads to him. But we couldn’t because we had no driver. So for a month or two so Fabio sent someone everyday in his black town car to pick up our breads.
Then in August I went to the anniversary party of The French Laundry where Thomas Keller had in effect rented the town of Yountville, California for an evening, setting up Washington Street with little stalls that served oysters and caviar and foie gras and practically every other food you can think of to hundreds of his friends.
One of them, Daniel Boulud, walked over to me, kissed me on both cheeks and said, “We open next month in Washington. Who is going to make bread for DBGB?”
It’s hard to resist such flattery. Then when Whole Foods asked that we make four of our whole grain breads for its stores, I saw the opportunity to reach far more people with well-made whole grains and I couldn’t resist that either.
But I don’t want our character to change. We used to start our bake at 4 am and now we start at 10 PM. I don’t think we are compromising our quality as we focus first, as we did before, on the dark breads, the ones that benefit from a little aging and then we turn to the large Palladin loaves for the restaurants.
But others are asking for our breads and I have begun to say no. We won’t sell baguettes to any restaurant as baguettes are meant to be fresh and although we now have a part-time driver who spends a couple of hours with his own vehicle, we don’t have a delivery establishment.
But still I have made the compromise I said I wouldn’t make.