WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : On the Rise : Bread, One of the Oldest Comfort Foods, Has Gone From Run-of-the-Mill to the Latest Hot Commodity
Owners of the newly-opened Great Harvest Bread Co. in Brentwood say their moist, honeyed loaves are rolling out the door by the hundreds every day. And small wonder: With business rising at numerous specialty bakeries on the Westside, bread makers have yet to satiate consumer demand for upscale varieties of the staff of life.
“This is the cheapest luxury there is,” said Mark Peel, a partner in the La Brea Bakery, an offshoot of the Campanile Restaurant on La Brea Avenue.
La Brea’s two-year-old commercial bakery provides potato rolls, cherry-chocolate loaves and other exotic creations to supplement the more staid offerings on supermarket shelves.
“Our feeling is that good bread should be like chewing gum, not Cartier watches,” Peel said. “You shouldn’t have to travel to Rodeo Drive to get great bread.”
Bread, like coffee and pasta, has transcended its earlier homely self to become an icon of the good life for a generation educated in food during the restaurant boom of the 1980s.
“Demographic trends are driving some of it. Baby boomers are eating less but eating better,” said Bruce Winner, who tracks food trends as a continuing education specialist in Agriculture and Food Science at the University of California at Davis.
“People aren’t guzzling beer or eating white bread; they’re eating fine breads and drinking fine beer,” he said. “Cocooning, but still interested in that fine dining experience.”
Unlike beer or coffee, bread has been declared officially good for you (as long as you don’t slather your slices with too much butter); grain products make up the biggest category in the government’s food pyramid.
In some cases, specialty breads come at a steep price. La Brea Bakery’s one-pound sour cherry chocolate loaf goes for $8. But surprisingly, perhaps, many of the new, pungent loaves being produced by boutique bakeries are competitively priced with similar products from large-scale commercial bakeries.
Great Harvest’s most expensive product, for example, Cinnamon Raisin Walnut, costs $4.25 for a round kilo loaf, while a pound of Northridge brand Raisin Walnut costs $2.39 at Vons--3 cents more an ounce.
Supermarket white bread is still cheaper, however, at 5 cents an ounce compared to 9 cents for Great Harvest’s Old Fashioned White. “Of course the prices are competitive,” said Tony Di Lembo of Breadworks, another restaurant spinoff with a bakery and retail counter in the Fairfax District. “This is a business, no doubt about it.”
After opening a cafe-style outlet in Santa Monica’s trendy Montana Avenue shopping district six months ago, Breadworks is ready to expand next month by opening another branch on Larchmont Boulevard.
“The bread wave has hit,” said Di Lembo, who recently installed a burglar alarm at the bakery but finds the place does so much all-night baking these days that he rarely needs to activate it.
Even the old-line Pioneer French Baking Co. is thinking of expanding its retail operations, encouraged by the success of its recently-opened bread shop on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica.
“People have experienced how bread is supposed to be eaten and they like it,” said John Garacochea, vice president of the Venice-based company, which closed its Boulangerie open-air restaurant last year but supplies sourdough loaves and other products to restaurants and supermarkets across the country.
“Most of our old competitors have ceased to do business, although we have a lot of new competitors,” he said. “It’s a fun product . . . there’s some romance to it and some history to it, and it tastes good.”
Indeed, customer demand has been so great that the products of specialty bakeries now appear on the bread racks of major supermarkets, especially in Jewish neighborhoods, which have long harbored small bakeries specializing in rye, challah, cookies and cakes.
At least one Fairfax Avenue bakery began selling to Ralphs two decades ago, and others have joined in recently, according to Vi Pulliam, assistant bakery buyer for Ralphs.
“Some of it is kosher and some of it is a little bit more upscale,” she said. “We’re buying a lot of product out of the bakery that way, so we don’t have to charge that much, and the customer gets that product and doesn’t necessarily have to go to the bakery, which is good for them and good for us.”
At Trader Joe’s, which uses La Brea Bakery and Breadworks, among others, to produce house brand loaves for its 63 stores, buyer Richard Baltierra said bread sales have increased 20% over the last two years.
“Right now there are so many interesting breads out . . . olive, dried tomato, rosemary . . . suddenly, the energy of bakeries went trendy,” he said. “Some of the larger baking companies that do make sandwich-type breads aren’t making the new flavored-type breads. These people have a new niche.”
Identifying the niche is one thing, exploiting it is another.
It’s not an easy buck.
In debt? “Up to here,” said Jason McKinley, co-owner with his wife, Gina, of the Great Harvest store in Brentwood, which offers thick sample slices to all who venture inside.
What with the franchise fee, ovens, mixing machines and other costs, setting up their operation cost nearly $200,000, McKinley said.
Then there’s the cost of labor to carry out Great Harvest’s handmade ethic. Customers watch as everyone from owner to trainee joins in the daily routine of weighing, kneading and shaping the bread.
After waiting for a suitable time to rise, the bread is plopped into the oven, a shiny steel affair of long trays that circle around like a Ferris wheel.
In contrast to the bake-by-moonlight, sell-by-daylight schedule of the typical bakery, the product emerges hot all day, and that’s fine with customer Frances Doran of Westwood, who has been coming in once or twice a week since Great Harvest opened its doors two months ago.
“I’m a baker, so I know good bread,” she said. “I’ve made bread at home, but not (like) this.”
Other steady customers include everyone from secretaries to traffic cops to homeless people, but going from a busy storefront to bigger things is a chancy proposition--even despite the recent surge in demand for all kinds of specialty foods, bread included.
The owners of La Brea Bakery, including Campanile co-owner and chef Nancy Silverton, took that chance two years ago, moving most of their production from a cramped side room at Campanile to a warehouse-like facility on West Washington Boulevard.
“We used to run out of bread all the time. Now we don’t,” said Peel, Silverton’s husband, recalling scenes of customers screaming for bread after Campanile opened for business five years ago.
While business at the restaurant weakened along with the rest of the Southern California economy, he said, the bakery “never noticed the recession.”
Its product, derived from wild yeasts that Silverton harvested from organic grapes on a ranch in San Diego County, is baked in oil-powered ovens imported from Hamburg, Germany, and delivered in a fleet of trucks to places as distant as Orange County and Thousand Oaks.
Given the complexity of bread-making, experts often do not see eye to eye on some of the finer points.
At Great Harvest, co-owner Jason McKinley says, “We strongly believe wheat loses all its flavor within 72 hours of being ground.” But the La Brea Bakery favors a grind that has been aged two to four weeks.
Is fresh-milled flour better? One man who ought to know isn’t saying.
“There are different theories on this,” said Doug Levi of the Capitol Milling Co., which supplies flour to most of the commercial bakeries in Los Angeles from its historic mill north of downtown. “It depends on the bakery and how they’re set up.”
Such nuances have only created more cachet for a product that appears to have successfully made the transition from cutting edge restaurants to retail storefronts.
“Most of the food fashions get started on the restaurant level and then move into the straight retail sector,” said Shermain Hardesty, who teaches an extension course on getting started in the specialty food business at UC Davis. “We’ve gone to comfort foods, and bread is certainly one of those.”