A new standard
To be truly distinctive in today’s marketplace, the retail baker must grasp a deeper understanding of uniqueness and what sets their operation apart from others in this increasingly competitive business environment.
For Standard Baking Co., the pride and joy of Portland, Maine, for the past two decades, staying ahead of the crowd means everything from incorporating local grains in their popular breads to avoiding the urge to spread themselves too thin in search of wholesale customers.
This successful New England bakery provides a pertinent example of this wise approach through its ongoing strategy toward wholesaling. One van. One eight-hour driving shift per day. Standard Baking keeps wholesaling as simple as that. “Having our bread come out of the oven the same day it is served is huge,” says Alison Pray, who founded Standard Baking in 1995 with her husband, Matt James. “That is always the way we operated.”
A key ingredient to the phenomenal popularity of Standard Baking has been careful attention to detail and a controlled growth philosophy that Pray and James have managed through the years. When they opened their first location on Wharf Street in Portland, wholesale accounted for 65 percent of total sales. “Now it’s flipped,” James says. And he believes it will stay that way.
Fifteen years ago, Standard Baking moved into its current home, on Commercial Street, overlooking Casco Bay. It’s a picturesque location, where tourists and locals congregate to enjoy food and fun, and the bakery is a destination for many.
Hand-crafted and baked throughout the day in a 12-ton, stone deck oven, breads include traditional French baguettes, hearty German Vollkornbrot, fragrant focaccia and all-organic miche (made from 100 percent Maine-grown and milled whole grains). Hand-rolled croissants, pain au chocolat, brioche and scones are prepared in plain view in the open production bakery and often served warm from the ovens.
“We always wanted to have a strong retail space,” James says. “We wanted to serve the neighborhood. Portland is a great walking town, and it is also a commuter city.”
Portland is larger than it appears at first glance. According to Census Bureau figures, the Portland metro area grew by 3,189 people last year – from 520,363 people on July 1, 2013, to 523,552 on July 1, 2014. Among the 14 New England metro areas, only Boston posted a bigger percentage increase.
What is notable about Standard Baking’s wholesale strategy is that, even though Boston is just two hours to the south, James and Pray choose to serve wholesale customers exclusively to the north. Brunswick, Maine, located about 30 miles north of Portland, is the farthest destination where they deliver. “That model is good for us because of the density of population around us,” Pray says.
Breads continue to be their primary product for wholesale accounts. The bakery serves many breads and pastries for retail.
After moving into its current location in 1999, Standard Baking saw its business triple over the next decade. The owners are pleasantly surprised by the current size of the business because “really from the beginning, we have been trying to control growth,” Pray says. “A lot of hiring and training has to happen while you are maintaining production. We also knew if we took on took much wholesale, we wouldn’t be able to continue to serve customers the way we wanted.”
Most recently, Standard Baking has committed to local grains in a big way. The bakery sources grains from Somerset Grist Mill in Skowhegan, Maine. President Amber Lambke oversees an innovative operation that provides space for local farmers, entrepreneurs and community members to assemble and operate a variety of programs and businesses.
The Somerset Grist Mill is nationally recognized as one of the country's emerging rural food hubs. By reusing an old county jail building and reviving local organic grain production, the business is creating opportunities and encouraging a healthier and more vibrant community.
Housed at the mill, Maine Grains manufactures locally grown, stone-milled grains. New England has a rich history of producing grains such as oats, rye, wheat, corn and buckwheat, and Maine Grains is reviving this tradition to ensure that local grains are available and affordable. Through use of a unique traditional stone milling process, Maine Grains preserves the nutritional content of the grain. Slow-turning mill stones keep the flour cool, which improves performance in natural fermentation baking and provides a variety of hearty flavors.
Standard Baking uses unbleached wheat flour and certified 100% organic wheat flour. All whole grains and whole grain flours are certified 100% organic and sourced from farms in Maine and Quebec when available. The bakery’s naturally leavened breads are made with its own organic starters.
One of its breads, hominy bread, is made with local Abenaki corn, which is processed to bring the flavor out through a procedure called nixtamalization. This involves cooking and steeping the dried corn kernels until tender. At Standard Baking, the hominy is pureed with local maple syrup prior to adding to the bread dough.
Standard Baking toasts grains and various nuts prior to adding to other bread doughs, providing many distinctive flavors.
“We are always trying source heritage varieties of grain from Maine and Vermont,” says Pray, who was nominated for Outstanding Baker in the United States this year by the James Beard Foundation. “We are sourcing varieties that have distinct flavor properties and can be grown locally. Buckwheat, corn, rye and wheat. Farmers love these grains. It’s what excites us. That’s the biggest thing we are doing now.”
She continues to say that customers want to know: Is their bread local? Is it organic? “People are coming here to Portland specifically to enjoy the food, and good food. They will make our bakery a destination if we intrigue them.”