Bringing Artisan Bread from Niche to Mainstream

Bringing artisan bread out of the niche market and into the mainstream remains a key goal for acclaimed bread baker Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Speaking May 23 at the International Bread Symposium at Johnson & Wales University’s campus in Charlotte, North Carolina, Robertson shared details of plans to open a second Tartine Manufactory in Los Angeles.

“For me, Los Angeles is an opportunity to collaborate with other bakers and chefs to really do something special,” Robertson said.

The key discussion point, here, is “scaling craft, without compromise,” he added, meaning they will never sacrifice quality of ingredients.

“This is the future of bread,” said Peter Reinhart, an award-winning author, baker and member of the Johnson & Wales faculty, who moderated the event and invited an impressive list of speakers with vast knowledge on bread.

The first-ever Tartine Manufactory opened last year in San Francisco, offering breads, pastries, breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. Open to the public, the 5,000-square-foot location serves everything from savory breakfast pastries to flatbread sandwiches and gourmet dinners. There are cakes, cookies and puddings, as well as ice cream.

In Los Angeles, Robertson is working with celebrated pizza master and restaurateur Chris Bianco. The new Tartine Manufactory will feature artisan bread baking, on-site grain milling, on-site coffee roastery, freshly made pastas, unique restaurants including pizza, and a marketplace.

“If you have a bread-eating culture like in Germany, you have bread with every meal,” Robertson said. “They’ve figured it out.”

Also speaking at the event was Tom Gumpel, director of bread innovation for Panera Bread, a chain of 2,100 bakery cafes.

“Craft at scale. That’s what we talk about at Panera,” Gumpel said. “We have 6,000 bakers working for us. You really have to own it. We make incredible bread in the lab, and we’re trying to give it the light of day in our cafes. The first step is deciding what the goal is and going through a path of innovation.”

The International Bread Symposium program, titled “On The Rise: The Future of Bread,” featured two days of discussion, touching on current industry and consumer trends, advances in technology and technique, and the socioeconomic and cultural factors that are shaping the business of bread. The program was sponsored by Puratos.

The Tartine Experience

For Tartine Bakery, founded in 2002 by Robertson and his wife, Elisabeth Prueitt, an award-winning pastry chef, the progression from neighborhood retail bakery to craft bread at scale began several years ago as Robertson experimented with new techniques, always pushing the envelope to bring bread to the forefront.

At one point early in his career, Robertson attended culinary school because he wanted to be a chef. Yet a field trip to Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Housatonic, Massachusetts, located in the heart of the Berkshires, changed his course forever.

“We could smell the sourdough as soon as we walked into this big brick barn, and it hit me,” Robertson said. “I just decided this is what I need to do.”

He likens this path to being a chef in a broader sense, using bread in every possible way for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“We’re trying to push everything forward,” he added. “I’m super excited to be working with Chris Bianco and other chefs in Los Angeles. We make an egg sandwich. So we ask, how do we make a better bun? At lunch, we serve focaccia, and we are adding diverse grains — some without gluten. We are milling grains fresh for our pasta, and fermenting our own pasta. The biggest idea from this is to build an environment, invite chefs and bring in the best foods possible to people all day long.”

In the early days at Tartine Bakery, he learned the importance of baking every hour, changing the traditional schedule of baking bread very early in the morning and then presenting everything at one time to the public. Instead, Tartine would serve fresh croissants (and other breads) right out of the oven from the minute the bakery opened until closing time, baking batch after batch, and keeping customers happy to know they could enjoy Tartine’s fresh bread throughout the day.

As business grew, Robertson craved a deeper understanding of bread and what it meant. He sought out ancient wheat varieties like einkorn and began testing batch after batch of various wheat varieties, in addition to experimenting with high-hydration doughs. He learned “the biggest factor” in the flavor of bread is what you develop in the process of fermentation.

“I’m really excited to try new flavors,” he said. “We are always trying to make what we do better. Tartine’s Country 2.0 is coming out next week. We believe in naturally leavened, fresh milled breads. My favorite grain being source now is einkorn being grown in North Dakota.”

Craft bread bakers across the country have, in recent years, turned to milling their own flour at store level in a quest to bring more flavor to a wide variety of breads.

This process can bring on a new set of challenges, in that consistency can be harder to deliver, but bakers who believe in the movement are working out the day-to-day issues.

“I want to get back to using lots of fresh milled stuff. There’s no other way to get that flavor,” Robertson said. “But I have learned that for me to mill everything myself is too much. So why not work with fresh millers nearby?” He’s also learned from experience that it is not that type of mill (roller, stone) that matters as much as other factors to the quality of flour. “The milling question is way more complicated than what kind of mill you are using.”

There are many ways to utilize different grains, including pastries, pizza and pasta. He explains that it is relatively easy to mill 5 kilograms of grain to go straight into the extruder to make fresh pasta – a process that he says produces pasta that is more digestible.

“When I started Tartine Bakery, it was white flour and wheat flour,” he said. “I want to explore and bring back more grains.”

Looking forward, Robertson sees the Tartine Manufactory as a forum to present bread in every possible way to the public. Bread for breakfast. Bread for lunch. Bread for dinner.

“Everybody loves the little bakery out in the countryside, but then you scale and you might lose what you had,” he says. “One of the common reactions I get is that you can’t do it. But for me, the common sense solution is you do both.”

This means there will be a line of super artisanal breads, as well as high-end breads for the supermarket or other channels. “People, as a society, are always making choices,” Robertson said. By going to scale, an artisan loaf of bread “might cost $4 instead of $8. What if we can scale, and make the product even better?”

The Panera Experience

For Panera Bread, the challenge that Tartine faces as it scale up production into the Manufactory environment is somewhat similar to what the 2,100-unit chain has experienced from its beginnings in 1981. People may forget that Gumpel was captain of the 1999 Bread Bakers Guild Team USA that won the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie (World Cup of Baking) in Paris.

So he is well-versed in the art of great bread and innovation. Gumpel points out that the stakes are higher today to keep pace with the competition.

“We spend our life discovering innovation,” Gumpel said of his job at Panera. “Our competition is whoever has lunch options within 2 miles of your location, and often they are craft players.”

For this reason, Panera has paved the way for the bakery café sector to soar to new heights.

“My friend Danny Coudreaut (executive chef) at McDonald’s says you can have a thousand ideas and maybe one gets to the store,” Gumpel said. “The first step is determine what job you need to do and confirm who you are doing it for. Determine what matters to success and develop a multi-development vision of solutions.”