Loaf Fidelity: Bread Line struggles to stay true to its origins.
Loaf Fidelity: Bread Line struggles to stay true to its origins. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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One of the first things people will tell you when you move to D.C. is that the District lacks a single decent bakery. These helpful souls will no doubt be transplants, too, likely from New York or Los Angeles or (God forbid) Paris, places where great loaves are more common than concrete. They will bitch about the mediocre bread at the city’s two signature bakeries, Firehook and Marvelous Market. They will have never heard of Mark Furstenberg.

Furstenberg almost single-handedly injected European sophistication into our lousy bread culture. He studied breadmaking at Nancy Silverton’s beloved La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles and traveled to Paris to learn from the masters at the famed bakeries Le Moulin de la Vierge and L’Autre Boulange. Granted, he did some of this training after he had already opened Marvelous Market in 1990, when he realized he didn’t know jack about being a full-time breadmaker. But, hey, Furstenberg will be the first to tell you he’s not the best businessman around.

Exhibit No. 1, Furstenberg will argue, was his decision to start selling loaves wholesale at Bread Line, the downtown restaurant that he opened in 1997. He had pretty much perfected his craft by that point; his business acumen, however, was still seriously in question. Furstenberg says he was nudged into the wholesale business by one of his investors, Bob Kinkead, whose cash came with a stipulation: that Furstenberg make bread for the chef’s downtown restaurant.

Others soon followed. Vidalia and Bistro Bis chef “Jeffrey Buben asked if I’d make some bread for him, and I couldn’t say no,” Furstenberg explains from the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in California, where he has helped build the school’s bread-baking program. Then Michel Richard approached Furstenburg with a similar request for Citronelle. No way was the bread-maker going to tell Richard to stick it.

Before he knew it, Furstenberg was selling bread to restaurants all around the area. He had a small army of bakers and two trucks that made twice-daily deliveries. “I charged very high prices as a way of discouraging people” from buying bread, he recalls. Wholesale was never part of his business plan, even though it was eventually responsible for a third of Bread Line’s revenue.

That revenue came at a high cost. Bread Line’s wholesale business was never profitable, Furstenberg says, because there were never enough customers to cover expenses. So why did Furstenberg keep the wholesale operation going for so many years before finally selling Bread Line to Groupe Le Duff (which also owns La Madeleine) in 2005? His answer is rather Zen: because a breadmaker makes bread. “To have this kind of restaurant without doing bread and being determined to do really good bread, it was unthinkable,” Furstenberg says. “Bread is so central to my work life and my career and my self-image.”

Adds the philosophical baker: “I never thought about doing the kind of analysis that Bill has done…to see if it made economic sense…Bill’s a businessman, and a good one. I’m not a businessman. I never made the Bread Line very profitable. I’m saying that regretfully.”

“Bill” is Bill Hixon, the current co-owner and general manager of Bread Line. He’s not the devil of this story. He’s just the bearer of bad news: Wholesale is no more at Bread Line. Wholesale, in fact, has been history at the downtown bakery since August. As you might imagine, it was an economic decision, one made easier with the rising costs of both flour and gas.

If Hixon had his druthers he would have killed off the wholesale side from the moment Groupe Le Duff bought the business, but no one else with the company agreed with that idea. To the GM, the overhead was just too high. Not only did it demand 10 more bakers, but also required vehicle maintenance, insurance, and overseeing drivers. Then there were the tickets. “Parking tickets in D.C. are killers,” Hixon says. Bread Line is now lean and mean, down to two bakers, including Furstenberg’s original, Miguel Torres, who’s still following the same recipes.

“Everything is exactly the same as when Mark Furstenberg left,” Hixon says. “I think it’s actually gotten better.”

Bread Line’s quick decision to focus exclusively on its sandwich shop, however, left a number of customers in the lurch. Every morning for more than a week, Massimo Fabbri, the executive chef at Ristorante Tosca, had to send a runner to Bread Line to buy his loaves before finally securing a new supplier, Panorama Baking Co. in Alexandria. Eric Ziebold, the James Beard Award–winning chef at CityZen, didn’t even get the word about Bread Line until five days before the bakery was set to pull the plug on wholesale. He, too, has turned to Panorama—at least until he gets his own breadmaking operation up to speed.

Part of the reason these chefs are buying from Panaroma is the same reason they first bought from Furstenberg: personalized service. “Mark was still incredibly hands-on with what was going on at Bread Line when he was there,” Ziebold says. Since Furstenberg sold the business, however, Ziebold says he’s “had probably six different managers I’ve had to talk to in the past three years.…You’re not able to get that micromanaged product now like you could when Mark was at Bread Line.”

The change of culture has been visible to the deans of fine dining for some time now. Richard, for example, switched to Panorama before Bread Line’s wholesale operation shut. Richard likes the individual attention he receives from Loic Feillet, the owner and baker at Panorama. “Michel found that he could work designing bread with Loic, the way he used to work with Mark Furstenberg,” notes Mel Davis, PR coordinator for Citronelle via e-mail. “Loic was passionate about making a great product, and he was really trying hard to supply our needs.”

The unspoken sentiment here for people prone to reading between the lines—guilty as charged!—is that Bread Line’s product has also diminished since the departure of the man who made the bakery famous. Now, I haven’t personally bought enough loaves from Bread Line to make much of a qualitative judgment, though I will say that the ciabatta I purchased last week was chewy, airy, and almost flavorless. So I asked a couple of chefs for their opinions.

“I never bought from them,” writes former Hook toque Barton Seaver via e-mail. “Never loved their product either, but I feel as though by the time I was courting bakeries that BL had already dropped in quality.” Adds Ziebold: “I would put a baguette from Mark up against any baguette in the country.…Unfortunately, I can’t say that with Bread Line today.” And finally this from Kinkead, who stopped buying from Bread Line about a year before its wholesale withdrawal: “The quality wasn’t quite up to snuff as when Mark was running it.”

All of this makes Furstenberg a little melancholy. Marvelous Market now contracts with a baker for its breads, and Bread Line has cut back on its loaf production by 75 percent. It’s as if Furstenberg is watching his once-formidable bread empire crumble, one crumb at a time. “It’s very sad for me,” he says, “that the two bakeries I established in the city…are not going to be doing much bread.”

Bread Line, 1751 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202-822-8900)

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