There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
District supermarkets have created a fresh hell for local bread lovers: Buy their cheap artisan knockoffs or fork over big dough for the real stuff.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
In a few weeks, Firehook Bakery and Coffeehouse will open a new store at 215 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Capitol Hill residents will no doubt inundate the stylish outlet: In a survey last year, they named Firehook, an Alexandria-based chain, as the business they most wanted to come to their neighborhood. Now, anyone hungry for good bread will have his pick of Firehook, Bread & Chocolate, and the Fine Sweete Shoppe inside Eastern Market.
The Capitol Hill store will be Firehook’s sixth in the metro area, the first in the eastern half of the District. Since 1992, Firehooks have spread out into such upscale neighborhoods as Dupont Circle and Georgetown, with competitors such as Marvelous Market and the Corner Bakery Cafe just around the corner. Wholesale bakeries Uptown Bakers, Lyon Bakery, and Bonaparte Breads have also kneaded their way into trendy restaurants, farmer’s markets, and small grocery stores.
The creep of high-priced bread outlets has mirrored the segmentation of other specialty foods, such as beer and coffee. Yet things haven’t quite turned out as Firehook founder Gene Gathright predicted in the Washington Post in 1992: “I’m sure it’ll be just like France or Italy eventually, with a bread store on every corner. And then the prices will come down, and some will make it and some won’t.”
Gathright’s vision notwithstanding, the local breadscape evokes Europe only in the cheesy French and Italian flags emblazoned on the packaging of bad bread. There’s not a bread store on every corner, and prices have not come down.
The District, instead, has remained a boutique-bread town. In Dupont Circle, for example, you have your pick of a $4.50 pumpkin loaf from Firehook or a $4.50 “Farmhouse” wheat loaf from Marvelous Market. At Georgetown’s Dean & Deluca, you can get a $6 quarter-loaf imported from the Poilane Bakery in Paris, a staple of the Europoseur. You can actually buy reasonably priced fresh bread at Sutton Place Gourmet, provided you can get a lift to tony Foxhall Square. At any of the three Fresh Fields in town, you can buy a loaf of farm bread for $3.49. If you work on K Street, you can go home on the Metro with a $3.35 Country Sourdough boule from the Corner Bakery.
The rest of the city helps itself to the standard packaged butter-top loaves, plus the cracked-nut, crushed-nut, and healthy-nut varieties that go for around $2 at Safeway. The Safeway outlets that have been suped up with in-store bakeries—eight of the 16 in D.C.—offer a ciabatta made from scratch on sale for 99 cents and a “Como” loaf shipped in frozen from California and “baked off” at the store for $2.99. Both of these offerings taste only slightly better than what mass production can provide.
You won’t do much better at one of the four Giants in town, where your choices boil down to Thomas’ English muffins, a loaf of Home Pride, or a $1.49 round of cracked-wheat sourdough that’s sour enough to make you wince and feels as if it were made by Nerf.
And therein lies the nub of the lament. Good bread has arrived in Washington, but not in the wire baskets of your neighborhood bakery or on the back of a Safeway truck. In D.C.’s high-end bakeries, you pick out your wheatberry bread from amongst artfully arranged loaves, stacked high on a shelf, steps away from $6.99 jars of French preserves and $14 bottles of olive oil.
In certain places, such as Marvelous Market, the pretentious presentation comes with overwritten self-justifications: “Over the last 3 years, we’ve tried 14 different flours, and countless various gradations of water filtration and as many slight subtle variations in time, temperature, and touch. A little science, but a whole lot of intuition.”
There’s something perverse about presenting bread not as a staple, but as a delicacy, like California fig balsamic vinegar or imported Taleggio. Bread is among the simplest of foods. It’s something you tuck under your armpit on the way home and tear up with your hands when hunger strikes—not slice up with the finest Henckels cutlery.
“People here treat bread like a luxury,” complains Gonzalo Sid, a federal government worker and Mount Pleasant resident who grew up in Chile. “In Santiago, which is a city of 6 million, every neighborhood in the city has a bakery. People shop in supermarkets there, too, but you can buy the same kind of bread there that you can get at the bakeries. Good bread here is seen as unreachable, for certain sophisticated people. For me, bread is a need. I have to have it—it’s like a right.”
The gastronomic elevation of bread in local boutiques, though, can’t be blamed on the entrepreneurs who open them, much less on the moneyed folk who keep them afloat. Instead, the culprits in Washington’s betrayal of Old World culinary values are Safeway, Giant, and Whole Foods, the owner of Fresh Fields—
market-makers that have closed their aisles to fine locally produced breads while failing to proffer comparable alternatives.
Mark Furstenberg gets most of the credit for starting the so-called bread awakening in D.C. 12 years ago. When he started out, he wasn’t even a baker. He had worked briefly as a writer at the Washington Post. Before that, he was running a copper-tubing factory in Reading, Pa.
In 1989, Furstenberg went west to scout out the food scene for potential business ideas. He ended up in Los Angeles at La Brea Bakery, which had been launched a year earlier by pastry chef Nancy Silverton. He wasn’t sold on the idea of opening a bakery until he returned to D.C. and read the responses to a questionnaire he had handed out to residents of Chevy Chase and the upper reaches of Connecticut Avenue just before he left. Respondents’ top request was for good fresh bread.
Furstenberg flew back to Los Angeles to study Silverton’s techniques. He came home with three jars of Silverton’s starter—a paste of water, flour, and fermented grapes that when added to dough causes it to ferment and rise. An all-natural, yeast starter can be one of the main differences between Wonder Bread and European-style handmade bread. The average packaged supermarket loaf also contains conditioners, which give the dough the consistency to withstand machine shapers. With many European-style breads, kneading, proofing, shaping, and baking can take about 20 hours.
After a few months of experimentation, Furstenberg began selling newfangled Old World loaves in July 1990 at Marvelous Market, to the fresh-bread-deprived denizens of upper Northwest.
“Now Washington has world-class bread,” declared Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richman, who was up front about being friends with Furstenberg, in her column two months later. The Washingtonian later dubbed Marvelous Market “the area’s first traditional European bakery” and Furstenberg “the father of serious bread in Washington.”
Feeding on equal parts bread and hype, customers overran Marvelous Market. At one point, Furstenberg had to limit people to two loaves apiece. One way Furstenberg thought he could meet demand was by selling his bread at the two major supermarkets.
“What I expected would happen is what happened in other cities with sophisticated populations like New York and San Francisco: Sutton Place would buy our bread, and the supermarkets would buy our bread,” says Furstenberg.
The baker’s expectations stemmed from common practice in other regions. In the Bay area, for example, Safeway, Albertson’s, and Whole Foods stores carry artisan breads made by wholesale bakeries such as Grace Baking Co. and Acme Bread Co. In Los Angeles, Ralph’s and Safeway-owned Vons supermarkets sell La Brea Bakery fresh-baked breads. In Seattle, Safeway and Whole Foods stores carry Essential Baking Co. breads. In New York City, D’Agostino’s and the Fairway supermarkets carry Tribeca Oven breads.
But Safeway operates along medieval lines, with regional directors making business decisions for their own fiefs. Safeway suits around D.C., as it turns out, weren’t interested in carrying much beyond token baskets of La Parisienne baguettes and rolls. Giant, likewise, stomped on the idea. “We couldn’t even get a meeting with anyone who was a decision maker at Safeway or Giant,” Furstenberg recalls.
Sutton Place executives completed the hat trick. They offered to buy Marvelous Market, but not its bread, says Furstenberg. Sutton Place already baked its own breads at a commissary in Rockville. The executives had no desire to compete for customers on their own turf.
The excuses of the big grocers were even harder to stomach. “We decided not to carry breads from other bakeries, most likely, because our artisan breads make us unique,” says eastern-division Safeway spokesperson Greg TenEyck. “It’s an advantage for Safeway if it’s the only place you can get that bread. It takes advantage of our efficiencies.”
Local Safeways have had their own central bakery since the ’40s, when the company opened a plant on Eckington Place in D.C. In 1968, baking moved to a huge new distribution center and processing plant in Landover, Md. While the Marvelous bread mania was taking hold in Washington, Safeway in 1992 converted its Landover baking operation, which until then had produced mostly frozen dough, to one that could make baked goods from scratch. Safeway just couldn’t afford to miss out on the bread craze. In recent years, in-store bakeries have become huge draws for supermarkets nationwide, generating as much as 10 percent of a store’s profits, according to Progressive Grocer, a supermarket trade publication.
“Wherever we can put [bakeries] in, we put them in,” says TenEyck. “Wherever we have space enough, we will [put them in]. It’s more of a trend. It’s something Safeway has been committed to.”
Safeway’s bread experiments, however, have proved only the obvious—that a national corporation with $32 billion in annual sales has no business messing with fresh bread. The chewy monument to this failure is the Safeway Select brand of artisan breads, which debuted about three years ago.
Safeway bakers make the artisan-labeled breads from scratch each day. The breads are available at the eight D.C. stores that have in-store bakeries, as well as a couple of others. At 99 cents for a ciabatta on sale, the price is indeed appetizing. Made with a very wet dough, classic ciabatta is supposed to be porous inside, and a piece ripped from its interior should melt in your mouth. The crust should be thicker than an eggshell and crunchy, but not so hard as to remind you of stale crackers.
One bite of the Safeway ciabatta reveals that it’s little more than flavorless focaccia. It has no crust to speak of. It doesn’t melt in your mouth. Instead, you can taste a film of oil on every crevice of its dense, cakelike interior.
One of the best Safeway Select sellers, the $2.99 Como loaf, is shipped in par-baked—partially baked, then frozen—three times a week from a bakery in California that won an exclusive contract with Safeway for just this bread, according to TenEyck. It is then baked off at the store. Once you eat it, you shudder to think about the breads that didn’t make the cut.
The crust is more yellow than it is golden, chewier than it is crunchy. But the real trouble is the inside: The center tastes slightly undercooked, so dense it’s almost dough in places. The sour flavor hits your tongue with the first bite. It comes from fermentation and a natural starter, but it’s too overwhelming for a plain sandwich bread. You’ll have to dig deep in the jam jar to get enough to cover it.
Giant at least seems to recognize that it can’t make good bread. Since closing its bakery plant in Silver Spring last year, the grocer has contracted with H&S Bakery in Baltimore to make all of its fresh, whole-baked—meaning delivered completely cooked—products. Trouble is, H&S isn’t much of an improvement. For the past three years, H&S has supplied Giant with an assortment of what spokesperson Jaime Miller calls “Old World and mainstream” Italian and sourdough breads, soft-crust as well as thick. H&S is an institution in Charm City, but whether they’re Giant’s recipes or H&S’s own, the results remind you of a bread experiment gone awry. A round of cracked-wheat sourdough costs $1.49, but it tastes as if it had been soaked in vinegar.
Giant’s longstanding policy was to rely on its own bakery, says Miller. But now that it doesn’t have to be trapped in its own kitchen, it may clear some space for more bakers. “Our merchandisers do entertain other bread wholesalers from time to time,” says Miller, who adds that maybe in the future Giant might carry more wholesalers. Giant already stocks par-baked breads from La Brea Bakery, Toronto-based Maple Leaf Foods, and Fridley, Minn.-based Concept II Bakery. Although these companies can offer better breads cheaply, it still seems strange to buy bread from across the country when there are perfectly good bakeries closer to home.
By closing their loading docks to good local bread, the supermarkets turn the public toward upscale eateries. “[Washington] is not a pedestrian society like New York. That makes the Safeways and the Giants more important in educating people [about food],” says Simon Madani, a co-owner of the Lyon Bakery, a 2-year-old wholesaler based in Southwest D.C. Madani adds that supermarkets could also help bring the cost of artisan breads down because they could use their leverage as high-volume customers to ask for better prices.
Instead, the supermarkets help create a local food culture in which good bread is something enjoyed only by those who are driven to seek it out and can afford it. And Safeway has been able to get away with selling its own, less appetizing attempts at bread—because locals don’t demand better.
“You can do [so much] in-house bread here because people’s expectations are low,” says Madani. “If you did that in San Francisco, there are wholesalers who would put you to shame!” In San Francisco, bad bread simply isn’t tolerated. The city is famous for having the most insufferable bread snobs outside of European capitals. And they can hold their noses up because the Bay Area is one of the most competitive markets for bread makers in the country. “You can get better sourdough boules in the San Francisco airport than you can here. And that stuff is for tourists!” says bread aficionado Lucy Bisognano, an executive of a Washington nonprofit who recently moved from Glover Park to Baltimore.
Spurned by Giant and Safeway, Furstenberg eventually came up with his own expansion plans. He built a large commissary in Silver Spring and opened several new stores, but he expanded too quickly and the costs of his new empire overwhelmed him. In 1994, he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. He sold Marvelous Market, which presently has nine outlets in the D.C. metro area, to two young entrepreneurs and no longer has anything to do with it.
Furstenberg now does bread-store consulting and runs Bread Line, a bakery and eatery near the World Bank. “Those of us who love bread as much as I do think everyone should,” he says. “I give a lot of people pleasure, and that’s good enough for me.”
Fresh Fields is a logical outlet for artisan bakers who need greater market reach. After all, Whole Foods, its parent company, makes a religion of supporting local organic suppliers.
In 1992, the Washington-area outlets of Bread and Circus, a subsidiary of Whole Foods Markets, carried breads made by local bakeries, just as Whole Foods Markets in San Francisco and Seattle do. But the chain was moving away from buying from wholesale bakeries when Whole Foods bought Fresh Fields in 1996 and changed all the names of the Bread and Circuses to Fresh Fields, says Michael Healy, bakery coordinator for the Fresh Fields/Whole Foods mid-Atlantic region. Now, unless a store has an in-store bakery, the breads are trucked in par-baked from Raleigh, N.C., to a local warehouse, and baked off at the stores.
“It’s a philosophical difference we have with the Bay-area stores,” says Healy. “We had a long history with the Fresh Fields stores [making their own bread]. We’ve always had an in-house stance. If people are coming to Fresh Fields, they’re coming for our products. To carry other breads would not be doing our customers a service. They’re not as fresh as they can be.”
Healy might consider wandering over to the bakery and checking out the Pane Paisano, the only Fresh Fields bread not made in-house. The chain sources it from D.C.-based Uptown Bakers, which holds the exclusive local license to use the Paisano recipe. It’s one of the best breads in the Fresh Fields basket.
Whole Foods’ other breads are a step above the Safeway artisan varieties in appearance and taste. They aren’t undercooked. Their crusts are as hearty as those of boutique breads. Many have a good springy texture. But like a lot of things at Fresh Fields, too many of the breads look better than they taste. They’re beautiful but bland.
And for each satisfying bite, the consumer pays a premium. The market’s offerings range from just under $2 for a baguette to almost $5 for a muesli loaf.
For average shoppers, the Fresh Fields breads are close enough to Firehook, Marvelous Market, and Bread Line products that they won’t make an extra trip. They’ll buy the bread that’s put in front of them, prompting Fresh Fields’ competitors to gripe that the supermarket is dumbing down D.C. bread eaters.
“The real enemy of good bread in Washington is Fresh Fields,” says Furstenberg. “They decided to open with in-store bakeries but no talent.”
Marvelous Market CEO Michael Meyer, when asked what he thinks of Whole Foods bread, replies, “No comment.”
Says Sarah Kenney, director of marketing for the Whole Foods mid-Atlantic region, “Bakers tend to be a little crusty when evaluating other bakers’ products.” Especially when the other baker is a national chain. Usually the proprietors of just about every artisan-bread outlet in town talk magnanimously about how more bakeries pumping out more artisan bread raise the standard of bread for everyone. “More people start to appreciate good bread. They get better, more discerning, and everybody keeps working on their art,” muses Katherine Smith, spokesperson for Sutton Place Gourmet.
But it’s no surprise that at some point, our local bread makers would start snipping at each other. The pie is only so big, especially when you’re all going after the same affluent slice.
Flour, water, a sourdough starter, an oven, and a good pair of hands are all you need to make good bread. To sell it, though, you need to add a dash of nostalgia.
Just look at Furstenberg’s promotional recipe for Bread Line. Black-and-white photos from the ’30s and ’40s adorn the walls. There’s one of a man pushing a rack of bread, another of a woman with a slice of white and a glass bottle of milk. A World War II-era sign reads, “Save a Loaf a Week. Help Win the War.”
Furstenberg’s concept for the place was “traditional fast food”—street food or snacks that are bread-based. He says he picked out images that evoke the traditional half of that formula. He’s created an ambiance that evokes a time when bread was sustenance, a time when having to cut back a loaf a week was a sacrifice. The name Bread Line alone denotes scarcity. Only in modern-day Boutique Breadville do images of deprivation entice people into a place of conspicuous consumption, somehow persuading them that what they really need is that $4 whole-wheat boule.
Bread Line is not alone in mining sentimentalism. Firehook has the feel of Starbucks, down to the almost identical soundtrack of jazz standards, but the company’s motto is “We’re a neighborhood bakery, not a chain.”
“People are nostalgic,” says Pierre Abushacra, Firehook’s head of business operations. “They want to see old-fashioned neighborhood bakeries, even though less and less people actually grew up with them.”
Corner Bakery is the most brazen when it comes to exploiting the collective bread conscious. Corner Bakery began as an offshoot of Maggiano’s Little Italy, a family-style eatery created in 1991 by Let Us Entertain You, a restaurant developer in Chicago. As part of the Maggiano’s concept, customers enter through something that looks like “an Old World neighborhood bakery.” Along with Chili’s, it is now a subsidiary of Brinker International, the Dallas-based restaurant conglomerate.
“The question was, How do you create the quality of food and atmosphere to anchor your brand?” says Nancy Hampton, vice president of marketing for Corner Bakery. “Well, for thousands of years, restaurants and bakeries were next to each other.”
At first, the bakery produced bread only for the restaurant. Then, as people asked to buy the bread and later sandwiches, “we took the brand from being a bakery to a bakery-cafe#,” says Hampton.
A marketing degree isn’t required to understand why people respond to even the emptiest reflections of bakeries past. The taste of yesteryear’s bread occupies the same psychic space as your first bicycle and summer vacations. Witness the old residents of North Capital Street who still go to the Catania Bakery every now and then. Or the couple who take along $200 worth of bread from the same bakery every time they go to see relatives in Cleveland. Or the grown son who tries to bring home a loaf from Heller’s whenever he goes to Silver Spring to see his mother, who grew up in Mount Pleasant.
Then there are people, because of their politics or because they’re food snobs, who are simply suspicious of industrially produced food. They’re among the millions who believe that mass production ruined bread. Call it the Wonder Bread backlash.
The movement started in the ’60s. Between 1967 and 1982, white-bread consumption in the United States fell by 30 percent. In 1975, the Center for Science in the Public Interest ranked Wonder Bread No. 1 in its “Terrible Ten” list of foods.
The Wonder backlash inspired some folks to bake their bread at home. The ranks of homemade breadheads include Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who told the Post in 1999, “I’m not bragging, but I could make any kind of bread. I could make sourdough, rye…The only thing I couldn’t do is a stupid roll.”
Wonder and other enriched breads survive thanks in large part to children’s apparent desire to eat bread that’s the same consistency as their peanut butter and jelly. Wonder Bread-eaters tend to be families with lots of children, who count their pennies and use bread primarily to make lunch sandwiches, says Mark Dirkes, senior vice president of marketing for Kansas City, Mo.-based Interstate Bakeries Corp., the current producer of Wonder Bread. (People used to eat more bread for breakfast, but bagels have taken over toasters.) Consumers of higher-end supermarket breads, such as Pepperidge Farms, and artisan-type breads are usually households without kids, the sort of folks who can afford to eat out a lot and splurge on a pine-and-fig-nut loaf. “What we’re seeing with the growing popularity of whole-wheat and artisan breads is the aging of the baby boomers,” Dirkes notes.
Despite its bad rap, enriched white bread has essentially the same nutritional profile as hand-crafted varieties of white bread that take 24 hours to make. But people who prefer artisan bread buy into the idea of its nutritional superiority, maybe because it jibes with the larger notion that artisan bread is everything Wonder Bread is not. Whereas Wonder Bread is made by machines like cars on an assembly line, “artisan bakers put their art and passion into their bread,” says Peter Franklin, chairman of the board of directors of the Bread Bakers Guild of America, a trade group for artisan bakers. “It’s about doing more things by hand, using more expensive ingredients and labor.”
The public romance with artisan bread has made it the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. bread market. Handmade loaves now gross $200 million a year, roughly the annual take for the Wonder Bread brand. In the D.C. metro area, new bread outlets are still opening while established ones, such as Sutton Place, Marvelous Market, Corner Bakery, and Firehook, are planning on expanding. They don’t stray far from neighborhoods where people have come to accept a $4 loaf of bread the way they’ve come to accept a $3 mocha grande latte.
“The trend toward better-quality bread is great,” says Marvelous Market CEO Michael Meyer. “It mirrors what is happening in society. Bread is one of the last things to segment. By the mid-’90s, coffee, beer, cookies, and ice cream had segmented into luxury, premium, mass-market, and discount.” Marvelous Market (whose motto is “Eat the good life everyday”), Firehook, Bread Line, and many of the other artisan bakeries place themselves in the premium category.
For all their trashing of Wonder Bread, artisan bakers may still go mass-market, as some already have. Silverton perfected a par-baked version of her famous sourdough loaf, a move that helped La Brea ring up $50 million in sales, and $9.4 million in profits, in 2001. Last year, Irish food company IAWS Group paid $68.5 million for an 80 percent stake in the bakery.
While some artisan bakers don’t count Silverton’s mass-market loaf as artisan anymore, they’re not universally put off by the idea of making bread on a mass scale, either—provided it’s still made as traditionally as possible. “I liken it to a Mercedes or a Rolls Royce, where some of the parts are handmade,” says Meyer.
Still, Meyer has no plans to follow in Silverton’s footsteps. He says he doesn’t much care if Marvelous Market breads aren’t more widely available. “We’re a producer and retailer. We don’t want to compete with ourselves by selling bread through every channel. By raising the quality [of what’s available], everybody wins.”
The way people regard bread around here, you’d think this marshland had never seen fresh bread before. But good handmade bread was once a neighborhood phenomenon in Washington. A survey of local bakeries in 1942 by the D.C. Federation of Women’s Clubs lists 29 outlets that produced fresh bread, from Taylor’s Bakerette on Macomb Street NW, to the Sunrise Bakery on Morse Street NE, to the Southwest Bakery on 7th Street SW. In 1946, the Washington Times-Herald reported that bakeries sold about 800,000 pounds of bread a day in the Washington area.
Other cities on the Northeast Corridor, such as Philadelphia, Newark, and Boston, drew their lasting bread traditions from the European immigrants who flooded in in waves in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Washington never experienced such an influx. Immigrants were never more than 10 percent of the population. Without manufacturing jobs to attract immigrants, D.C. never sprouted a Little Italy or Greektown, the kind of community where bakeries flourished elsewhere. The immigrants who did settle here gradually moved out to the suburbs.
Some of the bakeries followed them. The New Yorker Bakery, for example, a Jewish bakery at 4809 Georgia Ave. NW, moved to Bethesda in the ’80s. Posin’s, a Jewish deli, grocery, and bakery, dug in at 5756 Georgia Ave. for decades. “At one point, we sold more bread [in D.C.] than anybody except Wonder Bread,” says Randal Posin, the founder’s grandson. By the early ’90s, Posin’s was struggling to stay in business. Randy Posin closed the store four years ago. He now teaches food science at Damascus High School in Damascus, Md.
“It’s a tough business. You can work seven days a week, 15 hours a day, and still make bupkes,” says Posin, who argues that more than demographics doomed neighborhood bakeries. “Before, when you wanted bread, you went to a bakery. Supermarkets didn’t have bakeries then. They do now. Dunkin’ Donuts makes bagels. Mrs. Fields makes cookies. You have all these people doing all these different things, whereas before, bakeries did everything.”
Catania Bakery, at 1404 North Capital St., has managed to hang on, but it’s no longer the neighborhood bakery that it started as in 1932, when Sicilian natives Alfio and Maria Caruso moved it here from Hartford, Conn. Back then, the Carusos delivered bags of bread door to door to the Italian families who lived along North Capital Street and New York Avenue. Italians started moving out of the neighborhood in the ’50s, says Nicole Tramonte, a former customer who bought the bakery from the Carusos in 1978. Catania’s customers are now mostly restaurants and delis.
With fewer bakeries, good, all-natural fresh bread became a scarce commodity in Washington. The bread void didn’t escape notice. At some point in the last 30 years, everyone from classically trained French chefs to feminist environmentalists has tried to feed the gap.
The members of the Women’s Community Bakery collective on Capitol Hill, founded in 1978, sold wholesome whole-wheat loaves out of the bakery and at local co-ops until it closed in 1992. Semin Ustun, a Turkish-born French chef puzzling over how to bake some good French bread in D.C., started Vie de France in 1972 and pioneered the bakery-cafe concept. It has 16 locations nationwide.
At the same time, the so-called artisan-bread movement was gaining momentum in places like Berkeley, Calif., New York, and Vermont. This time, the bakers weren’t folks like the Posins or the Carusos, but novices like Jules and Helen Rabin, self-proclaimed socialist communitarians who began producing small quantities of hand-shaped, European-style rustic breads in a brick oven they built in their back yard in Burlington, Vt. Another novice, Steve Sullivan, was a graduate student in rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, before he began baking bread at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. He launched Acme Bread Co. in 1983, becoming a model for Silverton and her La Brea Bakery.
The talk of educating the masses about good bread or refining the public’s palate sounds funny to some of the traditional bakers. Steve Raab, the owner of Breads Unlimited in Bethesda and the New Yorker Bakery, now located in Silver Spring, says, “A lot of these people think they’ve reinvented the wheel,” says Raab. “I’ve grown up with baking my whole life. The only part that impresses me [about the new bakeries] is how do they get these prices? Where does it come from? It’s bread! I know the way it’s supposed to be. There’s nothing different. It’s only fermentation.”
Perhaps. But to the growing population of Firehook/Marvelous Market customers, the mystique endures. According to artisan-bread makers, patrons rarely balk at paying $5.50 for an olive batard or $5.25 for a walnut-raisin loaf, though some patrons of Firehook have taken to calling it “Firecrook.”
“The kind of people who buy European-style crusty bread won’t quibble over a few cents,” says Furstenberg.
But Furstenberg also thinks the universe of people who will blow $6 on a four-fruit bread is finite. He’s convinced that the market is saturated—not because of any specific data, but because of what his customers tell him. “I think we are just stealing each other’s customers. People walk in so often saying, ‘Your bread is so much better than Marvelous Market’s.’ I’m sure people are going into Firehook saying, ‘Your breads are so much better than Bread Line.’”
Abushacra argues that places such as Fresh Fields and even Safeway are constantly grooming new customers for the boutique-bread shops by introducing them to better breads and higher prices.
Furstenberg dismisses this theory as “nonsense.” “It’s been 10 years,” he says. “If people were really graduating from Giant to Fresh Fields to Bread Line, then we would be getting a steady flow of people, but that’s not what has happened.”
But Furstenberg’s competitors are right to believe that a lot of people still hanker for a decent loaf. The average American eats 54 pounds of bread a year, according to Wheat Foods Council. This year, Washington, D.C.-area residents will spend about $72 million on bread at local grocers, figured on the basis of the national average for supermarket bread sales and store sales for the local supermarket chains. They may not know the difference between pain au levain and pain de Lodeve. And they may feel more comfortable with Mrs. Wright than Jean-Louis Palladin. But at the end of the day, they want something good to sink their teeth into.
Madani, of Lyon Bakery, senses this public hunger: “We would like to get into more outlets. More people who eat our breads in restaurants are asking where they can get it.”
But he and his partners aren’t keen on going the way of Marvelous Market or Firehook by opening a string of costly-to-run stores. So Madani is now heading down a path trodden by the sophisticated entrepreneurs before him: He is approaching the supermarkets and other market movers.
Lyon’s target is Fresh Fields, then maybe Giant Gourmet in McLean, Va., and perhaps Safeway. Madani says in recent weeks, he’s left a couple of messages for Whole Foods’ Healy. He hasn’t gotten a call back yet. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.