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As if on cue, an elderly man with a wooden walking stick and sandals over his socks pops into Bread Furst. “Everybody in the neighborhood has been saying Tuesday at seven o’clock there’s going to be a longer line outside your door than the car wash,” he tells owner Mark Furstenberg of his opening day expectations.
The Van Ness bakery is half a week from its May 6 debut at this point, and only a minute earlier, Furstenberg had been talking about the nonexistence of good bakeries in D.C. and how the community was starved for an establishment like his. Suddenly, in walks some vindication. “I just want you to know, the talk of the neighborhood is better get on line early,” the man says before heading out.
“All day long,” Furstenberg says. “All day long that goes on.”
The neighborhood buzz shouldn’t be a complete surprise: Furstenberg has built a name for himself as D.C.’s preeminent baker (as well as its preeminent culinary skeptic). He founded Marvelous Market in 1990 but sold it in 1996. (By coincidence, the very last market closed less than a week before the opening of Bread Furst.) He also opened, and later sold, The BreadLine, which in its heyday earned him nominations for a James Beard award. More recently, Furstenberg has focused on consulting for chefs and bakeries around the country. The respect he commands is evident from the crowd that showed up at Bread Furst’s opening party: Central’s Michel Richard, Kaz Sushi Bistro’s Kaz Okochi, Mintwood Place’s Saied Azali, Bayou Bakery’s David Guas, DGS Delicatessen’s Nick Wiseman, and ex-Washington Post critic Phyllis Richman, to name a few.
Despite his own role in D.C.’s food culture, Furstenberg still isn’t impressed with where it stands. That much was clear when he wrote a piece for the Washington Post Magazine last year headlined, “What’s missing from D.C.’s food scene? A lot.” The article bemoaned the dearth of neighborhood markets and criticized the city’s lack of food history and identity. That view hasn’t changed.
“Palena!” Furstenberg says, throwing his arms up in the air. “Jesus. Palena. That rich neighborhood down there can’t support a really wonderful restaurant, reasonable-priced? But instead they flock to Medium Rare. What’s not to be skeptical about?”
He confesses some good restaurants and markets have opened. He likes Each Peach in Mount Pleasant and Little Red Fox, north of Bread Furst on Connecticut Avenue NW. Union Market isn’t bad either: “It’s more than I expected it to be, because I thought it was all going to be carryout food,” he says. “But I mean, it’s mediocre in bread, and it’s awful in produce. And that’s inexcusable.”
But Furstenberg isn’t the type to just sit on the sidelines and kvetch. So at the age of 75, he’s opened Bread Furst—his answer to what he thinks D.C.’s food scene lacks.
“A neighborhood bakery was the project that I had in my heart, and if I was going to do this as a last project, I wanted to do the project that I really cared about,” he says. “And because Washington has no neighborhood bakeries, I thought that was the contribution I might be able to make.”
As the name suggests, bread is first at Bread Furst. Furstenberg told his architect that the place had to scream “bakery.” He didn’t want it to be another BreadLine. He didn’t want it to be a restaurant. He didn’t even want that many tables or chairs. People needed to walk in and think bread. Just bread.
So the glass-enclosed bakery kitchen is the first thing you see when you enter the white-brick-walled, high-ceilinged space, along with shelves lined with bagels, English muffins, loaves of all sorts, and French-style baguettes baked fresh every four hours. Not until you venture farther back will you see the deli case of meats and cheeses, the coffee station, or the display of sandwiches, soups, spreads, and sweets. “I wanted an anonymous place, where the product is all people see,” Furstenberg says. “And if somebody says, ‘Isn’t this a nice-looking place? I’d like them to say, ‘Oh. Yes, I guess it is.’”
Furstenberg has hired some top talent to help execute his vision. Jack Revelle, who helped develop recipes for Michel Richard’s cookbook, comes to the bakery from the White House pastry kitchen. Baker Ben Arnold previously worked at Society Fair and Range, where chef Bryan Voltaggio gave him the opportunity to “do my own bread program for a large enough restaurant to sustain a bakery,” he explains.
“Exactly, that’s important,” Furstenberg says as he and Arnold give me a tour. “The restaurant did enough volume to make a bread bakery economically feasible. I bet you he didn’t make money on that bakery though.”
“No, of course not,” Arnold says. That’s the thing with bread: The ingredients may not be expensive, but the labor is. Even charging for bread at Range, Arnold says they probably broke even on it at best.
I ask Furstenberg if that’s the reason D.C. doesn’t have more neighborhood bakeries. “I know that doing a bakery is hard,” Furstenberg admits. Bakeries do well in densely populated areas where people walk, and “there aren’t so many of those in Washington,” he claims. To make up for the low average sale at most bakeries, you have to have a high customer volume. “You go into business thinking I have to have a thousand customers to make it worthwhile,” he says. “And although that’s really easily achieved in a place like Paris, that’s not so easily achieved in a place where people drive all the time.”
Van Ness is certainly no First Arrondissement, and Furstenberg admits this stretch of Connecticut Avenue hasn’t always been successful for retail. But with high-end apartments and more restaurant space going in across the street, as well as “a self-conscious effort by the neighborhood to improve the retail,” he’s optimistic. “And I think we’ll be a draw,” he adds. Several restaurants have also expressed interest in buying bread from him.
Initially, Furstenberg had been looking in Dupont but couldn’t reach an agreement with a landlord there. Eventually, restaurateur Ashok Bajaj set him up with a commercial realtor, who helped him find his current space at 4434 Connecticut Ave. NW, next to a car wash and a few doors up from a Burger King. The first house he ever bought was not far away, and the former offices of ABC News, his first job, were across the street. Plus, Politics & Prose, which his late sister co-owned for decades, and the site of his first Marvelous Market location are a little bit north. “I felt this is serendipity,” he says.
Furstenberg does think about the fact that he’s now a septuagenarian. “I think about how I’m going to have to conserve my energy to be here at opening and be here later in the day. I do a lot of exercise to try to stay in condition,” he says. “And I know that it’s unusual.”
In fact, he says one of his sons really didn’t want him to open the bakery: “He thought it was just utterly inappropriate for someone my age to take on a small business and go deeply into debt and take both the risks to my old age and my income.” So Furstenberg thought about it a lot, and he procrastinated because of the uncertainty. But he ultimately decided he had to do it. “It was partially my wish to have a bakery in Washington and for people to be able to say that’s what a neighborhood bakery is,” he says.
The death of his sister, Carla Cohen of Politics & Prose, was also a factor. His brother-in-law, David Cohen, and Carla Cohen’s longtime business partner, Barbara Meade, worked hard to sell the shop to people who would continue what they started, Furstenberg says: “That gave me some hope that I could do this in my old age and find a way to make it last beyond my old age.”
Furstenberg hopes to continue his legacy and seed D.C.’s food future through an apprentice program that led up to the opening of Bread Furst. Domku owner Kera Carpenter approached him several years ago with the idea to do it through her nonprofit, NURISH: The Center for a Creative Culinary Economy, which acts as an incubator for food entrepreneurs. “He was very interested in teaching the next generation of bakers, so he seemed like the perfect fit because he actually had that desire to pass on his knowledge,” Carpenter says.
The unpaid apprenticeship program received inquiries from more than 50 people, and of the 20 that formally applied, five were ultimately selected to work with Furstenberg and learn all aspects of opening a food business. Among them was a sous chef from Doi Moi and a woman who’d worked in cheese shops, but the others included a lawyer, an HR consultant, and a TV producer interested in potential career changes. That gave Furstenberg something in common with the group: He worked in politics and journalism before becoming a professional baker in his 50s.
He hopes that some of his apprentices will follow in his path. “The idea was if I could take these people and let them go on this trip with me, creating a new business, that they would learn more about creating a new business and then they’d go off and do their own.”
And that’s about as close as you’ll come to getting Furstenberg to admit there’s some hope for D.C.’s food scene, after all. In the meantime, damn it, he’s at least going to give the city the bakery it deserves.
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery