Type to search

Dan Leader: Bread Alone


IT WAS ONLY two decades ago when a handful of American bakers started producing bread following traditional European methods and using the best ingredients. Like many bread experts, Dan Leader spent time studying in Europe . He’d also been a chef at some pretty high-end New York City restaurants, producing what he calls “fancy food.” Without much of a plan, he started baking breads out of a wood-fired oven in Boiceville, in the southern Catskills—not exactly the center of the bread universe. From the very beginning, Leader produced traditional, European-style hearth-baked breads shaped by hand. This definitely was not your mother’s Wonder Bread . But, it seems, people were ready for it.

As a chef, I worked in a lot of fancy restaurants in New York City, and I worked in Europe for a while. You know how much I’ve traveled—all over Europe—so I started out looking at bakeries in Europe as models. When I was in Paris, I became friends with a bunch of bakers. Long story short is, one of them said, “I’m sure bread like this is really popular in the United States.” It wasn’t.

I had a little weekend house in West Shokan. I was really getting tired of being in New York City at the time. It was kind of spontaneous. It was simple: I bought the property and [the owner] held the mortgage. I think I gave him $2,000 down—the mortgage payments were $300 a month. When you think back, it was insane it was so cheap. Let’s put it this way: There wasn’t a business plan. I just thought it was cool. I wasn’t even thinking rationally that there was a need for it. I think it would have been different to do it in New York City than to have done it up here. That’s the part that didn’t make sense.

The six months before Bread Alone opened I worked at night at a bakery on Mulberry Street. I would finish cooking at around 11 and I’d go work there until three in the morning with these old-time Italian bakers. It was a whole different ballgame.

If Bread Alone was in the city today, I can’t even imagine how big it would be. Tom Cat does $25 million now; Eli, I don’t know how much they do. We’re successful by Hudson Valley standards, but people in New York City that are doing the same thing we do have grown astronomically.

Certainly, if you look at the bread explosion, we’re still a very small business. We started before Ecce Panis, before La Brea. La Brea now is probably a $100 million company making the frozen par-baked bread. We’re still very true to what we started as, but if you look at the bread industry, we’re just a blip on the radar screen.

I don’t know if it was good luck or what, but we did get a lot of press. Within a year or two, Craig Claiborne rated us the best bread in New York City. It was kind of like a whirlwind from 1985, ‘86, ‘87; we were in every major food publication in the country within three years.

We get people who know the name, who know the brand, visit all the time. They’re often shocked that we’re this small. I think people have a sense that we’re a much bigger business.

Of course, business has changed so much in the last 20 years. I used to think if we ever broke a million dollars it would be a big deal. Now, any business that’s not $20 or $30 million is not even a business that people talk about.

We’re a $5 million company [with] about 34 to 40 fulltime employees. (In the summer it might go up to 70- something.) Some nice new accounts are coming in. Our retail sales are all up 10 to 15 percent from last year from the carb thing. People are coming back.

I guess what kind of shocked me and opened my eyes a little bit was when Panera came to Kingston. I never thought that you could open a place in that location, but they’re doing huge numbers. It really said to me there’s much more room than I thought in the Hudson Valley. But I realized we couldn’t go to the next level until we had our internal organization better. The plan is to get that more situated and finely tuned and then the rest will follow.

As you’d expect with a name like Bread Alone, it is bread—largely organic, artisan, European-style, hearth-baked bread—for which the bakery is best known. From the initial five varieties, Leader has expanded: There’s brioche, challa, focaccia, whole-wheat sourdough (miche), mixed grain raisin nut, rustic corn, San Francisco sourdough, sesame semolina, currant buns, and the new favorite, whole grain health. Then he widened the bakery’s selection to include pastries, pies, even custom wedding cakes. And then he introduced the concept of upscale, pastry cafes to the valley.

I don’t know of any other food that can be as bad and be as wonderful. How do you take flour and water and salt and have something be that people drool over versus something that people want to throw out?

I’ve taught a lot of classes over the years and I think that the rules [that] apply to all fermented foods apply to bread—make it slower, use better raw materials. Look at beer, wine, any kind of aged cheese— there’s always some type of bacteria that is the foundation or its secret ingredient. You could say it’s got “organic grains” and it’s “stone ground”—and that all makes a difference. It’s like milk from a cow grazing in Normandy versus in a factory farm— there’s a huge difference in raw materials.

But it’s how you handle the raw materials. In bread baking there’s certain time-honored traditions. (There’s a baker in southern France I write about in my book. He says innovation in bread baking is tradition.) Taking the traditions and techniques and following them in the best possible way is what makes great bread.

I think that the biggest trend that has come and stayed is this par-baked frozen bread. You can get it in every store. They call it “artisan.” (La Brea bread says it’s “hand-crafted”— there isn’t a hand that has ever come near that bread!) It’s not bad, it’s better than buying Wonder Bread, but it’s not cheap. It’s four bucks a loaf—and it comes out of a factory.

I don’t mind the par-bake

d frozen bread, I mind how they market it. They’re marketing it as something that it’s not, and I think that’s really misleading for consumers. I’ve actually talked to my baker friends about it. I think it forces all of us to be better bakers if we’re going to compete with this mass-market bread.

But we don’t do par-baked frozen. It’s something we certainly could have gotten into—but, it’s a whole different ball game. There’s a lot of fancy machinery. Everything gets huge— walk-in freezers and pallets with cases of bread. It becomes a production bakery.

Everything is done here. We’re buying all-organic flour from a mill southeast of Montréal. The miller was trained in France; he’s a true European-style miller. It’s great because we’re not having to bring trucks from North Dakota 24 hours across the country—he’s four hours away. It’s just a lot easier for us.

We’re supporting regional agriculture more. As much as possible, we’re using grains grown in the Northeast. Not so much the winter wheats, but the ryes are all grown in the Northeast. Our white bread, our baguettes and our peasant bread aren’t organic. Everything else is. We’re certified now, so we have the “USDA Organic” certifier.

The bread goes a little bit in Albany, a lot in the Hudson Valley, some in Westchester. Of course, we do a lot of farmers’ markets in New York, and we have three distribution companies; one delivers our bread in the Berkshires, one takes it all the way out to the end of Long Island, and that same company also delivers in New Jersey.

We’re in more stores than restaurants: 20 percent restaurants, 80 percent stores. Adams [Fairacre Farms] is like the perfect marriage: We’re the local specialty baker and they’re the local specialty supermarket. We love the Greenmarkets. We do farmers’ markets all over—I would say that if farmers’ markets ran 12 months a year and there were enough farmers’ markets, we would love that to be a big part of our business, but it’s very seasonal.

We have another favorite account—we sell a lot of bread to the Park Slope Co-op in Brooklyn. It’s the oldest food coop in the United States and they sell a ton of our bread.

Leader brought André LeFort, a third-generation Parisian oven builder, to Boiceville to build his ovens. It was the first time the famous oven mason had traveled to America. Leader commissioned, not one, but two LeFort ovens. It was a turning point for him and for Bread Alone. It said: I am a baker.

I think that the ovens were symbolic in making a commitment to more true artisan-style bread. I’m not going to say that the ovens are what make our bread what it is, but I think it was like I entered the world of traditional bread baking through my friend Basil, through meeting Andre.

What happened (I actually never talked about this before) is that this bread-baking world in France is very small. When I would go to baking shows, yeah, there are thousands of bakers, but it’s still a small club and everybody knows each other, especially regionally.

When I traveled back to France after the ovens were built, the word had gotten around and it became, like, my American Express Gold Card. People would say, “This is Daniel—he has the only two LeFort ovens in the United States.” Anytime I needed to know anything about bread baking, if I called, if I went to a supplier, if I met a baker or if I met the President of the French baking association and said I really want to go somewhere and see this or that, at bakeries that would be normally closed to visitors, they would say, “This is Dan, he brought André LeFort over and he has these two woodfired ovens…” Granted, now lots of people have different types of wood-fired ovens, but at the time there weren’t that many. Certainly, in the international bakers’ club it became very symbolic.

We didn’t even think about the money at the time. Somehow we managed to pay for it. It was actually at a time when the bakery was very small and we had very small staff and I was the workhorse. So, although we didn’t borrow any money to build the ovens, I worked essentially for free for a year or two. My salary paid for the ovens.

This winter we’re going to re-insulate the ovens with modern insulation (right now they’re insulated with sand)—we’re going to use powdered vermiculite. We’re going to redo the fireboxes. Over the course of this winter we’re going to bring them up to the best level that we can, one oven at a time. The project will require probably each oven being out of commission for three weeks or so. We have the German deck ovens so we’ll manage. We’ll probably do it in January, February and March, when we’re in our slowest point of the year, anyway.

These gas-fired, brick-lined ovens from Germany are, like, the best modern hearth ovens—the kind of hearth ovens that if you go to the big bakeries in the city—Tom Cat or Amy’s or Sullivan Street—they all use these modern deck ovens.

We’re also going to be making some product changes. As rustic breads or Old World breads have become more popular, it’s easier for us to sell very large loaves than it was years ago. We hope to introduce some new large loaves this spring after the ovens are redone that we’ll bake exclusively in the brick ovens. They’ll be 2 to 3 kilos [about 4.5 to 6.5 pounds]. We tend to bake our smaller breads (baguettes and rolls) in the deck ovens because we have more control over the temperature. The wood [we use as fuel] comes from a furniture factory. It’s untreated, kiln dried, so it burns very hot.

All of those machines in the bakery do one thing: save people’s backs. If you went to a completely scratch bakery, the baker would mix the dough, put the dough in some kind of tubs, let the dough rise, pick up the tubs, throw them on a table, cut the bread by hand, shape the bread by hand, put it in boxes, put it in proofing bowls or whatever they’re going to do. Everything that we have put into the bakery has been done with being a craft bakery in mind, meaning that we shape every bread by hand (except our French bread, which most bakers don’t shape by hand). Our Japanese dough-dividing machine was designed by bakers who wanted to continue the tradition of hand-crafting bread without the really back-breaking work—and I mean really back- breaking work—of picking up hundreds of pounds of dough and cutting and shaping it.

When we’re in the busiest points of the year (July, August, September, October), we probably use 80,000 to 90,000 pounds of flour a month—we’ve hit 100 a couple of times. Let’s say we’re using a million pounds of flour of year. It’s a lot of flour to shape by hand.

It is hard work; it’s work that never stops. You can’t say “I don’t want to make bread today.” It’s not a business you can close because restaurants, supermarkets—everybody wants bread, so it’s not like we’re going to close for a month a year.

There’s something going on 24 hours a day. We don’t bake 24 hours a day, but let’s say if we finish baking at 1 or 2 in the morning, the drivers are driving from 2 in the morning till 10 in the morning and the first bakers come in at about 7 in the morning to mix the starters. The store is open, people come into the store at 6 in the morning; the stores close at 7, the bakers get done at 12, 1, 2. The drivers start 2, 3, 4. It’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

As hard as it is to make great bread on a small scale, it gets even harder as the operation grows. There’s a general perception that artisanal bakeries start out great, but as they expand, the quality of the bread suffers. Somehow, Leader managed to improve as business grew. Then there was Atkins.

We’ve had good times and bad times. I think it was five types of bread we offered to start. Now? I don’t even know how many. We’ve had a couple of periods when we had real growing pains or we lost key people. I used to feel very badly about it. Now I realize every business goes through it.

We have to face the problems that real businesses face— we’re not a little niche business anymore. When the price of gasoline goes up it’s not like a blip—it really affects us. We’re just raising our prices now with the gas increases. The price of every ingredient we’ve bought went up. I think our monthly expenses have gone up $12,000 to $14,000 a month, and utilities went up. That’s not a small number— that’s $160,000 a year.

We’re trying to stay true to what we were and what we want to be and be a real business at the same time. It’s a balancing act. I have a friend who says to me all the time that [if you own] a small business in America, you’re doing something that’s really against the grain. If you look around, there aren’t that many small businesses any more.

We’re more solid than most companies our size. We have the best flour we’ve ever had now; we’ve standardized our production. Our sourdough techniques are better. We’ve really improved and we are continuing to improve what we’re doing. We’re constantly working on new products. Constantly. We have new biscotti that we’re testing. We’re in all 26 King’s Supermarkets, which is a big account for us. We’re doing a lot more at the farmers’ markets than we did before.

The thing we had to deal with that was really hard was the Atkins diet. It was just a disaster. We went from 9-11 to the Atkins. You’d read about pasta companies and bakeries going out of business. [Atkins] affected our sales and how the bakery was perceived. You know, David and Nikki Goldback, the health-food writers, said that they had never seen a food trend more affected by one diet, ever. Sales just went down. All we made was carbs. Every day, 20 times a day, people said to me, “When are you going to make this low- carb?” And I’d say nothing. We just weathered the storm.

Now they’re saying eat whole grains, which is what we’ve always done. Now [the Atkins fad] is completely over and they’re saying what a ridiculous trend it was, which anyone who knows about food would have said. If this gas crisis hadn’t hit it would have been great. It’s always something.

Our French sourdough and actually our whole grain health [bread] wasn’t designed to be a signature bread, but as whole grains become more and more popular, we’re selling a ton of that bread. The square loaf with the sesame seeds, flax seeds and sunflower seeds—we’re selling hundreds and hundreds of those every day. I didn’t expect that. We’re trying to be unique to our tradition, but we’re also very sensitive to the market.

Small, native bakeries still thrive in numerous European countries (as Leader discovered and shares in his forthcoming book). As Bread Alone passes its 20-something anniversary, Leader continues to prove, against the grain, that such a business—a “small business”—can thrive in the Hudson Valley and, in fact, continue to set standards.

I just turned in my second book. They wouldn’t even consider publishing the book for the last two years—now they’re, like, “We have to get it out now.”

The [new] book feels very similar to the first book in terms of the tone, but it’s much more about how I went, where I went, what I found, what’s unique in these areas. I’ve spent about 10 years visiting bakeries all around Europe. The book is 100 recipes from my selection of the best bakers of Europe. There’s recipes from Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Czech Republic and Poland.

I went to the most authentic bakers I could find. I have a couple of recipes from Poland and some great recipes from southern Italy and northern Italy and southern France. I found this great bakery in Alsace and some cool bakeries in southern Germany. It’s a whole cross section of breads. We’re hoping the book will come out next fall. The working title is Bread Routes.

The first book—I didn’t have any idea of what to do or how to do it, but it’s still in print. (I actually got a royalty check today.) I think we’re up to 70,000 copies—in the baking industry, that’s huge for a non-personality, a non- Food Network personality.

I think the new book will do well—I think Norton is going to print 30,000 copies in the first printing. It’s a whole different level than the first book. We’re definitely on an upswing now—people are coming back to bread.

Hudson Valley Restaurant Week is back this April 8-21!