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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : On the Rise : Bread, One of the Oldest Comfort Foods, Has Gone From Run-of-the-Mill to the Latest Hot Commodity


Owners of the newly-opened Great Harvest Bread Co. in Brentwood say their moist, honeyed loaves are rolling out the door by the hundreds every day. And small wonder: With business rising at numerous specialty bakeries on the Westside, bread makers have yet to satiate consumer demand for upscale varieties of the staff of life.

"This is the cheapest luxury there is," said Mark Peel, a partner in the La Brea Bakery, an offshoot of the Campanile Restaurant on La Brea Avenue.

La Brea's two-year-old commercial bakery provides potato rolls, cherry-chocolate loaves and other exotic creations to supplement the more staid offerings on supermarket shelves.

"Our feeling is that good bread should be like chewing gum, not Cartier watches," Peel said. "You shouldn't have to travel to Rodeo Drive to get great bread."

Bread, like coffee and pasta, has transcended its earlier homely self to become an icon of the good life for a generation educated in food during the restaurant boom of the 1980s.

"Demographic trends are driving some of it. Baby boomers are eating less but eating better," said Bruce Winner, who tracks food trends as a continuing education specialist in Agriculture and Food Science at the University of California at Davis.

"People aren't guzzling beer or eating white bread; they're eating fine breads and drinking fine beer," he said. "Cocooning, but still interested in that fine dining experience."

Unlike beer or coffee, bread has been declared officially good for you (as long as you don't slather your slices with too much butter); grain products make up the biggest category in the government's food pyramid.

In some cases, specialty breads come at a steep price. La Brea Bakery's one-pound sour cherry chocolate loaf goes for $8. But surprisingly, perhaps, many of the new, pungent loaves being produced by boutique bakeries are competitively priced with similar products from large-scale commercial bakeries.

Great Harvest's most expensive product, for example, Cinnamon Raisin Walnut, costs $4.25 for a round kilo loaf, while a pound of Northridge brand Raisin Walnut costs $2.39 at Vons--3 cents more an ounce.

Supermarket white bread is still cheaper, however, at 5 cents an ounce compared to 9 cents for Great Harvest's Old Fashioned White. "Of course the prices are competitive," said Tony Di Lembo of Breadworks, another restaurant spinoff with a bakery and retail counter in the Fairfax District. "This is a business, no doubt about it."

After opening a cafe-style outlet in Santa Monica's trendy Montana Avenue shopping district six months ago, Breadworks is ready to expand next month by opening another branch on Larchmont Boulevard.

"The bread wave has hit," said Di Lembo, who recently installed a burglar alarm at the bakery but finds the place does so much all-night baking these days that he rarely needs to activate it.

Even the old-line Pioneer French Baking Co. is thinking of expanding its retail operations, encouraged by the success of its recently-opened bread shop on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica.

"People have experienced how bread is supposed to be eaten and they like it," said John Garacochea, vice president of the Venice-based company, which closed its Boulangerie open-air restaurant last year but supplies sourdough loaves and other products to restaurants and supermarkets across the country.

"Most of our old competitors have ceased to do business, although we have a lot of new competitors," he said. "It's a fun product . . . there's some romance to it and some history to it, and it tastes good."

Indeed, customer demand has been so great that the products of specialty bakeries now appear on the bread racks of major supermarkets, especially in Jewish neighborhoods, which have long harbored small bakeries specializing in rye, challah, cookies and cakes.

At least one Fairfax Avenue bakery began selling to Ralphs two decades ago, and others have joined in recently, according to Vi Pulliam, assistant bakery buyer for Ralphs.

"Some of it is kosher and some of it is a little bit more upscale," she said. "We're buying a lot of product out of the bakery that way, so we don't have to charge that much, and the customer gets that product and doesn't necessarily have to go to the bakery, which is good for them and good for us."

At Trader Joe's, which uses La Brea Bakery and Breadworks, among others, to produce house brand loaves for its 63 stores, buyer Richard Baltierra said bread sales have increased 20% over the last two years.

"Right now there are so many interesting breads out . . . olive, dried tomato, rosemary . . . suddenly, the energy of bakeries went trendy," he said. "Some of the larger baking companies that do make sandwich-type breads aren't making the new flavored-type breads. These people have a new niche."

Identifying the niche is one thing, exploiting it is another.

It's not an easy buck.

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