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SCENE : Bakin' in the 'Wood


A yellow sandwich board out front lures first-timers with its promises of "fresh bread" and "free slices."

Inside Brentwood's Great Harvest Bread Co., Gina McKinley is at the wooden counter, cutting big chunks from round loaves. At one end of a long butcher-block table, her husband, Jason, weighs slabs of dough that will be hand-kneaded into one-kilo loaves.

It's 10 a.m. and the doors opened three hours ago. The early crowd has come and gone, including the men who wander over from the nearby Veterans Administration Hospital for a cup of coffee and free bread.

Soon, the chocolate-cherry loaf lovers will come. Wednesday is chocolate-cherry day and it'll be out of the oven in about an hour. Some people plan their week around the specialty bread of the day.

To them, Monday is cinnamon swirl, Tuesday is Swedish rye, Thursday is Cheddar-garlic, Friday is raisin-apple challah, Saturday is corn-bread (plain or jalapen~o) and Sunday is cranberry-orange. Honey whole-wheat, sourdough, cinnamon-raisin-walnut, nine-grain, oatmeal poppy-seed and Oregon herb--an onion-and-dill loaf that's the top seller--are also on today's menu.

For a few varieties, it's been back to the flouring board. "Oat bran didn't go at all," says Jason. "If it ever comes back, we have 10,000 labels ready to go."

Customers pour themselves coffee from Thermoses on a sideboard. In a glassed-in corner space, a milling machine hums. Organic whole-wheat flour from Montana is being ground between granite slabs; within 24 hours, it will be in one of those loaves.

Jason shows me around. "Our oven," he says, "or as my wife likes to refer to it, her Lexus." A $30,000 oven. Up to 500 loaves can bake together on eight racks that rotate like a Ferris wheel.

"Corporate headquarters," he says, pointing to a small, littered shelf in a back room. Great Harvest is a franchise, if a rather odd one. The 100-plus franchisees nationwide pay royalties, but need not buy anything from the 20-year-old Montana-based company. The only rules: 1) Offer at least six bread varieties a day and 2) bake round loaves.

Opening this franchise, the first in L.A. (there is one in Irvine), was a longtime dream for Jason, 28, and Gina, 29, who met in college in Colorado. She'd grown up eating bread from the Great Harvest store in Boulder.

Having raised the necessary capital by 1992, Jason, former producer for "Second City" in Santa Monica, and Gina, an airline sales rep, began scouting for a location. A South Bay place they liked caught fire. A Marina del Rey landlord said no, thinking they'd flop. They haven't--the business is now a year old and growing 11% a month. In July, they'll expand to Century City Shopping Center.

Great Harvest's sourdough, baked in long loaves, is nicely sour. The whole wheats are dense and nutty. One Westside jogger says of the rich chocolate-cherry, "If you'd called it cake, I wouldn't have bought it."

Because the breads, which cost from $3.25 for honey whole-wheat to $5 for chocolate-cherry, are made with sourdough, they stay fresh up to 10 days.

Depending on the day of the week, 500 to 1,000 loaves are baked. What's not sold within 24 hours goes to a Westside food bank. But the food bank rarely gets the fat-free cinnamon rolls (made with applesauce) or not-fat-free walnut-chocolate chip cookies.

* Great Harvest Bread Co. is in Brentwood Town and Country, 11640 San Vicente Blvd., (310) 826-9400. Hours: 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.

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