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Growing Pans

Artisan Bread Baking Is on the Rise--So Is the Rivalry

September 17, 1997|DENISE HAMILTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Europane is a neighborhood bakery in Pasadena whose fresh fruit tarts and focaccia have created a fiercely loyal clientele. So when customers urged owner Sumi Chang to add chewy, European-style bread to her shelves, she sensed a business opportunity.

"I know I could sell it. I get a lot of requests," says the nurse-turned-pastry chef, who has worked for the Four Seasons Hotel and with Nancy Silverton, whose La Brea Bakery introduced Angelenos to crusty, Old World bread a mere eight years ago.

But making those rustic loaves takes a lot more than a bag of flour and a rolling pin. Despite the stories about the amateur bakers who began in their home kitchens, the reality is that it takes about $250,000 to open an artisan bakery today.

That includes as much as $85,000 for a European hearth oven to achieve the chewy texture of today's increasingly sophisticated bread, for which consumers are willing to pay $3 to $9.50 per loaf.

"The equipment is terribly expensive," says a wistful Chang, who is seeking investors to expand her pastry shop into a bona fide artisan bread bakery. "But I think there's a market."

Industry watchers say Chang is right. Los Angeles may set global trends in culture and film, but it's behind the curve when it comes to artisan bread baking, which has become a $6-billion-a-year industry nationally as customers turn away from the sliced, packaged white bread of their childhood for the dense, handcrafted loaves known as artisan bread.

Compared with cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Chicago, all of which have numerous entrenched artisan bakeries, the Los Angeles market is fairly open, says Gina Piccolino, a spokeswoman for the Bread Bakers Guild of America in Pittsburgh.

That's good news to burned-out neurosurgeons, screenwriters and lawyers looking for a more personally rewarding career. The bad news is that things are getting more competitive as many entrepreneurs go the route of Chang.

"We have five new bakeries a week coming to us, wanting us to stock their products," says Trisha Colon, food service manager for the Wild Oats Market in Pasadena, who says the figure has doubled since the mid-1990s.

And artisan bakeries are no longer competing solely with one another. Large corporate bakeries and supermarket chains have jumped onto the bandwagon and are building their own artisan bakeries or acquiring existing ones to gain instant penetration into that niche market, says Jim Stitley, editor of Baking Management, a trade journal in Des Plaines, Ill.

"If you're already shopping at Whole Foods, why should you make another stop if you can already get great fresh bread from us?" asks George Eckrich, a director of baking commissaries for Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market Inc., whose 76 stores sell artisan bread under the company's Bakehouse label.

In addition, several hurdles prevent most neighborhood bakeries from expanding their businesses into regional players. Few artisan bakers, no matter how well-regarded, have the $1 million or so that industry experts say is needed to go regional.

First, there are those expensive ovens--more than one if you intend to bake in quantity. Then you need mixing equipment and other kitchen tools. Throw in payroll, delivery trucks and freezers that enable bakers to par-bake bread, then ship it frozen to stores, and the costs add up.

Some artisan bakers worry about quality control, saying that par-baking and freeze-shipping can't help but lower quality, since the bread is no longer made by hand that morning in small quantities for local distribution, which, to many, is the essence of an artisan bakery.

"If you're a purist, you say you can't do it," says Piccolino of the Bread Bakers Guild, a trade group devoted to furthering artisan bread traditions. "While par-baking is a trend, it's not one that a lot of us like to see. If Nancy [Silverton] were to open shops all over, the quality would be a little less."

But Silverton's 8-year-old La Brea Bakery is one operation that has made the leap from retail to regional wholesaling and is now a $10-million-a-year business. In 1992, Silverton opened a 20,000-square-foot facility on Washington Boulevard that supplies 350 bakeries, supermarkets and restaurants from San Diego to Santa Barbara with more than 30,000 pounds of bread a day.

Silverton, considered to be among the six most influential bakers in America, is also experimenting with par-baking bread, then flash-freezing it for shipment, which would allow it to be sold nationally, she believes, without diluting quality.

Industry experts, who are watching all these trends closely, say that regardless of how large they grow, small artisan bakers have already revolutionized the industry.

"I've never seen small players having such an impact on the industry. It's a real interesting phenomenon, and it's changing the face of the whole industry," says Stitley.

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