November marks National Bread Month, so what better way to celebrate than to learn more about some of our local bakeries’ bread-making traditions?
Baking bread is a ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ endeavor, says Companion owner Josh Allen. “It’s a craft where by the second day, you either run screaming, or stick with it.” Luckily for St. Louis, Allen stuck with it, bringing his talents back to St. Louis from San Francisco to open a bakery in 1993.
Eighteen years later, Companion has grown to two cafés, in Ladue and Clayton, in addition to its early bird weekend outlet at the factory in South St. Louis. The bakery produces between 10,000 and 15,000 pounds of bread every day and makes 150 to 200 deliveries to restaurants and grocery stores around town. Allen says the number one ingredient in Companion’s products is time. “Everything we make ferments for an extended period of time, so it’s a building process, for flavor, crust and crumb development.”
While the French baguette has always been Companion’s most popular item, its Bavarian pretzel has become No. 2 since its introduction a few years ago. “We’re seeing a resurgence of the pretzel with the growth of the microbrewery and gastropubs,” Allen explains. “These fun, craft breads play to that style of cooking.”
The additional growth of hyperlocality also has worked well with Companion’s focus as a local business. Eighty-five percent of its flour is milled in St. Louis and the 24-hour operation is ready each day to serve the community. “When everyone is asleep, we’re out there baking so there’s fresh bread on the shelves every morning when people go to the store.”
GREAT HARVEST BREAD CO.
With whole wheat flour milled on site, Great Harvest Bread Co. in Olivette prides itself on making fresh bread every day from scratch, says owner Steve Jawor. “We don’t use any preservatives or chemicals, so it’s real, authentic bread with few ingredients. It makes a huge difference.”
Great Harvest is a co-op of independently owned family bakeries, with 230 locations. The other two St. Louis locations can be found in St. Charles and Kirkwood. Steve and Alecia Jawor have owned their bakery for 10 years after being longtime fans of the company. “We just fell in love with the products,” Jawor says.
Each morning, Jawor arrives at the store at 4 a.m. to begin baking, using the flour that was milled the day before. Throughout the morning, the bakery produces a variety of fresh items, including breads, muffins and cookies. A monthly bread schedule gives customers an idea of what they can find each day, from onion-dill rye, to cinnamon swirl, although “honey whole wheat is by far our most popular type,” he notes.
While the Olivette store makes a couple hundred loaves a day, it will double its production as the holidays approach, specializing in Thanksgiving whole wheat turkey centerpieces and Christmas and Hanukkah bears that are popular among their customers. “I think we have such a strong following because people appreciate the simplicity and healthiness of our product.”
SAINT LOUIS BREAD CO.
The first French baguette was served in the original Saint Louis Bread Co. in Kirkwood on Oct. 22, 1987. Today, 400,000 baguettes are served each day in the 1,500 bakery cafés nationwide (and a few in Canada). While the company has grown enormously from that first store, it remains true to the basis of its success, says Panera’s Kelli Nicholson. “Bread really is our heritage—it’s who we are and we try to make it the core of everything we do.”
Panera produces more than 16 varieties of bread, as well as pastries, cookies and bagels. Bakers handcraft the bread each morning at the bakery cafés, using steam-injected stone deck ovens. “The heat from the stone deck helps the bread rise quickly, while the steam actually toasts the dough, giving us a really crispy, crusted product,” Nicholson explains. The recipe for the baguettes includes a piece of the original starter that has been going for many years, she adds.
Although Panera continues to introduce new types of bread each year, the focus is always on fresh products. “We won’t sell our day-old products because we are committed to the quality of the bread,” Nicholson says. “Each night, the unsold bakery products are donated, so while we are not backing down from the quality, we’re also helping the community.”