Chef-Driven Bakeries Rise and Shine

Chef-driven bakeries score a sweet side of the business

Throw out old notions of bakers. They’re carving out a concept to call their own. Chef-driven bakeries—rooted in bread or pastry programs at concepts that typically serve only breakfast and lunch—are gaining traction, as these commanders in flour strike out on their own.  

Think of Stephanie Izard, James Beard award-winning chef, who opened diner-bakery Little Goat in Chicago. Or Matt Tinder, a former pastry chef of Michelin-starred restaurants in the San Francisco area whose bakery is slated to open this month in metropolitan Seattle. Much like Tissa Stein’s Tabor Breadin Portland, Oregon, Tinder’s model features bread and other baked goods made with locally grown ingredients, including freshly milled grains for flour.

The hyper-local, slow food ethos is at the core of what defines chef-driven bakeries. “There’s a public need to recognize where our food, and our grain, is coming from,” says Evrim Dogu, co-owner of Sub Rosa Bakery in Richmond, Virginia. “We want our products to have integrity, not as a cliché but as a real tie to the farmer.”

Slow Your Roll

"Bread is the soul of our business, but pastries keep the lights on."

-Evrim Dogum, co-owner of Sub Rosa Bakery

Artisanal bakers like Dogu and Stein invest in more than ingredients for the sake of a better product. Specialized equipment and slowing down the breadmaking process dramatically are par for the course. Dogu uses local grains milled on-site with an Osttiroler, a $10,000 stone mill imported from Austria. “The idea is to create a bread from the ground up, from our area’s unique terroir,” he says.

Sub Rosa’s signature bread is a local hard red wheat, which is sifted. “It’s our version of a white bread, but it’s really brown,” Dogu says. “It messes with people’s sense of what a white bread is. Our breads really highlight the grains.”

All of the grains Stein uses at her bakery—red wheat, rye and spelt—are grown in Oregon; she knows the farmers and deals with them directly. The flour is milled on-site with an Osttiroler as well, but there’s no sifter, so the bran, endosperm and chaff remain in the flour. The bakery’s signature bread is a red wheat boule that’s half hard-red winter wheat and half red-fife wheat, an heirloom grain that’s been cultivated in the northwest for centuries.

“The red wheat is deeply flavorful and hearty, and the heirloom wheat is tannic and bold, so it adds backbone,” she says. 

Make More Dough

Chef-driven bakeries often evolve from restaurants that start baking bread in-house, like Izard’s Girl & the Goat in Chicago. Not long after amping up the bread program, she opened a diner-bakery concept called Little Goat. The bakery’s takeout sandwiches and salads have become so popular that they’re premade each morning for a quicker lunchtime service, like her shrimp sandwich on a housemade bun with spicy mayo, avocado mash with cream cheese and masa chips.

Billy and Kristin Allin, owners of Cakes & Ale and Cakes & Ale Cafe in Decatur, Georgia, had such a great response to the bakery programs at their two restaurants that it warranted its own concept. A year ago, the Allins partnered with their bakers, David Garcia and Abigail Quinn, to open Proof Bakeshop in Atlanta. It’s the central baking kitchen for the other restaurants, but Proof has an identity of its own.

Like other chef-driven bakeries, local flour and organic produce are the staple ingredients for pastries and other baked goods. Buttercream made from European butter fill layers of cakes, while croissants involve a three-day process. 

“We respect the old French traditional approach of making bread and pastries,” Garcia says. “Our products go through an extended fermentation which develops flavor, helps with digestion and caramelizes beautifully.”

To be the most profitable, however, chef-driven bakeries use bread as the foundation for breakfast and lunch service. For example, Proof uses their housemade English muffin to sandwich together a baked local egg, ham and Gruyere. Local eggs also fill a seasonal quiche while sandwiches include framani soppressata on housemade ciabatta with chard, preserved lemon ricotta and Dijon. 

“Offering breakfast and lunch gives our bakers a chance to cook savory food,” Garcia says. “I love savory cooking so I enjoy it.”

Dogu estimates that his bakery sells 80 breads a day and between 100 and 300 pastries each day. “Bread is the soul of our business, but pastries keep the lights on,” he says.

Show Off Them Loaves

Offering items wholesale can also increase profitability when a bakery has space and labor, says John Kraus owner of Patisserie 46 in Minneapolis. He cautions that wholesale delivery and labor costs aren’t worth the effort without a long list of clients to support it. He has 30.

Location is important for any restaurant, perhaps more so for a chef-driven bakery because Americans culturally do not shop daily for bread. Selling baked goods at farmers markets can help and reinforce a brick-and-mortar location. 

Runner & Stone in Brooklyn, New York, used farmers markets to gain a following for their baked goods while the bakery-restaurant was still under construction. “It’s a great advertisement for us,” says baker Peter Endriss. Runner & Stone has maintained that relationship to sell the same housemade breads and pastries that line its entry at the local farmers market twice a week. 

Shake and Bake

"Customers are excited when it’s something local and there’s a direct line from the farmer."

-John Kraus, owner of Patisserie 46

A chef-driven bakery often starts with the classics. The almond croissant is the best selling pastry at Patisserie 46 and Runner & Stone.

“An almond croissant is a no-brainer because people love them,” Endriss says. But, as with bread, he’s reinvented the classic by using natural, unblanched almond flour to temper the sweetness. “Our almond croissant is not syrupy and heavy. We bake it dark, so it has a nice crunch.”

Some chef-bakers break tradition by using innovative flavors like Neil Robertson’s Crumble & Flake in Seattle. The former fine dining pastry chef’s menu includes items like smoked paprika and cheddar croissants, a Danish filled with goat cheese and housemade jam, and pink peppercorn shortbread. 

Patisserie 46 offers a Provençal breakfast bread that only started popping up on U.S. menus in the last decade. His version features Spanish anise, orange peel, olive oil and local flour. The flavor combination “takes a little getting used to, especially for breakfast,” he says, though the anise is subtler than customers expect. 

Like his contemporaries, Kraus says it’s all about bringing something new and different to the table. “Customers are excited when it’s something local and there’s a direct line from the farmer,” he says.

Liz Logan is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other publications.