LAKE KATRINE, N.Y. — Artisan bread is enjoying a renaissance. And the bread category in general could sure use it.
Wheat production this year is pegged at 1,837 million bus, down 20% from 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If those numbers hold, the 2017 crop will be the smallest since 2006. Lower yields account for some of the drop, but much of it is due to fewer acres being planted. Wheat consumption, meanwhile, began falling sharply in 2000, reversing a three decade-long upward trend, according to a 2016 report by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
At the retail end of the spectrum, fresh bread sales in the 52 weeks ended July 9 totaled $8.9 billion, down 0.1% from last year at the same time, according to Chicago-based market research firm Information Resources Inc. Unit sales were 3.8 billion, down 0.7%. Those declines are less than in recent years, but operators continue to adapt to an industry that’s taken a beating in the carb-conscious — and now gluten-conscious — age.
But despite all the gloomy news, it’s important to keep one thing in mind: not all bread is created equal.
While suppliers of commercial bread products have suffered, those on the grocery perimeter have fared better. The instore artisan bread category is on an upward trajectory, driven by health claims and by increasingly sophisticated customers’ appreciation for well-made bread. Artisan sales are increasing at about 2% to 3% per year, according to one industry estimate.
That growth has seen the rise of artisan bakeries that are pushing production and distribution to the point where they’re changing the definition of what an artisan bakery can be. That evolution has produced a new set of challenges, as bakers who may have started their businesses with wood-fired brick ovens, doing everything by hand, try to expand their businesses while still maintaining their high standards.
Sometimes, that requires a reevaluation of just what it means to be “artisan.”
Like most artisan bakeries, Lake Katrine, N.Y.-based Bread Alone started small. In 1983, Dan Leader left New York City for the Catskill Mountains to fulfill a dream of baking organic bread on the hearth of a wood-fired brick oven. Leader and a group of friends built the oven. Product was sold out of the bakery’s side door or from the Leader family station wagon.
But from the very beginning, said Dan’s son, Nels Leader, who joined the company in 2012, Bread Alone has had a growth agenda.
“If you look at our history, it seems like we’ve continuously made efforts to get our bread out to more folks, as tastes have evolved,” Nels Leader said.
Much has changed in 34 years. The retail bread world Bread Alone entered in the 1980s was “the land of Wonder Bread,” Nels Leader said.
“You weren’t going to find ciabatta and baguettes on the shelf,” he said.
But change was in the air, and demand for higher-quality bread has been growing steadily ever since, Nels Leader said. And in recent years, it’s really picked up steam.
“Interest has increased remarkably the last few years,” Nels Leader said. “Early on, this was very much a niche. But with Whole Foods and other retailers, awareness has certainly grown.”
For Bread Alone and other New York bakers, some of that higher demand was first driven by progressive New York City chefs and high-end grocers in the region, Nels Leader said. It’s now spread to more mainline grocers, which Bread Alone supplies and sees as key to future growth.
“We’re really proud of our traditional grocery business,” Nels Leader said. “We want to get our bread out to a wide variety of folks at a price point that’s approachable. We’re just as, if not more, happy to get into a Pathmark as into a Whole Foods in Union Square or a boutique store in Brooklyn.”
Artisan bread’s rise can be traced largely to consumers’ increased awareness of and desire to consume healthier foods and foods that are produced more responsibly, Nels Leader said.
Bread Alone and other organic bakeries, for instance, have benefited enormously from soaring consumer demand for organic products. The biggest purchasers of organic foods in 2017, he points out, are Wal-Mart and other retail giants.
“That’s a big shift from 10 years ago,” he said.
Spikes in demand for whole grain bread and increased awareness of the health benefits of sourdough and natural fermentation also have helped drive sales, Nels Leader said. As for the gluten-free craze, Bread Alone is not overly worried.
“The gluten-free conversation is becoming more sophisticated,” he said. Specifically, consumers are recognizing the benefits of fermentation and other qualities of bread, rather than throwing all bread into the “bad” category.
And while the gluten-free movement has helped people who really do have a serious allergy to gluten, Nels Leader said, that’s a small minority of those who’ve jumped on the bandwagon. He said gluten-free’s moment in the sun won’t last forever.
“I feel very strongly that it’s a diet trend that will come and pass like so many before it,” he said.
Numbers help tell the story of artisan’s rise. When Bread Alone was founded, Nels Leader said, there were maybe two or three bakeries like it. Now, the number is closer to 25 to 35. Since opening its new baking facility in Kingston, N.Y., in 2014, Bread Alone produces about 15,000 loaves of bread every day.
“We’re growing, and we strive to grow the business in a way that creates opportunities for our employees but doesn’t compromise quality,” he said. “If you grow too quickly, it’s stressed. At the same time, we don’ t like to stand still.”
Growing your business while still maintaining the high standards that made you want to be an artisan baker in the first place is a balancing act that all bakers like Bread Alone must perform, Nels Leader said. And there’s no one way to do it.
“Every bakery has its own personality, every bakery has its own opinions” on how to grow wisely, he said. “There’s no one way to set up a bakery. It’s a highly individual pursuit.”
On some topics there is widespread agreement. Mixing by hand, for instance, is not realistic if you want to bake on the scale of a Bread Alone, Nels Leader said. Nor is baking in a wood-fired oven, as Daniel Leader did in the company’s early years. (Though some, Nels Leader said, still would argue fiercely that wood is the only true way to bake artisan).
Other questions faced by artisan bakers as they scale up, however, have a variety of answers. Bread Alone, for example, initially switched from hand-cutting to machine-cutting 400 lbs of dough into 30-lb pieces. Hand-cutting, Nels Leader said, is “hard, backbreaking work.” But cutting by machine requires the use of oil, which, Bread Alone discovered, created its own problems — problems that outweighed the labor-related challenges of cutting by hand. The company went back to hand-cutting.
Bread Alone also still turns its dough by hand, folding it over during fermentation to build strength. Other actions, like shaping, are done through a combination of machine and by hand, Nels Leader said.
“We have our hands in the bread at every point that’s important to quality,” he said.
If Bread Alone decides to make a switch from hand to machine, it’s only because it knows the machine can do the job without sacrificing one ounce of quality control. The German-made Heuft ovens the company uses, for example, provide the best balance in the industry between being strong enough to handle the hardest jobs and being consistent enough to turn out only the highest-quality bread, Nels Leader said. Bread Alone switched to Heuft three years ago. Since then, Acme, Tartine and other artisan bakers have followed suit, he said.
“We were the first in the U.S. with an artisan focus to use them,” he noted.
Nels Leader also raved about the Rheon dough dividing equipment Bread Alone uses to divide 30-lb pieces of dough.
While more and more consumers are educated about the benefits of giving artisan bread a try, there’s still a marketing gap that Bread Alone wishes it was better equipped to fill, Nels Leader said.
“I wish we could do more instore education beyond packaging, but we’re not in the same position as a Kraft or Nabisco,” he explained.
The company compensates by keeping up an active social media profile and getting face time with consumers at farmer’s markets, he said.
“We’ve put a lot of work into telling our story,” he said.