BOSTON — Her effort to embrace whole grains in a big way started as a small menu change. Joanne Chang, winner of the 2016 James Beard Award for Outstanding Baker and co-owner of Flour Bakery + Cafe, a seven-store retail operation in Boston, sought to add a whole grain breakfast cookie and a muesli to the menu, as well as update their double chocolate cookie with rye flour.
“January is always a slow month for pastry, so we were also brainstorming some healthy options to entice guests to keep coming to Flour,” Ms. Chang said in an exclusive interview with bake, a sister publication of Milling & Baking News. “I started to do some in-depth research on whole grains (since we were adding them to a few items already) and learned a lot about how the simple addition of whole grains to your diet has huge health benefits. This would not have worked had the new whole grain options not been amazing, but once we started down the path of making things with whole grains we found them to be more flavorful and interesting and delicious. So, we decided to create a sub menu of items that feature whole grains.”
The end result is an innovative new project called WHOLEflour, ushering in a major commitment to whole grains by one of the most influential retail bakeries in the country. The recent introduction of the WHOLEflour line of cookies, brownies, scones, croissants and more began in January across all seven Flour Bakery locations.
“Today’s consumer is knowledgeable and curious and opinionated about what they eat and put in their bodies,” Ms. Chang said. “Offering products with whole grains is hugely important. In the same way we’ve added vegan and gluten-free options to our menu, now we have whole grain items and our guests appreciate these and benefit from them.”
It has been 18 years since Ms. Chang opened her first Flour in Boston’s South End, featuring breakfast pastries, bread, cakes, cookies and tarts, as well as sandwiches, soups and salads. Over the past decade, she’s opened bakery branches in almost every part of the metro area from Cambridge near MIT to Harvard Square and Back Bay.
Ms. Chang is part of a new breed of retail bakery owners who came up through the restaurant industry. An honors graduate of Harvard College with a degree in applied mathematics and economics, Ms. Chang left a career as a management consultant to enter the world of professional cooking, starting as garde-manger cook at Boston’s Biba restaurant. In 1995, she became pastry chef at Rialto restaurant in Cambridge and then moved to New York City in 1997 to work in the cake department of the critically acclaimed Payard Patisserie and Bistro. Returning to Boston a year later with dreams of opening her own pastry shop, she brought her French and American training to Mistral where she served as pastry chef until the summer of 2000.
Today, at Flour, she remains as committed as ever to bringing the most flavorful products to her customers in new and interesting ways. Adding more whole grains to sweet goods and pastries presented her team with a unique challenge.
“We had some great grain flours in house already,” Ms. Chang said. “We’ve tried simple 100% substitution of a whole grain flour for all purpose, which works for some items like our brownie and the double chocolate cookie. And we’re playing around with 50% whole grains for items like our croissant and brioche.”
Every item is tested and compared to the original (for those items already on the Flour menu) in both blind and non-blind taste tests. They start with a small batch and “if we like it, we slowly scale up to ensure it works in large batch production,” she explained.
“In 2018 we are looking forward to start working with Maine Grains for more interesting flours and exploring more ancient grains,” Ms. Chang said. “We are also trying to source more seeds and fruits we don’t currently use — ingredients that have a lot of color or that you may not buy for yourself at home.”
So far, the list of WHOLEflour products includes the following:
• Double chocolate cookie made with 100% rye flour
• Vegan carrot ginger muffin made with 100% khorasan flour
• Apple snacking spice cake made with 100% khorasan flour
• Breakfast cookie made with whole wheat flour, pepitas, sunflower seeds, millet, flax seeds, coconut flakes, oats, bananas and maple syrup
• Brownie made with 100% spelt flour
• Whole wheat apple scone and currant oat spelt scone made with over 50% whole grain flour
• Updated trail mix to “commuter mix,” which includes pepitas, mulberries, goji berries, cashews, almonds and coconut flakes
• Power bar made with cashews, chia, cherries, maple, almonds and cacao nibs
“(In February) we’re excited to release our whole grain croissant, almond croissant and whole grain sausage and cheese croissant, which will have whole wheat flour, whole wheat mushroom brioche and whole wheat cinnamon cream brioche,” Ms. Chang said.
Spreading the word
Flour is employing a variety of communications tools to articulate what’s so exciting about WHOLEflour.
“Social media has been crucial,” Ms. Chang said. “It’s one of the main tools we’ve used to explain why we’re launching this initiative and what menu items are involved. Newsletters have also been critical to that effort.”
In one of their most interesting and effective moves, Ms. Chang is providing WHOLEflour samples to nearby community yoga classes, aiming to work with other fitness studios to promote this initiative as well.
“We have reached out to local and national media outlets, as well as health and fitness bloggers with large followings in the Boston area, who are helping spread the word,” she said. “What we want people to take away from all the outreach is that WHOLEflour is not about deprivation. In fact, it’s about indulging in the things your body actually craves — whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruit and more. Eating whole grains does even more for you than reducing salt, sugar or trans fats — and these tasty pastries that have drawn people to Flour for the past 17-plus years will continue to taste amazing with whole grain flours like whole wheat, spelt, khorasan and rye.”
The science behind Flour’s initiative
During the testing phase, Flour’s bakers first swapped about 50% of the flour to see how it affected the product. From there, they realized a lot of items could work with a full 100% swap for whole grain flour. Now, anything marked as a WHOLEflour baked food is made with at least 50% whole grain flour.
“Whole grain flours tend to absorb more moisture, so as we were increasing whole grain flour in our baked goods we were also adjusting moisture content,” Ms. Chang explained. “Also, a swap from an all-purpose flour to whole grain flour is not a 1:1 ratio. We use weight instead of volume to measure our recipes, and because whole grain flours tend to be more dense we had to really experiment with how much whole grain flour to use.”
Whole grain flour tends to be much more flavorful, she said, so you have to make sure the seasonings (mostly salt and spices, at Flour) are complementary or not overpowered by a more flavorful flour. And texture can be an issue.
“We’ve been testing a whole grain chocolate cake and it’s really chocolaty and rich and amazing,” she said, “but it does have a bit of a rough mouthfeel and we are going to start dipping into the whole grain pastry flours to see if that helps with texture.”
The Flour team started testing some of these whole grain products as early as the beginning of last year.
“It probably takes about one to two months on average to fully test out a product,” Ms. Chang said. “Our teams are so excited to learn more about whole grain baking, and our regular customers are appreciative of being able to incorporate more whole grains into their diets while still eating their Flour favorites. I have a container of WHOLEflour items in my bag at all times because I’m constantly testing and tasting them. I love them.”
Building a growth business model
Ms. Chang was early to recognize the importance of an inclusive mentality to product development, by creating products for customers with dietary restrictions.
“We have made sure to mark our menu items: vegan, nut-free, gluten-free, low sugar, etc., to respond to guests who have various allergies,” she said. “We are not a gluten- or nut-free facility, but we do take care not to cross contaminate with baking parchment and utensils.”
As the co-owner of Flour and Myers+Chang, her main responsibilities are to help her team in their jobs in making Flour/Myers + Chang strong and to anticipate the future and prepare for growth.
“In other words, I focus on ensuring that we are making awesome food, offering warm welcoming service, running an healthy business and making Flour/M+C a great place for both staff and guests,” she said.
Christopher Myers, Ms. Chang’s husband and business partner, is the co-owner of Myers + Chang restaurant and Flour Bakery + Cafe. Prior to opening Myers+Chang in 2007, he created and co-owned four iconic and award-winning Boston area restaurants: Rialto, Radius, Via Matta and Great Bay. Rialto and Radius both earned rare four-star reviews for excellence from The Boston Globe, and all four received Best New Restaurants of the Year awards from Esquire.
Ms. Chang’s energetic commitment to excellence extends beyond the kitchen. She writes pastry articles and reviews cookbooks for Fine Cooking magazine. She teaches classes and advises pastry cooks both within the bakery and at area cooking schools. An avid runner, she competed in every Boston Marathon from 1991 to 2006. She is the author of four cookbooks and is working on her fifth, “Pastry Love.”
Spearheading innovative projects like WHOLEflour is a labor of love for Ms. Chang.
“I love my staff,” she said. “I have had people who have been part of the team for over 10 years, and we are like a big crazy family. I get the majority of my job satisfaction in working with my managers to guide them to be better leaders. It is my responsibility to give them the tools that they need to be great at their jobs and to be learning and growing constantly.”