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Bread & Brew: Portland sees rise in bakeries, bread shops



Photo Credit: PHOTOS COURTESY OF GRAND CENTRAL BAKING - Grand Central Baking Co. and others are capitalizing on the popularity - and functionality - of bread with or without meals.What is it about Portland and fresh-baked bread?

Is it the warmth it permeates, both literally and figuratively? (A 2012 study by researchers in France showed that fresh-baked bread puts us in a better mood and makes us more altruistic to strangers).

Is it the quintessential comfort food, pairing perfectly with our abundance of artisan cheeses, craft brews and wines?

Not to mention the perfect vessel for sopping up meaty gravy on a bone-chilling day.

Whatever it is, Portland’s bakeries are rolling in the dough and seeing a rise in interest (OK the puns stop there), despite the fact that there’s more competition in the market than ever.

From Ken’s Artisan Bakery to Pearl Bakery, Little T American Baker to Grand Central Baking Co. (all named one of America’s Best 50 Bakeries by food website The Daily Meal last year), it’s hard to go far in this town without finding a little slice of heaven (can’t you just smell it?).

Why so much love for something as homely as bread?

“There’s something elemental about beer and bread that appeals to people who like the Portland lifestyle,” says Piper Davis, cuisine manager of Grand Central, who just announced the company will close its Northwest York Street cafe March 31 to add 2,000 square feet of production space. Bread & Brew

While the Northwest location didn’t bring enough foot traffic — and had the lowest sales of Grand Central’s seven Portland locations — sales overall are through the roof, Davis says.

She attributes that to two factors: People are understanding the value of and buying more good bread; and local bars, taverns, cafes and food carts need to source good, local bread, too.

That’s a win for everyone, since most local bakeries rely on both retail and wholesale customers.

At a retail store, location is critical, as Grand Central has learned. The company hopes to open a new Portland cafe this year, Davis says. There’s no lease yet, but it’s on the lookout for the perfect spot.

“Our most successful locations have (car or foot) traffic all day long, and people are working, living and playing in the environment,” Davis says.

A rough count by Bread & Brew finds about two dozen bakeries in Southeast Portland alone, about half of the city’s bakeries in all.

Southeast Division boasts Roman Candle Baking Co., St. Honore Boulangerie, Little T and Petite Provence just blocks away.

To our knowledge, no one has yet declared Portland as having the most bakeries per capita, but we’re guessing the title is not far away.

Don’t expect Grand Central to squeeze their way into the super-hot Southeast Division Street food scene, though.

“Grand Central people are actally the slice of the middle of Portland. We’re not necessarily going after super-fancy neighborhoods,” Davis says, noting a store opened on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, near Ladd’s Addition, years before the area was the hotspot it is today.

Yeast yields

Ken Forkish knows the value of foot traffic firsthand. The owner of Ken’s Artisan Bakery — as well as Ken’s Artisan Pizza and Trifecta Tavern & Bakery — is a

local baking god, frequently landing on “best of” lists here and

nationally.

As he discovered in 2001 when he opened the bakery on Northwest 21st Avenue, “Portlanders want to have coffee, but they usually want to have something else with it,” he says. Hence the need for killer croissants, pastries, breads and cakes.

When Forkish opened Trifecta in November 2013 as part restaurant, part bakery, he intended it to be a retail cafe where people could pop in and buy a loaf of bread. But “after two weeks of having to throw everything away,” he says, he gave up and closed the bakery as a retail spot because there simply wasn’t enough foot traffic.

The area, at Southeast Sixth Avenue and Alder Street, “needs to grow up,” he says. “I was bleeding; how much money can you afford to lose?”

For now, the bakery at Trifecta produces bread for his other sites, and it may reopen as a retail site in the future. “I’d be thrilled if people came in just for a loaf of bread,” he says.

Collin Jones, owner and operator of Crema Coffee + Bakery on Southeast Ankeny Street, says he’s noticed a huge rise in bakeries in the city in the past three years or so.

Since opening in 2004 in a spot that doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic, his shop has done more wholesale than retail business.The wholesale market is, in fact, much more competitive, Jones says, since it is not location based. So Crema has a solid block of wholesale customers, and a wait list with more.

“There’s a lot of great bakeries out there, but there’s way more coffee shops,” he says.

In other words, it’s one thing to open a coffee shop, another to serve food, since that requires another layer of permits and licenses, plus managing food ingredients, tracking costs and materials, and managing food production on site.

Most coffeehouses, as a result, turn to their wholesale bakery friends. It seems to be a happy marriage.

Eric Lester, owner of Pearl Bakery, which celebrates its 18th anniversary this month, also has had a growth year.

Last year it expanded, with a production facility in inner Southeast Portland he calls “Choc n’ Roll,” since they make both chocolate and rolls there.

Lester is looking to add a retail counter at the site, but for now the second, larger oven and added production space is allowing them to do more of what they do best.

“With no preservatives or additives, we’ve got to bake them as fresh as we can,” says Lester, who has passed the day-to-day operations of the bakery to his son.

Eighteen years ago, Lester says, people didn’t know much about artisan bread at all. That’s why they offer tours and do what they can to educate the public. The more bakeries that are out there, the more public consciousness is changed.

“Once they understand good bread, you’ve really helped your business, even with your competition offering good bread, too,” Lester says.

To those who aren’t yet artisan bread converts, local bakers say it’s about much more than freshness and purity of ingredients.

Since handmade bread is slow-fermented, the enzymes have had time to break down the gluten in the flour, so it’s easier to digest. Compared to some store brands, artisan bread at the same price point is $4 to $5 per loaf.

As to why anyone would pay more, Grand Central’s Davis likens it to craft beer.

“Now, half the beer aisle is craft beer,” she says. “That’s my hope for artisan bread. There’s a lot of bad bread out there. Once people eat good bread, they don’t go back.”

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