A century ago, a cultural shift came to Kansas City: Housewives stopped baking bread. It had always been a time-consuming, burdensome task, made miserable during the hot summers. Now, as KC flourished, there were more than 100 neighborhood bakeries — not to mention independent grocery stores and delicatessens — selling fine loaves of white, rye, pumpernickel, wheat and challah. Starting in the 1920s, Westport's Manor Bakery (the forerunner of today's financially troubled Interstate Bakeries) began home delivery of freshly baked bread. The ease and economy of commercially manufactured bread easily trumped the time and effort required to make it at home.
The KC icon Roma Bakery opened in 1923, started by Sicilian-born Joseph Filardo; his cousin, Joseph Cusamano; and his brother-in-law, Jack Binaggia. It's still an integral part of the local bread market, though the family-owned business was sold to Omaha-based Rotella's Italian Bakery nearly two decades ago. The heirs of the founders, John Filardo and Michael Quarrato, continue to oversee the Kansas City distribution arm of the commercial baking company, delivering breads like the ciabattini rolls created for Jasper's Restaurant.
And while some restaurants (Cafe Italia in Parkville, for example) do their own baking, many purchase artisanal breads from local bakers. Lidia's Kansas City bakes its focaccia in-house, but the other breads in its popular basket come from Farm to Market. You may not see patrons carrying paper-wrapped loaves of Le Monde Bakery's baguettes through the streets of North Kansas City, but that shop's loaves are visible in local restaurants and at Johnson County's Dean & Deluca market.
Meanwhile, decades of grocery-store habits have given way to increased demand for artisan bread at home. After all, if you're going to eat carbs, make it count with a buttered slice of baguette or focaccia made this morning instead of a spongy slice of Wonder Bread.
Not that there's anything wrong with the cheap, soft white bread favored at most of KC's barbecue joints. Comedian Bill Cosby taught us that "an American can eat anything on the face of this Earth as long as he has two pieces of bread," and that's still true. But we've come far enough to understand that there's nothing better than smoked beef brisket on, say, Farm to Market sourdough. So here's a snapshot of the metro's hottest bread ovens right now, a week's worth of a food we'd never try to do without.
Farm to Market Bread Co.
216 West 73rd Street
John Friend stands in the center of the cavernous space at 100 East 20th Street, pointing to the cinder-block walls that will hold ovens and equipment for Farm to Market, possibly as early as July. The bakery's owner, Mark Friend, is moving the business from Waldo to the Crossroads, a milestone to complement the company's 20th anniversary next year. The 18,000-square-foot warehouse, which last housed the Prime Rib Grill by Hereford House, is undergoing a $500,000 makeover. (It's tentatively scheduled to open this July.)
"You really can't back up in our current space without hitting something," Mark says. "This gives us the space to focus on each individual bread."
Farm to Market launched in 1993, when Mark Friend and Fred Spompinato started the company with $20,000 (including $5,000 of their own money) — enough to buy an oven and a mixer. They worked in the kitchen of the Classic Cup and made deliveries from the back of a Mazda station wagon. Farm to Market's early successes — Grains Galore and sourdough — remain the bakery's top-selling loaves.
The business outgrew the Cup after two years and relocated to its current bakery and office space in Waldo, where John, Mark's son, began working as a baker after high school. It was then that Kansas City discovered the bakery's ciabatta, which has an airy and open crumb, in grocery-store aisles. The company also installed J. Llopis hearth ovens, imported from Spain, in three area supermarkets.
After graduating from the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State, John, 26, returned last summer to begin working full time at the bakery. He now manages the day-to-day operations, leaving Mark, 57, time to experiment on potential new products, such as a gluten-free bread.
"I've always been touched by John's interest," Mark says.
"I couldn't imagine anybody running this company but me," John says. "It's always been a part of my life."
In the past four years, the bakery's food-service business has begun to eclipse its grocery accounts, with Farm to Market now being served at more than 100 restaurants. In 2011, the Waldo bakery produced 4,118,786 rolls, buns and loaves.
As Farm to Market prepares to move downtown, John envisions the awning he wants to hang over the Walnut Street entrance. "It will say, 'Kansas City Born, Kansas City Bread.' I think there's still a lot of people that don't realize we're local and we've never wanted to be anywhere else."
The wet plop of dough on a wooden prep table keeps time with the soft whir of an oscillating fan, filling in the silence between two men who are kneading and folding loaf after loaf at Fervere. It's Wednesday night at the West Side bakery, and owner Fred Spompinato's short-sleeved plaid shirt is slowly darkening with sweat as he and baker Chad Russell move the dough from table to oven.
"Feel is what it takes years and years of experience to get," says Spompinato, 58. "The dough is different every night, so you have to know right where you want to be just by touch."
He has spent 24 years discovering that touch. A day after graduating from the American Institute of Baking, in 1987, he started working at the Monterey Baking Co., which brought San Francisco-style sourdough bread to the Kansas City area (as the brand Pacific Baking Co.). There, he befriended a fellow baker, Mark Friend, and the two left to form Farm to Market Bread Co. in 1993.
"We did a focus group and found that bread was intensely personal," Spompinato says. "The only thing that everyone could agree on was that they loved bread hot out of the oven."
Friend wanted to expand; Spompinato didn't. He sold his share of the business in 2000 and used the proceeds to open Fervere.
"I knew that I only wanted to bake three days a week. If it was just going to be me, three days and 50 hours would be all I could handle by myself," Spompinato says.
The focal point of the bakery is the heat-retaining hearth oven, with its cathedral top — bricks arranged into a curved peak. Originally heated with oak, it's now powered by an electric burner. As the night goes on, Russell pulls out loaves of ciabatta, cheese slippers, and orchard bread (made with raisins, apricots, apples and walnuts), letting a little heat escape from the oven each time it's opened.
"Bakeries grow out of hand, and you lose focus once your customers dictate who they want you to be," Spompinato says. "This oven ensures that's not going to happen."
At his busiest, he can produce 475 loaves by hand in a night — a far cry from the 50,000 pounds that the Pacific Baking Co. would produce in a day. He looks up from shaping the polenta bread, which is covered with a ShamWow to help moisten the surface and allow sesame seeds to stick to the crust.
"We live in the subtleties of life, not in the extremes," Spompinato says. "This job is nothing like any of the bakeries I've ever been at, and that was the goal."
Just after 10 p.m., the first of the night's retail customers appears, eager to pick up bread that's just out of the oven.
New Traditionalist Bread
With his tousled hair and his tattoo sleeve, Chris Glenn could be the frontman for a rock band. It was only five years ago that he was reviewing music for The Pitch. But when Glenn begins to speak in the dining room of vegan delivery service Conveniently Natural (where he's currently renting kitchen space), it's clear that the hands behind the eight-month-old New Traditionalist bakery have found a new muse.
"The best thing about bread is making bread," he says. "There is no other food that is so transformative, that can go from a pile of dust to a loaf of bread."
Just two years ago, Glenn was a talented but raw baker experimenting on the wood-burning oven in Cafe Europa. Between making pizza dough and batards, Glenn began working on an organic sourdough loaf to sell on Friday nights at the BadSeed Farmers Market.
"Once I could look people in the eye and ask them to give me money for what I was making, I knew I was ready," Glenn says.
So was the Crossroads. Glenn went from selling 30 to selling 60 loaves every night, but the real value might have come from what became a de facto food-business incubator: the back corner of 1909 McGee, where employees of Soda Vie, Oddly Correct and Green Dirt Farm would talk about how to cultivate a following. For Glenn, that meant letting his fig bread and black-pepper-and-parmesan bruschetta do the talking.
"There's just so much of him in his bread," says his wife, Cara, who tags and wraps finished loaves and often demos or delivers them alongside Glenn. "That's what people are tasting."
He left Cafe Europa in September 2011 — they still buy his bread — and opened New Traditionalist. Over the past eight months, he has added the Farmhouse, the Better Cheddar, and Nature's Own Health Market to his client list. And he's back at the BadSeed Farmers Market on Friday nights, testing out new ideas, like his raisin and fennel loaf.
"Kansas City has a chance to have a reputation as a bread-baking town like San Francisco or New York in proportion to our size," Glenn says. "And the coolest idea for me is that I can be part of that community."
Bonito Michoacan Panaderia y Reposteria Fina
1200 Minnesota Avenue
Kansas City, Kansas
Like a jewelry shop displaying its prized gems in glass cases, the nine-month-old Bonito Michoacan puts metal trays of its Mexican breads behind glass doors, the better to view them in their yeasty glory. The exhibition includes the horn-shaped cuernos, the sugar-glazed pan dulce, the sugar-mottled conchas, the crusty French rolls called bolillos, and the saucer-sized and flour-dusted telera.
Although this sleek, shiny panaderia is best-known for its layer cakes and French-inspired pastries, the selection of breads, both plain and sweet, has become a signature of this busy venue. It's open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, making it a place of pilgrimage on Sundays, when most other bakeries are closed.
Several of Bonito Michoacan's employees don't speak English, but the bread here knows no language barrier. Just point at the bakery cases and you'll be handed a round metal tray and a pair of tongs. Load up the tray with whatever catches your eye (don't forget a couple of triangles of the tawny cheesecake known as pay de queso), which is likely to include several bolillos. Take one home and split it, toast it in the oven and slather it with butter. Add a steaming cup of cappuccino, and you have one of the most satisfying simple breakfasts any culture offers.
Le Monde Bakery
308 Armour Road
The biggest difference between the way Jef Dover's Le Monde bakes today and the loaves the bakery made when he started the place back in 2001? Dover has discovered that less is more.
"When we first opened," he says, "we offered French baguette, focaccia, challah, rye, marble rye, whole wheat and cranberry rye. But we got so busy just making baguettes — we do as many as 800 loaves a day — that we didn't have the ability to do a volume of other breads. So today we only bake the baguette, focaccia and challah."
That's plenty to keep him occupied. Le Monde's ovens are in operation seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Breads aren't a huge component of the bakery's retail operation, in downtown North Kansas City ("We might sell three or four dozen [loaves] a day," Dover says), where the glass display cases are loaded with beautifully glazed pastries and flaky croissants, but they're the bread and butter of the bottom line. Dover's biggest bread clients are Dean & DeLuca, several local country clubs and a dozen restaurants. He and his bakers start kneading loaves between 10 and 11 p.m. and usually work through the night until 3 p.m. the following day.
Dover didn't set out to become an artisan boulanger de pain. "I'm a hack," he says with a laugh. "I wish I could say I attended the Cordon Bleu school, but I started out as a crew leader at McDonald's."
A fascination with the art of bread making inspired Dover to practice until he developed the perfect baguette. "The secret is using good flour, a long, slow rise time and steam so that you have a crispy crust on the outside and a yeasty loaf inside."
The thing about bread is that the cost of ingredients doesn't have to be expensive. But the labor costs — for really exceptional bread, anyway — can be very high. "You can't underestimate the importance of a person who really knows how to bake bread," Dover says.
Bread for All Tandoori Naan Cafe
536 Westport Road
Although naan, the soft round leavened flatbread baked in a white-hot tandoori oven, is closely identified with the culinary traditions of India, the bread is also a staple of Muslim cooking. At Westport's new Bread for All Tandoori Naan Cafe, the master baker is Kurdistan native Foad Salih, who begins baking the circles of yeasty dough each day at 10 a.m.
"The oven gets up to about 400 degrees," says owner Stan Yoder. "Foad keeps a very close eye on each piece, because if it's in the oven slightly more than a minute, it will burn."
Salih removes each circle of freshly baked naan with a set of long tongs. When the bread has cooled, four of the 10-inch rounds are tucked into a plastic bag and sold at the restaurant for $4. The cafe uses the fresh bread for its sandwiches — gyro, shawarma, falafel, eggplant-and-cauliflower, beef kebabs — but does a brisk retail business for patrons who simply want to take home packages of bread.
"It freezes very well," Yoder says, "so many of our customers buy several bags at once. We have one customer who uses it to make homemade pizza."
Before the cafe opened in April, Yoder was operating the storefront at 536 Westport Road as a bakery, with Salih each day preparing dozens of packages of the bread, which Yoder and his son Joel delivered to local Middle Eastern grocers. Since April, however, the Yoders are no longer able to supply the small grocery stores. "We can barely keep up with the demand of the restaurant and our own retail customers," Yoder says. "At some point, we'll need to hire an additional baker to keep up with our demand."
904 Vermont, Lawrence
If it's Thursday in Lawrence, the bread specials at WheatFields Bakery are likely to be seedless rye, flaky French brioche, smooth semolina and crusty dinner rolls and baguettes. The 17-year-old downtown bakery and cafe, at Ninth Street and Vermont, offers different specialty breads each day of the week (bagels are Sunday's featured choice), in addition to the standard best-selling loaves. Among the latter are a country French loaf made with organic, unbleached flour; a rectangular ciabatta baked with extra virgin olive oil; and a whole-wheat bread made with heirloom "Turkey" wheat (a hard red winter variety grown in Decatur County, Kansas, and milled at the Heartland Mill in Marienthal).
Mike Humphrey has been one of the four staff bakers at WheatFields for more than a decade. "I've been in food service all my life, but when I started at WheatFields, I knew I wanted to be a baker," he says. "It's one of the most rewarding professions that I can think of."
Humphrey trained under founding baker Thom Leonard. It's that hands-on experience, he says, that separates a great loaf of bread from one that's merely good. "The secret to a perfect loaf of bread," Humphrey says, "is time, temperature and a baker with real experience."
It also helps to have a first-class wood-burning oven. WheatFields owns a 25-ton, Spanish-made J. Llopis, one of eight in the United States. "It's really quite amazing," Humphrey says. "It has a rotating hearthstone, which creates a beautiful crust and crumb."
Brody's Bakery Fills the Gluten-Free Need
Two things happened five years ago that inspired Katie Olson to become a baker: She was diagnosed with celiac disease, and her infant son, Brody, was diagnosed with autism. Olson decided that a major dietary change was necessary for everyone in the family, and she began baking — breads, cakes, cookies, muffins — when she didn't like the gluten-free options available in local stores.
Suddenly the former dog groomer was a vegan-baking goddess. "I never had any intention of making baking into a business," she says. "I became a baker out of necessity. I was never really into baking, not even as a child. I never even had an Easy-Bake oven."
But while baking things for her own use, Olson discovered there was a need for products that could be eaten by those with allergies to wheat, soy, eggs, corn, potatoes, dairy and rice. "I have clients who have allergies to some or all of those ingredients."
The business (named for her son) soon got bigger than she expected. "A few years ago, I had Hy-Vee as a client and had products in 21 of their stores. But it was bigger than I could handle," Olson says. "I'm the only baker. So I decided to focus on special orders and my Internet business. I ship all over the country and will deliver local orders for a fee. I'd like to set up a retail operation someday, but it's cost-prohibitive right now." (For now, there's brodysbakery.com.)
Olson added bread — banana bread, lemon-banana bread, cornbread and a white sandwich loaf — after her first year in business. "I was experimenting a lot. I didn't want to add another bad gluten-free bread to the market.
"I'm pretty picky about gluten-free bread, and some of them out there are either too dense or they crumble like sawdust," she continues. "And they're expensive! So I worked a long time on that recipe. Mine holds up well and can be used for grilled sandwiches or French toast, if people want that. I've gotten good reviews from parents."
More information about Belton-based Brody's Bakery can be found at brodysbakery.com.