"It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it." — James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Gracious Bakery + Cafe opened last September on the ground floor of the Woodward Design + Build headquarters, right below the office of Rob Norton, the construction company's marketing manager. He visits the bakery all the time, whether for a quick sandwich, a business meeting over coffee and croissants or a baguette for his family's dinner.
There's only one problem.
"It's the toll it takes on your willpower," Norton says. "I just thank God they close at 3 o'clock. If they were open at the end of the day, when you're just spent and can't resist, I'd be eating opera cake every afternoon."
So goes the tradeoff of access and indulgence when a bakery opens nearby, as many other New Orleanians are learning. The city is seeing a surge in small, independent bakeries, which has landed new outlets for fresh bread and pastries all across town. Four have come along in the last 12 months alone, and more than a dozen new bakeries have opened since 2007.
This new batch of bakeries is highly varied in style and scale. Some, like Gracious, double as cafes with breakfast and lunch menus, while others are small-production bakeries supplying farmers markets, restaurants and retail shops. Still others blend retail and wholesale operations, sending bread out the door both in customers' hands and in delivery vans.
And more are on the way. Laurel Street Bakery, an Uptown fixture since 2004, plans to open a second retail bakery next month as part of a cluster of redeveloped commercial properties in Broadmoor.
Baker and owner Hillary Guttman says this second Laurel Street Bakery will focus on quick-serve bagels and sandwiches along with an array of pastries and breads. The year-old Breads on Oak is looking for a second location, says baker and co-owner Sean O'Mahony, and Maple Street Patisserie, originally opened in 2010, is eyeing an expansion with another retail outlet, confirms co-owner Patricia Ann Donohue.
It's adding up to a boom time for great baked goods around the city, from baguettes to bagels to cinnamon buns. It also augurs a reversal of fortunes for a once-thriving niche of the city's culinary heritage that appeared to be on the ropes just a few years ago.
Michael Mizell-Nelson, a University of New Orleans history professor and an authority on local baking traditions, says, "What is happening now could be seen as offering a glimpse into what once characterized neighborhood bakeries in the city."
Proprietors of these new bakeries cite different, and sometimes personal, reasons for getting into the business.
Cara Benson, a culinary school grad and pastry chef, wanted to be her own boss, so she opened the cottage-sized bakery Tartine on an Uptown side street in 2010. The availability of a particular Magazine Street storefront convinced baker and farmers market vendor Lisa Barbato and her husband, chef Chris Barbato, to take the plunge last spring and open a long-planned bake shop and cafe named Rivista. And Jose Castillo opened Norma's Sweets Bakery in 2011 as a Mid-City expansion of the Latin American bakery his mother started 10 years ago in Kenner; Castillo says demand for their Cuban bread and Mexican pan dulce pastries has skyrocketed as the city's Hispanic population has grown.
The proliferation of these new bakeries also dovetails with the broader trend of consumer interest in transparent, small-scale and traditional food production.
"A resurgence is happening," says Solveig Tofte, a Minneapolis baker who keeps tabs on the industry nationally in her role as a board member of the Bread Bakers Guild of America. "People want that connection and knowledge about the provenance of their food.
"Bakeries lend themselves to this. It's the hearth, the focal point. I know for some customers a bakery is just a place to get a cookie and coffee, but I'd like to think there's something hardwired in us to gravitate to this."
While small bakeries have been making a comeback around the country, Tofte was surprised to learn about the scale and speed of growth in New Orleans. She suggested the trend here may be outpacing other cities, given the size of the New Orleans market.
Some locals agree.
"I'm shocked at how many are opening now," says Dana Logsdon, who ran the Faubourg Marigny bakery La Spiga from 1996 to 2007 and now is a baker for Angelo Brocato Ice Cream and Confectionery. "Baking sounds glamorous, but it's a really hard job. It's labor-intensive and the margins are thin. You don't make much money from it."
Logsdon is an authority on the city's baking history and traditions. As an example of how widespread the neighborhood bakery once was in New Orleans, she points to a city directory from 1906 listing 138 bakeries.
"And the city had a much smaller footprint back then, so you can only imagine the density," she says. "These neighborhoods were filled with small bakeries, but they almost all faded away."
Shopping habits changed with the post-war rise of suburbs and supermarkets, while baking itself changed with mechanization and a turn toward preservative-laden dough. These were all interconnected reasons for a decline nationally in the craft of baking. In New Orleans, Mizell-Nelson says, "By the late 1950s, master bakers in what once was known as the po-boy belt in downtown New Orleans were alarmed about the need to add preservatives and consider things such as shelf-life beyond one day."
By 1970, the late restaurant critic Richard H. Collin counted "about a dozen leading French bread makers" around New Orleans. But by the eve of Hurricane Katrina, the city's traditional bread suppliers had been whittled down to just a handful. United Bakery, perhaps the most prominent New Orleans maker of Italian bread, especially muffuletta loaves, did not reopen after its facility on St. Bernard Avenue was flooded from the levee failures.
But the historic Leidenheimer Baking Company in Central City, John Gendusa Bakery in Gentilly and Alois J. Binder Bakery in Faubourg Marigny all persevered. They're joined by traditional French bakeries La Boulangerie and Croissant d'Or, the city's crop of king cake specialists and a clutch of Vietnamese bakeries, notably Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery, Hi-Do Bakery and Chez Pierre Bakery, as stalwarts of the pre-Katrina baking scene.
The type of loaf regarded as traditional New Orleans French bread — with thin, brittle crust encasing a light, airy inner crumb — is indispensible to the local table and contributes mightily to the essential character of po-boys. Po-boy loaves also are much different than baguettes or other customary bread styles of France. Mizell-Nelson says the distinctive local style evolved here as German and Austrian immigrants began to dominate local baking in the mid-19th century. (Mizell-Nelson, who is teaching this year in Innsbruck, Austria, says the local semmel bread there is just like New Orleans French bread.)
But these loaves were by no means the only breads produced in the heyday of New Orleans baking, and a revival of the diversity and the artisanal approach that was once the norm across the city is now on display at some of the newest bakeries to emerge.
From an unmarked storefront in Broadmoor, in a rundown strip mall that was once home to a boiled seafood market, Graison Gill works with the solitude and singlemindedness of a monk as he bakes distinctive, dark-crusted loaves and baguettes for his new Bellegarde brand. A Los Angeles native, Gill got his start in baking in New Orleans just a few years ago, initially from a shared commercial kitchen. Earlier this year, he opened Bellegarde, taking his business name from deep in the annals of New Orleans history. Bellegarde was the alias used by a baker named Francois Lemesle, who opened what may have been the city's first bakery in the 1720s.
Bellegarde breads are intensely flavorful, with some carrying a distinctive tang under a dense, very dark crust. Gill regards his work as "retro-innovation," explaining his desire to move the standards of baking forward by rooting them in the past.
"You look back at what was here before, and it was something rich," Gill says. "This is a city with a culinary heritage and baking tradition. So what I'm working on now, it's not an arbitrary desire of mine — it's tangible, it has roots here."
At Breads on Oak, O'Mahony and his crew produce round, medieval-looking miche loaves the size of steering wheels, elaborately finished with decorative patterns carved into their thick crusts. Breads on Oak's baguettes seem to burst with crisp ripples and its croissants pull apart into buttery, spiraling webs of layered dough. These are the beautiful, instantly gratifying end results of a baking approach that's both arduous and risky.
"Starting a bakery like this isn't like opening a franchise and following a template," O'Mahony says. "Bakeries like this went just about extinct, so it was like resurrecting a dinosaur. And there's a reason they went extinct, a capitalist reason.
"You're gambling that everything you make for the morning will sell, and it has to sell that day. At a restaurant, you buy ingredients and you might have a few days or even weeks to use them. But this is worse than day trading. You're putting out everything in the morning and hoping that people show up."
And people show up. Expatriate Europeans who recognized the baking style were his first regulars, O'Mahony says, and a liberal sampling policy at the service counter has helped convert New Orleans natives who may have come in looking for po-boy loaves.
"Samples are everything. We have to take a little more time with new customers, show them what these breads are like," he says. "Americans lost their palate for bread generations ago, but I think somewhere deep we all know what this is supposed to be when we taste it."
Guttman, at Laurel Street Bakery, says that by offering daily staples, like bread, and small indulgences, like pastries, bakeries are easy places for people to reconnect with traditionally made foods.
"It can be surprising to people, to eat pastry or breads that don't make you feel rundown after — they're surprised that it has flavor, that it's not a Twinkie, and that just shows the need that's here still," she says. "We need more people making and serving simple, nonprocessed foods."
As bakeries open and expand, their proprietors are training more new talent and passing on the skills of their craft. (Bakers interviewed for this story say prospective employees rarely have baking experience.) There may be new opportunities to promote baking as well. Logsdon hopes to resurrect the Master Bakers' Association, a local professional group dating to 1892 that once flourished in New Orleans.
"My hope is that, working together, we could get some community baking programs started, have community ovens, offer intergenerational courses, increase education and access to this," Logsdon says. "There's so much momentum building now in the city. It's really exciting."