I talked with three local bakers to see what goes on behind closed bakery doors and in the wee hours of the morning as our daily bread is made.
"I always wanted to bake bread when I was little," says Carl Burgi, co-owner and baker at Alpine Bistro and Bakery on North Monroe. "As a boy, I made cookies, but now I've really got my chance."
Baking is a new gig for Burgi, who has been making donuts for five years for his north-side donut shop, Nifty Fifties, and now at Alpine. When he and his wife purchased the former Genova Bread Company 18 months ago, they envisioned both a neighborhood bakery and supplying bread for local restaurants and delis. Mike Ethridge, a baker at Genova, came on board to teach Burgi the tricks of the trade.
"I've been baking bread for six months," Burgi reveals. "We're getting into artisan breads now, made with a sourdough starter. We bake a large variety of bread -- wheat, rye, rolls, mini-loaves and bagels -- in our stone oven."
Jacque Sanchez has owned the long-running Great Harvest Bread Company franchise on Spokane's South Hill for close to 30 years. "It all started when my husband was stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls,
Montana," Sanchez says. "I baked my own bread and bought flour from Great Harvest there. When we moved to Spokane and Great Harvest began offering franchises, I thought opening a shop here would be fun. But it was very hard work -- 14-hour days -- and then you've got to be nice to your customers."
Joe Thomsen had almost eight years of experience making quick breads for his coffee shop, Joe's Coffee and Pastries. Now he's the manager at Bouzies Bakery.
"When I was getting ready to close my shop, I met the gal who originally started Bouzies Bakery," he says. "She needed a baker and I needed a job. After training with her, a year later I'm managing the place with a staff of six."
Many bakers start their days before the sun rises so customers will have fresh bread for their morning meal.
"I come in at 3 am to make bread, then I do deliveries, go home to sleep, get up and get my kids off to school," Burgi says. "Then I come back to Alpine by 9:30 am and work till 4 pm and sometimes 6 or 7 pm if I'm working on bagels."
Sanchez remembers when she was baking bread for her fledgling Great Harvest shop. "I'd get up at 3:45 am so I could be at the bakery by 4:30 am," she says. "I'd start mixing doughs for five kinds of breads. A gal came in at 8 am and we'd knead the bread and watch it rise. From noon to 5 pm, I'd sell my bread. Sometimes I wondered why we sold our Corvette to do this."
As manager, Thomsen has some leeway. "I get to Bouzies at 6 am to start mixing the first batch of bread -- the longer-proofing ones -- and start them rising," he says. "They have to ferment for three hours before they're ready to shape. A second person comes in at 9 am to start the second batch of breads -- ciabatta and focaccia. At 10 am, we shape and portion the bread. A third person comes in at noon to score loaves and put the bread in the oven. I leave at 1 pm, when the breads I mixed are ready to go in the oven."
With schedules like this, you'd have to really enjoy your work. Burgi, Sanchez and Thomsen relish it.
"I love creating something with my hands," Burgi says. "Watching the bread rise, the artistry of artisan breads -- it's all satisfying. Mentally it's relaxing and gives me time to daydream."
Sanchez likes another aspect of the business. "I like meeting new people and making friends with customers," she says. "It's gratifying to give my product to organizations in the community who need it. By having my own business, I have the freedom to do what I want when I want."
Thomsen says he likes the whole process of making bread. "You start with a pile of flour and water and create something delicious. The best part is hijacking a loaf as it comes out of the oven and ripping it apart. I'm spoiled rotten with that."
But every business has its downside, too.
"The long hours are rough," Burgi says. "And my sleep pattern is interrupted."
Sanchez also doesn't enjoy getting up early to bake, although she'll be doing that again when she sells her South Hill shop to her long-time manager and opens a Great Harvest in Liberty Lake early this summer.
"In the summer, working in a bakery is like working in a sauna," Thomsen says. "It's also a very physical job. We're throwing around 40- or 50-pound tubs all day."
So what motivates these bakers to keep putting out the bread?
"We want to succeed at this business," Burgi says. "Watching the whole creation aspect is good, too."
For Sanchez, it's the joy of meeting new people every day. "I liked standing around the kneading table and talking with the other bakers, too," she says.
"For me, it's the hands-on, meditative aspect of baking bread," Thomsen says. "Creating something that's greater than the sum of its parts is satisfying."
So next time you bite into that loaf of flavorful bread, remember the hands and skills that went into making it for you. n