Business Guide - Hearthbread Bakehouse

by Ann M. Colford

At the HearthBread BakeHouse production facility in northeast Spokane, you know where you are by the aroma. At the hand production table, where the company's rustic breads come to life, the faintly vinegary scent of sourdough starter settles in among the mounds of shiny dough. In the pastry room, the sweet aromas of scones, croissants and bagels fill the air; the back corner of the plant, where racks of golden brown loaves sit cooling, smells like a cross between Grandma's kitchen and heaven.

But HearthBread President Frank Pigott says he no longer notices the cloud of scent within the plant -- unless his bakers try a new product. "If somebody's working on something new, I can walk right to it just by following the smell," he says.

That's the kind of intimate familiarity with product and process that sets HearthBread's managing partners -- Pigott and brothers Larry and Bob Condon -- apart. The Spokane company, established in 1995, fills a niche in the market between small artisan bakeries and large automated commercial plants. HearthBread makes specialty breads and baked goods for hotels and restaurants (including the Spokane Club, the Coeur d'Alene Resort and Starbucks), and also serves a growing retail market with high-quality breads for the home.

"We're really three bakeries under one roof," says Larry Condon, the company's vice president. "When we started out, we were a rustic bakery. Then we got into mainline breads, and that's where we actually did our biggest growth, getting into restaurants and hotels and fine dining. Then we moved into pastry. Each component is still a separate unit utilizing similar products and similar facilities."

Pigott says HearthBread's mid-range size positions the company well to serve chefs and other institutional food service professionals. The chefs tell the company what they need; the company has the expertise to develop a product and the flexibility to modify its lines quickly.

"Our position is, if we go in the door of a restaurant or hotel, we'd like to have all the business," he explains. "So that's why we do these things that allow us to cater to all their needs. It's been rewarding to us, and we've grown our business significantly locally."

One new success story is the line of low-carb products developed specifically for the retail market to meet the demand from consumers following Atkins-inspired diet plans. Bread is usually off limits for Atkins followers, one of the hardest parts of the diet to follow, so a bread with as low a carb count as possible has an obvious appeal.

"We had some conversations last June about low-carb products," Pigott recalls. "By August, we got in a blend that we had worked on with a mix company, and we launched the product in September -- and created four jobs with that alone. That bread is now in seven states in frozen distribution, so it's just totally taken off."

HearthBread expanded from six employees in 1998 to about 65 currently, with more growth expected. Pigott estimates that sales have increased by an average of 50 percent each year since he joined the company in 2000. The current production facility is chock-full of equipment, and the partners are actively seeking larger quarters. They say they would like to stay right in the same neighborhood in Spokane, because many of the employees live nearby and walk to work. Still, they're tempted to look at North Idaho, especially after last year's steep increases in Washington's Labor and Industries tax rate.

Despite what they see as the state's unfriendly attitude toward business, the partners like being in Spokane. Pigott relocated here after many years on the West Side and says he enjoys the slower pace and family-friendly environment in Spokane. And the Condons were born and raised here, so they feel right at home. As managers, they try to extend that family-friendly sensibility to the workplace, and they've attracted several sets of siblings and spouses to work at the bakery.

Pigott takes pride in the stability of the company's workforce. He says, "If they are proud enough to bring their families to the bakery to show where they work, then that makes us think we're doing the right thing."

Publication date: 02/26/04

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