It's a bitterly cold, clear winter's day in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, but inside Bread Alone, a bakery-cafe in the tiny town of Boiceville, the atmosphere is all alluring warmth.
The funky interior -tables bedecked with bouquets of spring flowers and orange walls hung with vintage photos of Bob Dylan (this is Woodstock country, after all) - has something to do with it. But, principally, it's the smells - of freshly baked loaves and rolls of olive and onion focaccia or San Francisco sourdough - that evoke the spirit of hearth and home. There couldn't be a better ad for what Bread Alone's founder, Daniel Leader, calls "the soulful and sensual qualities" of bread. "There is no one who doesn't like the sight or smell of it coming out of the ovens," says Leader. "It evokes warm, gratifying feelings, and it has a universal appeal."
Wiry, buzz-cut and impassioned, Leader is holding court in the middle of the expansive bakery that opens out behind the cafe. Outside are the vans that will ship Leader's 20-plus lines of Bread Alone organic loaves to his three other cafes in New York State, as well as his 150 East Coast wholesale outlets, including New York City's farmers' markets, and upscale chains such as Whole Foods Market and Dean 8c DeLuca. "My first principle with this place?" he asks, as roll-laden trolleys clatter past him. "To make traditional European-style artisanal bread in wood-fired brick ovens. No more, no less."
One might gather that the 52-year-old Leader is an evangelist for dough. But it wasn't always so. Twenty-five years ago, he was a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, working as a chef in the kitchens of several exclusive Manhattan restaurants. "I spent nine years doing that," he says, shaking his head. "But they were old-school French restaurants that closed every August. And when they did, I'd go back to France with the chefs and explore the artisanal food culture of Europe. I was never really into the fancy or macho or entertainment sides of food preparation that you get in the prestige kitchens. So when these guys in France started introducing me to their favorite little bakeries, places that had been handed down from fathers or uncles, where recipes had been handed down for generations, it really struck a chord with me. And the bread was so delicious, of course. One of them said, 'Dan, I bet bread like this is really popular in the U.S.' And I thought, 'It isn't right now -but it could be.'"
Back home, Leader decided to moonlight at a bakery in Little Italy from 11 p.m., when his restaurant shifts ended, to 3 a.m. This dedication, coupled with the recipes he'd been collecting from 50 bakeries in six countries, gave him the grounding he needed. "I wasn't sure if there'd be an audience for the products I wanted to create. And I had no business plan. I now teach bakery-management classes at baking schools, and I always tell the students never to start a business the way I did." He shakes his head. "It was fun from a romantic point of view, but you learn things the hard way."
Luckily, Leader's missionary zeal happened to coincide with the explosive interest in all things foodie that, two decades on, has produced the Food Network, celebrity chefs and the kind of intense interest in food preparation and provenance that Bread Alone, with its small-scale European artisanal tradition, can turn to account. It ticks all the soul-food boxes: Everything made by hand and on the premises? Check - they get through around 100,000 pounds of flour a month. All-organic ingredients? Check - it's actually the only certified-organic artisanal bakery in the New York metropolitan area.
When Leader started Bread Alone he offered five types of bread; now, he says cheerfully, "I don't even know how many we do." With the growth of his business, he's had to face the major question that entrepreneurs in his position usually face: how to build on what they have while staying true to what they are. But to Leader, small-ish really is beautiful. "I have a friend who says to me that if you own a small business in America, you're doing something that's really against the grain," he says, grinning. "The conventional expansion model would be for us to get snapped up by a big conglomerate and have mass-produced frozen Bread Alone par-baked breads in every supermarket in the country. But we don't want to play that game. We're comfortable and rooted here, and we don't want to compromise our hand-crafted, hand-baked ethos. There's a lot of value in being an independent, privately-held business, rather than asking how fast we can grow or how quickly we can sell out." He smiles sheepishly.
But he also believes there's a moral dimension to the promotion of good nutrition, something he's putting into effect a long way from the flour-dusted floors of Boiceville. The South African Whole Grain Bread Project is a scheme conceived by Leader and some Woodstock partners to establish community-based micro-bakeries in South Africa. "We want to produce fortified bread to help improve the nutrition of malnourished people there, particularly those living with H.I.V. and AIDS," he says. Leader is hoping to follow up with job-training and teaching programs, and is also in discussions with the African Center for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) about the idea of using the bakeries as community-building projects for conflict resolution. "I'm trying to use the skills I've honed in my bakery and as an entrepreneur in a new way and new direction to do something good in the world," he says.
"I suppose I'd have to call myself a businessman," concedes Leader, as the flour trucks roll in and a batch of peasant loaves are loaded onto trays. "I have to be responsible for retirement plans and health insurance and all those things. That's fine — small businesses are the engines of growth in many societies and I love the challenges that running my own business brings. But I see this as more than just a business." He sniffs as the peasant loaves are wheeled past; the aroma is heady and his smile is verging on the beatific. "I see it as a kind of calling."
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