In New York City's Chelsea Market, behind a tall glass wall, a legion of bakers mix, knead and bake. Circles, loaves and twists of dough rise; workers slide trays in and out of gleaming ovens. The product of their labor—a cornucopia of sourdough and semolina, cakes and cookies—is for sale in the Amy's Bread retail shop next door.
Amy Scherber launched Amy's Bread 18 years ago. Amy's began in a small storefront in New York City's Hell's Kitchen in 1992, with five employees and a few wholesale customers. Now Amy's Bread employs more than 150 people and makes over 200 wholesale deliveries every day.
The Hell's Kitchen location is still going strong. But now you can also visit Amy's Bread in the Chelsea Market and watch the team bake most of their breads while you nosh on a Parmesan twist. Amy's Bread also has a retail store in Greenwich Village, on buzzing Bleecker Street, which is open late so customers can satisfy their nighttime cravings for Amy's pain au chocolate, lemon bars and applesauce doughnuts.
Amy is an entrepreneur at heart. "I always had the idea of starting a business," she says, "although I didn't know if I wanted that business to be a marketing company, a restaurant or a bakery."
After graduating from St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Amy moved to New York City to pursue a career in marketing. After three years, she knew it wasn't for her. She went back to school, this time to the New York Restaurant School. At culinary school, and after, Amy gravitated to the sweeter side.
"I had started making the sweet stuff when I was growing up," Amy says. "My mom made bars and cookies, my grandmother made great pies." After graduation, Amy got a job as a pastry cook at Bouley restaurant. "But working with sugar every day didn't appeal to my metabolism," she says. "I just couldn't taste and eat that much sugar, cookie dough, and souffle base."
So Amy followed her other passion: bread. She left for France to train in bakeries. It "became clear to me that baking was what I loved," she says, "and that a good bakery was what New York needed." In 1992, quality bread was scarce in New York City.
But Amy had never worked in a bakery in the Big Apple. "I had no repertoire," she says. "It gave me the freedom to make whatever I wanted." Amy's dream was "to bring something different, crusty, and beautiful" to the city.
She started with some simple breads: a good country sourdough, a black sesame bread and semolina bread. Her semolina with raisins and fennel quickly became one of her signature breads. "In the early '90s there wasn't much in the way of olive bread," she says. So Amy, an olive lover, concocted a black olive loaf. "Today I have five kinds of olive bread. I'm kind of obsessed with olive bread."
Amy's list of products grew. She loved the ubiquitous rosemary in the south of France, where she had spent time, so she started to sell a fragrant rosemary bread. Her creations, she says, "didn't reinvent the wheel, they were just unique, interesting items." Amy's Bread sells dark, crisp whole wheat with walnuts. There is potato-onion dill bread, focaccia with onions, braided challah and brioche.
Amy published her bread cookbook, Amy's Bread, in 1996. She has just edited the book and published a revamped version this year. The Sweeter Side of Amy's Bread came out in 2008.
How does Amy maintain inspiration after 18 years in the bakery business? She plans her travels around tasting and exploring bread. A recent trip to Berlin gave her the idea for a seeded roll. "Everyone loves it, our staff always eats it, there's definitely a following for it." She is deeply aware that she has to be careful and picky with new products. "We can't just add an endless number of things; everything has to be well-conceived. There are a finite number of possibilities."
Eighteen years after founding Amy's Bread, Scherber faces different challenges. With a growing company, she has to worry about keeping her quality high and her products consistent. When it was just Amy and a few underlings, she had her own perfectionism to rely upon. Now, with so many more variables and so many more people involved, she says, "I give the staff freedom to use their skills and knowledge. But sometimes letting things go is hard."
It frustrates Amy to find too-chewy crust, or air pockets. "It's really hard to go into the store and feel OK about saying 'This rye bread is not exactly what it could be.'" But Amy knows that when you make a certain amount of products and do a certain volume of business, you have to find a certain balance.
But to aim for the highest standard of quality-control, she has just finished leading four seminars in two days to retrain, renew and refresh her team. "It was amazing because people asked so many questions." Amy's philosophy is to educate her staff as much as possible, so they will have the answer to questions and the ability to do the best possible job.
"It's a long journey," she says, "I'm not giving my two-weeks notice anytime soon." Her biggest surprise? "I never expected that Amy's Bread would become a household name. It has a life of its own."
She derives immense joy in knowing people take pleasure in visiting her bakery, that families are gathering around their Thanksgiving table breaking Amy's Bread.
Part of Amy's success is the product and the recipes, but, she says, "A lot of it is having a clear vision. You need your staff and customers to understand that vision."
"I love the team I work with," Amy says, "I'm proud of them."