Sometimes you just have to own your nickname, no matter how you feel about it. And that is exactly what Tim Healea does. His bakery’s name, little t american baker, came about when he was on the 2002 Bread Bakers Guild Team USA with another Tim, Tim Foley. To distinguish between the two, team coach Craig Ponsford christened Healea Little T. “It just stuck. And in the artisan baking world, a lot of people call me Little T,” Healea laughs.
The last part of the bakery’s name, american baker, reflects Healea’s philosophy on bakery: using traditional, artisan methods but taking the products up to another level, creating products that are different than what many might expect. They are not specifically German, French or Italian, although those baking traditions were inspirational. “It’s an American bakery. I really wanted to say you don’t have to be French or German to be a great baker,” Healea says. “We do a lot of typical stuff, but it might just have a little bit of a twist.”
And similar to America’s being a melting pot of nationalities, Healea’s products are often a combination of ideas he’s gathered from other bakers and meshed to create products unique to little t.
The bakery’s house bread is a sourdough made from a liquid levain and whole wheat and rye flours, but after working on the formula for more than a year, Healea still hadn’t produced a bread he was happy with. He found exactly what he needed from an article in the Bread Bakers Guild of America newsletter that showcased a bread very similar to Dutch crunch. The rye crackle features rye flour mixed with beer and a small amount of yeast. By combining the Dutch crunch formula with his sourdough formula, Healea finally created the perfect house bread.
Although the house bread may be a sourdough, the bakery is best known for its baguettes. The dough, which has a small amount of yeast, is mixed in bulk and cold fermented overnight, atabout 48°F. This slow rise develops the flavor and crumb/crust characteristics. “Our fermentation method does give a really good flavor, and the baguettes don’t stale as quickly,” Healea says.
The inspiration for the slow rise baguette came from a baker Healea visited in Paris who let his dough ferment for 48 to 72 hours. While the cold fermentation doesn’t produce as much volume as a traditional baguette, it does provide a nice flavor and good crust and storage characteristics. “It’s not a traditional French baguette with a thin crust and a really light crumb, but it’s done really well for us,” he says.
The slow fermentation also allows bakers to arrive at 4 in the morning so fresh bread leaves the ovens at 7 when the bakery opens. Two to three batches of baguettes are baked off throughout the day, guaranteeing customers fresh loaves. Baguettes are available in short skinny, long skinny and double long. “Essentially it’s like a demi baguette but I didn’t want to have a French name attached to it,” Healea says. While he was in culinary school in New York he used Eli’s Bread, where long French loaves were called doubles and triples. “I liked that idea,” he adds.
Fresh take on classics
Slab bread, another bakery favorite, is Healea’s take on San Francisco’s famous Acme Bread’s version. The ciabatta dough features a mix of poolish, starter and liquid levain. The resulting flat bread is topped with coarse sea salt, fresh herbs or brushed with olive oil. Its light texture and thin, soft crust make it a good sandwich bread. “It is really popular,” Healea says. “We actually call it crack bread because once you start eating it, you can’t stop.” His involvement in Team USA and with the Bread Bakers Guild also has inspired a few of little t’s products. Healea credits Robert Jörin, Team USA 1999 and chef/instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone, with providing inspiration for several products, including baked donuts and pretzel sticks.
The pretzels, a demi-baguette shape, are dipped in lye as is traditional. They are popular sold alone or as the base of a breakfast sandwich of Black Forest ham, organic white cheddar and Dijon butter. Citrus brioche with candied orange peel and Grand Marnier is another item inspired by fellow Team USA members.
A formula from Didier Rosada, a coach for many Bread Bakers Guild Team USAs, influenced little t’s sevengrain carrot bread. Like a multi-grain ciabatta, the dough is very wet and features seven-grain cereal and organic carrots. “It’s not really sweet, but it has a little more character than a regular ciabatta,” Healea says.
In addition to breads, the bakery also offers a range of viennoiserie, including several versions of the croissant. The chocolate croissant is made with the bakery’s own praline paste ganache. The whole wheat croissant is the perfect base for the bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich. “Croissants are little too rich for breakfast, but this one has less butter in it, and the whole wheat flour gives it a bit nuttier flavor,” Healea says.
The date bar is similar to a Basque tart made with jam or pastry cream, but the crust is between a shortbread and a flaky pastry with a little baking powder in it to make it a bit cakey. little t makes its own filling from Medjool dates and orange juice. “We’re getting ready to ramp up production on those,” he says. “They are a really big seller.”
The product line also includes scones, coffee cakes, cookies, bread pudding, Danish, individual tarts and cupcakes. “People don’t normally think of us for cupcakes,” Healea says, “but our cupcakes are really freakin’ good.” Varieties include almond-flavored white and devil’s food, which are topped with either bittersweet ganache or Italian meringue buttercream. “They are very simple, but they are really good,” he adds.
A favorite of Healea’s are the seasonal turnovers. “No one really makes turnovers any more, but I love them and it’s something I wanted to make,” Healea says. The Italian-style dough, learned from Philippe LeCorre from the now defunct National Baking Center, features butter in the detempre and flour in the beurrage, which creates a stable puff pastry with a tender mouthfeel. “It’s not really like a normal French puff pastry. It makes a really nice turnover,” he adds.
In much the way that Healea takes traditional products and turns them on their heads, he has done the same to his bakery’s retail space. He was looking to open a neighborhood bakery, and in Portland, finding a neighborhood without an established bakery was a bit tricky, but he finally found the ideal space. The one problem: the building being constructed was a very modern design in an older residential area. “I was a little nervous. This building was a little controversial, so I wasn’t sure how people would react, but they’ve been really supportive,” Healea says.
The building’s modern exterior is reflected in the bakery’s décor. The interior features stainless steel counters softened by recycled fir and glass showcases. The large, custom built, wooden pastry display case with glass shelves allows full visibility of the products, but is not always ideal for service, Healea admits. “I really wanted to have a large case that would really show off the product, but it is sometimes difficult to serve people because you can’t really talk to them through the case,” he says.
Bread is mostly displayed in the window in another wooden case with glass shelves. While in Australia, Healea visited a bakery with a bread display in the window and brought the idea back to the States. The window display helps designate the nontraditional space as a bakery. “Our décor is a little different than what people expect and maybe a little ahead of the curve,” Healea says. “There are mixed reactions to it, but I like it. It’s an expression of me.”
Limited production space
As much attention was paid to the production space as the retail area. Healea designated only 700 sq. ft. for production, so he knew he would have to make the most of his equipment choices. As with almost all bakeries, a spiral mixer was a must, as were the reach-in freezer, walk-in cooler and, of course, an oven. Since he was baking both bread and pastry items and didn’t have room for two ovens, Healea chose a cyclothermic deck oven. He found what he was looking for on the 2007 IBIE show floor.
His most urgent need was flexibility, and the oven provided that with two top decks for pastry products and the bottom three designated for bread products. “Because it was at the show, the oven has a computer that wouldn’t normally be featured on an oven this small,” Healea says. “So, I kind of got a tricked-out oven.”
He also knew he needed a reversible sheeter for the amount of laminated dough he would be running. “That for some people is more of a luxury item, but that’s my favorite machine in the bakery,” he says. One purchase he made that wasn’t in the original plan was the proofer/retarder. He received money from the Portland Development Commission that had to be spent on equipment, so he splurged on the proofer/retarder.
Production begins around 4 a.m., made possible by his adjusted fermentation process for bread doughs. About half of the doughs are already mixed, and bakers start the day dividing and shaping bread loaves. The other doughs, such as pretzel, slab and carrot bread doughs, are mixed the day they are baked. Most of the 15 bread varieties are available daily.
The pastry crew arrives around 5 a.m. The laminated dough is mixed one day, then sheeted, divided and shaped the next. It is placed in the freezer overnight before being proofed and baked off the following day. About 25 different pastry products are available daily, culled from about 60 options. Production continues until about 2 p.m.
An evening production shift, which handles little t’s wholesale pastry business, comes in at 4 p.m. While about 15 percent of little t’s sales come from wholesale, half of its bread sales are to wholesale customers. However, Healea sees retail as his avenue for future growth. The limited amount of wholesale allows little t to be a truly neighborhood bakery, with accounts including a local coffee roasterie with four cafés and local restaurants and markets. All wholesale clients have to pick up their products; little t doesn’t have delivery vehicles.
“I never intended to do a lot of wholesale. I want to stick to retail, there’s a better margin on it, and it allows me to stay small and focus on the individual product items and keep the staff small and manageable,” Healea says.
“We are a neighborhood bakery, not a destination bakery,” he adds. “Our focus is on freshness and trying to take traditional ideas and repurpose them.”
Starting from scratch
With more than a decade of baking under his belt, Tim Healea decided to go out on his own and opened his bakery, little t american baker, in Portland, Ore., in June 2008. He had earned his degree in journalism from Northwestern University, but after working for a few years in the trade publishing business in New York City, he decided he was better suited to making food.
It was while he was in culinary school in New York that he fell in love with baking. After working for Pearl Bakery in Portland for about 10 years, he began working as a consultant. “I thought I’d like the variety of consulting projects, but I really missed going to the same place every day and working with the same people. I missed the routine,” Healea says.
He knew that a partnership wouldn’t work for him, so he turned to the Small Business Administration for financing. “It took awhile to get financing,” he says. “Just being responsible to the bank and not having a partnership has worked really well. All the decisions are mine, and it gives me a lot of freedom to do what I want.”
Once he found the perfect space–new construction in an established neighborhood–Healea worked with an architect who designed everything in the retail area from the display case to the lighting. The display cases and wooden wall elements were custom built by a cabinetmaker. “I did have a limited budget, so what we did spend money on was the wood pieces. They soften the more industrial and modern look,” he says.
Healea also paid close attention to lighting. He chose a fluorescent lighting system, but worked with the architect to find the fixtures that gave the space the ambience he was looking for. “When people walk in, it’s a modern place and looks clean,” Healea adds.
After about a year, little t was ready to open for business, and has grown considerably in nearly three years. Healea had seven employees when he opened and now has 16. “Since I already had a decade of experience, I did avoid some headaches,” he says. “We started fairly slowly, and I didn’t hire a lot of staff right away.” He is happy with his product mix and the number of employees as well as the breakdown between retail and production space. The retail space is about 2,000 sq. ft and production is about 800 sq. ft.
Would he have done anything differently? His experience had been in extremely busy bakeries, and he designed the service space accordingly. Since it is a neighborhood bakery, customer flow fluctuates. “When it’s not super busy, the design isn’t as successful for service. People don’t necessarily know which register to go to. I might have designed the counter flow and how I do service a little differently,” Healea says. “But I don’t know if I could have done it any better.”
little t at a glance
|Name:||little t american baker|
|Management:||Tim Healea, owner|
|Market served:||Southeastern Portland|
|Primary business:||85% retail; 15% wholesale|
|Bakery size:||1,950 sq. ft. (1,250 sq. ft. retail, 700 sq. ft. production)|
|Product line:||artisan breads and pastries, cookies, bars, cupcakes, quiches, sandwiches, salads and soups|
|Product breakdown:||retail–bread, 25%; pastry, 25%; food, 25%; coffee, 25%|
|Number of employees:||16|
|Major equipment:||proofer/retarder, spiral mixer, water chiller, reach-in freezer, walk-in cooler, deck oven, reversible sheeter|
|Plans:||use Facebook better for marketing, concentrate on retail sales to grow business|
|Bakery supply distributors:||GloryBee Foods, Provvista|
sampling of prices
|Chocolate chip cookie||$1.50|
|Baked currant donut||$2.50|
| Drop biscuit |
-with lemon curd
-with marionberry jam
|Oat date scone||$2.25|
|Ginger creame scone||$2.25|
|Short skinny (baguette)||$1.75|
|Double long (baguette)||$2.75|
|House loaf, 1 kilo||$7.50|
|Seven-grain carrot loaf||$4.25|
|Seeded hoagie roll||$2.00|
|Multigrain spelt loaf||$5.00|