The 25-ton, woodfired brick oven is often the first topic of discussion when one mentions having visited Wheatfields Bakery & Café. Indeed, the 20-year-old bakery café built its reputation on–and brick and mortar foundations around–that oven. But Wheatfields has built its name in the Lawrence, Kan., community and beyond by doing much more than turning out artisan bread, with a thriving, fast-casual restaurant component that pulls in more than $1 million annually and a dessert and pastry department that routinely sells out of product.
In order to keep track of so many moving parts, Wheatfields focuses on a simple mantra: creating a quality product that starts with good ingredients. As a result, the bakery has high expectations of its staff–both in terms of time investment and quality of end product–with workdays for many employees starting at 2 a.m. or earlier. But general manager Amy Savoie says the employees’ dedication to producing and serving such high-quality product makes it all worthwhile.
From left: Josh Hilliard, bakery manager; Teresa Heustis, pastry chef; Zoey Ramberg, assistant pastry chef; Lisa Bartel, pastry production; Amy Savoie, general manager; and Mikey Humphrey, head baker.
“It’s all from scratch; we don’t bring anything in,” Savoie says. “I’m proud of it, everybody here is proud of it. I think that’s what keeps people here–they’re doing something that they take pride in and they’re happy to make it. Otherwise, they’re not going to wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning to go to work.”
Since opening in 1995, Wheatfields has built its business on three main pillars: wholesale and retail bread, handcrafted pastries and a fast-casual restaurant. The bakery café has since added catering, which has grown in recent years. Savoie notes that the different segments tend to bolster the others, rather than cannibalize each other. Click on the image at left to see Wheatfields at a glance.
“Bread and pastry has grown in the last year, but the percentages seem to stay about the same,” Savoie says. “If we’re selling more bread and pastries, we do a little bit better on café food as well because customers come in and get a sandwich and then say, ‘Oh, I want a slice of tiramisu or a loaf of bread to take home.’ People get inspired and take things with them, since we’re kind of a fast-casual concept.”
The bread display and checkout counter are separate from the café counter, which houses the espresso machine as well as the pastry display. This unique ordering and checkout setup helps boost check averages, as customers place their café order at one end of the counter and then have to walk the length of the product display before paying at the other end. “You have to walk and look at all of the pastries and cookies on your way to check out, so customers generally add on something–I’d say eight times out of 10, especially if they’re new here,” Savoie says.
The café serves breakfast and lunch everyday as well as dinner five days a week. The dinner menu changes monthly depending on the seasons and what’s available at the farmers’ market, although the best-selling fried chicken is available weekly, due to its popularity.
Saturdays are the busiest day of the week, when the restaurant typically serves up to 900 customers. Best-selling breakfast items include the housemade biscuits and gravy and the classic breakfast of eggs, hash browns and toast. Popular sandwiches are the roasted turkey with housemade mayo and cranberry relish on walnut sage bread; turkey, swiss and thinly sliced apples on baguette; and chicken salad with toasted almonds, cranberries, greens and housemade aioli on multigrain.
Like many restaurants, Wheatfields’ slowest days in the café are typically Mondays and Tuesdays. Because Lawrence is home to the University of Kansas, the bakery is hugely affected by game days and university events. Plus, the business gets a boost from a growing list of wholesale clients and steady retail bread and pastry sales.
Wheatfields has sold wholesale bread since the beginning and the department brings in roughly $5,500 per week with upward of 20 clients, ranging from a local brewing company to a handful of grocery stores and restaurants to the University of Kansas’ dining program. The bakery hopes to break into a few grocery stores in Kansas City, Mo., although there are no foreseeable plans for a second location there.
“We always have people come here who love our bread and say, ‘When are you going to open a spot in Kansas City?’ But the hours are hard and we’re so small. We would have to expand elsewhere and that always changes the dynamic,” Savoie says.
Head baker Mikey Humphrey pulls freshly baked ciabatta out of the oven. “I love the craft; it’s pretty rewarding,” he says.
The bread also has cultivated quite a following among locals, with best sellers including baguettes, ciabatta, multigrain and country French. Some customers even go so far as to monitor the baking schedule for their favorite loaves. “It’s interesting when customers get upset and say something like, ‘Well that bread was out at this time last week,’” Savoie says, laughing. “But every day is different. The humidity and temperature in Kansas changes drastically from day to day and that can have a huge effect on our breads. Most of them seem to appreciate that.”
Appreciation for the product also is evident among employees, as periodic cries of “I got you a warm one!” can be heard from bread counter staff as they pass fresh loaves to customers. “We always like giving warm loaves of bread,” Savoie notes. “You can get bread at a supermarket bakery, but it’s not necessarily made there. It’s nice to give them something that just came out of the oven.”
Each department has developed its own rhythm for turning out product–the tight quarters (only about 2,500 sq. ft.) and demanding schedule leave little room for mistakes. A bread baker’s day begins between midnight and 2 a.m., depending on the day of the week. Start times are bumped up on Thursdays and Fridays in anticipation of the much busier weekends. Click on the image at left for Wheatfields sampling of prices.
The bakery’s naturally fermented breads are divided into overnights and same-days. Overnights–including white sourdough, country French, seasonal flavors like cranberry pecan or walnut sage and pain de campagne–are all made using one of four starters: white, whole rye, whole wheat or whole spelt. They’re mixed, divided and shaped before retarding overnight. Bakery manager Josh Hilliard arrives first to start mixing all the same-day breads. A second baker comes in about an hour later to begin baking the overnight breads, followed by two benchers at 3:45 a.m., who will start shaping the same-days.
“The goal is that when the baker is finished with the overnights, the oven has about a half hour of down time to reheat and then we start baking the same-days and continue on with that cycle,” Hilliard says. Because the overnight doughs can handle higher heat, they’re baked at temperatures close to 500°F. They also help cool the oven down to 460°F, which is the target temperature for the lighter, same-day breads.
The first shift of three pastry chefs arrives between 3 and 4 a.m., with two mixing and prepping product and the third baking product that was prepared and then frozen until needed, such as croissants, Danish, breakfast pastries, muffins and cookies. The croissants, which are offered in plain, almond and chocolate varieties, are the most popular item.
“The croissants are huge sellers,” says Teresa Heustis, pastry chef. “I don’t think there’s anywhere else you can get them the way we do them; we just sell out of them every single day.”
Then, the pastry team starts filling the cases with whole cakes and slices, as well as tarts, cookies and the bakery’s popular tiramisu, refilling the cases as needed. “It’s not always routine, but I have a system,” Heustis says. “Usually I make up croissants Tuesday, Wednesday; Danish I make up on the weekends.”
The first cook arrives between 4 and 5 a.m. to start prepping breakfast items. Mondays through Thursdays only one cook is working, but Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays two to three cooks run orders and prep items.
Tough to train
The hectic pace of Wheatfields’ work environment makes it tough to train new employees. Many new employees have had no formal baking or culinary training beforehand, which often works in their favor, particularly the bread bakers. It usually takes two to three months to get comfortable with the oven and the pace of producing bread.
“You have to learn when breads are proofed properly, you have to learn what color we’re looking for, and scoring always takes people a long time to get right,” Savoie says, adding that they are critiqued a lot in the process. “You have to have a hard shell to take that and realize it’s not personal; it’s just that this is what we’re looking for and this is what you need to work on.”
Because the learning curve is quite steep and the early starts and long hours are trying, Wheatfields has instilled working interviews as part of the hiring process.
“We started doing the working interviews so people can come in, check the place out, and see if it’s something they’re interested in if they don’t have any experience,” Savoie says. “They come in for four to six hours. It’s really good because it’s a great time for everyone to be really honest. And it works out better for all of us in the end.”
Ultimately, it goes back to a dedication to quality and passion for the product. “We’re striving to have the freshest quality product,” Savoie says. “We’re human beings. We’re not going to make everybody happy every single day, but we can try and that’s what we want to do.”
Standing in front of the towering, 25-ton woodfired brick oven that overlooks the production area of Wheatfields Bakery & Café, it’s easy to understand why it takes new employees up to two months to become comfortable operating it.
“I always thought that learning the bread is 50 percent of the job and learning how to handle the oven is about 50 percent of the job,” says bakery manager Josh Hilliard. “Because we can’t turn it off to let it cool or turn on the gas to heat it up, you have to strike a balance between how hot your fire is burning, how active it’s burning and how much bread you’re putting in the oven.”
The oven measures 12 ft. front to back and has a circular hearth that rotates using a large metal wheel operated by a series of internal gears. Hot air flows from the fire box into a circular chamber that circulates around the oven, providing even indirect heat. The hot gas and smoke travel up through the chimney to the upper heating chamber, where the air circulates again and goes out through a final chimney, never entering the baking chamber.
The oven burns only local hedge wood, which is a hard wood that burns very hot and leaves behind little ash. Hilliard notes that there are certain tricks to manipulating the oven’s temperature, such as loading it full of dough if it gets too hot.
“Since the overnights and sourdoughs can take the higher heat, we use them to cool the oven down,” he says.
When the day’s bake is finished, the oven is at 460° to 470°F. The baking chamber reheats overnight, reaching 500F by the following morning. “Energy stored in the walls, ceiling and floor of the heating chamber evens out and reheats the baking chamber,” Hilliard says. “I’ve described it to new bakers as similar to how a piece of meat will continue to cook after removing it from a heat source. The hotter exterior slowly heats the interior.”
Each bread baker finds his or her own tempo for the flow of product in and out of the oven. “It’s a balance between getting dough in as quickly as you can but not taking up too much space,” Hilliard says.