by Katherine Martin, associate editor
Wild Flour Bakery Cafè, located in a downtown Milwaukee shopping mall, offers wrapped products, such as bars, for grab-and-go convenience.
When the Mertens renovated the Lincoln Ave. location, they retained the showcases from the original 1929 bakery.
The Mertens' son, Josh, is Wild Flour's general manager, and he develops the bakery's bread formulas.
Dolly and Greg Mertens reached out to their community even before Wild Flour Bakery opened its doors for business eight years ago. To ensure opening day would run smoothly, the Mertens went through several days of test production, generating extra product.
"We went door to door in New Berlin handing out free loaves of bread to home owners," Greg Mertens says. "They couldn't pass up a beautiful loaf of bread, and people became aware that a bakery was opening."
The Mertens entered the bakery business by chance. Dolly and Greg took a trip to the eastern United States, and stopped at Firehook Bakery in Alexandria, Va. They bought some crusty bread and decided they wanted to try a similar bakery in their hometown.
Their bakery business has now grown from an idea to three Milwaukee-area locations with a fourth in South Milwaukee and fifth in Bay View opening soon.
The original Wild Flour Bakery was intended to offer only breads, but the Mertens added a case with muffins and other products just before opening. The deli side of the business evolved in the same unplanned way.
"We had a lot of customers come in and say our bread was great, and why don't we offer sandwiches," Dolly says. "Since we had everything, we thought why not?" All Wild Flour locations now offer sandwiches, soups and salads.
Each location offers the same core Wild Flour products with modifications to fit each store. The downtown location, Wild Flour Bakery Cafè, sells more sandwiches than other stores, but is not a bread store like the Lincoln Ave. location. It also is the only location that offers wrapped bars for grab-and-go convenience, and sells about 75 per day along with more than 100 cookies. The bakery cafè is located in a shopping mall and serves the many hotels and businesses that surround it as well as mall shoppers.
Differences among locations
Wild Flour Bakehouse on Lincoln Ave. is located in a more residential neighborhood that is very diverse and has been a bakery since it was built in 1929. (For more information on the bakery's renovation, see page 70.) The New Berlin store is in a suburban strip mall, and the building that houses the South Milwaukee location was built in 1920. The production area of the South Milwaukee store is up and running, however the store front is not yet complete.
"All the stores have a different flavor to them," Dolly says. "You can't just make something because you want it there. For example, in the New Berlin store, we couldn't sell an elephant ear, but at the Lincoln Ave. store they sell very well."
Customers are loyal to the Wild Flour brand and often frequent several of the locations. Some of the customers who live in the Lincoln Ave. neighborhood shop the Lincoln Ave. store on weekends, but work downtown and stop by the Grand Ave. location for breakfast or lunch on weekdays.
The Mertens also adjust the prices of products according to the location. They have learned that downtown customers, who are often in a rush, are willing to pay a bit more for products than customers at the other locations.
Farmers markets have become another dependable source of revenue for the bakery. Wild Flour participates in three on Saturday and one on Wednesday. "We would like to do more, but we only have so much staff to handle it," Greg says.
The markets offer a way to interact with the community, publicize the bakery, and also helped develop the wholesale business, Dolly adds. "Chefs would come to the farmers markets, and that was how we got a lot of wholesale business in the beginning," Dolly says.
Wholesale now accounts for 45 percent of the bakery's business, and Wild Flour supplies some of Milwaukee's high-end restaurants, independent coffee houses and grocery stores.
The Lincoln Ave. location houses all of the artisan bread production for Wild Flour, while the pastry production is done at the South Milwaukee location. South Milwaukee also makes up cookie dough for baking at the Grand Ave. location, which also bakes frozen croissants. Seventy percent of Wild Flour products are created from scratch. "We don't want to have the same products as other places," Dolly says.
Bread production begins at 3:30 p.m. when the mixer begins the 12 to 15 doughs that are produced each day. At 5:30, two more production employees arrive, and the baker begins baking at 8 p.m. The last loaves are baked by 3 a.m. when four drivers arrive to begin their routes. "All of our breads are hand-formed," Greg says.
When the Mertens purchased the South Milwaukee location earlier this year, it included equipment for an Italian bread line and donut line. The previous owner decided to stay with the bakery and work for the Mertens. Wild Flour now offers a line of Zizzo Bros. Italian bread, named for the previous owner.
Never say never
"I always said that I would never do donuts, but we bought the bakery in South Milwaukee, and it had a donut line. So for Fat Tuesday, we made up 1,500 donuts and paczki and told the drivers to drop some off at their stops," Dolly says.
One of Wild Flour's wholesale customers, a grocery store, called up and wanted to start offering the donuts in its three locations. Wild Flour now produces 150 dozen donuts per day. "So, never say never," Dolly adds.
Wild Flour is best known for its bread, but muffins are another consistent seller. It sells about 1,000 muffins a day and produces 2,000 every Saturday for the three farmers markets.
"I believe in the baking industry. I really do," Dolly says. "I keep stressing all the time that it's not about lugging 50-lb. bags of flour. It is a very respectable career. We are there for people in every time of their life."
The Mertens often give as much as they get back. When Dolly heard an advertisement on the radio about an organization trying to raise money to buy ovens for women-owned bakeries in Afghanistan, she decided to do something herself. The radio station was asking for donations of $3 and in return they would send a recipe for naan bread.
Dolly called the radio station and offered to bake naan bread to send along with the recipes. Since the radio station did not have the facilities to store the bread or the capability to ship it out, they decided to direct listeners to Wild Flour locations to donate the money and pick up samplesof naan bread. The goal was to raise enough money nationwide for three ovens, at about $1,800 a piece.
"Wild Flour stores raised enough for three ovens in three days," she says.
Wild Flour also tries to involve the communities in the bakery. Dolly often invites local elementary schools to decorate the store windows. The bakery also was part of the Lincoln Ave. neighborhood drive to provide trash cans for the streets. The trash cans were then painted by neighborhood children.
"You have to be involved in your neighborhood and your community. You have to give back," Greg says.
"Baking is a very healing job. When I give tours, I always say I wonder how many problems have been solved at this bench," Dolly says, pointing to the bakery's workbench, an original from 1929 when the Lincoln Ave. location was built.
Wild Flour Bakery at a glance
Company name: Wild Flour Bakery
|Wild Flour ..a sampling of prices|
|Lincoln Ave. location|
|Sandwich yeast roll||75|
|Cranberry walnut roll||$1.00|
|Jalapeno cheese bread||$4.50|
|Cranberry walnut bread||$4.95|