Customer demand transformed this Boston-area bakery's business from wholesale to retail. Owners Christy Timon and Abram Faber keep ingredients simple while embracing modern technology.
Click here for additional photos of Clear Flour Bread Bakery.
Loyal customers of Clear Flour Bread Bakery, Brookline, Mass., are patient. Consider that they wait in queues often stretching 50 ft. or more down the sidewalk. Tantalizing aromas of fresh-baked European artisan breads and viennoiserie maintain customers' resolve. And, they willingly wait despite New England's fickle weather, especially during the winter.
Fifteen years ago, when Modern Baking first visited Clear Flour, the scene outside was different. The bakery's delivery van transported artisan breads and rolls from the bakery's back door; three-fourths of sales went to wholesale accounts. Since then, the business has flipped — retail sales currently account for 70 percent of sales.
Tucked among single-family homes in this Boston suburb, Clear Flour earned a reputation among residents for producing unique, high-quality bread products. The bakery, founded in 1982 as a wholesale operation, sold excess product through its small storefront. While the wholesale business grew steadily, retail sales began to grow more rapidly as word of Clear Flour spread among residents and eventually throughout metropolitan Boston.
Pioneer bread baker
Christy Timon opened the bakery in 1982, well before authentic artisan breads began capturing Americans' taste buds. Timon learned bread baking while attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where she studied dance. As with many struggling dancers, she took a job in a restaurant.
In 1980, Timon moved to Boston to dance professionally. While trying to spark her dance career, she supported herself working for a caterer and a gourmet foods wholesaler. After two years, Timon had to choose: dance or food? “Food became a more realistic avenue for me,” she recalls.
In 1982, she and a partner launched their own catering business. They rented a 600-sq.-ft. storefront, now home to Clear Flour. Timon began baking again, supplying mostly sourdough breads and rolls to upscale food markets and restaurants.
After several months, the partnership dissolved. Timon kept the space and focused on baking for wholesale clients. In 1983, she met Abram Faber and contracted with him to handle remodeling projects and to deliver the bakery's daily production. That business relationship led to romance, marriage and twin daughters, now 15 years old, and a mutual passion for artisan baking.
They divided their responsibilities so that Timon directs production, conducts product research and development and purchases ingredients, while Faber handles the business side, including facilities management, governmental issues and equipment purchasing and maintenance. Carrie Flickinger, general manager, who has a degree in hotel and restaurant management, wears many hats, among them managing retail sales and wholesale business.
In 1986, the couple rented an adjacent 600-sq.-ft. space. They purchased a 30-pan revolving tray oven, which enabled production to increase from 4,000 lbs. of dough a week to between 11,000 to 13,000 lbs.
They replaced the revolving tray oven in 1994 with an eight-door, four-deck hearth oven. “It allowed us to put the finishing touch on the breads that we wanted,” Timon recalls. It also jump-started Clear Flour's reputation as the Boston area's leading wholesaler of authentic European sourdough, French and specialty breads and rolls.
Shaped dough pieces proofed in ambient conditions, subject to the vagaries of Boston's unpredictable weather. In 1999, Faber built a 10-ft. by 33-ft. temperature-controlled room. Kept at 70°F, the space provides a stable environment for dough fermentation and houses temperature-sensitive ingredients, notably flour.
Twenty years ago, Clear Flour produced 11 kinds of bread every day for the retail store. Timon's zeal to create new products — tweaking preferments, testing different flours and tinkering with small ingredients — has yielded new bread varieties, 53 of which are produced each week with 16 varieties prepared daily; wholesale accounts choose from the same 12 varieties every day.
In 1995, an employee expressed an interest in adding pastries, starting with rustic fruit tarts, which today are cornerstone items in Clear Flour's pastry line-up. Retail pastry sales grew slowly but steadily.
The bakery beefed up pastry production in 2002. Space was tight (80 sq. ft.); so Faber and Timon redesigned a portion of production space immediately behind the sales area by eliminating one of the bakery's two hydraulic bread dividers, adding a small workbench on wheels and installing a small wash basin and dishwasher.
The space requires compact, flexible equipment, including a vertical mixer that accommodates 20-, 40- or 60-qt. bowls. Two stacked 8-pan convection ovens, equipped with steam injection, take the place of a single rack oven.
“We don't have room for a rack oven,” Faber explains, “plus the convection ovens give us flexibility to produce pastries and lower-volume breads, such as challah and pain de mie (soft white bread), and to handle multiple tasks, like drying biscotti in one oven while running several pans of scones through the other.”
Despite the pastry department's size, pastry sales have grown to comprise 25 percent of total sales and account for nearly one-half of retail sales. The list of available viennoiserie and pastry products exceeds 270; about 30 are available each day.
Worth a detour
During the week, customers come from Brookline and surrounding communities, such as Cambridge and Boston, all within five to 10 miles. But, on weekends, people drive 50 miles or more. During summer, many make detours while driving to Cape Cod or north into New England, Faber says. “They line up out our door to buy products not only for weekend use, but for their freezers and to pick up items for friends.” Retail pastry sales average $10,000 a week, compared with $5,000 about 12 years ago.
Weekly dough throughput remains the same as 15 years ago, Faber continues. “We now make more bread and pastry varieties and more labor-intensive items from 18 different doughs each day and two to three special breads daily from a list of 13 formulas. Bakers use 13 different preferments each day to make the doughs.”
All pastries, bread specials and 16 bread varieties are offered daily in the retail store. “Many items, like the rye bread, require several steps — multi-stage preferments, all hand-shaping, two-stage baking” he says. “We're more about specialty products. We never were a commodity bakery. We're where we wanted to be — more variety, more specialties. But, we work harder to achieve it.”
Examples of bread varieties, which total more than 50, include basic eggshell-crust French baguettes (the largest volume product) to rustic Italian fougasse (ciabatta with fennel seed and feta cheese or with fire-roasted red and yellow tomatoes) to hearty German rye breads, such as leinsamenbrot (coarse-ground organic rye flour mixed with flax seeds).
Customer interest in German breads is increasing, Timon says. In addition to leinsamenbrot, other examples include German rye (whole grain rye with thick, cracked crust) and vollkornbrot (traditional rye to slice thin; perfect with strong cheese or smoked fish). The three varieties, each offered one to four days a week, likely will become daily items within a year, she notes.
For several years after opening the bakery, bakers used high-gluten flour and pungent sour starters, which yielded breads with strong sour flavor and thick crust, which “could break your jaw. A lot of artisan bakers then were doing this,” Faber observes.
But Clear Flour bakers learned to use milder preferments, flour with less protein and oven-spring “to achieve balance and harmony in texture and flavor; it's like producing a fine wine.”
Several years ago Clear Flour increasingly began receiving requests for white pan bread, normally anathema to artisan bakers, but not to Timon and Faber. “Customers wanted soft white bread for sandwiches,” Timon recalls. “If we were going to make it, we would make sure it tasted really good, not like commercial sliced bread.”
The solution was the bakery's pain de mie from white bread dough that contains fresh ingredients, such as whole milk. A whole 36-oz. loaf retails for $6.60, a half loaf for $3.55.
Pain de mie sales grew steadily during the last dozen years and have increased sharply during the recession as customers have made more sandwiches and are eating at home, Timon says. Some days the bakery sells 30 loaves.
Three times more pastries
More than 270 viennoiserie and pastry varieties and sizes, three times that of bread products, are available thanks to Timon's research and development. Regularly offered traditional European items include scones, brioche (seven varieties), tea cakes (14 flavors), Austrian nut cake, biscotti (10 types), croissants (plain, fruit and cheese varieties), kuchen, babka, tortes, quiche, shortbread (eight varieties), and fruit and nut tarts.
American favorites include fruit and nut squares and bars, brownies, sticky buns, coffee cakes, pound cakes and cookies (chocolate chunk, oatmeal raisin, molasses, peanut butter, triple chocolate with walnuts, sugar).
Holidays, Timon says, have provided foundations upon which to build pastry sales. “We've learned that if we sample and offer small $2 sizes of holiday products two months before the holiday, customers have a chance to try them. Then, they will buy the $22 large version for the holiday,” she explains. “You cannot introduce it on the holiday because customers want a sure thing.
“Sales grow each year to the point where the product becomes a tradition after four or five years.”
An example is pumpkin torta russa, which Clear Flour produces for Thanksgiving in lieu of traditional pumpkin pie. Bakers prepare baked pumpkin custard around which they wrap puff pastry and garnish with sliced almonds and confectioners' sugar. The 24-oz. item sells for $21.85.
Ingredient costs run about 18 percent of sales because the majority of production is bread and everything is scratch, Faber says, while gross labor, including payroll, taxes and associated costs, such as workers comp and health insurance, approaches 50 percent of sales. “A 5 percent increase in labor or ingredients hits us hard when it happens; that's why I need to price so that we get 10 percent to 15 percent,” he says.
“Retail is wonderful. Customers recognize quality. They willingly pay money for it, which enables you to run a business. And, they tell us what works and doesn't work, which helps us keep moving ahead,” Faber explains.
Since the bakery opened, it has maintained a 24/7 production schedule, closing only Thanksgiving and Christmas and the days after. Ten full-time bakers handle bread production, while four full-time bakers prepare viennoiserie and pastries.
Timon notes that production procedures now are almost routine because “we have control. Bakers follow guidelines, recording volumes, times and temperatures to track the progress from flour and water temperature to baking temperature. Depending on readings, the bakers know how to adjust procedures.”
Greater control also has come, Faber adds, because bread and pastry formulas have been entered into the bakery's computer system, which further ensures product consistency. Formula print-outs and photos of finished products can be pulled when needed. Further, the fermentation room has overcome problems associated with ambient atmospheric conditions.
Automated equipment, when applied appropriately, also enhances control, Faber says, especially when producing high-volume products, such as Clear Flour's baguettes. “We use a hydraulic divider, which minimizes dough development,” he explains, “and our baguette moulder only to pre-shape our baguettes; a moulder de-gases the dough and uniformly places a flip on the rolled pieces.
“We take an extra step to finish shaping by hand. This gives each baguette its unique appearance. The divider and baguette moulder may reduce overall quality by, say, 10 percent, but we greatly increase overall consistency.” Bakers continue to hand-shape lower-volume and new items.
Improved product consistency also is the result of each flour bag printed with its flour's specifications. The bakery's primary miller began listing specifications after Faber and other artisan bakers explained that they could not achieve optimum results without knowing each batch's characteristics.
Retail sales increasing
With the depressed economy, the wholesale business, one-half of which comes from high-end restaurants, has declined about 10 percent from a year ago because their sales have fallen, Timon says. “But, sales in food markets and our retail store are busier than ever,” she continues. “Our customers are going out to dinner less frequently and are buying food ingredients to eat and entertain at home. That means they're buying more bread and desserts.
“We cannot produce enough breakfast pastries in a week to keep up with demand. And, the more varieties of all products we make, the more customers buy. We've maxed out.”
The bakery's limited space suggests that she and Faber will need to focus exclusively on retail sales. Additional retail space next door may become available, and Faber plans to discuss this and remodeling the store and exterior with his landlord. “Weekend customers sometimes wait in line as long as an hour to be served. Obviously, we would like to cut that time,” he says.
The ultimate goal is to have everything so systemized “that we have the flexibility to do a lot of research and development, travel to visit other bakeries, and take baking and pastry classes,” Timon says. “The better we get at what we do, the more we will be able to do. We're getting there, but that will be a challenge.”
Clear Flour AT A GLANCE
Location: Brookline, Mass.
Management: Christy Timon, founder/co-owner, and husband Abram Faber, co-owner; Carrie Flickinger, general manager; Laura Griffin Foglia, assistant general manager
Market served: metropolitan Boston
Number of bakeries/stores: 1/1
Bakery/store sizes: 1,840 sq. ft./150 sq. ft.
Number of employees: 25 to 30
2009 sales: more than $2 million (est.)
Primary business: retail, 70 percent; wholesale, 30 percent
Number of wholesale accounts: 52, mostly upscale restaurants and food markets
Product line: some 92 varieties and shapes of artisan breads and rolls, including 12 for wholesale; 271 varieties and shapes of European viennoiserie and American pastry products, including bars, brownies, cookies, Danish and puff pastries, sweet dough buns, scones, brioche, gourmet loaf cakes, tea cakes, pound cakes, croissants, coffee cakes, yeasted cakes, tarts, tortes, and holiday and ethnic specialties
Production methods: all scratch from all-natural, mainly organic-certified ingredients
Major equipment: water chilling/metering system, two spiral mixers, two vertical mixers, hydraulic bread divider, baguette moulder, reversible sheeter, fermentation room, roll-in proofer, semi-automatic oven loader, eight-door four-deck oven, two convection ovens, two bag closure machines, reach-in refrigerators and freezers.
Plans: continue to emphasize retail sales, examine opportunities to expand retail space
Bakery supply distributors: Cirelli Foods, Perkins Paper, Hillcrest Foods, Primarque Products Co., Siegel Egg Co.
A Sampling Of Prices
|Baguette, 14 ozs.||$2.75|
|Sourdough batard, 17.25 ozs.||$3.60|
|Rustic Italian boule, 19.75 ozs.||$4.25|
|Seeded 7-grain batard, 20.25 ozs.||$4.25|
|Focaccia w/rosemary, 18 ozs.||$3.65|
|Challah, braided, 17.5 ozs.||$4.50|
|Sweet Irish soda bread, 18 ozs.||$5.50|
|Brioche, single serve||$1.40|
|Cranberry currant scone||$1.70|
|Chocolate chunk cookie||$2.50|
|Almond anise biscotti, 4-oz. bag||$2.80|
|Scotch shortbread, 4-oz. bag||$2.80|
|Apricot walnut Hamantashen||$1.75|
|Austrian nut cake,||$18.00|
|Vanilla pound cake||$6.75|
|Cranberry nut tea cake||$6.75|
|Rustic apple tart, large||$15.25|