For Tartine Bakery, Bread Lines Signal Success

by Susan Johnston on July 25, 2011
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At five o’clock, when most bakeries are winding down for the day, San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery & Café has a line of people running down Guerrero Street. Tartine’s fresh-baked bread often sells out within an hour, so regulars know they must arrive early — or reserve a loaf three days in advance.

Why all the fuss over bread? Chad Robertson, Tartine’s baker and owner, says his popular artisanal bread is the result of a two-day process. “The longer the bread ferments, the more flavor it gets,” he says.

Most bakeries offer fresh-baked bread first thing in the morning, but Robertson believes that idea is, well, a little half-baked. “There’s no need to make bread first thing in the morning,” he says. “If you want bread in the morning, just toast it. And in grocery stores you’re basically buying bread that is already a day old, because it has to be baked, cooled, bagged, and so on.”

However, he says that fresh baked bread makes more sense in the afternoons, when people are preparing for dinner. “That is one of the reasons that people line up,” he explains. “There aren’t a lot of places you can buy bread straight out of the oven during the day.”

The precise attention to detail required for Robertson’s bread-making process means that it can’t be mass-produced without compromising on quality, so he’s limited to about 200 or at most 300 loaves per day. Due to these scalability issues, simply selling loaves doesn’t drive enough profits to sustain the business. So why do it?

Robertson says he’s found a few ways to make the bread work. “One loaf of bread costs $7 or $8,” he says, “but then you can cut that loaf into twelve slices and make a $12 croque monsieur (open-faced sandwich).” Plus, people who come to buy bread in the afternoons sometimes also buy an espresso and a slice of cake while they’re there. And Robertson says interest in his bread certainly hasn’t hurt sales of his cookbook, Tartine Bread. Now that’s what we call making dough!

Photo courtesy Eric Wolfinger.

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