The story of Bread Alone Bakery has become a local legend. When Dan Leader built his first firebrick oven in a small building in Boiceville back in 1983, he just wanted to produce an honest loaf like the naturally fermented artisan breads that he’d seen, smelled and tasted while touring bakeries in Paris. His training as a chef influenced his decision to use organically grown stoneground flours and to keep the processes true to these traditional loaves, and soon Ulster County residents were consuming sourdough and pain au levain and baguettes and whole-wheat peasant breads, just like their counterparts in France.
Leader’s success involved the opening of an on-site café and two more stores in Rhinebeck and Woodstock, along with a side career as an author of cookbooks: Bread Alone (with Judith Blahnik), Local Breads: Sourdough and Whole-Grain Recipes from Europe’s Best Artisan Bakers (with Lauren Chattman) and Panini Express (also with Chattman). But sharing bread history and traditional methods and recipes in these tomes did not take customers away from his retail establishments. If anything, educating people in the essentials of breadmaking – from growing and milling whole grains to transforming flour into crusty packages of the Earth’s goodness – has given them the taste for the company’s products. Bread Alone provides, distributing its products to people living in the Berkshires, New York City, Connecticut and New Jersey.
Last September, Leader, with his longtime partner Sharon Burns-Leader and their son Nels, opened a new café in their state-of-the art headquarters on Ulster Avenue in Lake Katrine, a project that was a long time in the making. “We moved the bakery to the Town of Ulster two years ago,” says Burns-Leader. “Having a place attached to the bakery is very exciting for us. What we do is different from what anyone else is doing – and it’s been our way since we started baking organic bread in wood-fired brick ovens. For us, ‘right livelihood’ – having a healthy business and a safe, clean environment – all that’s normal. We really take it seriously that we’re making food for people, and we’re all about food safety; we’ve been ahead of that curve for so long.”
Burns-Leader refers to moving the bakery from Boiceville to Lake Katrine as “a herculean feat.” “We never stopped baking. No one didn’t get a delivery. We moved from a 7,000-square-foot building to this 26,000-square-foot building. We learned a lot about HVAC and mechanicals and electrical systems. We brought in this really sophisticated equipment from Germany and the Netherlands.” I ask about how the term “artisan” relates to their product with all the high-tech equipment, such as thermal oil-burning ovens that have taken the place of the brick ovens, offering a more controllable baking environment. “The bread requires skilled, trained people to make sure the loaves come out right,” Burns-Leader explains. “You could never get a machine to do that. And all of our pastries are done by hand. It’s not a cookie-cutter process.”
The company uses local butter and milk in its products, and continues to source organic flours and grains. “We’re working collectively with Cornell and the Farm Hub to help figure out how to grow grains regionally. It’s a long-range goal. We use a mill in Pennsylvania called Small Valley for our spelt flour. They just sent me some einkorn, and I made a loaf of bread out of it over the weekend at home. You’ll see us rolling that into our commercial use, too. Einkorn is a stable, easy-to-harvest grain. We are not doctors, but a lot of our customers who do have gluten sensitivity are able to digest our organic spelt bread. Once you use the enzymes to break down the proteins during breadmaking and long fermentation – which we specialize in – the enzymes help to both flavor the bread and develop the wheat.”
“The new café is a springboard for us. We’re a little more mature now, and have a more mature aesthetic sense. So we’re proud of how this project has come out, and also the method by which it was done. We found a designer, and the designer – born and raised in Brooklyn – found us at the same time. Joseph Foglia [of Joseph Designs in West Shokan] understands the reason we’re here in the Hudson Valley, and he helped guide the three of us to consensus to build a beautiful space that reflects where we’ve been and where we’re going. When we go into our other cafés to renovate, we’ll bring some of the design elements of this space – never with a cookie-cutter concept, but we’ve got some cool ideas that we’ll use to renovate our other cafés.”
I ask about the rumor that Bread Alone might expand into Saratoga. “Dan always has a million ideas, but we’re not really sure,” she says. “We need to settle in here. It’s a lot different to manage four stores. And we have to settle into our development before we expand – to Cold Spring, Troy? Lots of people are asking us to consider their areas; we have to do what works for us. I think our stores all have a certain hands-on warmth. That’s part of what our customers respond to. And it’s not magic, but there’s a system to it. We have to figure out how to expand and not lose that. It’s important to manage growth.”
Burns-Leader says that when they found the building on Route 9W, they had no idea that the area was set for further development, such as the new Holiday Inn and other retail spots that have recently arrived on the scene. “We bought this building before any of that was being talked about. We’re so excited about it. We were in Boiceville forever, where nothing is happening – but thank God there’s nothing happening up there! That’s what we love about it, and that’s why I still live up there. But the Town of Ulster has been so great: the building inspector, the supervisor – everyone has been really helpful.”
With backing from the US Department of Agriculture for the new facility, the company now operates in four locations with about 140 employees, a dozen trucks and five distributors. The new café offers a full line of the company’s well-known breads, such as certified-organic French sourdough, nine mixed-grain and raisin-and-walnut levain, plus pastries, sandwiches and salads, and has indoor and outdoor seating. Meanwhile, the Boiceville facility will be used to develop new product lines and milling operations.
In the café, a large wall of glass facing a grassy embankment near the highway and an open-view kitchen and coffee bar invite customers to grab a cup and a pastry to go – or to sit with a steaming bowl of soup and a sandwich. Burns-Leader talks about the idea of fencing in a playground area next to the outdoor patio where kids can play safely while Moms enjoy their repast. “Our local customers want a cappuccino that’s really good. Our staff has been well-trained, and we take the attitude that we want them to be employees for a long time – to grow and learn whatever aspect of the business they’re interested in: hospitality, finance, marketing or even if they just want to drive. We recently celebrated someone who’s been working for us for 23 years. And that’s common; it’s not an anomaly. There’s a reason people are staying. What we do – it’s something that has a higher purpose. We’re feeding people. There’s nothing more intimate than that.”
“Every day I feel lucky. A long time ago we said we’re not gonna do ourselves or anybody else any service unless we’re financially stable. Even if we want to help somebody or give away something, we have to make sure we’re okay, and from there we can give. And our long-term commitment to organics is important. We’re not the cool kid on the block any more, and we know that. It’s the age-old story. There are younger-looking, maybe hipper-looking companies coming up, but we’re always trying to figure out how to stay relevant. We never thought about it before; we always just did what made sense to us.”
I ask if they ever imagined, way back in 1983, the long-lasting success that they’d have in the business. “Dan and I were never such great planners, but when opportunity presented itself, we grabbed it and made the most of it. And you know, you always want to do your best every day. The bread doesn’t make itself. We inspire our people to do their best every day.”
Bread Alone Café, open daily 7 a.m.-5 p.m., 2121 Route 9W, Lake Katrine; (845) 481-4759, www.breadalone.com/kingston.