Feb 18 2015

San Francisco Sour(flour)

When Danny Gabriner first began baking bread, he gave away 1,000 loaves for free. Over the course of six months in 2009, hundreds of neighbors, friends, fellow bakers, bloggers, and businesses received a loaf of Gabriner’s bread, baked in a style he affectionately (yet perfunctorily) calls “regular bread”. For those six months, Gabriner pushed himself much like an apprentice in woodworking or metal-craft might, striving to thrive in the daily repetitiveness while he fine-tuned his methods and furthered his global understanding of bread making.

Gabriner didn’t arbitrarily choose to bake 1,000 loaves to become a fantastic home baker or the talk of his neighborhood: he was baking bread to start a business. At age 24, Gabriner, like so many in San Francisco then and now, was employed in the tech industry, as an analyst for Cnet. His job was to optimize advertisement click-throughs to “make them more money”. Seeking something more meaningful than earning other people money, Gabriner started a food blog called Gourmet Gastronomer as a side project. Broad in focus, Gabriner began to use this small area on the internet to connect with local food enthusiasts, hosting guest bloggers and creating cook-offs for dishes like mac and cheese and soup.

Gabriner noticed that many soups in the soup cook-off were paired with bread, an observation that led to a dawning recognition of the universal appeal and versatility of bread, and ultimately to his 1,000 loaf journey. “In the beginning, there were four reasons [I picked bread as a business],” Gabriner recalled. “Bread has been around for a very long time. Pretty much everyone eats bread, so it’s a large, encompassing thing. It’s very simple – just flour, water, and salt. But it’s also very complex and mathematical.”

Those 1,000 loaves became Gabriner’s numeric ideal of what a profitable and successful business looks like. He elaborated on that concept when we met in January, sharing that “I ran some quick numbers and came up with: if I can sell 1,000 loaves of bread for $4 a loaf for 250 days out of the year, that’d be a million dollars in revenue,” wryly adding, “that’s a good starting point”.

Shortly after his initial bakeoff, Gabriner officially opened Sour Flour in April of 2010, hollowing out a small place for himself in San Francisco’s famous and beloved bread scene. Sour Flour’s business model is just as number based as his original personal challenge. Viewing himself as Sour Flour Baker #1, each current and future baking apprentice at Sour Flour needs to also “bake 1,000 loaves to give away”. One day soon, Sour Flour aims to deliver on Gabriner’s initial calculations by baking 1,000 loaves in a single day for accounts that stretch across the city and Bay Area. And Gabriner plans to train 100 Sour Flour bakers, bakers who each must also give away 1,000 loaves during their apprenticeship.

When I met him in January, Gabriner began our interaction in a very pragmatic manner. What did I want to know? Why was I there? But as the conversation gathered speed, Gabriner showed himself to be more whimsical and dreamy than originally expected, demonstrating a limitless approach tempered by his business acumen. Gabriner dreams of a Sour Flour headquarters in one (increasingly rare) vacant space in the Mission neighborhood, next to big draws like Sightglass and Flour + Water. And he wants affordable and delicious bread for all, baked by a cohort of Sour Flour bakers. But sitting in front of his computer, analyzing financial spreadsheets and sending wholesale prices to potential accounts, he’s all too familiar with the challenging finances necessary to achieve those aspirations.

It’s easy to feel swept up by food entrepreneurship in the Bay Area. My recent visit to San Francisco came after a nearly seven year hiatus, a period of time that encompassed nearly all of my food education. When I first arrived in the city, I walked straight to the Bi-Rite Market on Guerrero Avenue. I’ve cooked from the Bi-Rite book since it was published, and I was eager to step inside, only slightly apprehensive that my expectations would be too high. They weren’t. Affordability aside – an issue tangled up in complicated topics like subsidies, living wages, and the real value of food – Bi-Rite is a model grocery store in every way. They literally stock the best of the best produce, cheese, wine, chocolate, meat, baked goods, and bread. The bread shelf is a who’s who of bread makers in San Francisco: Josey Baker, Marla, Acme, and Sour Flour (Tartine Bakery is absent because of their limited loaf production, and the fact that Tartine is a few storefronts down the street). The energy in Bi-Rite at 6 pm on a Tuesday was palpable. People were excited about their purchases: they weren’t merely picking up bread (or cheese, or wine) out of resigned necessity; they were buying specifically for taste.

This dynamic food scene seems to be fantastic news for Gabriner’s Sour Flour. After scanning that bread shelf, any visitor to Bi-Rite will automatically associate Sour Flour as one of “the” San Francisco breads to try. But as they’re toasting their bread at home, those same consumers don’t know that Gabriner has been teetering on the edge of financial insolvency for nearly the entire time Sour Flour has existed; as recently as four months ago, Gabriner was seriously considering folding the business. They also wouldn’t know that Bi-Rite is Sour Flour’s lowest selling account. This doesn’t mean that Gabriner isn’t excited and appreciative to have his products sold at Bi-Rite: the grocery store was his first wholesale account, and because of the store’s popularity, that account builds name recognition and drives traffic to his website. In conversation with Gabriner and other food artisans over the years, the oft unacknowledged truth is that the romanticism of creating and selling an excellent product hinges uneasily with the realities of running a profitable business. And for Gabriner, bread itself is caught between a similar balancing act of hand-made products and narrow market access, of exquisite flavors and affordability.

When Gabriner stated his original impetus for opening Sour Flour – “pretty much everyone eats bread” – he was making a global statement that seems to be particularly true for residents of San Francisco. Along with eating Sour Flour’s bread back at my Airbnb, I visited both Tartine and Josey Baker Bread at the Mill. Gabriner confirmed that for years there’s been a worldwide obsession with the idea of “San Francisco sourdough”. This obsession started with Boudin Bakery, a bakery on Fisherman’s Wharf (among other locations) with origins dating back to 1849. Then, as local and seasonal food philosophies began to radiate from Berkeley, bread began its second wave, led by Steve Sullivan of Acme Bread Company.

In the early 1980s, Sullivan worked as Chez Panisse’s bread maker; his bread was featured on their daily menu on equal footing as the just foraged mushrooms and harvested greens. Sullivan left Chez Panisse in 1983 to open Acme Bread, and today, Acme operates four bakeries, with wholesale accounts throughout the Bay Area. Sullivan is credited with bringing the artisan bread movement to the Bay Area, spawning bread making operations like Metropolis and Semifreddi’s.

A third wave, at least in the case of coffee and surfing, usually follows a second one. Bread’s third wave was actually led by a surfer: Chad Robertson, the creator of Tartine Bakery. Robertson and his pastry-chef wife Elizabeth Pruitt opened Tartine in 2002, and the bakery’s bread and croissants almost immediately spawned lines out the door. Thirteen years and three cookbooks later, Robertson has fed and nurtured an international obsession with country-style sourdough that relies on wet dough, long ferments, and gentle folds. Other bread bakers in the Robertson era of bread-baking in San Francisco follow similar, though highly personal, practices. Josey Baker recently published a well-reviewed cookbook; three years ago, he moved production to The Mill, a bakery and coffee shop in partnership with Four Barrel Coffee.

I thoroughly enjoyed my sandwich at Tartine (pecorino and olive) and was surprised by the bold, notice-me flavors of Josey’s toast and toppings (including a pumpkin butter almost neon in appearance). All around both bakeries, people lined up for loaves of bread, tucked extra loaves into canvas bags, and ordered seconds of toast. Though some writers have questioned the need for toast bars ($4 toast can elicit raised eyebrows), I didn’t absorb any haughtiness or that dreaded scene-y attitude. The bread and toast that each of these bakers produce is world’s apart from the packaged supermarket bread you might toast at home, and many consumers have aptly noticed.

Tartine’s got the global obsession angle covered, while Josey Baker has mastered the coffee and toast bar concept. So, the question bears asking: what’s Sour Flour’s market?

Certainly anyone can line up at Tartine or pop down to the Mill: the doors are open as long as your wallet is. But Gabriner’s Sour Flour feels separate from this particular bread scene and clientele. Though he’s friends with Josey and respect radiates from him when he talks about Robertson, Gabriner is aware of the market gaps in the current bread renaissance. And he wants to fill those gaps by creating superb and affordable bread, while empowering a city of bread baking enthusiasts.

Panko crusts, miso glazes, kale caesars: all foods and techniques slowly travel through the trickle-down-food chain, bouncing haphazardly like some kind of culinary plinko chip. As a food object becomes more accessible, it can lose its luster, and in tandem, its flavor: the reasons people were originally interested.

Bread isn’t like that. Gabriner knows that people would be just as interested in Tartine’s bread if it were for sale all over the city at cheaper prices, as long as the quality was exactly the same. “If Tartine is considered the best bread in the world, that’s great,” Gabriner earnestly stated. “But we want quality levels to be there – or more – and we want to have [that quality] bread [be] more accessible, more affordable, and available to everybody.”

In thinking about Sour Flour’s audience and niche, he recounted, “from a business perspective you always start with ‘what’s the problem?’ I’ve had a hard time with that because San Francisco has great bread [and] there are other people who are educating in some ways too.” Seconds later, Gabriner answered and reframed his own question: “I don’t think there’s necessarily a problem, [instead] I think it’s about trying to improve [bread], trying to do it better.” Gabriner wants Sour Flour to continue to be known as one of the best breads in the city, if not the single best bread, but he wants the bread to be equally well-known for its affordability. “Josey Baker makes great bread but it’s $6; Tartine’s is $7; on Good Eggs it’s $11. Affordability is what we want here.”

The dual concepts of affordability and accessibility exemplify how Gabriner has pivoted Sour Flour’s mission since 2010. The grounding principles remain the same (see those numbers at the beginning of this article), but education has become a more prominent part of Sour Flour’s existence. In 2010, Gabriner ran a promotion on a website called Homerun (since acquired by Deem) for a bread-baking class. They sold 281 tickets in a single day. Besides the unexpected revenue, Gabriner witnessed the eagerness of the attendees, people who perhaps thought they’d never be able to make a sourdough loaf of their own or who were struck helpless by the thought of feeding a starter. Since that original Homerun deal, Sour Flour has partnered with Groupon, Yelp, and Daily Candy, among others, to sell tickets to hundreds of bread workshops. These workshops boost Sour Flour’s bottom line, expand the ideas of accessibility and empowerment, and further Sour Flour’s name recognition.

Gabriner feels just as strongly about educating the home baker who might bake once a month as educating the aspiring professional baker, like Sour Flour’s current head baker, Anthony Grossi. With rare exception, Anthony bakes the majority of Sour Flour’s loaves, bagels, and pretzels. He’s frequently joined in the kitchen by Neno, an employee of La Victoria, Sour Flour’s operational home base in the Mission neighborhood. Anthony is still in the middle of baking his stipulated 1,000 loaves, all while continuing to bake bread for Sour Flour’s business. Once he finishes baking those loaves, Gabriner will add his name to the list of Sour Flour baker-apprentices who have successfully baked and given away 1,000 loaves: Gabriner, a baker named Val Ingleby, and Cat Shimizu, Sour Flour’s current head of education.

Despite recounting stories of empowered bread bakers, both professional and otherwise, Gabriner remains most focused on getting Sour Flour to a “break-even level of bread production”, mentioning that they’re “still a tiny bread company”. His current vision for Sour Flour is to run a business that produces at least 2,000 loaves a day for wholesale accounts while helming a more consistent bread education center. These changes would still make Sour Flour “significantly smaller than Acme”. Currently, without even moving to a different location, Sour Flour could expand their output to 2,000 loaves, thanks to La Victoria’s rotating deck oven, an oven that happens to sit idle for many hours of the day. According to Gabriner, the oven is currently used for eight hours by La Victoria and for two hours by Sour Flour. “There’s so much opportunity,” he dreamed out loud.

Bread used to be a delicious staple until it morphed into a palatable staple before transforming into another boring source of calories. Thirty years of earnest baking and ingredient sourcing, not to mention the revival of slower, wetter fermentation techniques, has allowed bakers like Gabriner to shift their goals. He’s not trying to convince people to eat rustic, naturally fermented bread; he wants to broaden access. The overarching question is no longer: where’s my audience? Will people pay money for handmade bread? Instead, Gabriner asks: how can Sour Flour expand the access of this awesome bread? How can we as a company empower people in areas across the city, not just in localized pockets, to care about this most basic, delicious, and nutritious staple?

Gabriner carries these questions with him as he makes impromptu sales calls, rescues discarded starter from a trashcan (don’t ask), and manipulates numbers. Before I began taking photos of Anthony and Neno, Gabriner summarized our nearly two hour conversation in a set of bullet points, distilling our interview into one of those fill-in-the blank questionnaires. The limited space of those questionnaires forces you to really focus, to whittle your answer down to the crux of its argument. “What is your business’s mission? Answer in two sentences of less.” Gabriner’s succinct form makes such answers easy: Sour Flour’s mission is to “make bread back into a staple. [We want that] when you go to Safeway, your only options are really good bread and you can afford them all.”

In all of his aspirations for affordability and education, Gabriner is really channeling his bread idol, a French baker named Lionel Poilane. Poilane was “THE baker”, Gabriner gushed to me early in our conversation. “He revitalized the style of naturally fermented [bread]. He was a baker, sure, but he was also a master marketer with [a team of] bakers who were very, very skilled.” Many credit Poilane with “almost single-handedly sav[ing] sourdough from obscurity, reviving its reputation as the true French bread.” In the 1980s, as the Poilane family attempted to meet growing demand for their products, he and his architect wife designed a circular bread-baking facility. In the center of the ring was the wood needed for the day’s bake; around the perimeter were 24 wood-fired ovens for individual bakers radiating like wheel-spokes. Workers used a ceiling-mounted remote-controlled crane to pick up the wood and deposit the logs in chutes that led to the ovens.

I don’t know if a ring of 24 ovens with a team of master Sour Flour bakers is in the near future of Sour Flour’s existence. But it’s clear from my conversation and observations around San Francisco that the city could easily accommodate more high quality, nutritious, flavorful bread, especially bread sold at an affordable price point, bread that’s disseminated to neighborhoods that are far away (culturally or geographically) from Tartine and Josey Baker. And if Gabriner wants to continue with his lofty goals – goals that are certainly grounded in reality – there’s no telling what I might write about his business in 10 years’ time.