Remember Alex Bettler of Today Bread? I had the pleasure to go and visit him last year on the last day of our stay in London. He was on the verge of moving his home bakery to much larger premises in Walthamstow, North London. The actual move took place in July 2016. Fast forward one year and I was back in London and curious to see how things had changed for him as a baker since the move. Again Alex kindly found time for me despite a schedule that can only be described as packed. Read on and you’ll see…
London is truly humongous and it was a long bus ride from where we were staying to the bakery. I was lucky enough to secure a seat right in front on the top floor of a double decker and I just sat back and relaxed letting the lively cityscape unroll and unfold all around me. One of my favorite modes of armchair travel…
Today Bread now comprises a small prep area/lab and a café in Central Parade, a council-owned creative hub offering space at a subsidized cost to start-up stores and offices. In the back there is co-working space, a clothing store, a recording studio, etc.
The transition from home-based baker to retail outlet was harder than expected, especially because of the adjunction of a café. Alex had bakery work down pat, no problem there, but coffee? Which machine to get? How to use it? Where to buy milk? How to handle the register?
Unexpectedly (to Alex) Today Bread quickly became a neighborhood magnet and with the popularity came new headaches: “We needed to add lunch items. But the prepping area was tiny, sharing space with the baking lab. Two bakers couldn’t be working at the same time. Suddenly we were making 1,200 to 1,500 breads a week. At home we made 100 to 150.”
Everything was(and still is) made on the premises but the prepping area wasn’t legally a kitchen: they couldn’t fry eggs for instance. Fortunately in June 2017 a real kitchen became available in the back of the hub, allowing the bakery to make more lunch items (such as open tartines) and, even more importantly, as soon as a sheeter is procured, its own viennoiserie.
Right now Alex has two priorities: reducing food waste and finding local producers to work with.
Reducing food waste
Today Bread is collaborating with Toast Ale, a brewery which makes beer out of sandwich bread that would otherwise go to waste. Sometimes the beer doesn’t turn out and when that happens, the baker steps in: he uses the beer to make an overnight rye soaker he later adds to a dough made with 25% whole-grain flour and a rye starter. And voilà, Toast Ale Bread was born! The trick is to use just enough soaker that the bread doesn’t taste too much like beer (although some might actually crave a beer tasting bread!): 10 to 15% seems to be the magic number.
Snacks made with less than perfect fruit is another way to go as Alex believes it is the baker’s duty to present the customer with non-traditional options that make sense in terms of sustainability.
Since the café produces such a high volume of coffee grounds, Alex resolved to use some in his bread. Enters the Coffee Loaf: an overnight raisin and cold water soaker added to white dough with 50 g of coffee grounds per 700 g baked loaf.
I brought a coffee loaf home as I was curious to see how it tasted. The coffee flavor was hard to pinpoint. Actually it only came out when the bread was toasted. With a layer of English butter, we found it to be a pleasant (and original) addition to the breakfast table.
Sourcing local ingredients
For now Today Bread buys most of its flour from Shipton Mill but 40 to 50% of Shipton Mill’s grain comes from Canada or Kazakhstan. Seeking to reduce his carbon footprint, Alex has started getting some from France as well (Moulins Hoche). He has also looked at Gilchesters Organics in Northumberland which mills beautiful heritage grains. Alex uses quinoa grown in the United Kingdom and he is looking for a local source of sunflower seeds instead of relying on a Chinese import.
Organic grain farmers use rotation crops to maintain a healthy soil. Incorporating clover and mustard seeds into bread is another possibility. Other options include rapeseed, chia seeds, flax seeds. The key is to find farmers ready to work with a baker, such as John Letts for instance.
Educating the consumer being a large part of the baker’s mission as he sees it, Alex organizes workshops and classes on bread-making. He plans to expand these classes to food in general: pastas, kombucha, other fermented items, wine- or cheese-tasting. Explaining what goes into food, how to make the difference between what’s good and what’s less good, inviting farmers and millers to come and speak. People need to become aware not only of the taste of their food but also of its origin and preparation. If more people understood the impact on public health and the social cost of the food they eat (in terms of medical care, hospital stays, etc.), a debate could start encouraging everyone to think twice about what’s on their plate.
Alex acknowledges the influence of Dan Barber, Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry on his thinking. He is clearly on board with the idea that we are stewards of the Earth and that our job/duty is to keep it alive and healthy. The challenge is to abide by these principles while managing a business. Today Bread has been so successful so quickly that the temptation was for a while to give the public what it wanted. After one year time has come to start steering towards other goals.
On the positive side, the location is great and there is no competition. On the less positive side, the workload is already humongous. The bakery employs five part-time workers. Alex himself works full-time as a baker Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and may add a day to make croissants and other viennoiseries once he has acquired a sheeter. The café space is big, too big in fact, and requires a lot of staff. After three months, the café manager gave up. Alex looked for somebody else but couldn’t find anyone to take over. He does the job himself now, with the result that he works seven days out of seven, ten to eleven hours a day (management, bread, orders, staff rotations, etc.) Since Today Bread opened at Central Parade, he has had two days off (at Christmas).
The Council is pushing support for families, bike deliveries, etc. and Today Bread is happy to go that way too. But it is hard to work with such a big space. The work is never done. There is almost something to take care of. Alex had to learn to delegate, which included training the staff to take on new responsibilities. Days only have so many hours. The baker has to find a suitable balance between his own ideas, public demand and general inertia. The biggest challenge is to build for the future and never lose track of the dream. Best of luck, Alex! I love your passion and dedication and can’t wait to see where they take you next.
Stay tuned for visits to three other British bakeries: