How one Toronto businessperson went from mixing a sourdough starter in her apartment to supplying many of Toronto’s finest restaurants and grocery stores.
|Steve Gibson and Andrea Damon Gibson are the husband and wife team behind Toronto’s Fred’s Bread.|
There’s a certain alchemy, a magic that happens when flour and water are mixed together and allowed to ferment and grow from the yeast living in the air around it. It was that magic that first captivated Andrea Damon Gibson back in 1991 while working as a pastry chef at Toronto fine dining institute Splendido. Damon Gibson, fresh from what she describes as a “pilgrimage from San Francisco to L.A.” to visit such bakery legends as The ACME Bread Co. and La Brea Bakery, was inspired to try her own hand at making “good” bread.
“I wanted to make good bread and ACME was sort of the benchmark,” says Damon Gibson.
She started testing out various formulas and, after much experimenting, found something that worked and that Splendido’s customers enjoyed. A few years later, seeing a need to be filled at other restaurants in the city, and having always wanted to run her own business, Damon Gibson decided to strike out on her own. After mixing her first sourdough starter in her apartment at the end of 1994 and getting help from husband Steve Gibson (an MBA graduate working for Black & Decker at the time) on a business plan to take to the bank, so was born Fred’s Bread. Having read about James MacGuire’s legendary Le Passe-Partout restaurant in Montreal and the bread he was making there, Damon Gibson got in touch with MacGuire and soon enough found herself on her way to Montreal to complete a one-week stage at MacGuire’s in-house bakery.
“It was great,” remembers Damon Gibson. “I spent the nights with his baker and it was a really terrific experience. Eighteen years ago, sourdough was described as some mystical experience and there was no one here to teach you about it. (James) sorted out some misconceptions that I had about the process.”
Misconception #1: That starters had to be extremely sour and taste like vinegar. The breads MacGuire made were flavourful and nutty, but not extremely acidic.
Misconception #2: That starters would only grow with spring water and organic flour. Not necessary, suggested MacGuire.
Misconception #3: That instead of measuring and moderating the precise temperature for everything (the water, the air temperature, the starter itself), one should just go with feel and touch. Temperature, emphasized MacGuire, was key.
Damon Gibson returned to Toronto re-inspired, setting up shop in a tiny unit just north of the 401 in the city’s west end. The business consisted of Damon Gibson as the baker and salesperson, an office manager and a part-time driver. Damon Gibson would make dough in the afternoon, bake the bread overnight, catch a nap on a futon couch in the office sometime during the day, and, in between, make sales calls. Scaramouche (another long-established Toronto eatery) and high-end grocery store Pusateri’s were among the bakery’s first customers (Damon Gibson is proud of the fact both are still customers). Damon Gibson’s father, Paul, came on board to help out where needed, mostly with accounts payable, and husband Steve left Black & Decker in 1998 to join Fred’s Bread full time.
“He’d always helped out with business and we decided the time was right to do it together,” says Damon Gibson.
Together, the pair decided Fred’s Bread would never venture into the retail business of selling bread, says Damon Gibson. Fred’s Bread would always be wholesale.
“The focus was always going to be the restaurants,” says Damon Gibson. “The idea was never to run the retail side of things ourselves, it’s too expensive.”
The bakery’s customers are still 60 to 70 per cent restaurants, with grocery stores and other high-end food stores making up the rest of the business, something that helps protect the bakery’s margins when the economy tightens up. A recent move to offer customers frozen dough products has also allowed the business to expand both its product line and its customer base, to those outside the immediate GTA. Damon Gibson says demand for Fred’s Bread breads has also grown because of in-store sampling at the retail level and participation in such shows as the CRFA Show in Toronto this past March.
All that growth requires more space for baking and doing business. Fred’s Bread has already expanded into the unit beside it, giving it 4,200 square feet to squeeze in everything from the sales office to the newly installed Miwe deck oven (“our Caribbean condo,” jokes Damon Gibson). With double-digit growth in the past year alone, the bakery will expand into another unit this fall, upping its space to 6,400 square feet.
Fred’s Bread currently employs 30 staff members altogether, eight of whom are bakers. Because of the never-ending difficulty in finding skilled bakers, Damon Gibson trains the bakers herself. Most of the work is still done by hand, although a molder, hydraulic divider and that new Miwe oven (complete with an automatic loader) have made the process a little more efficient.
The bakery makes 25 varieties of bread every day, although it has 45 to 50 varieties on its product list, with over 200 SKUs. Damon Gibson admits having a hard time paring down that list: part of it is a connection to the products she’s developed, but part of it is also the fact customers have come to expect variety from Fred’s Bread.
“We’ve developed a reputation for offering a huge variety of interesting products,” says Damon Gibson.
Many of those products evolved out of customer requests (the yeasted products like a French baguette, an organic French baguette, and a pain rustique, many of them out of Damon Gibson’s interest in local, seasonal and organic products. Some of the seasonal products have included a concord grape pizza (see the formula in this year’s annual recipe collection, Flavours of Canada), an asparagus flatbread and a pizza terra, covered with local new potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, toasted sage and caramelized onions.
Damon Gibson says Fred’s Bread will continue to offer its customers the quality, high-end products it’s become known for. But that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t make a few changes. First on the list would be expanding into a separate, production facility, one with lots of room for more growth. Fred’s Bread is also in discussion with a distributor in the U.S. And Damon Gibson has also played with the idea of a little retail spot attached to the business, along with expanding into take and bake products. The opportunities, Damon Gibson says, are endless, despite increased competition from other high-end bread makers.
“There are more people in the upper end of the market, but I think it’s a good thing. It means the market has grown. There’s more competition but it keeps us on our toes.”
The market may have changed and grown, and Fred’s Bread along with it, but one thing hasn’t at the bakery: the sourdoughs still take about 20 hours from start to finish.
That alchemy is still allowed to work its magic.
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