Photos by JEFF POWERS
The construction of Leif Bjelland's bakery, Le Petit Outre, is nearly completed in the shell of what was once an auto repair shop. He had considered firing his dough elsewhere, but his heart and his head brought him Missoula-a locale uniquely receptive to him and his peers.
"Bakeries here are succeeding because they're grassroots-no corporations," Bjelland said while showing off his new digs. "And people here have so much pride in their bakeries. I don't think everyplace is like that."
There are 10 or so different places to get baked goods in Missoula, give or take a couple depending on your definition of a bakery-and that's before you count the grocery stores-which is quite a few for a town this size.
But the remarkable thing is that they all seem to be thriving. Owners and bakers alike report an increase in oven activity over the past several years, and the two new entries into the growing clique appear unconcerned about the competition and say there is plenty of room.
What is the reason for their success? Is it just a hip trend, is it that every bakery offers a slightly different service for hungry Missoulians-or is it something deeper?
As a whole, bakers in Missoula tend to look at their bakeries not exclusively as business ventures, but as entities with souls that need to be nurtured for the good of the community. Business is up because the community respects their quality.
When asked about their books or specific sales figures, the bakers interviewed for this article eyes glaze over and they reach for the loudest appliance available to drown out such offensive queries.
Why can't bakeries just be, they seem to ask.
No two bakers are alike in their practice of this "infinite science," as described by one owner, but there is one common thread: baking, for them, is more than just a job, it's a way to approach and define their lives-it's a philosophy.
Bakers are, and no offense is meant by this, unusual. They tend to be loners who enjoy the obscene hours they endure in order to work magic without interference. They create something from nothing, enjoy the tactility of what they do and take tremendous pride in the final product. Still, when asked about why they do what they do, answers ranged from evasive "Why nots?" to complex philosophical ramblings on bread and pastries as life.
Why are there so many bakeries in a town this size? Bakers say it is because what they do is good.
Why does Ron Santa, owner of Stoneground Bakery, one of the newest in town, bake?
"It's like art or writing. It's all about form, in some respects, not about substance. It has a lot to do with timing and literally how you handle it. It is art, that's why," Santa answers.
Santa has set up shop right behind the Great Harvest Bread Co. on South Higgins Ave, where Stoneground is scheduled to open in three weeks.
He grew up on Clinton Street just blocks away from his new business. He went to the University of Montana but ended up transferring to a college in Washington to study philosophy. Santa's first bakery, Jason's in Kalispell, was eventually neighbored by one of Great Harvest's first stores.
The strangeness that surrounds his latest venture is not lost on Santa, who says he's not troubled that the two stores will be offering a similar product-whole grain hearth bread. "I'm not worried. I like what I do, and I think my attitude will be reflected. My main concern is to put out a good product, not whether I make a dime," Santa explains during a tour of the Stoneground Bakery.
Santa says he did not have much interest in baking until a life-altering trip to France in 1971. "I went to a language school over there. My wife and I bought a car and took an ocean liner. I ended up eating a lot of French bread and kind of got hooked," he says.
Santa returned to Montana on a mission-to open his own bakery and reproduce what he fell in love with across the pond. He ended up opening a restaurant with his wife and eventually spun off a bakery because of his bread's popularity.
He was never formally trained, he says, and taught himself through trial and error. Santa, like many bakers, speaks of bread making in almost metaphysical terms.
When asked about the process, or the why, his eyes light up with a passion to proselytize.
"I like bread because it's alive. You take this inanimate stuff and you're bringing it to life. That's beautiful. Bread is what you make it," he says, expressing a familiar sentiment among Missoula bakers.
Santa speaks with raw emotion about something that's easy to take for granted. Some of the products that he spends hours or days making disappear in a matter of minutes without any fanfare. His raison d'*tre, French bread, has a life span of 4 hours, whether purchased or not.
But Santa doesn't think in those terms. He's happy to bring pleasure to his customers, and it's the production that makes him happy.
"It's the process. My wife thinks I'm nuts, but I just like the feel of it, that's my favorite part. I like putting it together," he says. "I guess I'm cursed to work with my hands even though you can make a lot more money with your mouth."
It's 1:30 in the morning at the Food For Thought Headquarters, and Joy Peck and Ryan Esch have been here since 4 o'clock in the afternoon. They don't expect to be done for a few more hours.
"When I was introduced to baking I knew it was something that I could do forever," says Esch, waxing philosophic as he slaps bundle after bundle of bread dough on an enormous floured table. "You can never really perfect it, there's always something else to learn.
"I like the hours, I like working at night. I like it because I don't have to deal with people."
There is tremendous organization and division of duty for the happy night owls Esch and Peck. Esch is in charge of the dough and Peck takes over the finishing. Their work space is spotless with lighting far too bright for such an late hour. A huge oven, the size of four phone booths, shines like a hearth from outer space.
The bakery looks like an operating room. Peck fills danishes with fruit while Esch kneads and rolls the baguette dough.
"I wouldn't call it a religion really," Esch continues. "There's nothing above it. I'm not. The bread rises when it wants to. It just does. The bread controls me."
Jazz, something from the Miles Davis, Cool era, plays softly in the background as the bakers travel along their well rehearsed flight patterns. Esch, in his mid-twenties, seems to spend most of his time going back and forth to the giant oven.
He occasionally begins walking toward it just seconds before the electronic timer sounds. Were I a sports writer, I would describe him as being in "the zone."
Peck concentrates deeply on her own task. She has 20 or so danishes neatly arranged in front of her and carefully ices each one with a star-tipped pastry bag. She seems slightly annoyed at the questioner's irregular intrusion.
"What makes a good baker?" Peck muses, repeating the question as she squeezes out a pattern identical to the one before. "You have to love it and you have to care about the way things look. Probably the same things that make a good doctor-you have to like what you do."
Peck has been baking for 16 years, since she was 18. Her grandparents owned a restaurant and Peck says it's in her blood. She worked at Mammyth Bakery Cafe before arriving at Food for Thought in September.
Like Esch, she dreams of one day opening her own bakery, but doesn't expect a big change anytime soon. She hands the danishes over to Esch to be put in the oven and thinks about the question a little longer.
She repeats it again: "What makes a good baker? Bakers are people that like to be alone. If you're one of those people that needs other people all the time you shouldn't be a baker," she says as she walks to the cooler to pick up some more dough.
"You need sarcasm and a sense of humor. We end up getting a lot of musicians and artists too. Baking is very artistic."
Without being prompted, Esch pipes up on the reasons for his
love of baking. "This is a kind of art and kind of chemistry. There's a lot of science and technique involved. I've studied science my whole life and there's a lot of stuff going on in a loaf of bread," he says as he runs of to answer the oven's cry.
"There's a lot of timing involved in baking. The rest of my life is kind of messy though. I guess you could say that."
Does anything odd happen at such obscene hours? Well, there was the time they forgot to add sugar to the chocolate raspberry cake. That didn't go over well, they say. And there was the time a trainee added eight pounds of salt to a batter instead of eight ounces. "That wasn't such a good thing," says Esch.
"The amount of time I put into a loaf is significant. Twenty-four to 36 hours," he says when asked what outsiders don't know about what he does. "This is a slow process and you have to have a lot of patience to be a baker. I kind of want other people to slow down when they eat something I make. Think about it."
-Ciro Pasciuto, in his article,
"The Art in Artisan Baking"
Bjelland is the owner of Le Petit Outre Breads-another new bakery scheduled to open in the next few weeks. He, like Esch, appreciates the science and the art, the classical and the romantic in baking.
"There are few things that hold such a combination of the two," he says. "It's this that really holds my interest because my standards are so high for what I want to achieve."
Bjelland admitted he's in for some competition, but believes the market is so alive in Missoula there's still room. He takes his bread very seriously, holding slices of his product over his head like a proud papa.
Bjelland has put his business inside a converted auto repair shop and it's the space itself that gives his bakery such a huge feel. His oven, unique to Missoula, helps too. It's a 12,000-pound whale of a heater built on-site with bricks, mortar and steel.
Worth $50,000 new, this is the oven of a bread baker, says Bjelland. Like most other bakers in the area, he explains that he has not chosen a career as much as he has answered a calling. He loves what he does and doesn't care who understands why.
"I've always held it in the back of my mind to be a baker," he says. "Bread is life. You create life and you get a great deal of joy by giving this stuff to someone else. This is what I do well, I make bread."
-The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.
Friday morning at 3:00 behind the Downtown Bakery. A reporter sits in his car drinking a cup of coffee while pinching his leg to keep from falling asleep. He's waiting for the semi-legendary Jim Remes (rhymes with Flemish).
Remes is the owner and sole baker of the unobtrusive Main Street establishment. Remes' bakery is unique in Missoula. The prices are unbelievably low and the focus is squarely on the guilty treats.
"Sugar sells, man," Remes later explains. In many ways, the Downtown Bakery is Remes, and Remes is a character. Over six-feet-tall, he weighs maybe 170 pounds with a five-pound bag of flour in each hand. But what is truly unique about the Downtown Bakery is Remes' attitude. He looks at baking like any other job, which distinguishes him from the life-giving dough shapers around town.
Remes claims he could give it up at anytime and never look back. It's a way to make a living and survive. Still, Remes' donates an enormous amount of his baked items to those in need. If you don't have the money today, he says, you can catch him next time.
Remes walks across the lot and through the bakery's back door at a brisk pace. Although the baking surfaces, mixers and cookie sheets are clean, his workshop is a mess. It's an appliance graveyard with broken down ovens and automatic rollers everywhere you look. Remes wants to get everything done a little earlier today. He's going fishing at 8 o'clock
"First I gotta get the radio goin'. I need rock and roll," he says as he clicks on the oddly out of place Harman/Kardon receiver. He then turns the coffee on, then the ovens. He shows off the oven with great pride. "This is the new one. This oven kicks some serious ass," he says with a broad grin across his face.
He gets right to the task at hand. He opens various bags of powder and dumps them, without measuring, into two giant mixers-caricatures of the classic Kitchen Aid. "I've done this so many times I know what I'm doing," he explains as he turns the monsters on. "I've got these if I forget though."
He grabs a stack of yellowed recipe notes written on scraps of paper, index cards and old envelopes. He keeps them on a high shelf where only he can reach. For all intents and purposes, his recipes are a secret-no one else can get at them.
Remes sees his bakery almost as a community service, charging the lowest possible price for everything. One employee says she had to practically beg him to raise the price of one item from 40 cents to 50 cents, explaining that the new price would still be half of what the other bakeries in town charge.
Remes got into baking on a whim. He graduated from UM in 1981 with a degree in wildlife biology. But just before he graduated he saw a classified ad selling used baking equipment. He knew he had no future in biology, so on a whim, he bought the mixers and an old oven and opened a bakery.
"A lot of people helped me along the way. Bakers sort of have an allegiance," he says as he cuts a 7-foot-long dough roll into individual cinnamon buns. "I took out the loan and figured if the bakery didn't work out, I'd become a roughneck in the oil fields."
Business gets better and better every year for him, but he has no idea why there are so many bakeries in town. He doesn't know if the new ones will make it or if they'll over-saturate the Missoula market.
He says he just does his thing and has faith that Missoulians will respect him for it. His philosophy: work hard, do what is right and people will come. It's working. The Downtown Bakery has been around for 16 years.
"I could probably make more money in another town, but I love this place and that's why I stay here. I get to talk to people all the time. This makes me feel like part of the community.
"It lets me belong."
Jim Remes studied biology at UM before buying used baking equipment and opening the Downtown Bakery in 1981. Today, the 6-foot-plus baker keeps his recipes in plain sight but out of reach.