Hangin’ With Klecko: Brake Bread’s Rising Talent
Thomas Wolfe once claimed that you can’t go home again, and I couldn’t agree more. However, sometimes you can go half a block away.
That is exactly what I did recently when I pulled up in front of the Brake Bread bakery located on West 7th Street in St. Paul. As I hopped out of my bread truck, I couldn’t help but smile as I stared at a building where a much younger Klecko launched his sourdough empire.
After a few moments I decided to detach from ghosts of the past and place my focus on the mission at hand, and that was to interview a bakery staff that may have the most interesting backstory in town.
As I walked in I smiled. The space was clean, organized and void of impulse items that new concepts like to troll in front of customers with the hope of denting their wallets just a bit deeper.
If these folks weren’t minimalists, I think it’s safe to say their esthetic was Spartan, and as I made an inventory of all that I saw, I was mentally applauding the taste level these people exhibited.
Before I had a chance to introduce myself, Nate Houge (the baker guy) and his partner Micah Taylor (the business guy) came over and gave me good honest handshakes like I used to get from Baptist preachers when I was a kid.
It had been decided that the three of us would go outside on their patio, drink coffee and discuss what I could write about that would help them most.
I explained I didn’t think I should retread how these two friends had spent the last couple of years in a commercial kitchen, baking high-end loaves for their bicycle delivery bread service. I think my comment may have surprised them though, because after all, what’s more interesting than guys peddling baguettes and boules to hundreds of subscribers across the city?
Brake Bread’s Micah Taylor (far left) and Nate Houge, along with two of their bakers.
To me the real story was the product. In a preliminary interview that took place several days prior, Nate informed me how Brake Bread’s entire bread line was committed to what he called a natural fermentation process.
So jumping back to the present, I asked these two if they felt it was possible to make a profit in a business where creating a loaf of bread took 24 hours.
Nate winked while correcting me: “Actually, 26 hours from beginning to end.”
To which Micah grinned and added: “I do think it’s possible to make a living doing what we do. As you know, the hospitality industry is cyclical. Look at how our city is choosing to dine. I think taprooms are a perfect example of what I’m talking about. People who care about what they put in their bodies are willing to pay a little extra to get something that they really want.”
Then as Micah stopped to take a breath, I caught him looking toward Nate to see if he wanted to chime in, but Nate remained silent so Micah continued: “I think I can speak for both of us when I say we want to emulate, but not necessarily duplicate or steal the vibe that Peace Coffee has imprinted within the food industry. Some of the values I admire about their company are that they really value their employees’ quality of life. Life can be hard enough; we certainly don’t want to add difficulty to people who are nice enough to help us do what we do.”
From Nate’s expression it appeared he had something to add, so Micah deferred to his partner: “There’s a lot that Micah and I knew about this business when we started but one thing neither of us had experience with was hiring. I got to tell you, we really got lucky with our staff.”
These guys seemed to be enjoying themselves, and so was I. I’ve always felt there’s nothing better than talking to people who do what you do for a living.
In a complimentary tone I asked both gentlemen if it was accurate to say they were learning as they went.
Both of them smiled and I almost had to call jinx because both of them issued a mantra that obviously had been discussed (if not rehearsed) on more than one occasion: “We’ve made millions of medium mistakes, but as of this moment, none of our mistakes have been huge.”
“And that’s essential if you’re going to survive,” Micah continued.
Another observation I made when entering the bakery was that Brake Bread also had a really nice pastry program. When I brought this up, I looked at Nate and shrugged my shoulders while pointing out I thought he was supposed to be a bread guy.
Without offering excuses he defended the decision: “Yeah, I know, right? I thought about this awhile because all I ever wanted to do was bake bread. But there’s overhead when you have a building and employees. I played around with the idea, and I have to tell you I’m going to guess that half our current sales are pastry. Micah, do you have the numbers handy?”
Micah had his laptop opened and informed his partner he was already on it and within a minute we were told bread and pastry were 50-50.
At this point I realized all of us had to get back to work but before leaving I had to ask: “Guys, you are becoming famous for being the guys who peddle bread across the metro, but when I look at your place here I find it odd that I don’t see a bike rack.”
Both of my new friends began to laugh and confessed that they had been waiting for a journalist to notice this, but up until this point nobody had.
As Micah stood up he reminded me: “Like I said, we’ve got a lot to learn, and who knew how many hoops a guy has to jump through just to get a bike rack approved by the city? But, hey, I’m not complaining, things are going well."
And with that they put a loaf of bread in my hand and sent me on my way.
Later that evening, I gave that loaf to my wife and she could tell it wasn’t a Saint Agnes loaf, so she asked: “Is this some kind of bread fidelity test, do you want me to like this?”
I nodded yes and probably smiled as I mentioned: “I do hope you like this; it might be the best loaf in the city.”
Friends, I can’t tell you how impressed I was with the people, products and conversation I got to share with the folks at Brake Bread. I really hope you make it a point to check them out.
Dan “Klecko” McGleno is the CEO at Saint Agnes Baking Company in St Paul and can be reached electronically at firstname.lastname@example.org, at the office at 651-290-7633, or on his cellular device at 651-329-4321.