Bread Garden (not them, too!) considers shutdown
on September 9, 2009
By Thomas Gorman/OaklandNorth
One day this July, David Morris, the owner of the Bread Garden bakery, typed up a resigned one-page note and set it on top of his bakery counter for customers to read. Sales had reached their lowest point in the store’s history, the sign read–a shift Morris attributed to “the large number of choices Berkeley customers now have for buying their baked goods.”
So after 33 years, Morris wrote in the note, he was considering closing down the shop. The bakery that in the 1970s helped ignite the Bay Area artisan bread trend is now in danger of becoming a victim of its own success.
When the Bread Garden opened in 1976 across the street from the Claremont Resort on the border between South Berkeley and North Oakland, it was one of the first bakeries in the region to offer a certain kind of fresh-baked bread: french baguettes, morning buns, and the three-seed sourdough ryes. According to Morris, there were only three bakeries within a two-mile radius of his store. As independent bakery bread grew in popularity during the 1980s and 90s, the bakery stayed small – producing approximately 300 to 500 loaves and pastries a day – and becoming a neighborhood institution.
Yet today the Bread Garden competes with nine other bakeries in the same two-mile radius. Bakeries and farmer’s markets further south and west offer fresh bread bread and ACME Bread Company and Semifreddi’s Bakery distribute their products in stores and supermarkets throughout the region.
The increased competition has cut into Bread Garden’s sales. Morris’ letter implored its readers to “Help us get more customers in the door. Buy your pastry here rather than at Peet’s, and your bread here rather than at the supermarket.” Morris says that if he finishes a second year in the red, he may allow his lease to expire at the end of 2009.
After purchasing her Sunday coffee and morning bun, Claremont resident Julie MacDonald said she was surprised to hear that the bakery may move. “I think people would be outraged if they knew,” she said, referring to the shop as the “best anywhere.”
Customers come for Bread Garden’s fresh-baked products. All baking is done on-site by a team of five bakers who have worked with Morris for twenty years. The bakery’s most popular items are the 19th century French baguette and the sourdough loaf, and Morris says some 40 percent of sales comes from the morning buns, bearclaws, and other sweet pastries. Adam Klyce was walking to get his latte next door at Peet’s when he said the pain au chocolat at Bread Garden is “better than anywhere.” He sometimes asks the bakery to make a hard, breaded cookie shaped like a skateboarder for his young son. “He holds onto it for a few weeks,” he said. “Until he drops it and it shatters and I have to order a new one.”
Bread Garden’s quaint storefront sits at the end of small, tree lined shopping center. Traffic on a recent Sunday morning was intermittent but steady, with none of the long customer lines visible next door at Peet’s Coffee. Photographs of Morris’ recent trip to Prague adorn the walls and baked animal shapes are featured above the bread racks. Every morning at 8 am, Pedal Express, a bicycle delivery service, arrives to pick up seventy or eighty loaves for the Berkeley Bowl market on Shattuck Avenue, the only other location in Berkeley where customers can buy Bread Garden products.
All types of small businesses have faced difficult choices over the last eighteen months, but Morris said the recession has had little to do with his decline in sales. The Bread Garden has experienced a three percent drop in sales each year for the last 15 years, Moris said, which he attributes to the steady growth in nearby competition. “The single biggest blow to my business,” he said, “has been the availability of good bread in the supermarkets.”
Not all artisan bakeries are suffering. Semifreddi’s Bakery chose to grow over the years and has continued to see positive growth. Tom Frainier, co-owner of Semifreddi’s, says his company has seen a six percent rise in sales since this time last year — due in part to a rise in commercial distribution. The Emeryville-based bakery started business in 1984 operating out of an 450 square-foot shop in Kensington. It now maintains three store locations in Berkeley and distributes wholesale to more than 400 clients throughout the Bay Area. Frainier points to the recession as the biggest force shifting consumers’ buying habits. “People are staying home,” he said. “Guess what happens when you stay home? You buy bread at the supermarket. It’s an affordable luxury.”
Customers have urged the Bread Garden to adapt, offering their suggestions for new product lines and restaurant partnerships and urging Morris to establish a presence at farmer’s markets throughout the East Bay. Standing outside the Bread Garden with three freshly purchased french baguettes in his hand, customer Joe Halperin agreed that there is a plentiful supply of quality bread and baked goods in Berkeley but argues that successful shops must meet the needs of their customers. “Go out and get a sense of what the community wants,” he said.
Though Morris is taking suggestions, he cautions that he has tried many of the proposed ideas. Introducing new products, he argues, will dilute the popularity of his current selection. “I know twice as many recipes as we’ve got in the store,” he said. “I could double our product but I don’t have a market.”
Morris pointed to his long-time partnerships with the Berkeley Bowl and Rick and Ann’s restaurant two doors down, but he said he is not interested in additional partnerships. “You just have to sell too much bread to make it worthwhile,” he said. “The numbers just don’t add up.”
Cautioning that he has not yet made the final decision to relocate, Morris said he won’t discuss specific locations. “The minute I sign a lease, I’ll tell the world,” he said. As he looks for new locations, he is considering counties further afield, such as Marin or Sonoma. “I take my bread outside the immediate San Francisco-Berkeley area,“ he said, “and everybody raves about it saying, ‘Oh man, this is great! Where can I buy this around here?’ Whereas around here,” he said, indicating Berkeley, “people’s reaction to a good loaf of bread is, ‘Oh, it’s another good loaf of bread.’ It’s not special any more.”
Morris said his business has seen a five to ten percent increase in sales over the last two months and that people are talking about his possible move. Yet long-time customers Kay and Takako, who declined to give their last names, were surprised to hear the news. The mother and daughter said they suspected customers like them had been studying the pastries, not the signage. “They should say something,” Kay said. “Maybe ‘Thanks for coming and did you see our sign?’” she suggested.
Meanwhile, Semifreddi’s is in its own process of relocation. In October, the family-owned company’s central baking facility in Emeryville will reopen in a larger, 36,000 square foot facility on Alameda Island, near the Oakland Airport. With accounts stretching up to Novato and down to San Jose – brand exposure for future growth, Frainier said – Semifreddi’s needs the space and intends to use it.
But for the Bread Garden, if sales continue to decline, Morris could be forced to make some difficult decisions. “I’m going to have to look at laying off people I’ve been with for over twenty years,” he said. “And that’s just not a very Berkeley thing to do.”
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