Some new neighbors quickly become part of the fabric of the neighborhood. After a few months, you can hardly imagine life without them.
Bread Furst (4434 Connecticut Avenue) is such a neighbor. Welcomed by our neighborhood and craved by fans of Mark Furstenberg’s previous ventures, Marvelous Market and BreadLine, the bakery was embraced well before it opened its doors in Van Ness/Forest Hills almost one year ago.
Still, we’ve worried. Would the neighborhood’s devotion be enough to keep Bread Furst in business? Would Furstenberg’s customers embrace his breads, so crusty and dark and different from what we find at the supermarket? Would enough of his fans from outside the neighborhood make the journey and help support the store?
The answer to the final question has been yes – in an unexpected way. As it turns out, some of Furstenberg’s biggest fans are with a company he’s criticized harshly in the past: Whole Foods Market.
Large supermarkets can provide a lifeline to small neighborhood bakeries. San Francisco’s first Whole Foods store did just that, by stocking breads from local artisan bakers. Furstenberg writes in his bakery’s blog about being envious of the arrangement when he saw it in 1996. So he was hopeful, then ultimately disappointed, when Whole Foods took over the Fresh Fields chain later that year. Instead of shuttering the Fresh Fields bakeries and buying its bread locally, Whole Foods started baking its own bread. Furstenberg says he remains critical of that decision to this day.
“I was wholly unprepared, therefore, when Whole Foods wrote to me a month ago to ask if we would like it to begin selling some of our whole grain breads,” he writes. Thus the title of his blog post: “Mea culpa.”
According to the Washington Post, Furstenberg later learned that a delegation from Whole Foods, unbeknownst to him, had come to Bread Furst to try its wares before the company reached out to him.
“It’s really an amazing thing to me, because I have been so disrespectful to Whole Foods in the past,” Furstenberg told the Washington City Paper.
The result: Four types of breads baked at Bread Furst are now being sold at the Whole Foods on P Street. Says Furstenberg in his blog:
“… [What] this means is a greater stability for Bread Furst. But more important it means that more customers will have easier access to the kinds of breads they might like or learn to like: Organic whole grain breads.”
And if customers learn to like it, Furstenberg sees opportunities to sell his breads at other Whole Foods stores around DC, and more stability for other neighborhood bakeries if more Whole Foods stores and other chains follow suit.
This is quite a feather in his cap, and Furstenberg could soon have another. With any luck, he will be celebrating the first anniversary of Bread Furst’s opening in May with his first James Beard award. He’s a finalist for the prestigious national culinary prize under a new category – “Outstanding Baker” – a category he actively lobbied against. He told the Washington Post:
“I opposed it,” he said. “I argued two times over 10 years. Once I wrote a letter directly to the jury, saying there should not be a bakery category because these are restaurant awards, not bakery awards.”
The reward Furstenberg seeks is to prove that a neighborhood bakery can be profitable and sustainable. The Whole Foods deal is one more step in that direction.