Published August 12th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
“My customers would revolt!” she says.
Ted Habiger, chef/owner of the farm-to-table restaurant Room 39, made the carb connection the hard way. After replacing Farm to Market ciabatta for bread service, he heard from customers who asked for the return of the hard-to-pronounce Italian bread by name.
“We get four deliveries a week, and we often run out,” he says, adding Farm to Market’s baguette, semolina loaf and Eight-Grain to the list of favorite loaves featured on his seasonal menus.
When bakers Mark Friend and Fred Spompinato opened their wholesale bakery in 1993, they kicked off an artisan bread revolution in Kansas City that has lasted for more than a quarter of a century and, lucky for bread lovers, shows no signs of slowing.
Starting in the 1980s, a fascination with bland and pillowy Wonder Bread gave way to a craving for crusty European-style breads offering more taste, texture and nutrition. Farm to Market was able to capture the local bread scene by offering artisan breads made with four simple ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast.
As a baker coaxes the dough out of a mechanically tilted mixing bowl roughly the size of a bathtub, a 400-pound form oozes onto a workbench to be divided, kneaded, shaped and baked in large commercial ovens.
The production numbers are impressive, yet relatively boutique when compared to other players on grocery store shelves. The bakery operates 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week, 363 days a year. Sixty-two employees – down from a pre-pandemic 70 – continue to create more than 200 products delivered fresh daily to over 200 food service customers and over 40 grocery stores around the metro area.
A month into the pandemic, the company relocated from a 2,800-square-foot space in the Crossroads to a 10,000-square-foot industrial complex on Speaker Road in Kansas City, Kansas. The space formerly housed Tippin’s Pies.
“We moved without missing a single day of production,” says John Friend, the 36-year-old son of founder Mark Friend and company vice president since 2011.
Two breads have become best-sellers: a San Francisco-style sourdough and Grains Galore, a loaf loaded with whole grains, flax, oats, rye, sunflower and millet seeds and sweetened with honey.
An ongoing push toward healthier eating has kept Grains Galore top of mind for many consumers, but the tangy sourdough stepped back into the spotlight when baking became a viral pastime for millions of Americans locked at home during the pandemic. Consumers had occasionally called asking for a piece of the company’s sourdough starter, but a shortage of yeast spurred a 50% uptick in requests.
To keep the supply chain chugging along, Farm to Market also ramped up production, baking 235,000 sourdough loaves from March 1, 2020 to Feb. 29, 2021, up from 184,000 loaves over the same period a year earlier.
The company’s Instagram account recently included a post spotlighting the original starter the founders created – and have been feeding ever since. But before the starter can be used to make a loaf of bread, it must ferment, a natural process that also turns grapes into wine or milk into cheese.
For naturally leavened breads, the fermentation process uses yeast in the air to feed on sugars contained in the dough, turning them into carbon dioxide and alcohol. The process can be retarded in a refrigerator or cooler, but when removed and set on the counter warmer temperatures allow the dough to rise.
“We take what we need to make bread then add more flour and water and let it ferment. We do it constantly, over and over,” John Friend says. “Of course, our flour has changed over the years, and the organisms around us have changed over time, but the starter has been maintained constantly since 1993.”
Mark Friend grew up behind a donut shop and started baking at the age of 14. During college he worked in bakeries in Dallas and Houston. He earned a psychology degree from the University Missouri-Kansas City, but kept coming back to baking and figured he’d always be employable as a baker.
Early on, Mark signed on to go to San Francisco to apprentice at Monterey Baking Co. with a third-generation Italian baker.
Mark returned to Kansas City to work for Pacific Baking Co. He met Spompinato, and eager to try their hand at naturally leavened breads, the bakers started Farm to Market with $10,000 of their own money and a $10,000 bank loan.
Starting out, they traded bread for rent at The Classic Cup Westport and delivered loaves from the trunk of their cars. In 1996, Fred Ball, the founder of Hen House supermarkets, invested in the company.
Although the founders remain friends to this day, Spompinato left the company in 1999 to create Fervere, a tiny Westside artisan bread bakery focused on hearth breads. He retired and sold his bakery to Ibis Bakery in 2016.
As a child, John Friend recalls his dad had a baking lab in the family’s basement with beakers and PH meters. When he went to work with his dad as a child, he often took his naps on palettes of flour. By age 16, he was delivering bread on the weekends and soon took over managing the delivery drivers. In college, he studied operations management and planned to work for the business he had grown up in.
“I was always proud of (the business) and couldn’t really envision anybody else running it,” he says.
Unlike his father, who is a founding member of The Bread Bakers Guild of America, John understands less of the art and more of the science.
“I know more than the average guy on the street, and nobody can round faster. I have this two-handed bread folding method,” he says. “But the things I worry about as we grow are the number of employees, health insurance, the cost of labor. We do have to continue to grow to provide all that.”
To celebrate Farm to Market’s 25th anniversary in 2018, Mark’s scaled down home baking recipes for sourdough, French levain, rye and Biga were published in “Baking Artisan Bread with Natural Starters” (Andrew McMeel).
Although the company started out in grocery stores, their food service break came after working on a dreamy butter-rich brioche bun for the now-closed Blanc Burgers, a local restaurant that helped foster the gourmet burger craze.
These days, John Nhon Bui, a night production manager who was a baker in his native Vietnam and has worked for Farm to Market for 24 years, rolls out pretzel dough then artfully loops the dough into a familiar bow. The pretzels are a custom order for hometown distiller J. Rieger & Co.
At other stops along the production floor, bakers add fragrant fresh rosemary to dimpled focaccia bread, slash the center of sub rolls with a blade lame to allow gas to escape during baking or shape ciabatta cradled by the undulating waves of a couche (pronounced koosh), a special proofing cloth.
“Farm to Market bread has not changed or gone down in quality over the years,” says Room 39’s Habiger. “It’s just that there are new players. But there’s always going to be a new kid on the block.”
Early in his career, Habiger considered becoming a partner in Farm to Market Sandwich Co. He wrote a business plan, found a location in the River Market and chose an architect, but on the way to sign the bank loan he got cold feet.
The low-carb Atkins Diet was gripping the nation: “No one was eating bread at that moment,” Habiger says, noting the idea resurfaced for a time at the food hall Parlor, although Habiger was not involved in that incarnation.
Despite the almost-restaurant, there are no hard feelings, and Habiger considers Mark Friend, who is semi-retired and dealing with health issues, a business mentor.
“He gave me some really good advice when I was thinking of opening a second location. He said, ‘Just make sure you keep providing the same quality product.’ ”
When it comes to the quality, the breads are produced on a 72-hour timeline: a bread is mixed on Friday, baked on Saturday, delivered on Sunday. Sliced breads last for two days and hearth breads in paper bags are good for a day. Sourdough has the longest shelf life because of its natural acidity, but the lack of preservatives in all Farm to Market breads has made it difficult to move outside the local market.
“We have a limited footprint because we use no artificial preservatives in our breads,” John Friend says. “Even if we were to try to add Wichita, it would probably have to be frozen to be cost effective. We might, but I think we’ll always be fresh in KC.”
Much like a sourdough starter on the rise, Farm to Market has opted for slow, controlled growth.
“(Mark) made the highest quality product,” Habiger says. “But he was also pragmatic: He wanted to make enough bread for everybody.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. You can follow Silva at @jillsilvafood.