I’ve long been curious about what it takes to bake artisan bread in volume — for discriminating Bay Area palates, no less. Spending time with Semifreddi’s co-owner, President and CEO Tom Frainier helped me understand how their bakers make peace with so much bread and pastry dough on a daily basis.
An early player in the Bay Area’s artisan bread explosion of the 1980s, Semifreddi’s was founded in Kensington in 1984 by co-workers Eric and Carole Sartenaer, currently of fame, then sold in 1987 to two employees — one of them Barbara Rose, Tom Frainier’s sister. Barbara Rose’s husband, Michael Rose, joined shortly afterward in 1987, and corporate world escapee Frainier jumped on-board in 1988.
While Frainier handles all things business, Michael Rose focuses on baking and products. Barbara Rose currently spends her time raising three children.
Whether it’s genetic — the Frainiers’ grandfather was a baker — or passion, these alumni took Semifreddi’s from storefront bakery to Bay Area artisan bread giant. In 1987, the company was baking 2,500 loaves per week in its original location: the 450-square-foot Kensington shop that currently serves as a retail store. Now, some 175,000 loaves and 30,000 pastries per week are turned out in a 33,000-square-foot bakehouse in Alameda that runs 24/7.
French pastries, Danish, scones, muffins, cookies and croutons are on the menu, and company drivers deliver bread and goodies to 480 Bay Area businesses daily.
Happily, I was invited to Semifreddi's Alameda headquarters. At the industrial park Semifreddi’s calls home, I was greeted and outfitted with hair net and mask, and then ushered by the hip Frainier onto the baking floor with an enthusiastic, “It’ll blow your mind!”
I expected to find all kinds of mayhem, but it was civilized in there. There were no clouds of flour waiting to envelop us. The vast, loft-like, airy baking floor was sectioned into open work areas where unruffled employees were getting things done.
A machine moved flour from large silos to where it's needed. “Technology helps, but the bread making is not automated,” said Frainier. “We’re a bakery, not a factory.”
A sizeable mixer bowl seemed to float above a workbench before its contents were coaxed out and then quickly cut and weighed by hand. Focaccia dough squares on conveyer belts were greeted by bakers and pressed into pans, and a small group was seeding baguettes from a trash-can sized container of sesame, fennel and poppy seeds. Most of the bread is completely hand-formed, and loaves molded by machine are hand-finished.
A brigade of closet-sized "proofers" — chambers controlled for heat and humidity — stood ready to provide perfect rising conditions, and cavernous rack ovens with wide, gaping mouths were quiet except for one, whose baker was lifting out large rounds with a long wooden paddle called a "bread peel." There was also an aisle of tall, slender, rotating ovens designed to accept multi-tiered, wheeled racks. The ovens were shiny and fancy, with convection and steam functions.
What blew my mind were the hundreds of stacked sheet pans and rack after rack of cooling challah.
Frainier mentioned that Semifreddi’s also makes pastries and cookies. “Did you know?” he said. “It’s a well-kept secret.” Being a Kensington store regular, I did, but said I thought most people knew about the morning buns, if not the chocolate croissants and swirls.
In another section, garlic croutons — made from extra or imperfect baguettes — were being hand-packed. Croutons are one of two products meant to last more than a day, the other being biscotti.
Next was the conference room and a timeline of paper bread bags. Bags and space became more deluxe as the company grew. “The early days were tough,” Frainier recalled. “I used to take my girlfriend out on Friday night, and we’d stamp bread bags because we didn’t have enough money to buy them.”
Affording stamped bags is not a problem now; Semifreddi’s purchased the Alameda building in 2009.
Growth and Quality
Artisan baked goods are crafted from high-quality ingredients and require time and attention, so I asked how Semifreddi’s was able to expand and not whittle away at quality.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Frainier explained, as he talked about their “slow growth” pattern, which allowed the company to grow — but not too quickly or too much. An improvement-driven culture helps. “We’re only as good as our last baguette,” he said. “We have to keep doing better."
Bakers are sent to the prestigious San Francisco Baking Institute, and quality ingredients are sourced, like non-GMO whole grain flour, Madagascan vanilla, Indonesian cinnamon and California chocolate and almonds. No trans-fats or preservatives are used.
I asked about frozen ingredients, and was ushered to a small freezer with a lonely box of blueberries. “For the muffins,” Frainier explained.
Being 100-percent family-owned is what ultimately allows them to remain faithful to certain standards. “Once you take backers,” he said, “you lose control.”
Staff and Community
“We’ve been successful because we’ve been able to attract and retain really good people,” Frainier said, “and our goal is to offer the best wages and benefits in the artisan bread industry — and we’ve never had a lay-off.”
The company’s supportive work environment includes full benefits and not having to read email or answer cell phones while on vacation. All bakers and most of the managers have risen through the ranks, so working relationships are long-standing.
Distribution managers Craig West and Ken Simmons got some good-natured ribbing. “They leave and then come back when they see the light,” joked Frainier about West. Franier also kidded Simmons about once running from El Cerrito to Emeryville, where the company was located before moving to Alameda, because his motorcycle wouldn’t start and he didn’t want to be late for work.
Kristine Chavez is the manager of the Claremont and Kensington stores. “I make my own hours and work 40 to 45 hours a week, on average,” she said. Chavez, a young, energetic, former police officer, joined Semifreddi’s as a driver two and a half years ago and now supervises 10 people. “I love this company.... They take care of you.”
There’s also a sense of responsibility that extends to the larger community. Last year Semifreddi’s donated about $500,000 worth of fresh bread to an amazing number of organizations, including , and opened its doors to more than 75 school groups.
“We want to give back because the Bay Area has given so much to us,” said Frainier.
What they don’t give back is much waste, thanks to comprehensive recycling. Bread returned from stores — for full credit — and unsold bread not used for baguettes is compressed into chicken feed. Who knew?
Now when I leave the Kensington store with baguettes, I’m wondering if they need a writer on staff.