La Brea Bakery bread – those long baguettes and round loaves with hearty crusts – seem to be so ubiquitous these days one almost takes them for granted. Whether it’s the sourdough loaves in the basket at Ralphs, or the distinct dinner rolls served at a favorite restaurant, La Brea Bakery would appear to be a mammoth mechanized operation that has become one of the largest sellers of fresh bread in the U.S.
So it was a delight to tour the real operation, still working out of the tight warehouse on Washington Blvd just south of Hancock Park, that produces all those fresh baked goods – not by machine but by hand. Yes, the 40,000-50,000 pounds per day of baked breads, pastries, pizza dough and bread sticks are still hand rolled and worked by experienced bakers, many of whom have worked there since the beginning.
Nancy Silverton opened the initial La Brea Bakery back in 1989, and they still use the same ‘starter’ – or mother dough – to make the loaves today. The 200 employees who are mixers, shapers and bakers, work almost as a family in the 24-7 facility, with many of them living right in the Mid-City neighborhood where it’s located. The bakery’s Technical Manager, Francisco Robles, lives just down the street and walks home for lunch. The bakery is not unionized but workers earn a “great living wage” according to David Alexander, Sales Manager, who took the Buzz on a tour of the facility.
When the giant Swiss baked goods company ARYZTA purchased La Brea Bakery it “enabled us to do great things with a culinary team of master bakers,” Alexander said. It also allowed La Brea Bakery to expand nationally by shipping dough and par-baked goods to stores and restaurants nationwide. Those products are produced and shipped from other facilities.
We walked from the fermenting room, where giant tubs of dough sit for a prescribed number of hours (the sourdough takes a full two days from starting the dough to baking the bread) to the mixing room where stainless vats are used to mix the dough. On to the cutting area where dough is divided into weighted sections, then purveyed on a slow belt to the shapers who pick up each and every mound of dough and ply it into the prescribed loaf or roll it will become. On to the warm proofing area where the yeast aroma weighs strong, but also mingles with the smell of fresh baked loaves wafting in from the ovens, baking bread in an adjacent room.
All ingredients are certified organic and kosher with no preservatives or additives for shelf-life. “You need to eat this bread while it’s fresh because that’s the way we bake it. Not to last on a shelf for days or a week, but fresh,” Batar told us. “We call it ‘living dough’ – everything in the environment can affect it – water, moisture, humidity, heat. We have to keep it all in a perfect environment for it to become perfect bread.”
Seeing the bakers take cut portions of the ready dough and shape it with their gloved hands, kneading, rolling and handling each and every loaf with a delicate touch, then plopping it on to pans for warm air proofing – is a remarkable thing to witness. Human touch really does come into play on every loaf, harking back to a grandmother’s maxim that one must knead the bread with love for a tasty loaf.
The sourdough boule in 1, 2, and 3 lb loaves is the most popular of La Brea Bakery’s breads, with whole grain and baguettes also selling strong. We also saw rye, multigrain, olive, focaccias, rolls, breadsticks, croissants and cookies being prodded, folded and tweaked by the crew of white-clad bakers who buzzed through the bakery. “There is no end of the day here,” General Manager Etelvina told us. “By 11 pm at night the cooling rooms is starting to be cleared out to send to packaging, but the next batches of starter are being worked. We just keep on baking.”
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