Story, photos and video by Christopher Boffoli
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
Three years after Bakery Nouveau opened in The Junction, its ovens continue to churn out the products that have made the bakery both a local favorite and a foodie mecca. While some other West Seattle restaurants and businesses have come and gone in the same time, William and Heather Leaman’s bakery has thrived.
The secrets of their success? Surely decades of baking experience, quality ingredients, attention to detail and a focus on the customer have something to do with it. But according to William Leaman, the real key is to have small ovens:
“Back in 1999, I worked in France with (artisan boulanger) Éric Kayser and there was one thing in particular that he did that I thought was fantastic: He chose a retail space where there was nowhere to sit. They had garage doors that rolled up in the front. And they’d literally be shoveling baguettes in and out of the oven all day and night with a line out the door and down the block. The place wasn’t even 40 or 50 square feet and they were producing 5,000 baguettes a day. What that imprinted upon me is the importance of, if you’re going to be a baker and bake for your community, your products need to be warm and right out of the oven.”
Rather than install one big oven, Leaman decided to install three smaller ovens as he knew also that it would provide an advantage for baking different products side by side. Further, he understood that it would limit the size of their batches so products could constantly be baked fresh. For instance, the oven Bakery Nouveau uses to bake its signature baguettes can only produce a dozen loaves at a time. These smaller ovens ensure that baked goods are most likely to get into the hands of customers while they are fresh and still warm. “We use a mise en place system whereby everything is set up and ready to go so it can be baked quickly as it is needed. It is sort of a short-order-cook mentality with products constantly coming out of the oven. With French pastry, you are working more as a technician than as an artist. Having all of your things in place is essential, especially for the variety of products we have.”
Leaman’s extensive training abroad, and his consulting work for bakery start-ups, helped him to foresee what would work best for Bakery Nouveau. “I knew that we needed to keep the variety [of the menu] open. It was clear to me that people are looking for good-quality food, and they want to have variety. Instead of making several stops at the grocery store, at the lunch place, etc., they can come here to get some bread for dinner, get some dessert for after dinner, and get a sandwich and coffee for now. That was really the mindset behind the bakery – having the variety to keep people coming back.”
Other bakeries had been in the space for more than half a century – Blake’s for decades, and then Remo Borracchini (which is still in operation elsewhere in the city); the Leamans had been looking for just the right spot in WS. But they essentially had to start from scratch when they acquired the space. A few pastry cases had been left behind but they were too outdated to be salvaged, so they were sold on Craigslist. Demolition began in earnest in June of 2006 as the Bakery Nouveau team installed new wood flooring and wainscot. Leaman laughed as he remembered the former Blake’s space. “We painted over 50 years of flour, sugar and doughnut grease.”
As Leaman tells it, Carl Blake was ahead of his time. “He had bakers from around the world working here. They were doing cakes, bread and then coffee. Carl came back from World War II and tried to open up a stand-up coffee bar. But people didn’t like it. They wanted to sit down.” Customers who patronize Bakery Nouveau today still share anecdotes about their parents and grandparents bringing them in to the bakery when it used to be Blake’s. “We hear a lot of stories of people coming in when they were children. It is a living history that is still alive.”
Standing around in the bakery is an experience that modern customers can surely empathize with. Virtually from the time Bakery Nouveau opened its doors in December of 2006, its extreme popularity has meant almost constant crowds of people clamoring for cakes, pastries and bread. During the bakery’s busiest time on weekends the line routinely stretches out the door. But Leaman is committed to the space for the long-term and does not necessarily see this as a problem. “When you’re standing at the door you’re really no more than seven minutes away from the register. And once you pay you might have to wait a couple more minutes for a sandwich to be ready. But our goal is really to do all we can to get people in and out so they can go on with whatever else they’re doing.”
Although there is some seating, both inside the bakery and on the sidewalk out front, Leaman said that he wanted to strike a careful balance. “I love the size of our space and I’m glad we don’t have a ton of seating. If there were more we’d probably have an influx of people with laptops and books and I don’t want this to be that kind of space. We’d really prefer for this neighborhood bakery to be a community space,” he says. And it is. “We seem to get a lot of people in the bakery who have not seen each other in a long time. So it is great for us to see people reconnecting, reestablishing relationships, hugging and having that sense of community and place. We do realize there is quite a volume of customers but we’re not interested in making it too big. We just want to keep the product special and keep the customers happy.”
At 2,700 square feet on paper, Bakery Nouveau sounds as though it would be spacious. However, considering a variety of products which can routinely exceed 150 separate items, the bakery uses every inch of space and then some. “We have 500 square feet devoted to retail, front of the house. And we have 1,500 square feet that we use for production. Also we have a 700 square foot mezzanine which serves as dry storage for things like flour, cups and bags.”
The upper level also houses Bakery Nouveau’s chocolate enrober that can produce up to 1,000 chocolates an hour. But that’s not all. Technically, the bakery’s production spills outside of its footprint. Through a special arrangement with the nearby Husky Deli, Bakery Nouveau is able to use spare capacity in the deli’s walk-in coolers for proofing its breads and breakfast pastries that require days to ferment. In return, the bakery supplies Husky Deli with freshly baked bread. “Jack Miller is very kind. He really made it possible for us to be in this space. He and his brother grew up with Blake’s Bakery. In fact, until about 1969 the Husky Deli and Blake’s were side by side until the deli moved into their current space. So I know it was important to the Miller family to see something put back in place of Blake’s as they regarded that bakery, which went in in the mid-’40s, as part of what built this community.”
Having to ferment their bread in a neighboring business adds a layer of complication to a complex enterprise, but Leaman feels strongly that it makes a difference in the flavor and quality of the product and sets Bakery Nouveau apart from competing bakeries. “A lot of bakeries don’t ferment overnight as we do. By the time our products hit the ovens we’ve already got three days on the fermentation process. That’s where a lot of the flavor comes from.” Bakery Nouveau also uses a special blend of wheat, sourced from a mill in the Bay Area, called “Type 85.”
Unlike standard refined flours, Type 85 (at right in the photo above, next to regular flour) retains a certain amount of “ash,” the bran or outside kernel of the wheat. This adds complexity to the flavor. But beyond fermentation time and wheat type, there is another less obvious factor that Leaman regards as essential to the unique character of Bakery Nouveau bread and pastries: West Seattle’s unique airborne yeast.
“With West Seattle being on a peninsula and surrounded by water, [there is a natural] microflora here. I think it gives our bread a unique flavor profile. And you won’t taste anything quite like our bread even if you go downtown to some of the other bakeries in the city.”
Bakery Nouveau also chooses to use higher-quality, more expensive ingredients where other bakeries might try to cut costs. For instance, the butter used in their breakfast pastries has a significantly higher fat content than conventional store-bought butter, improving the flavor and texture of their croissants. “The butter we use actually gets pounded out between plastic which helps to develop the lipids in the fat. That’s what gives our breakfast pastries their laminations. We spend the money on the butter because it makes a real difference in our products.”
Likewise, Leaman sources a specific pistachio paste from Sicily, for use in the bakery’s extremely popular Parisian-style macaroons, because of its unique flavor.
But not all of Bakery Nouveau’s ingredients come from far off places. After working last year with a French master jam maker (who sells more than 2 million jars of her own jam back in Paris), Leaman began seeking out the very best fruit he could find at the West Seattle Farmers’ Market. He made deals for leftover fruit at the end of the market days, sweetening the arrangements by plying the vendors with sandwiches and bread, and developing relationships with new suppliers who had only the freshest produce to offer.
Leaman says he was initially a bit overenthusiastic, making 2,000 jars of jam in the first run. “We made it in four kilo (ten-pound) batches.”
The French method he learned is somewhat different than American jam making in that it uses less added sugar and relies more on the natural sugar in the fruit. The mixture is allowed to mature for a couple of days before bottling which concentrates the flavor and brings out more of the natural sweetness. “The biggest surprise was that we made a couple of savory varieties, like tomato jam and shallot confit, that we were sure would never sell, and they sold out almost immediately. But we also did flavors like vanilla bean pineapple and also caramel nectarine. We’re going to continue with the jam, probably with a 50/50 mix of savory and sweet. And people have been asking for the chocolate to make mochas with so we’re going to do that too.”
One of Bakery Nouveau’s most popular products, by far, is the twice-baked almond croissant. Leaman says he acquired the basic idea of this pastry from when he was working in France with a master pastry chef. “He made maybe about a dozen of them a day and he refused to make any more. I think he knew that if he did it would be all he would ever make. But for me I saw that and decided that if people are coming in all day looking for that, give them what they want and they’ll keep coming back. I’ve never really understood the concept of letting something run out.” Leaman tweaked the recipe, making some subtle adjustments to the ingredients and flavor. “It’s a classic French pastry,” he says, “Very popular in Switzerland too.”
Reflecting on his past three years in West Seattle, Leaman says that he and his wife Heather really didn’t expect their business to grow as fast as it did. “You never really want to assume anything,” he laughs. “My wife and I took all of the money we had and, with our business plan, we put it all into the bakery. We thought that if we did this right and took our time the neighborhood would tell us what they wanted.”
As expected, the product line has been defined by customer response. “About 30% of our business is breakfast pastry and coffee. People come in for that and they’ll usually grab a sandwich for lunch. And then on Friday and Saturday nights we’re here until (9 pm). I think people like being able to stop in after dinner for a piece of cake. And we like that we can be part of that community experience of walking up to The Junction for dinner.”
When asked about the future, Leaman is full of ideas. Most of them fit into the framework of Bakery Nouveau, much like its predecessor, becoming an institution that endures in the neighborhood for decades to come. “I’m only now, after three years, getting to the point where I can take one day a week off for the family. And that’s something that is still hard to adjust to … going home.” Leaman says that he and his wife have discussed the possibility of acquiring some farmland, perhaps on Vashon Island, where they could grow fruit and produce to support the bakery and continue to barter products with other farmers.
Space on Vashon would also benefit Leaman’s desire to continue to incorporate the community into his business through teaching. “I originally wanted to have classes in the back of the bakery. We got through two series of classes and people seemed so excited to be behind-the-scenes seeing our bakers working back here. But with the volume of product we have it just wasn’t feasible to continue shutting down production, getting everything cleaned and reset after the classes so that our staff could come back here and get back to work.” Leaman says that having space on a small farm, only a 15-minute ferry ride away, would give them the space to continue teaching, thereby keeping engaged with the community.
“Incorporating a connection with the community was really a big part of our original concept for the bakery. In fact, when we set this place up I said I wanted the ovens close to the front because I wanted people to see where their food was coming from. So that people could look back and see who was making their food. Because it is important. I know I like to see it.”
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