To “break bread” is to get to the center of things, to start a conversation. It is also about physically tearing into a fresh loaf of bread, pulling apart the crunchy, flakey crust to reveal the inside; a soft, pillowed dough. Here in Kansas City, many areas called “food deserts” exist where access to fresh food is limited. Two local bakeries, Farm to Market Bread Co. and Fervere Bread, have realized this need. These bakers are working with local farms and other culinary artisans to bring us the most delicious, hearty, fresh loaves of homemade bread while inspiring us with ideas to remedy hunger. This movement will change the way we see this seemingly simple carbohydrate. Indeed, it is much more complex. Puns intended.
“I have always loved bread.”
Fred Spompinato grew up in a Sicilian household. His father only had one request at dinnertime, and that was for two specific Italian breads to be on the kitchen table. Those two loaves of nicely fermented, classic Italian bread became the catalyst for Fred’s career as a baker. In the 1980’s he visited a Zen monastery in upstate New York and was amazed at what he encountered. They made rustic breads that he had never tasted. So, he bought a mixer. He began to mill his own flour, began using his own starter, and experimented in the kitchen. After some time, Fred decided that he needed a career change and enrolled in the 6-month program at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas. After graduating, he immediately began baking at Monterey Baking Company in Kansas City. This is where he met Mark Friend. Mark was the head baker at Monterey, which at the time was a budding bakery in its early months. The two of them hit it off and as Monterey Baking Company grew, both Mark and Fred took positions in management. The bakery was producing nearly 50,000 lbs of dough a day when Fred decided to leave. “I wanted to downsize. Although money was great, it just wasn’t what I wanted” says Fred. So he looked around and was offered a small space at the Classic Cup, a restaurant then in Westport that now occupies a space on The Plaza. Fred decided to call Mark, who was still at Monterey Baking Company, and proposed a partnership to start a new business.
With 2,500 dollars in each of their pockets, Farm to Market Bakery was born. The business took off. They eventually moved out of the Classic Cup and into a space in Waldo, where the business kept growing. Again, Fred wanted to scale back. Something was lost to him in large-scale production. He needed smaller, much smaller. So he sold his shares in the corporation to Mark Friend in 1999 and immediately started work on his new bakery, Fervere.
Before Fervere was even a concept, a space in the burgeoning Westside of Kansas City was offered to Mark and Fred for Farm to Market. Although the area was a lovely one, at the time they were looking for something larger, not smaller. For Fervere, though, the spot was perfect; and luckily it was still available. Fred secured the location and began building the new bakery. In wanting a “one man operation” Fred’s motto was “small, simple, everything by hand”. Fred says, “This is why the ‘three days’ came about” in reference to his hours of operation. Fervere is only open three days a week; the hours are limited as is the product.
At first Fred was alone in this venture. Then Neil Wilson joined him as a baker and stayed for 12 years. Neil eventually returned to school. Fred is now accompanied by what he calls “super talent”: Chad Russell, who is working both as a mixer and in recipe development; and Dan Weiner, who runs the oven and also works in recipe development. They are both culinarians, “foodies” who are vital to Fred and his business. “They come at food aggressively,” he says, and both are “driven and motivated”. It’s a good team and he is obviously very proud.
All of Fervere’s breads are baked in a small stone-hearth oven designed to be wood fired heated. The fire is to be built ont the hearth to heat the oven and then that heat is residual for a short amount of time. So not only is the size limited, but the heat source is limited as well. In a small space such as Fervere, wood posed a problem; bringing bugs (in the wood itself), smoke, and varying temperatures inconsistent for the kind of bread baking that Fred wanted to do. Therefore, he brought in an engineer and they decided that using an electric oven heater worked better and was much more energy efficient. The unit is set inside the oven early in the day and then removed when it’s time to bake. The temperature is consistent and produces the perfect crust that Fervere is after. When it comes to flavors, Fred says that he keeps the same few breads on rotation, so that he can focus on “the grain”. By not only keeping his business model simple but also the flavor simple, he is able to perfect such things as crumb and cell structure within the bread loaf and work with dough that may be “wetter” than a machine could handle, resulting in a superior product.
Fervere is very involved in collaborating with other local restaurants, farm and artisan companies to produce something specific and local to Kansas City. Last year he joined with Christopher Elbow Chocolates, a local artisan chocolate shop, to produce a seasonal “New Years Loaf” made with cranberries, almonds and chocolate. Recently, Fred met with Green Dirt Farm, an organic, local sheep’s milk farm that makes cheeses, to produce a Sprouted Quinoa/Bossa loaf with their washed rind Bossa cheese. Novel, a Westside restaurant that emphasizes local, organic fare at an elevated culinary level uses two flavors of Fervere bread at the start of every meal served. This leads into the conversation of local sourcing, which Fervere does to the best of its ability. The flour is from Heartland Mill, a Kansas company.
One particular local offering of Fervere has turned into something of an event, bringing people together to share in seasonal, organic fruits and vegetables nestled into fluffy foccaccia. It’s called a Cheese Slipper. Just the name Cheese Slipper evokes a smooth, soft, chewy ideal. It awakens the taste buds and due to its seductively yeasty appeal, also draws some hefty crowds. Fervere began making a traditional cheese slipper daily, foccaccia bread in an oblong shape with cheese nestled atop. As the slipper regularly sold out, Fred and his two bakers realized that they had something special. The idea blossomed into Cheese Slipper Saturdays. On this coveted day in Kansas City on the Westside, Cheese Slippers adorned with local, seasonal toppings are shared with the masses from 6 pm until sold out. The seasonal Slippers are only available from spring into summer when ingredients are available locally. They are made fresh and hot and are to be “consumed within 15 minutes from the oven” says Fred. So, quite literally, patrons who are enjoying their Cheese Slippers surround the waiting line. Fred says watching the people eat in front of him, with “crumbs in their beards,” is an amazing thing. Fred looks on at the excitement and loves it. It is instant feedback to the cook, chef, baker and it lets you know whether you have succeeded or failed; and if you have succeeded then it is pure joy.
Fred is happy to tell you about his business and the type of life he has chosen for himself. He will never exceed the volume that the small bakery in the West Side of Kansas City can produce and that is how he likes it. Fred will continue to feed the community one artisanal, rustic loaf of handmade bread at a time.
On another front, an even smaller scale operation is taking place and it sprouted from a large-scale operation that Fred is very familiar with.
Sean Starowitz, a baker at the local Farm to Market Bread Company, is an artist and an ideas man who is part of both Bread! KC and Fresh Bread; two organizations that sprouted from the need for aid in the community. Mark Friend, owner of Farm to Market Bread found Sean through a mutual friend who recommended talking to Sean about a grant foundation for artists, Bread! KC, that he, Andrew Erdrich and Erin Olm-Shipman had just organized. Bread! KC was part of a larger network meant to raise grant money to fund local artists. The idea was to have events that would include a meal and invite the community to buy tickets. At the event, several artists would present their proposals which the diners would then democratically vote on. The winner gets the grant money and the participants go home happy, with full stomachs. Some type of bread is always incorporated into the meal. Mark wanted to get involved, so he contacted Sean and offered his assistance in funding – as well as access to the bakery and anything else that Sean needed. After the move from Waldo to the Crossroads, Mark offered up part of the building as a space for an art gallery and event space for Bread! KC events. He and Sean began to collaborate on recipes, baking decorative dough, and experimenting in the kitchen together. Mark then offered Sean a job as “artist in residence”. Sean simply calls himself a “baker”. Still, Farm to Market is supportive of his schedule and his ideas while giving him full access to all parts of the bakery. Although Farm to Market grew into a business that has a wide distribution area and is large scale in production, it is still local. “All of the loaves are hand-touched,” says Sean. Sean continues to hone his skills as a baker while also working on Bread!KC projects. This year Bread! KC had a Third Birthday celebration at Farm to Market. The project continues to help artists in the community with small grants funded by the people.
Sean also organizes events at a Laundromat on 41st and Walnut. That’s correct, a Laundromat. For this he was given a grant from the Warhol Foundation, a high honor for an artist. The programs are planned to take place within the time it takes for a wash and dry cycle to complete. For example, Local Pig put on a demo based on a price point that reflected the mean income of the neighborhood. They did three courses: liver and onions, hot wings in a pan, and a pulled pork butt shredded with Gouda cheese and used as a spreadable. All items in the demo were affordable for the people in that area to make and simple, so that the recipes were accessible. “Elevated food that was relevant to the community” Sean says. Local Jazz artists have played shows at the Laundromat as well. If there is a way to connect the community, basically to itself, Sean will get involved. Still, he has a love for bread in all of its complex and basic forms and is a baker at heart. He loves cell structure, opening up the crumb, and working with people on recipes. He also knows that bread feeds people and he has the same love for the mess it makes and the joy it brings to the people who are tearing into it. The idea that everyone should have this same joy, in conjunction with Sean’s self-admitted “obsession with food deserts” led to his next community driven, bread-based project, Fresh Bread.
A food desert is an area where healthy and cost-effective food may be difficult to find or come by. Usually these areas have access to a corner mart, similar to a gas station or small stop ‘n shop, so the food available is neither fresh nor local. This is a problem in urban as well as rural areas and certainly is an issue in Kansas City, according to Sean. “I started thinking about public space, food, and art” Sean says in reference to the reality that there are somewhere near 15,000 abandoned properties in Kansas City. Because of the correlation of building abandonment and food deserts, Sean came up with the idea of a pop-up bakery. The store-front would be temporary and each site would change with the design of the pop up reflecting the culture of the area. As Sean explains, referencing his position at Farm to Market Bread Company, to “leverage what I know here, and leverage the facilities here to do income adjusted loaves based on the neighborhood I’m in,” seemed like a perfect set up; a way to not only promote awareness of food deserts but also to share the local Farm to Market Bread Company product with the community.” The loaves are available on a sliding scale dependant not just on the median income of that particular neighborhood, but also on the product that he chooses to sell at that site. It might be a honey wheat loaf or Bavarian pretzels; perhaps a foccacia or sourdough loaf.
The very first pop up was certainly eye catching and reminiscent of another bread company, a large one. Using bright red, blue, and yellow Sean constructed a rectangular “store front” canvas with a small window in the center. He stood there, selling loaves right on Main St. This particular location was due to many factors, the great architecture of the area for one, but he also chose it because the highest grossing grocer in the neighborhood is the CVS pharmacy located on the same block. “They outsell Thriftway.” Sean says, “kind of bonkers that a pharmacy can outsell an actual grocery store”. His aim being to bring fresh food to those who need it, Sean jumped on the chance to set up in this area. He sold fresh made bread to the public and immediately drew attention. People would come by to buy bread and break into it right there. That day it would not have been strange to see someone biking while holding onto a giant, soft, handmade pretzel. Sean popped up three times at the Main Street location and plans on making more appearances there. He is currently in Ivanhoe, where he found an old bakery called “Home Bakery” that he is has targeted as his next pop up, and he is also working with the Marlboro neighborhood at 85th Street and The Paseo on possible “lemonade stand” versions where he would set up in abandoned lots or fields using a freestanding pop up, reminiscent of a lemonade stand. The other pop ups have actual storefronts attached to them and the art of the pop up itself will stay at that location.
In his quest to bring culture specific breads to the neighborhoods that need and want them, he is taking his knowledge and venturing beyond Farm To Market bread recipes. Sean is currently working with a German bakery on fifth generation German recipes from Bavaria. This fall he produced a traditional rye sourdough with a natural starter, which doesn’t use yeast, from this recipe share. Research and development is something very important to Sean, using basic, organic ingredients to bake bread with natural leaveners. He helped out at a dinner a few years back with Chef Nils Noren and created bread based on the Louis and Clark expedition – a variation on an oat loaf with natural wheat germ. It was made with wheat starter, ripe leaven, walnuts, sunflower seeds and organic buffalo.
At some level, food that is sourced locally with fresh organic ingredients is something that we, as a community, have come to expect. In reality, this is not always possible. The idea exists, the knowledge is within reach, but actually doing something about it is the key – not just “baking bread” but ”breaking bread”. Starting the possibly uncomfortable conversation about hunger, and remedying it with, say, the ideas that Sean Starowitz has. With projects on the horizon that will hopefully help awaken Kansas City to the concept of feeding the people with ideas and calories, Sean is starting an art movement to feed a community.
Farm to Market, a company that began as a small local bakery and has grown into a large local bakery strives to work with people like Sean on Bread! KC and Fresh Bread projects to keep their focus on the city they live in and the community they serve. Fred Spompanato, with Fervere, is working with local farmers and chefs to create breads made with mastered technique, local and organic ingredients, and incomparable flavor. Starting with basic grains these bakers, artists and businesses are creating loaves of fresh, local bread. The hope is that over that bread, in sharing a meal, with each bite we might be able to also chew on the idea that there are others in the community who are in need. Digest. As the calories turn to energy, put that energy back into Kansas City. Join the movement and break bread.