Walking into the Grateful Bread bakery is to become enfolded in an aromatic cloud of homey comfort. Is there a more enticing smell in the food world than freshly baked bread, or one more evocative of sweet childhood memories?
The family-owned wholesale-retail bakery turns 25 this month, still occupying the same quarters in Loehmann’s Plaza that it did when husband-wife Joe and Dianna Artim mixed dough for their first loaves in 1990.
The bakery is a crowded stage of controlled chaos – bakers artfully hand-forming dough at flour-powdered wood tables, hot ovens opening and closing, workers wheeling tall metal racks of fragrant baked goods, eager customers sardined around the sales counter where a sign reads, “One more bread joke and you are toast.”
As precious as space has become inside the bakery, there has been only one expansion. That was the absorption of an adjoining room that once was part of Scott’s Seafood Grill. The growth was to accommodate the bakery’s 2-year-old pastry program, which now accounts for 20 percent of its business and is on the verge of growing even more.
When it comes to his craft, Joe Artim, 69, is a purist and alchemist who mixes flour and water to produce, well, the staff of life. “We still do something so basic in the same way bakers did it centuries ago,” he said. “I love the fact that that can’t change.”
Artim sees Grateful Bread as “a small wholesale bakery with an OK retail business. We have customers who come in every day and some who come in only at the holidays,” he said.
The wholesale side is a different story. Grateful Bread’s client list includes some of Sacramento’s top stores, such as Corti Bros. Market, Taylor’s Market, Whole Foods Markets and Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op.
Mulvaney’s B&L is a longtime customer. “The quality stands for itself,” said Bobbin Mulvaney, co-owner (with husband-chef Patrick) of Mulvaney’s B&L. “(Also) when we’re doing something crazy and need something special, they’re always yes-forward.”
Grateful Bread supplies the Del Paso Country Club and the Davis Unified School District, Ettore’s European Bakery & Restaurant and Karen’s Bakery & Cafe. Its pastries are sold at the four Temple coffee stores, the co-op and Whole Foods.
Baking, selling and moving the goods are 30 employees, including six drivers. “We bake bread 362 days a year, and pastries 365 days a year,” Artim said. “It’s easier to run the business than to stop it for Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s. We shut down from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Sunday. The rest of the time, there is always someone here baking product. It’s nuts.”
Every Thursday, five tons – 200 50-pound bags – of Red Rose artisan flour are delivered and stacked near the giant mixers.
“We go through about 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of dough every day, making 15 to 20 varieties of bread” along with cookies and muffins, rolls and buns, and more, Artim said. Any breads that don’t sell the day they were baked are donated to the Sacramento Food Bank or turned into crostini, croutons and breadcrumbs.
The top-selling bread is sourdough, of course, made into a variety of shapes, either plain or spiked with cranberries, Greek olives, roasted garlic, toasted walnuts, jalapeño peppers and/or cheese.
“My good friend across the street, Ettore (Ravazzolo), once said to me, ‘What’s wrong with you (bread bakers) is you all do the same thing – (sourdough). You need to do something different.’ I said, ‘You (pastry chefs) all do the same thing, too – you make cake.’ We do sourdough because it’s what customers demand. If I don’t make it, we won’t be around for long.”
Country French and pugliese are best-sellers too, along with the multiseed Woodstock “which I invented,” Artim said. “Years ago I was in the experimental mode and acquired a lot of different seeds. I made a whole-wheat base and put all those seeds into it, just to get rid of them. We put that bread on the shelves and it’s been a staple ever since.”
Over the holidays, customers phone in orders for seasonal specialties – Black Forest bread, Italian panettone, Swedish rye limpa, stollen and fruitcake. “We don’t do pies or cakes, and I don’t care for sweets,” said Artim, though he’s been known to pilfer a chocolate chunk cookie or two, warm out of the oven.
Back in the day, Artim was an all-in, hands-on baking machine, regularly working 18-hour days. “I’ve strived to keep the ingredients on my labels as small as possible, with nothing unnecessary in our products,” he said. “Our bread doesn’t come from somewhere else. It’s not par-baked, then frozen and baked-off. It’s always baked fresh in this store every day.”
His role at the bakery has changed in recent years. Now he’s more of an overseeing CEO type who comes in “three or four times a week,” while three of his and Dianna’s four adult children run things and help others do the baking. “I did it for a long time, but I can’t do it anymore,” Artim said.
In his “previous life,” Artim worked for apparel companies, a corporate position that took him and Dianna to Denver, Tennessee and finally Kentucky, a galaxy away from their California roots.
“Offshore competition was eating everybody alive,” he said. “It was 1986 and we started thinking about what we wanted to do. I said, ‘I want to be a restaurateur.’ Bless Dianna’s heart, she said, ‘Every man your age wants to own a restaurant, and they all fail.’”
The Artims were inspired by the owners of a bakery in Lexington, Ky. “We got serious about the business and wanted to come back to California,” he said. “The determining factor was the Sacramento market.” For the first seven years, they were franchisees of the Great Harvest Bread Co., which still specializes in whole-grain bread, the “healthful” product in the day.
“We would come in at 3:30 every morning. I baked bread and Dianna made cookies and muffins,” Artim recalled. “We were in the walk-in, retail-only business, but for a little extra revenue I would load a couple of boxes of bread into my red Dodge pickup and take them to the Natural Foods Co-op. That was my introduction to wholesaling.”
When their walk-in business plateaued, they decided to develop new products and seek more wholesale opportunities. “I told our son, Joey, ‘This is where we want to go,’ so we attended the San Francisco Baking Institute (on our own time), taking seminars and buying equipment. In short order we became artisan bakers.”
That didn’t sit well with Great Harvest on several levels, so Artim exercised the “out clause” in their contract. “They didn’t take kindly to it,” he said. “We spent a year in litigation and then we were on our own (in 1997). Joey was 25 and a devoted Deadhead (fan of the Grateful Dead), and he said, ‘Dad, I’ve got a name for the new store – Grateful Bread Company.’ I said, ‘Go for it.’”
Kids in the kitchen
Grateful Bread recently truncated some of its delivery routes (for instance, Rocklin and Cameron Park) “to consolidate and reduce our distribution expenses,” Artim said. “We’re just not ready to service some areas, and we’re not big enough to supply the next level of retail accounts (such as) Nugget or Raley’s. But we do have opportunities to drastically expand our pastry business.”
Helping navigate the bakery’s future are the Artims’ adult children. Theresa Artim, 37, has been company president for five years. “We do no advertising and rely on word of mouth. So we’re trying to do the social media thing, with a website and a Facebook page.” As for growing the business, “It’s something we go back and forth on.”
Michael Watkins, 47, left his stepfather’s business 15 years ago but returned two months ago as vice president of operations. “There’s certainly a demand for our products, and there probably will be some big decisions made in the near-term future,” he said. “But we don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver (on our quality).”
Matthew Artim, 33, has “been around here since I was a little kid,” he said. “I’ve been baking for six years, but I was kind of bored with bread so (established our Viennoiserie French-style) pastry program – croissants, danish, turnovers, bear claws. Hopefully, we’ll expand it into other stores.”
Joey Artim, 41, the son who worked with his dad and named the bakery, left to become an electrician in Nevada.
Their mother, Dianna, is “always on call, and I get involved when they need help with training,” she said.
As for patriarch Joe Artim, “It’s been a good run, with ups and downs. There were years when I should have given up and sold it or closed the doors, but I’ve got one of those work ethics and we stayed after it and turned it around.”
Grateful Bread Co.
Located at Loehmann’s Plaza at 2543 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento; 916-487-9179. Open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Visit at www.gratefulbreadco.com or on Facebook.