Artisanship Freshly Baked

Greg Atkinson - January/February 2009

At wit's end trying to keep up with production and logistics for three jamming locations of her Macrina Bakery & Cafe, Leslie Mackie streamlines operations at a new baking facility in Seattle's latest hip neighborhood.

When Leslie Mackie of Seattle's Macrina Bakery & Cafe realized it was time to consolidate her three bakeries under one roof, she wanted to make sure that the move would enhance the bakeries' reputation as an interactive space where customers and artisan bakers came face-to-face. When a space in the city'smost recently gentrified neighborhood became available, she embraced new business partners, ordered new equipment, and started planning for the move.

It may be counterintuitive to equate a warehouse with a cathedral, but if you step inside one of the soaring, 100 year old, concrete and timber buildings that occupies Seattle's SoDo neighborhood, the analogy is easy. Dependent almost entirely on natural light, these industrial structures defy gravity with old-growth timbers that reach from their very solid foundations to their lofty ceilings, which are typically punctuated with skylights or ringed with louvered windows. Recently one of those spaces, having undergone a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) renovation, has become home to Macrina Bakery, a Seattle business launched 15 years ago in a much smaller building in the city's Belltown neighborhood.

"At the old location," says Mackie, "we were bursting at the seams." The original 4,000-square-foot space housed production, dining, and retail space until additional room was acquired in the basement of a neighboring building. "We moved most of the production to a basement area under Wasabi Bistro, half a block from the original bakery, and from there we were supplying the Belltown cafe, the Queen Anne cafe, and a cafe on Vashon Island." (The Vashon location was slated to close as soon as the new SoDo location was up and running.)

"Our mission here," says Mackie, "is to create flow. Deliveries come in through this door," she said, with a wave toward a retractable bay that opens into the alley on the west side of the building. As Mackie spoke, her production manager, Phuong Bui, was supervising the unloading of five pallets, each one containing 55 50-pound bags. He started working as a dishwasher at the original Macrina in 1994. "Most of my crew has been with me a long time," she says.

"So the flour is unloaded here directly into the mixing room," says Mackie, "and I'm still using these 50-pound bags because I use a lot of different flours and I didn't want to go with a big silo the way most commercial bakeries do." In the mixing room, dough is fabricated, and for rising it is dispensed in 10-pound lumps to gray Tablecraft bus boxes, familiar to anyone who has spent more than a minute in the restaurant industry. From there, the dough goes to the shaping area where bakers hand-form every loaf and roll. A walk-in cooler is positioned nearby to retard the rising of the shaped breads so that they don't overproof before they're baked. One of the biggest challenges Macrina's bakers had to face in the original space was minimal areas for proofing. "Some days it would be 100 degrees in the shaping area, and we were scrambling to get the bread in the ovens before it overproofed," confides one baker. So at the heart of the new facility is a 16-by-9-foot walk-in cooler with ample shelf space for hundreds of loaves. Adjacent to it is a 16-by-9-foot walk-in freezer for the scone dough and the laminated dough that becomes croissants and pain au chocolat, which are assembled here and shipped frozen to the satellite neighborhood bakeries to be baked off.

The entire operation makes a kind of U, so that finished bread, hot from the ovens, ends up just a few feet from the receiving door, where an adjacent bay opens onto the same alleyway where deliveries come in. At the bottom curve of the U is the retail space, where behind two large plate glass windows the sexiest facets of the hands-on bread and pastry making take place. On one side is a pastry room where cakes are frosted and topped with decorative swirls of chocolate, where playfully named Angel Thumbprint cookies are filled with house-made jam of local fruits, and where pies and tarts are assembled on marble-topped work tables in plain sight of customers waiting in line for lunch. A 4-by-4-foot Lux rotating rack oven affords room enough for wedding cakes and other pastries. On the other side of the counter where orders are placed and filled, another window provides a view of the bakers shaping rolls and loaves.

"Product comes in that side," explains Mackie, pointing to one side of the building, "and goes out that side." It's a satisfying equation, and Mackie, who met with her investors and architect Richard Floisand to gather input before the plans were finalized, sketched out the initial plans herself.

The investors, Pat MacDonald and Matt Galvin, have considerable experience in the food business. They have also financed Seattle's thriving Pagliacci Pizza chain and the legendary De Laurenti Specialty Food & Wine that constitutes the cornerstone of Seattle's famous Pike Place Market. For all three businesses, they streamlined payroll and inventory systems utilizing a customized version of a Microsoft accounting system they refer to as the Luigi System. "It was originally developed to account for pizza toppings," says MacDonald, "but it has evolved to encompass our entire accounting system."

Floisand, who is a LEED Accredited Professional, earned his Masters of Architecture from the University of Washington and worked for several award-winning Northwest architects before he launched his studio upstairs from the bakery.

"The neighborhood has lots of great industrial buildings with nice clean lines. And of course there's the good rent." His studio occupies the upper floor of the warehouse that is Macrina Bakery's new home. "We had done a lot of feasibility studies for the previous owners. Then I saw this guy checking out the building, and he happened to be one of Leslie's business partners. A few months later we were negotiating on the design of the bakery"

Floisand's focus on sustainability and Mackie's commitment to artisanal influences led them to choose Resolute lighting fixtures, a company that focuses on melding artisanal technique with industrial chic. A Seattle-based firm, Resolute has designed lighting for Seattle's Benaroya Hall; for Marché Restaurant in Menlo Park, California; Restaurant Auberge Het Kookhuys in Hilvarenbeek, Holland; and for any number of corporate headquarters and retail stores on the West Coast. The steel and glass sculpted pendant fixtures are timeless enough to have been lifted from the set of the TV show Mad Men, but crafted enough to evoke Seattle's art glass scene. Directly overhead when customers enter the bakery is a paper chandelier that takes the whimsical form of an inverted wedding cake, subtle enough to meld perfectly into the building's warehouse roots.

A Jane Bradbury mural is rendered on eight individual panels arranged in sharp geometric rows on the space's north wall. The background has the steely look of hand-beaten silver leaf and the tree itself with gnarly branches bearing luscious golden fruit evokes a moody country-mouse-in-the-city play on natural forms confined to urban spaces. It's stunningly beautiful, more worthy of a gallery than a bakery, and yet the same might be said of Macrina's breads and pastries, unwrapped and lavishly displayed on top of the counter and in the display cases. This is food displayed as art, but it's more than art. The loaves, buns, fruits, and cakes that constitute the daily installments are assembled on a custom-forged iron rack, but they tumble over the counter like some kind of offering, and the customers who line up to place their orders are like penitents at the altar. The customized refrigerated and ambient display cases frame a marble-topped area where twin cash registers minimize waiting and offer quick relief to those rendered ravenous by the inflammatorily appetizing displays. An out of sight four-foot undercounter refrigerator makes it easy for cafe workers to restock the case with sandwiches, savory spreads, and salads.

Design of this particular bakery should prove to be a feather in Floisand's cap. Macrina is consistently listed in area publications as a Reader's Favorite and Seattle's Best Bakery. Nominated repeatedly for James Beard Awards for Outstanding Pastry Chef and named an Outstanding Contributor to The James Beard Foundation, Mackie is an active member of the Bread Bakers Guild of America, and she may be counted among the pantheon of bakers responsible for the artisan baking revolution that changed the face of American bread in the last decade of the 20th century. As she sought to perfect the design of her bakery, Mackie was able to get an inside look at what her peers were doing. In the San Francisco Bay Area, she explored Grace Baking and Acme Bread Company. In New York, she scoped out Tom Cat and Amy's Bread. One thing those bakeries share is a connection between the production process and the consumer.

"We wanted to centralize our location," says Mackie, "but I didn't want a production facility without a retail space." In years past, Seattle businesses involved in food production that have taken advantage of the lower rents and larger spaces in the warehouse district had to sacrifice direct contact with consumers. But changes in SoDo have made it possible to bake a cake and eat it too, all in the same eclectic neighborhood.

Originally named for its location south of the Kingdome, with a deliberate nod to New York City's SoHo, SoDo now implies "south of downtown." (The dome was demolished in 2000.) The area is the ancestral home of the Duwamish tribe that numbered Chief Sealth, for whom the city is named, and the ethnically diverse neighborhood occupies a peculiar swath of Seattle's urban real estate between railroad tracks and Puget Sound to the west and the city's metro busway to the east, with Safeco Field, the Mariner's home stadium looming to the north, and a series of quirky architectural oddities and cultural landmarks punctuating its core.

International headquarters for Starbucks is here; the city's largest office building, it occupies a vast space that once served as the West Coast distribution center for Sears. At another nearby corner, a Spanish revival firehouse, circa 1920, stands sentry. The first Costco store is here too, though it has been expanded and revamped beyond recognition, and Charlie's Produce, the city's largest wholesale produce distributor, also calls the neighborhood home. But in addition to these traditional industrial landmarks, the neighborhood also houses newer businesses like Herban Feast, an event and catering enterprise, that are drawn to the century-old timber and concrete warehouses like the one in which Macrina now resides. Some of the warehouses still function in their original capacity, but more have recently been converted to lofts, galleries, offices, and retail spaces like this one. Before SoDo became a mecca for new business development (that only recently came to include residential and retail spaces), Mackie was reluctant to move.

"I never wanted a bread factory or a commissary kitchen. I think it's important to connect the process with the product. People need to see the hands of the workers and understand that there is skill and artistry as well as flour and water involved in making bread." That vision was established even before Mackie opened her first bakery. After she graduated from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Mackie worked as head baker at Grand Central Bakery, the first of Seattle's artisan bakeries. An epiphany occurred when she took a research trip to Rome to explore traditional Italian bread making techniques.

"There was Giuseppe," Mackie says, a Roman baker who produced "perfect loaves from a hole in the wall." Giuseppe's tiny bakery opened onto a busy street, but he sold bread to wholesale accounts and to local restaurants as well as to passersby. "His bread shouldn't have been as good as it was," claims Mackie. "He had no refrigeration to retard the rising, no thermostat on his oven." He had none of the state-of-the-art equipment that Mackie found essential when she came home and decided to quit her job at Grand Central and open a bakery of her own. Mackie named her first bread, a crusty oblong one and a half pound loaf, Giuseppe after the baker who inspired her.

"But it was more than Giuseppe," she says. "It was the whole Italian way of interacting with the customer." From the beginning, Macrina Bakery was more than a hole in the wall. The swank little spot in hip Belltown was equipped with windows where diners could watch Mackie and her fellow bakers form loaves from dough prepared in a 4-by-3 1/2-foot VMI kneader. The loaves proofed in plain sight on a series of Metro shelving rolling racks and baked in a nine-door Bongard deck oven designed to distribute radiant heat without fans and plumbed to mist the loaves at a predetermined time to ensure perfect crusts.

"It works like a brick oven without the bricks," confides Mackie. For the last decade and a half, she's been filling that oven with over 1,000 loaves a day. Now it has followed her to the new location, where it keeps company with a new 12-door TMB Baking deck oven where another several thousand loaves will be produced.

In addition to the Giuseppe, there's Macrina Casera, the "house bread," leavened with a natural wild starter made from grapes. Baguettes--plain, herbed, or seeded--are perfect for the various spreads sold in the bakery, such as hummus and baba ghanoush. There is an exceptionally chewy and fragrant ciabatta made with whole milk and olive oil. Vollkorn, a unique six-grain seed bread, is leavened with a beer starter, sweetened with honey, and braided. One of the most popular breads, the rustic potato, calls for hundreds of pounds of potatoes to be peeled and cooked in the bakery's prep area. In addition to these mainstays, the bakery offers another baker's dozen of varieties every day, plus seasonal breads on holidays like chocolate/cherry heart bread on Valentine's Day and panettone for the Christmas season.

In regard to the equipment, Mackie says, "We chose all the new equipment with efficiency in mind. The new oven is a mass of brick and stone that holds the heat very well, and we're baking loaves in 40 minutes that used to take 50." The new design and the new equipment also mean less stress and strain on the employees. "The new mixer, with its tilting bowl, turns out dough without anyone having to bend over and lift it out." But there will be no loss of the artisan touch or the connection between baker and bread-eater that has characterized Macrina since its inception.

"Every loaf will still be formed by hand, and the customers will be able to see that." Only now, customers will also smell and taste it as well.