It’s one of life’s simple joys and part of most dining experiences, yet bread shops are hard to find
Arrive at V&M Bistro in Brandywine Hundred just before noon, and you might stop in your tracks as soon as you step through the door. A heady aroma subtly greets you before you spot the row of golden artisanal bread, glistening tomato pie, and garlic “knots.”
Ah, bread: the comfort food of comfort foods. There’s something about the fragrance, texture, and taste that turn a French baguette, a boule (a ball-shaped bread), focaccia or sourdough into a thing of beauty. But despite its broad appeal —and the ability to survive the market’s gluten-free frenzy—really good bread is, well, really hard to find.
It doesn’t help that Black Lab Breads in Wilmington’s Little Italy closed last October, or that Serpe and Sons Bakery in Elsmere on Christmas Eve suffered a fire that forced its closure. On Feb. 2, Serpe’s Facebook page announced that the bakery would undergo renovations in addition to a restoration, but no opening date has been announced.
The loss, even temporary, of these establishments hit loaf-lovers where it hurts, because standalone bakeries are becoming scarcer as consumers turn to the one-stop shopping that supermarkets can provide.
The good news? Bryan and Andrea Sikora in January opened Market Street Bread + Bagel in downtown Wilmington, and Big Sky Bread in North Wilmington is still going strong, as is DiFonzo Bakery in Wilmington, which dates back to 1945.
A labor of love
One reason bread shops aren’t as popular as in Europe could be Americans’ penchant for low-carb diets. But it’s also because baking is hard and often solitary work. At Market Street Bread + Bagel, one baker starts work at midnight and finishes at 9 or 10 a.m. “Rolls are short-term risers,” Bryan Sikora explains. “You come in at midnight and make the dough, and in four hours, they’re in the oven. The rustic breads have to be made before noon, with the intention of baking them at 7 or 8 the next morning. And the baguettes get made at 5 p.m. and get shaped around 1 or 2 in the morning.”
The night owl hours are required since good bread is fresh bread—which is one reason Sikora decided to make a bakery part of La Fia, his restaurant at 421 Market St., which opened in 2013. “I always felt a well-rounded restaurant should make its own bread,” he says. He did just that at Django, the popular restaurant he co-owned in Philadelphia. “I want control of the product.”
That’s also true at Bella Vista Trattoria & Pizzeria in Pike Creek, which makes and sells artisan loaves for $6, and V&M Bistro. (The full name is Vincenza & Margherita Italian Bistro, which incorporates the names of owners and sisters Vincenza and Margherita Carrieri-Russo.) At V&M, on Marsh Road, the garlic knots, which are delivered to the table as well as sold at a retail counter, are from their father’s own recipe. In addition to being used in the restaurant, loaves are sold for $5.
Strength in numbers
For the Sikoras, the new bakery feeds the machine, which includes Cocino Lolo on King Street, which serves certain items on flatbreads, and The Merchant Bar on Market Street, which needs hot dog buns and other rolls for its casual menu. Combined with the popularity of La Fia’s retail section, the new restaurants prompted the bakery’s move from La Fia up to the 800 block of Market Street. It also helped that the Sikoras had an enthusiastic baker, Dom Petrucelli, now a partner at Market Street Bread + Bagel. (La Fia will drop the “bakery” in its original branding.)
The new bakery has become a morning stop for the office workers milling about during the week, Sikora says. Patrons pop in for breakfast sandwiches on bagels and English muffins, both made on site.
But the shop’s wares have a wholesale appeal, and not just for the Sikoras’ other restaurants. Christopher Baittinger, the chef at Locale BBQ, located across town in Little Italy, began using La Fia’s products when he was working at Ernest & Scott Taproom, also on Market Street. “I didn’t have to go outside the area because Dom hit it out of the park on the first try,” says Baittinger. “When I came over to the BBQ shop, I mentioned it to Danny [Sheridan, a partner]. He already knew what they were about because he had worked at La Fia. Fairly easy decision.”
Market Street Bread + Bagel presently has about eight to 10 wholesale clients, including Harvest Market in Hockessin and Janssen’s Market in Greenville, which also sells bread by Le Bus Bakery, which dates back to 1978, when David Braverman set up shop in a school bus-turned-food truck. The headquarters for the bakery is now in King of Prussia.
Built on the sale of a lot of loaves, Le Bus has long been a popular choice for Delaware-area chefs, storeowners, and restaurateurs that do not make their own bread. “Briefly, we made our own breads for a while, but selling on the level that we were, I couldn’t justify the expense and effort of in-house baking,” says Dan Butler, who at Toscana To Go in Trolley Square sells Le Bus baguettes (plain and multigrain), sourdough loaves, ciabatta (a broad, flatter Italian bread), and specialty breads such as sundried tomato and black olive loaves. “I’m not married to Le Bus, but they make an excellent, reliable product.”
(Toscana does make its own breadsticks. “At one point, several years ago, we tried to figure out how many breadsticks we’d made in house, but I’m sure I can’t count that high anymore,” Butler says.)
Le Bus brioche rolls are served at Bon Appétit and Corner Bistro, says co-owner Mickey Donatello. Bon Appétit is famous for its baguettes, which it sells at the counter. Vie de France makes them, and the staff at Bon Appétit proof and bake them each morning. The approach is often used at places like Panera and some supermarkets, which often get the dough from a vendor and take it from there. The bread is not made from scratch onsite, despite the heavenly smell.
More than bread alone
Of course, Toscana To Go and Bon Appétit aren’t banking on bread for their income. Even shops specializing in bread have augmented menus. Le Bus, for instance, has bricks-and-mortar cafes in Philadelphia. Market Street Bread + Bagel sells sandwiches. So does Big Sky Bread in North Wilmington, which is known for its soups—up to five a day. Big Sky also takes its show on the road. Its breads are available at Harvest Market and Newark Natural Foods, as well as farmers markets in Centreville, West Chester and Philadelphia.
It also helps to have a niche. Big Sky’s specialty breads include challah, made on Fridays; cracked oat made with unbleached flour, made on Tuesdays and Thursdays; and kamut (a brand of khorasan wheat). Meanwhile, DiFonzo Bakery is known for Italian-American staples: steak rolls, sub rolls, Italian bread, tomato pie, and pizza bread.
Don’t expect many entrepreneurs to follow in these folks’ footsteps. The labor, the hours, and the profit margin don’t necessarily give rise to a budding business. “If I was just in the bakery trying to make a living for my family, it would be a challenge,” Sikora says. “It’s a lot of work.”
Market Street Bread + Bagel, he says, is more of an extension of the restaurant. If he’d had more room at La Fia, the bakery would have gone in the back of that space. “It’s nice we can share the strength of the whole business,” he says. And those who’ve grown fond of his bagels, donuts and baguettes would happily agree.