Behind the Scenes at Acme Bread (Part 1)

Acme Bread was started in Berkeley in 1983 by Steve and Susie Sullivan as a bakery that would deliver artisan-quality bread to restaurants. Since then, they have grown to include 4 other managing partner shareholders and operate four different bakeries in Berkeley, Mountain View, and San Francisco. Apart from restaurants, their bread is available for purchase at various Bay Area farmers’ markets, grocery stores and at 2 different retail locations: the original Berkeley site and at the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco.

Drew Westcott, a managing partner, graciously provided us with a behind the scenes tour of the Ferry Plaza location to give us an inside look at how Acme Bread is made.

Although the retail counters are only open during normal business hours, the Ferry Plaza bakery is manned and operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by approximately 34 employees. The best way to understand the volume of baked goods that this location of Acme Bread bakes is to consider how much flour they consume. Drew calculated that this location uses 18,000 pounds of flour every week. The flour they use is made exclusively for Acme Bread. One of their managing partners sources organic wheat from various farmers, and it is then milled to their specification. This is a great example of the extra lengths they go to control and achieve excellent quality.

There is always a long line to purchase bread at the Ferry Plaza retail location. When asked about how many different types of breads they offer for sale, Drew’s initial response was “too many.” Joking aside, he counted the number of breads laid out on the counter and determined that it is around 35:

Baked goods are kept behind the counters in baskets:

Various baked goods are also stored behind the retail counter in bin stacks:

Each of their four bakeries make certain types of breads, and the baked goods are shipped between retail locations. For example, this rack of buns was baked at San Francisco and is awaiting transfer to Berkeley for distribution:

The organic flour packages are stacked on several palettes:

The flour packages also offer a comfortable place for workers to take a break:

Every piece of bread starts with a combination of flour, water and yeast (used in leavened breads). Each ingredient is carefully measured on scales, in this case yeast:

Flour is also accurately weighed before it gets loaded into the giant mixer:

In this batch, they are making the poolish, or pre-ferment starter, which is equal parts water and flour:

The yeast gets added to the mix:

With the safety cage down, the batter is mixed:

Once the mix is complete, the poolish is hand ladled into bins and placed into the very cold refrigeration room:

Even with the volume of baked goods that Acme Bread provides, they still provide small-batch artisanal quality items. There is no rushing of the baking process: the poolish is slowly fermented to develop deeper flavors. The bins are placed into the refrigeration unit to maintain a controlled fermentation process. This picture shows a sponge already deep into fermentation:

A taste of the sponge was reminiscent of a yeasty beer or champagne. This is a close-up of sponge in fermenting action:

Acme Bread also makes breads that are naturally leavened without the use of yeast. Next to the sponge bins are other containers labeled ‘stock.’ These are the ‘mother cultures’ that get pyramided into new batches to start the leavening process. The stock is fed flour on a regular basis:

There are different mother stocks for different types of bread kept in the cold refrigeration unit:

They also have a cold proofing area for breads that require some slow fermentation. In this case, this bread is proofed in baskets:

As you would expect in any restaurant kitchen, cleanliness is mandatory. Drew’s crew runs a tight ship and regularly sweeps excess flour off of the equipment and the floor:

Not all of the baked goods are savory or crusty. Acme Bread also makes buttery croissants and pastries:

This piece of equipment, adorned with numerous warning labels, actually folds out and is responsible for rolling butter into the pastry dough:

Click to see Part 2: the actual baking process at Acme Bakery.

Acme Bread Company on Urbanspoon


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s