NEW YORK—At 4:30 on a rainy afternoon on the Upper West Side, two young women walk into Orwashers Bakery. As they place their umbrellas next to the entrance, Bryan Rivera, manager of the bakery, calls out: “Hi, ladies, enjoying the weather?” One of the women asks what bread they sell. Rivera grins as he turns to his back, points to the choices, and says, “We have plenty of options.”
Fresh, artisanal bread is rare in New York, yet in high demand, despite the growing trend forward gluten-free diets in the United States. About 1 in 133 Americans are unable to digest wheat gluten because they have celiac disease. But in the past few years, many people have gone “gluten-free” due to an increasingly common belief that eating gluten is unhealthy.
“The gluten-free diet is often misconstrued as being a weight loss diet or healthier way to eat causing many to go gluten-free,” says Rachel Begun, a registered dietitian, culinary nutritionist and gluten-free lifestyle expert. “There is no evidence to show that removing gluten, in and of itself, is a path to weight loss or being healthier.”
An increasing number of restaurants and bakeries have begun selling gluten-free products due to the high demand. In a tour of four of Manhattan’s top bakeries, we’ve asked the bakers about the challenges they face, and whether the gluten-free trend is one of these or not.
Orwashers carries some gluten-free bread produced by Free Bread, but does not produce any in its baking laboratory.
Founded in 1916 by a Jewish family from Hungary, Orwashers has become an institution for artisan bread on the Upper East Side in New York. On September 1st of this year, it opened a second branch on the West Side.
Jules Morland, operational manager at the new Orwashers, thinks the main challenge to baking fresh bread in New York is the rent, not gluten-free diets. “The rent in the City is so high. It’s hard to afford space both for the store and the lab,” he says, pointing to the space adjacent to the shop where he makes the bread. “It’s easier to produce the bread in New Jersey or the Bronx, and sell it in Manhattan.” Morland, 27, moved to the United States from France, where he studied baking and pastry. He also holds a master’s degree in business and administration.
Another challenge Morland faced when he helped the owner, Keith Cohen, open the new location was finding bakers. “Usually productions are big, so everyone knows how to do one specific thing. Here, I need people to know the whole process,” he says.
Orwashers’ bread is made with natural ingredients only. Morland says that the bakery produces a “European-style bread” with traditional ingredients. “We don’t use animal fats or sugar, and our bread is kosher,” he adds.
A few miles south of Orwashers, in the heart of Chelsea Market, there is Amy’s Bread, which Amy Scherber opened in 1996, the same year the food court opened. Scherber owns four branches of her bakery. Originally, she was producing the bread in the market, as a way to engage with the customers and show them the process behind the loaves of bread they were buying. But due to the lack of space she moved her lab to Long Island City in Queens, where her bakers produce all of the breads and pastries.
“Bread is not as popular as it used to be,” she says. The fear of gluten or, as she calls it, “FOG,” has taken over the United States in the past few years. As eating habits have changed, Scherber has added a variety of pastries, sandwiches and salads to her menu. Although customers do come in to buy bread, most of her clients are workers who want to eat a quick, healthy lunch.
Author of three recipe books, Scherber is a thin, vigorous woman who walks around her shop with a contagious smile on her face. She lives in Manhattan and talks about bread in a passionate and enthusiastic manner.
“You need a lot of room to make bread,” she says. “When it rises, bread grows. It almost explodes. It requires lots of space,” she said, mimicking an explosion with her hands.
Being a baker is hard, because of exposure to the heat of the oven and having to work overnight, she says. She finds it increasingly hard to find bakers to hire. “When you post an ad for a job, you don’t have many applicants. I’m willing to train new employees, but it’s still hard. And it’s too expensive to sponsor someone to come from abroad,” she says.
Scherber’s favorite bread is the miche. Her face lights up as she describes it: “It’s a whole-wheat, moist and chewy bread. It feels rustic. Another bread I like is the peasant roll with toasted seeds on top. It’s like a German bread. And the rustic Italian bread, as well, it’s the bread I take home for the weekend.”
The day after the U.S. elections, however, customers were not particularly interested in bread. “There was a high demand for cake,” she says with a smile, pointing to a selection of cakes on the counter.
One bakery chain that has become more aware of the gluten-free culture is Le Pain Quotidien, the Brussells-founded bakery-restaurant chain. Since its US takeover a few years ago, it has grown to be one of the most popular brands for fresh bread in New York.
Krystie Keith, 25, manager of the Washington Square Park location in Manhattan, says that the company is “adapting” to the trend: “I personally eat gluten, and I think [our] gluten-free bread is phenomenal. It’s super tasty.”
“Our core value is simplicity,” says Keith. “No matter how big we get, we are neighborhood-oriented.” Le Pain Quotidien doesn’t just sell organic bread—it organizes bakery classes, prepares bread-based meals and delivers its loaves to your home through a smartphone app. “We have a lot of competition in the area,” says Keith. “Our bread, though, is freshly baked. It has no preservatives, that’s why it lasts only three to four days.”
Only a few locations of Le Pain Quotidien—out of more than 30 in New York—bake the bread on-site. Most of the bread is produced in the Long Island City facility.
Breads Bakery, the popular Israeli-style bakery that opened in Union Square in 2013, does not produce any gluten-free bread. “We opened at the height of the gluten-free trend. I didn’t feel affected by it, and we are producing nothing that is gluten-free,” says Gadi Peleg, managing partner, who was born in Tel Aviv and moved to the Upper West Side when he was 12 years old.
Peleg defines Breads as a “New York bakery” with strong Jewish and Israeli influences.
Breads is one of Manhattan’s few bakeries that make all of their produce on site: its secret is a large lab attached to the store, where hundreds of loaves, challot and cakes are produced every day from scratch.
Ironically, it’s not bread that has made Breads so successful; it is the chocolate babka, which the New York Times included in its 2016 Holiday Gift Guide. The babka is a crunchy yeast bread filled with delicious, semi-melted chocolate. Breads “reinvented” the legendary Jewish cake by filling it with a generous mix of Nutella spread and dark chocolate.
“We ship our babka nationwide,” says Peleg. “We bake it, cool it and ship it. People receive it 24 hours after it’s in the oven. My favorite customers are the couples who share it. We have a babka sharing kit that we give to the couples who want to share one; it’s the perfect date.”
Another signature product from Breads is the challah, the braided bread of the Jewish sabbath. It has become so popular in New York that people from all cultures and religions purchase it, says Peleg.
All of the bakeries featured in this story partner with City Harvest, an organization that delivers food leftovers to 500 soup kitchens and community food programs in New York. Every weeknight, after closing time, a truck from City Harvest stops by Orwashers, Amy’s, Le Pain Quotidien and Breads to collect the unsold bread. Some of the loaves, however, are thrown away, including Le Pain Quotidien’s baguettes and the French rolls. “I’m big on not wasting bread. But [these breads] get inedible, because of the lack of preservatives,” says Keith.
Breads has partnered with City Harvest since the very first day: “They come with their beautiful, clean trucks, and we give them everything they want to take,” says Peleg.
It looks like the trend to go gluten-free has not harmed Manhattan’s bakery businesses. “I like to remind people that just because you remove gluten from the diet doesn’t mean you are automatically eating healthier or reducing calories,” says Begun, the nutritionist. “A gluten-free cookie is still a cookie.”
Walking around the lab attached to Bread’s Bakery is like walking into a gigantic home-kitchen. The environment is festive. Some workers chat in different languages, including Hebrew; one consults a thick recipe book. From the looks the bakers give to the chocolate babkas while rolling them into a delicious-smelling melted chocolate mix, it’s clear they love their job.
Story and photos by Simone Somekh.
Follow Simone on Twitter: @simonsays101