While the coronavirus has been mostly nothing but a disaster for Dallas' food and beverage industry, there are random positives such as the saga of La Francaise Bakery.
Originally founded in 1976, this family-owned Garland bakery had roots as a retail bakery, before switching to wholesale sales in 1996. With COVID-19 inflicting a significant decrease in business on many of its restaurant clients, La Francaise is one of a group of suppliers, like Chef's Produce, that has shifted to selling to the public.
It's a plus for the public to get direct access to La Francaise's baked goods, include their amazing cinnamon rolls, which boast an ideal ratio between the light pastry — neither bready nor gummy — and the cinnamon swirl, perfect and not-too-sweet, with a light drizzle of glaze. Their sourdough bread is irresistible, with its pronounced, sour salty tang that tastes like you're eating something full of life.
That's probably because the starter they use is 20 years old, says owner Chris Alves.
"Our starter was created in 2000 by our baker Jean-Christophe Blanc," Alves says. "The bakery was originally founded by my father Samuel Alves, and for years we did our baguettes and croissants, but bread was only a small portion of what we did until JC joined us."
Baking bread and making your own sourdough starter has become a COVID-19 obsession, as people sheltered in place look for projects to fill their time. Anyone can make their own starter, there are dozens of recipes online. It's made from flour and water, sometimes with yeast to help it along, that sits on your counter until it starts to bubble and ferment. The fermentation helps make bread rise and taste good.
They say a starter doesn't get good until it's at least three months old, and to keep it alive, you must "feed" it — stir in flour — regularly, like a pet or a small child.
An older starter possesses more of that sour tang that gives sourdough bread its flavor. There are tales of starters that are decades, even centuries old. Having an older starter represents commitment, care, and time. You can't buy time.
"We had a lady recently who asked if we would sell our starter," Alves says. "I would never sell our starter. Even if we were to give it to you, no one can ever duplicate the circumstances that went into what made ours what it is. It's all of the things — your water, the air, the condition of the yeast."
"A starter defines you as a bakery — it's your specific flavor," he says. "Empire Baking has their own flavor, we have ours, each bakery's is unique."
For this new excursion into retail sales, La Francaise has revamped its offerings to address customer needs.
"For our restaurant clients, we might do a round boule but for people coming in, we wanted to make bread that lends itself to home use," he says. "So we went to a Pullman loaf, which is more in line with what you'd buy at a store. Our original goal was to help people who were unable to buy a loaf of bread."
In addition to sourdough, they're doing Pullman-style loaves of oatmeal health nut, rustic white, and whole wheat, plus buns and ciabatta. Pastries include croissants, in plain, chocolate, and almond, plus muffins and Danish.
Going from wholesale where they'd bake in large quantities, to retail where they're selling items piece by piece, has been a journey, and they've made adjustments along the way, like selling 4-packs of the cinnamon rolls instead of singles.
They've also gone from doing curbside markets twice a week to once a week, every Friday, to make it more manageable, with orders due by Wednesday at 3 pm, email email@example.com.
The good news is, even after COVID-19 is nothing but an unpleasant memory, they'll continue the retail operation.
"It's been so gratifying to connect with people and see how much they love what we make," Alves says.