Houston’s Artisan Bread Scene is on the Rise

Chef Otto Sanchez remembers being told that there’s a limited market for dense, European-style organic breads because Houston loves fluffy white loaves. Weighty dark boules and batards and crispy, oven-burnished artisan baguettes won’t fly here, he was cautioned.

Good thing he didn’t listen to that advice. In 2019, he and partner Matthieu Cabon — both with Michelin-star-pedigree résumés that include baking for restaurants from superchefs Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse — opened Magnol French Baking, intent on bringing world-class bread to Houston. In two years, Magnol has grown from three employees to 17, and counts Bludorn, Coltivare, Ostia, MAD, Rosie Cannonball, Eunice and Da Marco among its notable restaurant clients. It can’t make enough baguettes for its growing list of retail customers. And next year the business will expand again to include a cafe with a menu using its oven-baked goods.

“This tells me what we already knew. The market is ripe for good bread,” Sanchez said. “People will buy this bread because they believe in it. Houston has great chefs; we have great food. But I always felt that in the bread and pastry department, we were underrepresented.”

Not any longer. Artisan bakers, selling wholesale and retail, are the new darlings in a rising bread scene in Houston where loaves made with organic, ancient grains and Texas-milled flours are being gobbled up with abandon. Local restaurants are serving a wider variety of specialty breads crafted just for them, too.

“We’re finally catching up with the great (bread) cities,” said David Berg, executive pastry chef for the Common Bond cafe chain. “We’ve been behind on what is so progressive. We’re finally getting people who have that passion and curiosity.”

Not just a new era of Houston breadmakers but a receptive audience for noble breads, he adds.

While Houston has enjoyed the work of longtime bread purveyors — Three Brothers Bakery, El Bolillo Bakery, French Gourmet Bakery, French Riviera Bakery, Rustika Café & Bakery — a new crop of bakeries and farmers market breadmakers has made strides in the city’s newly enriched landscape.

One notable example is the recently opened Badolina Bakery & Cafe in Rice Village, a project from Sof Hospitality that operates Doris Metropolitan, the Israeli steakhouse known for its bread service. Badolina, a wee retail shop, has been mobbed since it opened last month with customers eager to get their hands on its rustic breads and jewelbox pastries. The bread from executive pastry chef Michal Michaeli often sells out by noon.

“Houstonians are wanting quality things all the time, and they’re definitely embracing this,” said Sof Hospitality partner Itai Ben Eli. “We’re happy to do our part.”

Indeed, the hospitality group built the chic Badolina specifically to showcase Michaeli’s pastry and breadmaking talents, the latter in chewy evidence with dark, seeded baguettes and weighty sourdough loaves made with einkorn wheat flour and smoked rye flour. Michaeli’s talents also will be on display when Sof Hospitality opens Hamsa, a modern Israeli restaurant, later this year.

Even during the pandemic when restaurant dining and the food supply were thrown into chaos, the bread scene thrived. Cake & Bacon, a wholesale bakery and butchery, took its breads to local farmers markets during the pandemic, growing a new audience for products already embraced by Houston restaurants.

“All of a sudden we had to sell to the public; it wasn’t just about wholesale anymore,” said Max Torres, Cake & Bacon co-owner who has been baking for 30 years. “Now there’s a real resurgence of craft bakers, and that’s great.”

The artisan bread paths formed by Kraftsmen Baking and Slow Dough Bread Co. were joined in recent years by the likes of Bread Man Baking Co., Common Bond and Cake & Bacon, said Torres, who helped build the baking program at Weights + Measures.

“There’s a lot of growth and a lot of potential for everyone to showcase what they’re able to do,” he said.

For Cake & Bacon, that growth has been substantial. The wholesaler, which bakes bread for the likes of Craft Burger, Harlem Road Texas BBQ, Brett’s Barbecue Shop, La Colombe d’Or, Liberty Kitchen, Fegen’s, Roma and Vic & Anthony’s, quickly outgrew it’s 900-square-foot bakery and soon will be moving into a 4,900-square-foot shop.

Bread Man Baking Co. owner Tasos Katsaounis was a longtime management consultant who began baking bread in 2017 from home for friends, family and neighbors. The first-generation Greek American learned his bread style from his mother, based on his grandmother’s recipes.

Encouraged by people — including his wife, Houston radio personality Roula Christie — who clamored for his bread, Katsaounis traded his corporate life for bread life, opening a commercial artisan bakery on Stella Link in 2018 making sourdough and naturally leavened breads. A few key restaurateurs were initial clients, and then Whole Foods came knocking. Bread Man is now in all 12 Houston-area Whole Foods (and throughout Texas), and his restaurant accounts include Killen’s Steakhouse, Georgia James, the Hay Merchant, Tris, FM Kitchen, Postino, Brennan’s of Houston, Sweetgreen and the new Acme Oyster House. Today, Bread Man is supplying to 155 hotels, restaurants and supermarkets.

In 2020, Katsaounis scored a major get when Drew Gimma left his post as co-chef of Squable restaurant to joint Bread Man as director of operations. In February, Katsaounis wooed Jess DeSham Timmons from her executive chef post at Cherry Block Craft Butcher to serve as the company’s foodservice sales manager. In the fall, Bread Man will move into a new 40,000-square-foot production facility in east Houston after quickly outgrowing its 4,800-square-foot shop. Katsaounis also is considering a retail element.

“My whole goal from Day 1 was how can I help put Houston on the baking map,” he said. “I didn’t want explosive growth. But you can’t ignore it if you have a product in demand.”

That demand has helped propel bread businesses like his, as well as bakers specializing in pastry. “It’s fantastic,” he said. “It’s nice to see people showing more appreciation and a want for good, crusty artisan bread that Houston was lacking for a while.”

Filling that void has made Common Bond grow from one store to six over recent years with a sought-after bread program that includes country sourdough boules, sprouted sourdough loaves, baguettes, challah and multigrain, sunflower and rye breads. The city’s new bread landscape wouldn’t be possible, Berg said, if it weren’t for the commitment of a new generation of bakers dedicated to the art.

“We’re finally getting people who have that passion and curiosity,” he said. “We’re constantly innovating new things. That’s where the knowledge is. Bread must always be better every day. It’s never the same. We have to understand the chemistry and that it’s always changing. Having five or six breads are enough as long as those five or six breads are improved every day.”

The pandemic provided an unexpected focus on breadmaking — a run on yeast and the trading of mother starters — that is now back in the hands of commercial bakers. That burst of interest in bread has produced a public that not only understands the intricacies of breadmaking but is ready to support the efforts of artisan breadmakers.

In Houston, that’s a market prime for continued growth and a place for all the new players at the bread table, Magnol’s Sanchez said.

“This city is so vast. There’s a place for everyone,” he said. “For me, if we are doing our part to bring the bread game up, I think it’s great. There should be more.”