Wednesday, March 23, 2016


The poet is not a "little god". No, he is not a "little god". He is not picked out by a mystical destiny in preference to those who follow other crafts and professions. I have often maintained that the best poet is he who prepares our daily bread: the nearest baker who does not imagine himself to be a god. He does his majestic and unpretentious work of kneading the dough, consigning it to the oven, baking it in golden colours and handing us our daily bread as a duty of fellowship. And, if the poet succeeds in achieving this simple consciousness, this too will be transformed into an element in an immense activity, in a simple or complicated structure which constitutes the building of a community, the changing of the conditions which surround mankind, the handing over of mankind's products: bread, truth, wine, dreams.  - Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize Lecture, 1971

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Development in Durham

Construction dwarfs the remaining brick facade at Durham Central Park

Last Saturday, I went to an event on Development in Durham at Pleiades Gallery across the street from the Bakery. About fifteen people attended, including some local journalists, activists, small business owners, and artists who had contributed to the gallery's eponymous theme of hung and sculpted art.  Speaking that day were Urban Durham Realty (UDR) agents Susan Herst and Mary Rae Hunter.  Their spiel was basically how much they love Durham and all the charitable works that UDR participates in on behalf of the Durham community (note: I bought my home through a friend and UDR agent).  During the Q&A period, some tough questions arose regarding gentrification, renter displacement, and the changing urban fabric that comes along with building a 26-story skyscraper inside what was recently a gritty post-industrial Downtown.  More than half of the condos in 1 City Center have already been sold for between $300,000 - $1.6 million.  And what says "city center" like a rooftop pool?  How is this complementing the city?

The UDR folks were a little bit on the defensive, given that the clients that they represent are more typically the monied class that can afford to buy rather than rent.  It felt a little disingenuous that they were speaking of how they educate new homeowners on working with banks and their credit scores when these clients are far more wealthy than the renters who may be forced to move due to rising prices around Downtown.  They don't want the Cheesecake Factory, they want Durham's own original and independently operated version of it. The idea that Downtown now has legitimately swanky places to eat and drink (with more on the way) is a selling point for a real estate agent or a developer, and for many folks in the room, that felt like it is going to bleed the city of its guts.  We don't want to build a better smarter tastier Raleigh here.

One of my chief complaints about the UDR defense of Durham development are the changes to the urban fabric that have already occurred and those that are on the way. It is perhaps ironic that the urban durham that Susan and Mary Rae love has taken some shots in the ribs with recent generic-looking high-rise condos being built like 605 West, West Village Phase 3, Station Nine, Crescent Ninth Street, Whetstone Apartments, and 300 Swift to name a few.  Again, these condos/apartments are ugly, generic, and look like they were last seen in a quick and easy cookbook for urban development.

Small businessowners are excited about all the new tenants that will supposedly be filling these spaces, but on the flip side, many will be put out of business the next time their lease turns over.  Development on Ninth Street was referenced several times.  How hard will we need to work to make sure a chain like Subway or Tequila Flats never enters the Downtown Loop?  Now that there is a Harris Teeter and a bunch of regional chains on Ninth Street, rents can now go up and above $30 a square foot, which would be unsustainable both for NSB and a number of other Downtown businesses.

The question of renter displacement was handled in a really off-handed way by Susan and Mary Rae, saying that there now exists more rental stock in Durham for renters to move into should they be displaced by gentrification and higher rents.  This doesn't address the issue that renters may have been living in their detached or subdivided homes for quite a long time -- they would have to give up their neighborhood and house that they like for one that might be in an entirely different place or one that they don't like or that is more expensive than what their rent used to be.

Ultimately, the event ended as a bitchfest without anyone in power to bitch at.  No city councilors or developers were present.  Even if 1 City Center is the Second Coming of Durham, will the $85 million building have any effect on the poverty in East Durham that its tenants will have such a good view of?  How are these new tenants, some of whom are paying cash, helping Durham?  Is this the kind of investment we need or is it the laziest and most opportunistic form of gentrification?

Corporate Food for Corporate People

We live in an amazing world. I was reading a baking trade magazine where they detail a European industry leader that can produce 3 million buns a day. Robots do some of the work, nothing is mixed or formed by hand, twelve humans are working per shift, and the company is valued at $56 million.

Ninth Street Bakery, by contrast, still produces bakery products by hand, and the baking machines that we use, like a basic spiral mixer, could have been found in bakery in the 1970s, or 1950s for that matter. 
Across the nation, small artisanal bakeries, donut shops, and confectioners are springing up to fill the desire for authentic goods. But that is not news to anyone who has ever watched the Food Network.

What remains to be unraveled is; who are the remaining 95-percenters who are still buying industrial, corporate bread? Who are buying those 3 million soft, preservative-laden buns that can sit on the shelf up to three weeks?

* * *

I drove to Harker's Island last summer, which is a great spot on the North Carolina coastline for fishing, crabbing, and clamming. Along the way. I passed a Flowers Foods bread factory in Goldsboro.  The distinctive smell of Sunbeam and Nature's Own was wafting through the air.  The workers were ending their shift, driving home with blue hairnets still on.

The thing was, those workers with the blue hairnets, driving away from their corporate bread job, they were happy.  They were smiling.  The sun was shining and the sky was Carolina blue. 

And this made me realize, that these folks that work in corporate food, these are the self-same people that buy the corporate food in their local food desert.  In case you were looking for it, there's no Wholefoods in Goldsboro.  The corporate food wins because that is what exists for people who work in corporations. That is their daily reality. It is not all that mysterious.

The question that it leaves us with is if we want to upend the corporate food chain, we think we need to start with the companies, like the Wal-Marts and the Wholefoods and the McDonald's, but in fact we need to begin by thinking about their employees.  What are they looking for? How can we guarantee them a steady paycheck while offering a different way to consume calories? Which companies in the future will do this well, and which poorly, and how will that affect their fortunes?

* * *

One amazing this has been to watch independent business mimic the corporation.  I recently went into an independent cafe, and the service flow and the way the counter staff presented themselves, I momentarily thought that I was in a Panera Bread.  As independents get pushed out by large brands, independents take on the traits of the corporate, for better or for worse.  Sometimes that means getting a very vanilla customer service experience, but it can also mean using online ordering or social media in a way that allows the independent to outmaneuver or at least compete with their corporate counterparts.

* * *

I went recently to the recruiting day at Johnson and Wales University, probably regarded as the best culinary training in the state.  And I would say that 90% of the recruiting businesses were larger corporations: casinos, hotels, corporate restaurant groups, retirement community corporations, tech campuses, and so forth.  The students appeared motivated to be employed, but it seems like after an expensive education, they likely want top pay plus benefits, and few independent restaurants can offer that to a novice cook.  So if you are wondering who is cooking the meals in corporate America, here they are, bright, smiley, young, and ready to work, but maybe not at an independent restaurant near you.

* * *

There are certainly days where I wish my life was plan-o-grammed and multiple layers of bureaucracy insulated me from having to wash dishes or take out the trash occasionally.  But ultimately, I'm happy we're not corporate because of all the compromises you would have make to be corporate.  Not just the preservatives, but the entire ethos that must accompany making a sealed cinnamon bun or PB&J sandwich shelf stable.  You have to be able to stare bad food in the face and say, you know what, for poor people, this is good enough.  For obese people, this is good enough.  For people without a lot of time on their hands, this Snak-Pak or Lance Cheese&Crackers is good enough.  An economy built of phoney food is going to be run by people who have made so many compromises, that their tough talk on diet and nutrition and exercise will ring hollow.  These two rhetorics are not mutually compatible.  Ultimately the food economy, like the economy itself, will need to be regulated to ensure access for all to healthy food.  Left to its own devices, it is a race to the bottom.  So yes, let's tax fast food, let's tax soda, let's tax alcohol until we figure out how to produce consistent fresh food for society.  But not only that, let's educate and make fresh food and fresh cooking sexy and affordable.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

State of the Bakery

Reflecting on last year now that our tax returns are being assembled, we are happy to report that the Bakery grew at a healthy 20% rate in 2015.  We were able to pay employees an increased average wage of 15%, while our ingredient costs unfortunately grew by 30% due to steep increases in the price of quality nuts, organic flour, butter, and some produce. We donated over $20,000 in cash, in-kind donations, and gift cards to charitable organizations. We look forward to continuing to serve the Triangle community the best we can in 2016.  As always, we hope to hear from you with your feedback!

As a sidenote, we are planning our first NSB Employee Alumni Day for Saturday March 26th to help mark our 35th anniversary.  Check out this link for more information, and if you know any past employees, please share widely:

Thursday, March 3, 2016

From Frenzy to Fatigue

Call it foodie fatigue.

My mother was dining recently, and rankled and confused by the menu filled with fancy ingredients, she said, "Can't I just have a good pasta with some broccoli?"

While overall restaurant food quality has gone up, Americans once enthralled by the wave of excitement brought about by the Food Network and Iron Chef are now more reticent to open the newest celebrity cookbook with the same kind of enthusiasm.  Maybe it was Pete Wells' takedown of Guy Fieri (or Thomas Keller?), or maybe it is just market saturation, but I don't see the same kind of appetites for the "next new thing", whether it be a food truck or a donut shop.  Maybe we are so overstimulated by our phones that even gourmandism has been segmented and pushed to the margins.

Yes, I still love food, and yes I am still trying the new restaurants and following the blogs and tweets and pins, but restaurant food of now is focused on 1) multiple fresh ingredient components 2) saucing 3) clean and artistic presentation. What will be the next step forward, if there is a next step?  Will it be a live bowl of Asian food, like Pok Pok or Mission Chinese?

We are now living in a post-Eleven Madison Park world, a post-Noma world, a post-Faviken world where destination dining is not new, entrees can easily go for 50% more than they might have ten years ago, and listing "farm-to-fork" on a menu sounds trite.

At Ninth Street, we try to make real food without a lot of preciousness.  Which is great, because hearty, flavorful food is the food that folks actually eat on a daily basis, for calories, to do stuff, like work. You can't run your whole day on raw halibut with yuzu and a Clif bar.

To have the food movement continue to move forward, we need to think beyond the plate, beyond fundraisers, and think about what kind of businesses we are leading and where we are taking both the employees and the customers.  Will the future be more participatory?  What kind of space does the customer want to interact in?  How to we bring in minority populations?  Are we ignoring stratification and poverty or providing choices at every income level?  Given the spotlight that food has in our culture, I look to local food entrepreneurs to lead, rather than follow on these issues.  In 2015, NSB gave over $20,000 in cash, in-kind donations, and gift cards to charitable organizations.  What kind of impact can we have on Durham in 2016 that moves beyond charitable giving?