The History of California Bread
The history of California bread as a
prominent factor in the field of bread baking dates from
the days of the Gold Rush and the development of sourdough
bread in San Francisco, and includes the development of
artisan bakeries in the 1980s, which strongly influenced
what has been called the "Bread Revolution".
There have been independent retail bakeries in San
Francisco continuously since the California Gold Rush of
1849, and many restaurants make their own bread. However,
in the wholesale market (which distributes bread
regionally to restaurants and grocery stores) was marked
by a slow decline from the early heyday, and the
subsequent emergence of a new generation of artisan
San Francisco is a favorable location for baking high
quality bread, particularly sourdough, due to humidity and
temperate climate. Sourdough, invented in ancient Egypt
and common in parts of Europe, became the primary bread of
San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. Gold miners
valued it for their camps because of its durability, and
the relative ease of obtaining yeast.
Although many different kinds of starter are suitable for
making sourdough, specific local native species of wild
bacteria (Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis) and of yeast
(Candida milleri) have been recently isolated as the
dominant cultures in the most prized local breads. By 1854
there were 63 bakeries in San Francisco. "Starter" yeasts
were either carefully kept and maintained by each bakery
as a "mother starter", or simply allowed to generate from
the ambient air.
Boudin Bakery was founded in 1849 by Isadore Boudin, son
of a family of master bakers from Burgundy, France. Boudin
came for the gold trade but instead opened a bakery, where
he invented the San Francisco style of sourdough by
applying French baking methods to the fermented dough
breads the California miners were eating. Parisian Bakers,
for many years the most popular bread in San Francisco,
started in 1856. In Oakland, Toscana started in 1895 and
Colombo started in 1896.
Parisian supplied San Francisco's oldest restaurant,
Tadich Grill, for 141 years until the bakery was shut
down. The three surviving bakeries continue to use each of
their respective mother starters, developed in the 19th
A generation of decline and consolidation, starting after
World War II, led to poor quality bread in San Francisco.
The mid-20th century began a "Dark Ages" for bread, as
most Americans began to eat prepackaged, sliced loaves.
Beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 1980s,
there was less fresh bread available across America,
leading writer Henry Miller to exclaim, "You can travel
50,000 miles in America without once tasting a piece of
Much of the decline paralleled the nationwide trends, both
for bread and other foods, of consolidation, lower priced
and frozen ingredients, reducing labor costs, and adding
preservatives for longer shelf life. Mechanization
requires drier dough than hand-formed loaves, leading to
drier loaves that do not have the same large air bubbles
and chewy consistency of good sourdough.
Despite quality issues, sourdough remained popular. Today
it accounts for 70% of all bread sales among the top three
Some small producers from the Gold Rush era kept the
sourdough tradition and continued to produce bread. Steven
Giraudo, an artisan baker who immigrated from Italy in
1935, took his first job in America at Boudin, then bought
the bakery out of bankruptcy in 1941. He later sold it to
a larger company, but after a series of ownership changes
the bakery was bought back by two of Giraudo's sons
through their investment bank.
The Giraudo family bought Parisian, transferring it to the
San Francisco French Bread Company of Oakland, California,
in 1984. That company was in turn acquired by Interstate
Brands Corporation of Kansas City, Missouri, in 1993,
which went bankrupt and shut down Parisian in 2005.
Despite their history, the old bakeries that survived are
not small, and are not "artisan" operations in the common
sense. The top three bakeries employ 1,000 people and make
sixty million "units" of bread per year (mostly loaves)
that they sell in more than 4,000 Northern California
outlets, as well as airports and supermarkets throughout
the United States. Boudin operates 32 retail outlets,
mostly as coffee shops, including notable branches at
Disneyland and Fisherman's Wharf.
San Francisco Sourdough Bread Company bought both Colombo
and Toscana, and replaced the hearth ovens used for
handmade sourdough with high capacity ovens. Before its
demise, Interstate was making 217,460 loaves of bread and
71,540 rolls a week from the Parisian factory in San
Francisco, as well as Wonder Bread, Twinkies, and Ho Hos
snacks from a sister factory nearby.
The Bay Area's artisan bread movement represents a return
to small production of handmade loaves. The artisan bread
movement was in some ways a return to older techniques
styles, but in some ways a shift. Unlike the Gold Rush
bakers, they were based on French and Italian techniques,
and very crusty.
Among the hallmarks of the new artisan breads, loaves are
exposed to steam while baking (a technique developed in
Vienna, Austria), creating a shiny surface that may be
crusty or chewy, while keeping the interior moist.
"Rustic" breads use whole grain flours, including rye
flour and whole wheat.
Breads are "scored" with decorative cross-cuts, along
which the bread cracks while rising and baking to allow
steam to escape. Scores are made in distinctive styles
that identify each bakery.
The first of the many new companies arose out of the
Tassajara Zen Mountain Center near Carmel Valley,
California, a group of monks derived from the San
Francisco Zen Center (which owns Greens Restaurant) that
began baking bread in 1963 and operated a bakery in San
Francisco's Cole Valley from 1976 to 1992. A pastry shop,
Just Desserts, operated the bakery from then until 1999.
The Cheese Board Collective opened in 1967 in what would
later be known as Berkeley's "Gourmet Ghetto", and became
a worker-owned cooperative in 1971.
In 1970 Narsai David, now food and wine editor of KCBS and
a nationally-syndicated food writer, opened a highly
successful catering business and restaurant, Narsai's, in
Kensington, California. Narsai's became renowned for its
breadmaking. David explained his philosophy: "Using
nothing more than flour, water, salt and yeast, you could
bake a loaf of bread in as little as three hours—or you
could take 24 hours. The one that takes 24 hours has
developed a much more sophisticated flavor. Take two to
three hours and the bread tastes like flour and water."
Founder Steve Sullivan grew up in Los Gatos, California,
and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley in
1975, intending to major in rhetoric. He earned money as a
busboy at Chez Panisse. While riding his bike through
England during a summer trip to Europe he bought English
Bread and Yeast Cookery, Elizabeth David's 1977 book on
breadmaking and bread history.
Excited by the book, and wanting to recreate the bread he
had enjoyed in Paris, he began experimenting with baking
for himself. In 1979, when Chez Panisse's then-supplier,
the Cheese Board Collective, could not keep up with its
demands, Sullivan became the restaurant's in-house
breadmaker. However, his breadmaking and the restaurant's
food preparation were both competing for the restaurant's
limited physical space.
In 1983 he left, with the restaurant's encouragement, to
open his own company, Acme. Jeremiah Tower, then head
chef, encouraged Sullivan to study breadmaking at Narsai
David's bakery. He and wife Susan launched Acme with
approximately $180,000 of seed capital, half funded by
Doobie Brothers guitarist Patrick Simmons through a
Steve and Susan Sullivan took a honeymoon in France the
year before starting the business. During their visit to a
winery in Bandol, the son of the owners suggested they
make their mother starter from the natural yeast of wine
grapes. On returning home, he made the starter Acme
continues to use in all of its bakeries by collecting
unsulfered Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel grapes from a
vineyard his father owned, and adding them to a flour and
Many other artisan bakers have followed in the steps of
Tassajara, Cheese Board, Narsai's, and Acme, often started
by veterans of other local bakeries and of Chez Panisse.
Semifreddi's Bakery was opened in Kensington in 1983 by
Eric and Carol Sartenaer, who had worked together at the
Cheese Board Collective.
In 1989 former Chez Panisse pastry chef Dianne Dexter and
her husband David started Metropolis Baking Company,
hiring a head baker who had worked at both Acme and
Semifreddi's. La Farine Bakery was bought by Jeff Dodge,
who had worked with Acme for six years. Glenn Mitchell,
who had baked with Simmons at Chez Panisse, started Grace
Baking Co. at the "Market Hall" food emporium in Oakland,
California in 1987. Craig Ponsford founded Artisan Breads
in Sonoma, California in 1992.
The Cheese Board helped set up a sister cooperative,
Arizmendi Bakery, in 1997 in Oakland, and another in San
Francisco's Inner Sunset in 2000. Other notable brands
with wide local distribution include the French-Italian
Bakery in San Francisco's North Beach (which distributes
primarily to restaurants), The Bread Workshop, and Noe
All told there are at least 65 "Microbakeries" in the Bay
Area, including than the original bakers (Boudin, Colombo,
and Toscana), collectively making approximately 2.4
million loaves of bread per week All are small
locally-owned operations that distribute locally, except
for the "big three" and Grace Baking, which was purchased
in 2002 by Maple Leaf Foods, a Canadian firm, and
distributes nationally to Safeway and Costco. Grace
maintains quality standards by baking the bread only
partly, with final baking at the point of sale. Recently,
Artisan and Boudin have entered into a distribution
Although they represent a return to older ideals of
craftsmanship, modern San Francisco breadmakers do not
generally try to recreate old-style bread. Instead, the
bakeries compete to develop signature loaves and to
develop unique shapes, flavors, and styles. Oven
technology is greatly improved.
Because sourdough is even more sensitive to ambient
weather than other bread, bakeries are heavily dependent
on climate control, refrigeration, and meteorological
measurements and predictions to maintain ideal temperature
and humidity conditions, giving them a consistency that
would have been impossible during the Gold Rush.
Technically competitors, the various commercial bakeries
keep cordial relations and openly share information,
mirroring an international culture of collegiality among
small bakers. When Ponsford opened Artisan in 1992, Grace,
Acme, Semifreddi’s, and Metropolis, all shared advice and
information. Ponsford went on to lead the industry
association, the Bread Bakers Guild of America.
Specialty bakers are not the only source of artisan bread
in the Bay Area. Large grocers such as Safeway, Whole
Foods, and Andronicos have in-store bakeries that produce
sourdough, baguettes, and rustic breads in their Bay Area
locations. A number of local restaurants make bread for
their own use and also retail sale.
Among these is a San-Francisco based chain, Il Fornaio,
that licensed a breadmaking concept from Milan, Italy, and
has spread internationally and distributes to
supermarkets. Restaurateur Pascal Rigo has opened a string
of restaurants and patisseries under the umbrella "Bay