Bakery apprentices learn the ins and outs of opening a food business the hard way


Mark Furstenberg gives a baking lesson in his Kalorama home kitchen under the eye of apprentices Violeta Palchik, from left, Michelle Kim Vaughan and Maiy Lay. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
March 25

On a brisk January afternoon, five apprentices gather in the organized chaos of bread guru Mark Furstenberg’s home kitchen to sample various soups they’ve made. If any or all of the soups pass muster, they could end up on the menu of Furstenberg’s new bakery-restaurant, Bread Furst, to open next month in Van Ness.

Maiy Lay, 29, a sous-chef at Doi Moi in Logan Circle, offers sour tamarind soup emboldened with lemon grass, lime leaves, pineapple, tomatoes and poached shrimp, and topped with cilantro leaves and crunchy slivers of fried garlic. The concoction impresses everyone but its maker.

“I think it needs more fish sauce,” Lay says, “but I don’t want to overwhelm people with the flavor.”

Furstenberg objects. “But isn’t introducing those flavors to people the purpose of having a food store?”

Eye-rolling and exasperated sighs mark the heated discussion that ensues about the Bread Furst menu, which in addition to baked goods will feature breakfast items, sandwiches, soups, spreads, salads, cheese, charcuterie and Madcap coffee. Furstenberg wants the food to be innovative and distinctive, heavily favoring a Mediterranean palate. A draft menu includes warm bean salad with squash, wheat berries, parsley and lemon; muhammara, a zesty red pepper and walnut spread; and spicy peanut soup, a favorite of Furstenberg’s son.

“You can get hummus, macaroni and cheese and potato leek soup at Whole Foods,” Furstenberg says.

But apprentices Michelle Kim Vaughan, a 30-year-old attorney, and Violeta Palchik, 25, see value in offering well-known items. When she worked at Murray’s Cheese in New York, Palchik says, the most popular dish was mini-burgers.

Furstenberg bristles. “I want to establish our identity as a place that does NOT serve that type of thing,” he says. But eventually he concedes that there is a place for traditional foods if they intrigue; if there is tuna salad, for instance, he wants it elevated by preserved lemon and harissa mayonnaise. 

The meeting was one of several meant to offer five future entrepreneurs a bird’s-eye view of the opening of a food business in Washington. Joining Lay, Vaughan and Palchik were television producer Michael Sriqui, 35, and Peter Hellfrich, a 55-year-old executive recruiter.

The apprentices agreed to devote 10 to 15 hours a week working on assigned tasks and attending biweekly meetings. In return, they would receive baking lessons and the benefit of Furstenberg’s experience and wisdom as he readied Bread Furst for a February opening. That turned into an April opening, stretching the commitment from two months to four. (Lesson No. 1: Opening a food business is unpredictable.)

At the first meeting, everyone was on their best behavior in Furstenberg’s Kalorama living room, calmly reporting on previously assigned tasks. Vaughan shared market research, Sriqui gave a construction update, Palchik discussed fundraising, and Lay outlined point-of-sale systems. Then everyone adjourned to Furstenberg’s kitchen.

“Bread makes itself — no way to rush it, except to make bad bread,” Furstenberg said as he handed off a bread lesson to Hellfrich, a self-taught baker. “The most important ingredient is time.”

Many credit Furstenberg, 75, with introducing artisan bread to Washington in 1990, when he opened the first Marvelous Market. He sold his interest in the small chain in 1996, then opened Breadline near the White House in 1997. He sold that in 2008.

“I started thinking about another bakery in 2009 because I kept hearing that there is no place to buy good bread in D.C. ‘How can that be?’ I thought. That’s why I opened Marvelous Market in the first place.”

Feeling “unfinished,” he says, Furstenberg began looking for space. A few years ago, he met Kera Carpenter, owner of Petworth’s Domku Cafe. The tribulations of starting her own business had inspired Carpenter to form Nurish: The Center for a Creative Culinary Economy, a nonprofit organization promoting food entrepreneurship.

“When I was opening Domku, I didn’t have anyone to turn to for advice,” she says. “Our industry is not very good about supporting each other. We have a million lessons to pass on so people don’t fail.” An apprenticeship program made sense, and Furstenberg agreed to be the first to try it.

Furstenberg’s goal is to transfer the ownership of the bakery, over time, to its employees. At his age, he is thinking more in terms of legacy than longevity.

Carpenter helped Furstenberg choose the apprentices, then let him run the program as he saw fit. From among more than 50 applicants, they selected the five. All of them have cooked since childhood, exposed by their families to the joys of food.

Hellfrich spent his formative years in Barcelona, where the food culture transfixed him and the family cook taught him the secrets of making paella and torta spagnola. Palchik’s mother put home-cooked Argentinian and Jewish meals on the table every night in Fairfax, despite the demands of running a small catering company. Sriqui’s Moroccan Jewish grandmother taught him how to make tagine of chicken, preserved lemon and olives. Vaughan, whose parents emigrated here from Korea, helped her mother write two cookbooks aimed at teaching Korean Americans the dishes of their heritage. Lay’s Cambodian refugee parents inspired her to pursue a dream of opening a Cambodian restaurant.

As the program stretched on and the needs of the new business grew, the apprentices’ roles morphed. 

“We ended up getting much more involved in the details of getting the business open,” says Palchik. “We weren’t observers; we were really a part of the business.” Palchik became the general manager in January.

The apprentices created an employee manual and Bread Furst’s Web site and blog (www.breadfurst.com); set up social media accounts; priced large equipment, small wares, sales systems, linen services and uniform options. They produced a fundraising event, furnishing investment packets and Mason jars of pistachio-cherry scone mix for goody bags. 

As the weeks progressed, interactions became tenser. Social media were a point of contention. The apprentices considered a presence crucial, but Furstenberg resisted, insisting that his business depended on neighborhood word-of-mouth. He acceded, though, and is now fairly active on the blog (less so on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter).

By late February, the apprentices seemed frustrated by the program. Furstenberg initiated a frank discussion about what was good about it and what wasn’t. Everyone lauded the sessions where successful entrepreneurs — such as Domku’s Carpenter and Saied Azali, the owner of Perry’s and Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan — spoke. The group praised Furstenberg for being generous with his knowledge and completely open to changing his mind when a good case was made.

But Palchik and Vaughan thought there should have been a specifically outlined program, as with a course; Lay and Sriqui said they came to embrace the learn-by-doing approach.   

Clearing the air seemed to reenergize the group, though Palchik continues to be noticeably irked by Furstenberg. A couple of weeks ago, they both agreed that she would be the retail manager rather than general manager. “I’ve seen people having to manage the owner more than the business. I knew I didn’t want that,” Palchik said.

As Bread Furst’s opening nears, it is clear that the apprenticeship started with lofty goals and wound up achieving practical ones. The experience, haphazard as it sometimes was, opened eyes. As Lay says, the apprentices see the big picture now: all the details from construction to staffing, purchasing, fundraising and prioritizing what needs to get done months in advance and what can wait until just before opening. 

Hellfrich left the program in February, not sure whether he wants to open a food business. Vaughan, Sriqui, Palchik and Lay are now positive they do.

Does that guarantee they will?

“This program can’t give you that,” says Furstenberg. “That comes from entrepreneurial spirit. It is an act of faith.”

Hagedorn is co-author of “My Irish Table: Recipes From the Homeland and Restaurant Eve” (Ten Speed Press, 2014).

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Lifestyle