Marvelous Market, the bakery and specialty food store that introduced high-quality traditional breads to Washington 15 years ago, is no longer baking its own baguettes, boules and brioches.
"Our business was growing so fast, we were not able to produce as much bread as our customers wanted," Michael Meyer, Marvelous Market's chief executive, said last week. "We were going to be forced to make quality trade-offs that we weren't willing to do."
The solution? As of last Tuesday, all the bread for Marvelous Market is being made at the Uptown Bakers' new facility in Hyattsville. In an agreement that the companies will describe only as "combining" their efforts, Uptown will take over all the bread baking and wholesale bread operations, and Marvelous Market will concentrate on its nine retail stores.
The company will continue to run its pastry production operation in Fairfax but sold its 14,000-square-foot bread baking facility in Chantilly on June 1 to Firehook Bakery, an Alexandria-based chain of nine bakeries and coffeehouses.
Marvelous Market occupies a special place on the Washington culinary scene. Before its founder, Mark Furstenberg, opened the original store at Connecticut and Nebraska avenues NW in July 1990, reliable, high-quality traditional bread was a distant dream. Bread lovers resorted to lugging back fresh loaves of raisin pumpernickel from New York and rye from Baltimore. And nobody thought to call them artisanal.
Then Marvelous Market changed the picture. Long lines of eager customers soon crowded Connecticut Avenue outside the small store to obtain their two-loaf limit. Over time, the market opened additional outlets, its reputation grew and its range of breads expanded. Washingtonians began to take its two kinds of French baguettes, rustic Italian breads and crusty loaves of whole wheat for granted.
More products were added to the shelves -- good sandwiches, takeout salads, soups and entrees, fine cheeses, jams, olive oils, vinegars.
Competition soon arrived, however -- Uptown less than a year later and Firehook in 1992. Other entrepreneurs followed. And Sutton Place Gourmet, which had been selling bakery-style breads even before 1990, added traditional breads to its line.
But it was Marvelous Market that set the standard, even when Furstenberg -- always more baker than businessman -- faced financial reversals and Meyer and Chris Brookfield stepped in to pay off the debts and infuse cash to keep it alive.
These days, consumers are more savvy about bread. Supermarkets sell passable French baguettes. Chefs pride themselves on the variety in their bread baskets. And many fine breadbakers supply hotels and restaurants.
That side of the business was one of the problems Marvelous Market faced. "As we went into spring, we realized we were at capacity in our bakery," said Meyer. "Our retail and wholesale operations were growing 10 to 35 percent depending on the product or division. We were getting calls left and right from new wholesale customers. Economic development officers from little towns and cities around here contact us to discuss opening [a Marvelous Market] in their communities.
"We want to open new stores as fast as we can," he said. "But we can't do that without sacrificing quality. We either had to build a new bakery for $2 million, or stop growing or find another solution."
For the past couple of weeks, Marvelous Market's challenges were visible in its retail outlets. Some consumers said they noticed a marked decline in quality, less bread on the shelves and pastries made by other local bakers.
"When we tried to buy baguettes at Marvelous Market as usual, we noticed a total change in this normally first-class bread," customer Fritz Konigshofer complained to the Washington Post Food section last week.
The "combining" of Marvelous with Uptown had been under discussion for 2 1/2 months, according to Meyer.
"When we talked to competitors, we found we had similar recipes to Uptown and a similar philosophy," said Meyer. "Natural starters, a traditional baking process . . . and a truly artisanal product. Everybody uses that word, but it's not always the case."
Recently, Uptown hired Didier Rosada, a internationally known baker, as vice president of operations. This year Rosada coached the American team to first place at the prestigious international bread-baking contest, the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie. "We looked at their facility, saw state-of-the-art equipment and one of the best bakers in the world," said Meyer. "Looking at it from a plain pragmatic view, why would we open a new bakery facility when we had the opportunity to combine our efforts? In the end, it was a pretty easy decision."
The two companies are now involved in the process of adjusting the formulas for the bread that will be delivered to Marvelous Market's wholesale customers and sold at their retail stores. "We have some similar products, and we're going to do their signature products -- hopefully forever," Rosada said last week. "Already we are finalizing the recipe details. We want to make sure we can absorb this quantity and still keep the same quality.
This weekend, a growing supply of bread had returned to the shelves of Marvelous Markets. But Furstenberg, who educated Washingtonians about traditional breads in the first place, said, "Bread was always the heart of the business.
"They've cut out the heart."