PHILADELPHIA — The early September rain feels like it’s flash-freezing skin on contact as Casey Patten stands outside Philip’s Steaks, a sliver of a sandwich shop in the south end of town. The co-owner of Washington-based Taylor Gourmet and his director of operations, Robert Coppock, are waiting for their cheesesteak order in a steady drizzle as the temperature drops and the winds rise at this open-air stand. There are definitely easier — and warmer — ways to secure lunch.
But this is not lunch. Not unless you’re the kind who requires multiple feedings in one afternoon. The Philip’s stopover is the fourth in a five-site marathon tour of Philly cheesesteak joints. Patten, 31, and his business partner, David Mazza, 33, have returned to their hometown turf to conduct bread recon. They want to glean a few secrets from Philly’s beloved sandwich stands in hopes of developing their own rolls for Taylor Charles Steak & Ice, the partners’ cheesesteak shop scheduled to open in December at 1320 H St. NE.
This is not an idle mission. Ask any reputable — or even semi-reputable — Philly cheesesteak purveyor, and they’ll tell you the bread is paramount in a properly made sandwich. The soft, pliable and surprisingly sturdy roll can’t be easily replaced, at least not without a good tongue lashing from a cheesesteak snob (which is not a contradiction in terms). Patten and Mazza understand the roll’s importance, which is why after having found suppliers for almost every other ingredient in their cheesesteak, they’re still futzing with the bread.
To help with the intelligence-gathering, the guys have dragged Alan Hakimi to Philly. He is the Iranian-born, American-raised owner of Lyon Bakery, a District-based wholesale bread operation that supplies Taberna del Alabardero, Busboys & Poets and even Taylor Gourmet (the baker has developed a custom hoagie roll for the small chain). Hakimi, unfortunately, missed the Philip’s run. Mazza and Hakimi, riding in a separate vehicle, got their signals crossed and ended up at Steve’s Prince of Steaks, where they were warm and dry in the climate-controlled confines of the northeast Philly shop.
Not that it mattered much. Hakimi would later taste the roll that Philip’s uses. It’s a D’Ambrosio Bakery roll, a thinner, browner and slightly crustier bread than those used at Pat’s King of Steaks, Tony Luke’s or Geno’s Steaks, perhaps the three most famous cheesesteak outlets here (and all stops in our fat-fest). Patten digs the D’Ambrosio roll at Philip’s. He likes its sturdiness and absorption: its ability, in other words, to ferry the moisture-laden contents of a cheesesteak without turning to mush.
But mostly Patten likes the D’Ambrosio roll’s chewiness, or elasticity. Patten is big on elasticity. Twice, the Taylor owner invites Hakimi to pull the other end of a small piece of cheesesteak roll, in a kind of curbside tug-of-war, to demonstrate a bread’s taffylike properties.
“One of the texture components that has to be right, since you’re doing sandwiches, is the bread,” says Patten. “That elasticity and pull and chew that you get along with the meat . . . to me, that’s part of the textural component of the cheesesteak.”
Hakimi’s role in this cheesesteak gorging is straightforward: He must learn what Mazza and Patten want in a roll and then try to reproduce it for the forthcoming Taylor Charles (a name that combines the owners’ middle names). And yet Hakimi’s role is also rather comical. This is a 43-year-old man who has trained with master bakers from around the country; he knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to analyzing good bread, and now he’s being asked to re-create a squishy, poorly developed commercial roll that, in his estimation, is total junk. His assignment is tantamount to hiring Daniel Boulud to prepare Kraft mac ’n’ cheese.
But Hakimi is a pro. He knows he’s not here for his opinions about cheesesteak bread. He’s here for his ability to deliver products to a client. The baker admits that he likes the challenge and, perhaps more to the point, he likes the high-volume business of producing Italian rolls for Taylor (which at present can run to 1,100 a day). “The only people I’ve [created a specialty bread] for is them,” Hakimi says. “I actually like them. They’re nice guys.”
The next morning, Hakimi and the rest of Team Taylor arrive at D’Ambrosio Bakery, where another piece of the puzzle clicks into place. They confirm what they had already suspected: that steam — lots and lots of steam — plays a significant role in the roll’s texture, chew and appearance. An employee readily spills this information when Patten and Mazza pose as potential customers. They never introduce Hakimi as their hired-gun breadmaker.
The thing is, the ruse wasn’t even necessary. Hakimi already had a pretty good idea of what would be required to make the roll that Patten and Mazza want, which is a cross between the sturdy one found at Philip’s and the better-tasting one at Steve’s (which, according to one source, is custom-made at a New Jersey bakery). Such a roll will require Hakimi to reproduce an old Italian recipe for the chewy, white-breadlike loaf, but without bromated flour or other enhancers that help strengthen the dough. It will also require a generous retardation period for the dough and, of course, a sauna’s worth of steam. The baker is confident he can create an authentic, and more flavorful, Italian roll even without the use of a baking “tunnel,” the oven of choice among Philly bakers.
He might even be able to develop the roll in less time than it took him to create Taylor’s custom hoagie roll, which would certainly help Patten and Mazza hit their targeted opening date in December. It took the team nearly five months to build a better hoagie roll.
“I have faith in Alan that he can get it done,” Patten says. “That’s just knowing Alan’s strong will to succeed.”
You might wonder why Patten and Mazza bother investing so much time in producing their own roll when cheesesteak shops around the country simply order bread from Amoroso’s Baking, often considered the first name in hoagie and cheesesteak rolls. The owners’ quick answer is that they’ve lost faith in the Amoroso’s roll. They say the frozen product available from coast to coast is a poor imitation of the bread they recall from their youth.
“Garbage,” Mazza says flatly. “After it defrosts, it falls apart.”
But more than that, Patten and Mazza have learned a lesson from their Taylor Gourmet days: It’s a questionable business practice to rely on an out-of-town bakery to provide the bread for your sandwich shop on a daily basis. Patten and Mazza essentially built their reputation at the original Taylor on H Street NE on the fact that they hired some poor soul to drive up to Philadelphia every morning and bring back a load of crusty hoagie rolls from Sarcone’s Bakery. It was a daily dose of Philly authenticity, but it was also pricey and vulnerable to the vagaries of weather, which can shut down a supply chain faster than a distributor with a past-due bill in hand.
That helps explain why Patten and Mazza made the decision last year to create their own hoagie rolls with Hakimi’s help. It was a smart move. What wasn’t so smart was the partners’ slow-footed reaction in informing the public about the switch. The Washington City Paper eventually broke the news in January as part of a cover story about the strange, reverse-locavore trend of buying bread from faraway bakeries; the revelation quickly turned into a PR nightmare for the owners.
The guys weren’t going to repeat any of those mistakes. They were going to make their own cheesesteak rolls, and they were going to tell people from the start. “We’re growing, and we’re learning — and that’s with almost everything we do,” says Patten, as the budding Taylor empire is set to grow to five locations next year. “I’m very quick to make a decision on the fly and want it implemented yesterday, but as we grow . . . we’re building a different kind of corporate structure here. [Strategic] rollouts have to take place.”
Strategic planning and rollouts are particularly important, it seems, when the primary concern is a sandwich roll.