A local bakery carves out a place for itself among the competition, offering up a new favorite for customers, the Philly muffin.
It’s nearly midnight and all is quiet in Olney.
During the day, the area is bustling: Traffic jams up, parking is scarce, and neighbors come and go. But during the early morning hours, there’s only one shop left open.
In a storefront bakery just north of Roosevelt Blvd. on 5th Street in Olney, the third shift at Philly Bread is just beginning.
Morning deliveries are prepped and ready to go — brown paper bags stuffed full with loaves, baguettes and hoagie rolls line the wall. Scads of Philly Bread’s signature item, the square Philly muffin, are bagged, branded, and set for delivery.
At this time of night, the ovens are off. But the prep work is just getting started.
A rising need
In recent months, the company has been growing. And with each day, both bread and employees are in greater demand.
Like Stephanie Chia. She’s 23 and lives in South Philadelphia. She’s one of about a dozen new employees at Philly Bread. Most of them with the same thing in common: They’ve never baked professionally before.
“I’ve been doing a transition from part time to full time,” Chia said. “So I’ve been doing, like, once a week for the last month. So, pretty new. And it’s my first time working in a bakery.”
Stephanie Chia flips and folds the preferment at Philly Bread (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
But there’s something drawing them into the artisan bread game. An untraditional career path for city-dwelling Millennials. “I think it was an interest in doing something with my hands and creating something and seeing a product from beginning to end,” Chia said. “But honestly, I think it’s the vision of Philly Bread that really got me committed to this bakery.”
Finding a sustainable model
Two years ago Philly Bread was a one-man show. Pete Merzbacher, the bakery’s founder, was renting mixers, ovens and refrigerator space in a West Philly pizzeria. He’d bake all night, and deliver via bike and bike trailer during the day.
He learned quickly how unsustainable his business model was. Since then, through a number of small steps and lucky breaks, he said, Philly Bread is now a seven-days-a-week wholesale bakery, producing brioche burger buns, sourdough baguettes, regular baguettes, focaccia, and the signature Philly English muffin.
“We are unique compared to other bakeries in that we mill all of our own whole-grain flour,” Merzbacher said. “And that’s always been part of the vision, but it was never really feasible to actualize. Now we have the mill, and we’re able to put out really great bread, seven days a week, and do it with freshly milled grains. “
Whole grain is poured into the mill at Philly Bread (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
Merzbacher and his growing crew now deliver to about 40 clients, many of which hold serious weight in the hearts of locavores around the city: Weaver’s Way Co-Op, Mariposa, Creek Side Co-Op, Swarthmore Co-Op, Fair Food, Greensgrow, Green Aisle, Pumpkin Restaurant, Green Line Cafe, and a number of other restaurants and small cafes.
A bread bromance
Merzbacher’s passion for bread and love of baking are what propelled his now thriving bakery, despite his initial challenges. And as his client list grows, so does his inner circle. Matthew Plaks came on at Philly Bread as apprentice less than a year ago with no intention of being a partner of any kind. He offered one year to the bakery so that he could learn more about bread, in exchange for room, board and pay.
“He started in August and very quickly learned everything I knew about bread and gave the company skills and energy that it didn’t have,” Merzbacher said.
Plaks is now a partner, and the chemistry between him and Merzbacher fuels the daily successes at Philly Bread.
“Every month it seems you get used to the amount of progress, and the rate of progress.” Plaks said. “And the next month, you’re going twice the speed.”
They used to buy individual bags of white flour, now it’s a pallet a week, Plaks said, standing amidst the late-night pre-fermentation process; his face, hands and clothes smudged with flour.
Matthew Plaks, a partner at Philly Bread attends to the mill and mixer (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
By morning, all of this will rise and get mixed in with flour, and the baking process will begin again.
It’s a 24-hour business that takes heart, passion, business acumen, and all the bread puns the crew can muster.
“Given that I developed a very rapid love and passion for bread, and I have really strong business and entrepreneurial instincts, it was kind of an obvious feeling that I love it and I think I’m good at it and there’s a need out there in Philadelphia,” Merzbacher said. “So what better time than now?”
Successful businesses don’t develop in a vacuum. It’s an ever-changing combination of ingredients that lend themselves to a happy and profitable workplace. And as Merzbacher continues perfecting his recipes, Philly Bread rises to new heights.
Matthew Plaks (left) and Pete Merzbacher, owner of Philly Bread at WHYY studios in Philadelphia (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)