Early Risers: Panera bakers man their ovens while the city sleeps

Most St. Louis Bread Co. devotees likely think little of how the pretty, brown loaves end up neatly stacked in their chrome bins and glass display cases each morning. For all we know, that crusty, chewy goodness is the delicious tidings of a benevolent Dough Fairy, whose sole mission is to bestow tasty carbs upon the peckish masses. They’re there when we need a shaft of baguette to sop up our minestrone or when we must have a hearty pair of ciabatta slabs to reign in a steak sandwich. But the next time you nibble the savory focaccia in your panini, think of Engijad Hadzikadunic.

Hadzikadunic, a bakery market manager for the Bread Co./Panera, started at the counter of a bakery-café in 1999 as a Bosnian refugee and now oversees baking at eight stores in St. Louis, Festus, Cape Girardeau and Carbondale. It is in the Festus café where Hadzikadunic allowed us to tag along for an overnight bake shift.

“We bake every night at every store, right here in the store,” a bleary Hadzikadunic explained. “Most people don’t even know we’re here. … Other restaurants, they use frozen dough and keep it, I don’t know how long, and then they bake. You can definitely tell.”

According to marketing manager Brandi Henderson, the company’s upper crust stands firm on one central point: “I can say with confidence that never, ever, ever in a million years will we ever freeze bread.” To Henderson and others in the Panera family, the idea of putting fresh dough on ice is tantamount to serving Kobe beef well done with a side of ketchup. It simply is not done.

Each bakery-café manager buys the dough for his own store from a regional fresh dough facility, or FDF. Panera’s facility in Richmond Heights (one of several FDFs throughout the country) supplies the Festus location and about 60 other cafés in the Midwest. Production manager Melvis Avdic, also a native of Bosnia, has devoted seven years to transforming raw ingredients into irresistible breads. “We use probably 20,000 pounds of flour every day,” Avdic said. “Around the holidays, it’s probably more like 50,000 a day.”

A noontime visit finds FDF workers spilling out several-hundred-pound blobs of dough onto rolling tables for cutting, shaping and panning. Just across the oil-slicked aisle, long rolls of dough destined to become bagels zip along a conveyor and through a progressively curved tube that curls them into the traditional O shape. Workers “pan up” the raw bagels with lightning speed and let them rest in a walk-in cooler kept at 40 degrees to slow down the yeast’s activity. By day’s end, Avdic’s crew has sent out an average of 55,000 bagels in refrigerated trucks to surrounding cafés.

Just outside the cooler, a large drum labeled “Mom” is too mysterious to go unquestioned.

“That’s the ‘mother’ – the mother bread,” Avdic said with a grin. “It is used to start new batches the next day.” Most vital to the operation is the nurturing of a couple thousand pounds of this mother, or starter dough, which must be maintained at 70 degrees. Lose that, and Avdic’s crew must spend the next 14 hours generating a new mother or, at the very least, racing to another FDF for starter dough.

“It’s like a mother and child. This is the mother and the child is the sponge. My biggest enemy is sourdough bread,” he added. “If you don’t follow it just right, it’s all over.”

At 10 o’clock, baker trainer Jenny Filkins and baker training specialist Adis Dzafic are just beginning a hectic graveyard shift in the Festus bakery-café. Pans of dough for nearly three dozen breads, 11 bagel varieties and 10 or so pastries have all just been rolled through the door and must hit the display cases looking tasty by 5:30 a.m. “The first order of business is to organize, make sure you have everything,” said Filkins. “If you’re not organized, you will fall behind real fast.”

Hadzikadunic shudders at the memory of last summer’s nasty storms, which twice knocked out power to a number of Bread Co. cafés. In one storm, 20 bakeries, including many in Hadzikadunic’s territory, lost electricity. Drivers frantically transported dough to surrounding cafés for baking, and then back to the original stores. “It was a nightmare,” said Hadzikadunic. “I never want to do that again.”

With a few extra hands at her disposal, Filkins demonstrates how to ready 24 uncooked bagels per pan for baking. The trays are stacked head-high in baking racks, and several racks are wheeled right into a walk-in oven. Pastries, rolls, scones and some bread varieties all share a baking space the size of a respectable his-and-hers closet.

But what is the secret to the artisan breads? The ones that present that delightfully challenging chew on the outside, yet remain dreamily soft inside? The surprising secret is water.

Deep, rack ovens – made to Panera’s specifications at a cost of some $25,000 or so – come replete with screen-like baking surfaces and water bulbs in the back for steaming. It’s the introduction of the steam that gives the loaves their characteristic shine and firm crust.

“This, this is the best part,” said Dzafic, tearing off a corner of a freshly baked, misshapen loaf he had been kind enough to allow his visitor to score with a knife before baking. With nary an accent to betray his Bosnian roots, the young baker extols the virtues of fresh-from-the-oven bread. “It is always just out of the oven. It’s best when it’s just baked, and it’s never that good again.”

To ensure a consistent product from one bakery-café to another, Hadzikadunic meets with several other bakery market managers for monthly bread cuttings. “Each manager brings product and we compare product,” he said. “It’s the same facility, same training and the same procedure every night in every café. We want to make sure the product is the same too.”

“An entire culture is ingrained in bread and baking,” said Henderson, oblivious to the accidental pun. “Across the board, in every culture, there’s a comfort people draw from their bread. That’s what we sell. We try, as we grow, to stay rooted to our beginnings.”

Every meeting of the company minds commences with a ritualistic “bread homage” in which loaves are divvied up among those present. The practice is a literal and symbolic breaking of bread. “I think it’s to gather, bond, unify,” said Henderson, “but also to remind us what makes us special.”

In the shadow of twin, 50,000-pound flour silos in the dough facility, one last burning question begged to be asked: What is it with Bosnians and St. Louis Bread Co.?

“The weather in St. Louis is similar to Bosnia, and it is inexpensive to live here,” Hadzikadunic explained. “There is a big, big, Bosnian population here.” Though at a loss as to the number of Bosnians who found their way into Panera’s ranks, Avdic offered his own take on why they would stick around as he, Hadzikadunic and Dzafic have: Because, just like that mother bread, Panera gave this new batch of bakers its start.

“It’s a good place to work,” he said. “Even when I didn’t speak English, I had a place here.”