Leavened heaven

The family-run Tin Roof Bakery hopes to make a mark on the Chico bread scene

ALL IN THE FAMILY Tin Roof Bakery owner Brandon Siewert checks on some bread flanked by his wife, Rosie, and son, Jackson. From start to finish a typical loaf of Tin Roof bread takes about 18 to 24 hours to make.

ALL IN THE FAMILY Tin Roof Bakery owner Brandon Siewert checks on some bread flanked by his wife, Rosie, and son, Jackson. From start to finish a typical loaf of Tin Roof bread takes about 18 to 24 hours to make.

Photo By Tom Angel

Bread bites: Batard, which refers to the shape of a loaf, literally means “bastard.” Artisan bread is made using traditional methods, and the work is done almost entirely by hand. The slashes on the tops of the loaves are called grignes and are made by slashing bread with a razor just before baking. Crust color is due to the caramelization of naturally occurring sugars in the bread. Steam used during the baking process enhances the color and texture of the crust.

Once upon a time, many Chico townsfolk got their bread from a sun-dappled little shop known as Chico Breadworks, a business that labored 24 hours a day inspired by the cheerful motto, “Life’s too short to eat bad bread.”

The company offered a diverse range of rich, real bread, and the good townspeople ate it up, buying it at local markets and health stores. Then one day in August 1999, Chico Breadworks suddenly closed its doors, officially due “to an illness in the family.” The townspeople were left to ponder, “Where shall we get our real bread now?”

Indeed, the pinch was felt immediately by some, but other companies, such as Great Harvest Bread (a locally owned franchise of a national chain), Miller’s Bakery and French Gourmet Bakery & Deli, tried to pick up the slack. Still, in the years since Chico Breadworks’ closing, no one local bread maker has attempted to fill the large hole left by the sourdough, white-flour specialists—that is, until now.

Brandon Siewert, 29, and his wife, Rosie Compton, 28, have been winning over fans by the mouthful with their own bread handmade at their Tin Roof Bakery, which opened six months ago in a nondescript complex off Highway 32 just past East Avenue. The two sell the bread themselves at local farmers’ markets, and you can find it at S&S Produce and Chico Natural Foods as well as Chico restaurants such as Bustolini’s, Red Tavern, Fifth Street Steakhouse and Grilla Bites. Several local caterers also serve it.

“Our main goal is to remain as local as we can and to use local products and organic ingredients as much as possible,” Compton says.

But what might make Tin Roof a contender in the local bread market is not only the quality of its traditional European-style hearth bread product, but also bright plans for the future. Its owners want the company to be focused solely on saturating the Chico market—and also to create a great work environment where employees have some sort of stake in the company ("profit-sharing or something like it we haven’t figured out yet,” Siewert says).

“Tin Roof came into the Farmers’ Market when Great Harvest dropped out and has been a great addition,” said Terry Givens, marketing manager with the market. “Being a cottage business with a great product they make themselves fits our theme perfectly.”

Judging from the strong local response so far—local business owners showing support, private investors showing interest, and the public praising the bread—Tin Roof Bakery seems to be on the right track.

Originally from Wisconsin, Siewert met Compton, who grew up east of Redding in Round Mountain, when both lived in Portland, Ore., in the early ‘90s. Siewert was working in various restaurants when the two married and decided to move to a small town and raise a family. Compton suggested Chico, where she had previously lived, as a good family town close to her relatives, and the two moved here in 1998. Siewert began working at the Red Tavern but always knew he wanted to strike out on his own.

“Ultimately what drove us was necessity,” he explained. “It’s difficult to make a living working for someone else in the food business, and we saw a great opportunity when Chico Breadworks left.”

Through working in various restaurants, Siewert had become an expert pastry chef and baker with 15 years of experience. He explained that the time was ripe, considering the West Coast had undergone something of “a bread renaissance” inspired by books like San Franciscan Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse series.

“I was surprised at how savvy the people in Chico were when we moved here,” Siewert recalled. “There were lots of interesting little bread shops here. … Once you get a taste of real bread, it’s hard to go back.”

And so, encouraged by other local bread shops, the couple began the process of financing, taking out loans and raising the $75,000 or so needed in order to kick start their own business. Siewert dove into researching the industry and was lucky enough to come across an Ontario, Ore., convent that was liquidating its bakery equipment and needed to be out in seven days. So, after visiting the convent and checking out the goods, Siewert got a bargain deal on the used equipment (a serendipitous turn, Siewert recalls fondly, since the convent’s headquarters happened to be based out of Konocta, Wis., the small town where he was born).

Siewert adds that strangers have approached the couple since then about investment opportunities, offering money on the spot. For now, the couple is considering renting another retail place closer to downtown or possibly opening the front of their current shop as a deli-style venture.

“The number we keep hearing from other owners is five years,” Siewert says. “That’s about how long you can expect before you turn a profit.”

Siewert and Compton have a sweet-natured 4-year-old boy named Jackson, who is quietly playing by himself the day I make a visit to their bakery.

“He’s been so great about everything,” Compton says. “Some of the long nights when we were starting out, he would just make a bed over beneath that empty rack and sleep. No complaining.”

Make no mistake: The hours in this business are long and hard. The baking process is extremely time consuming, and currently, with only three other employees, that means either Siewert or Compton is usually working late at the shop. They bake four days a week, with Siewert overseeing the baking and Compton handling packaging, delivery and bookkeeping. All of their breads use a pre-ferment that increases flavor and improves texture and digestibility.

A usual day might go something like this: The day before a bake, at around 9 or 10 p.m., the “starters” (fermented flour and water) begin a very controlled process—even more difficult in this case because the room is not completely temperature-controlled, which means Tin Roof bakers must adjust for air conditions (particularly dry this time of year). After a 12-hour ferment, there is a mixing and shaping process, another eight-hour wait and then baking begins around 9 p.m. that night. They finish up between 1 and 3 a.m.

For the first four months, Siewert says he worked 16-to-18-hour days, and now it’s a minimum of 12 hours to make the 3,000 loaves of bread the store produces in a month (about 20 percent of capacity). Right now, the couple sells more bread in six hours at the Farmers’ Market than they do in two days at the local health food stores.

Even though the financial burden of taking on new employees and kick-starting a new business can be overwhelming, Tin Roof’s owners are optimistic because they believe in their product and the support of the community.

“Everyone has just been so encouraging,” Compton notes. “There’s been this huge response. Everybody is so glad to have another local bread shop.”

Dave Miller, owner of Miller’s Bakery, a certified organic shop that deals primarily with whole-grain bread (directly from a farmer in North Dakota), says he thinks Chico could use even more small bakeries.

“Brandon is doing a great job with the white-flour breads—even better, I think, than Chico Breadworks was,” Miller says. “We share some customers at the Farmers’ Market, but so far my sales haven’t been hurt because we do different things.”

Miller, like Siewert, is just happy that locals in Chico appreciate good bread; and he points out that in days past (before the age of ACME in San Francisco, a large bakery that practically burned their bread to release more flavor) bakeries just weren’t confident in making real, artisan breads for the general public. Nowadays, he says, it’s not just the natural-foods buyers who want the real thing.

Before I leave the equipment-filled Tin Roof Bakery shop, little Jackson has stopped hanging from his mom’s shoulders long enough to shyly toss a plug about his own cookie business.

“They have sweet things on them … and I just charge a dime for my cookies, that’s it."