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Doughboys: Sharing bread and philosophy [The Journal]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
The Journal
Nov. 13, 1996

A slice of bread for you?” asks Bill McKeehnie, the baker / businessman behind the counter at Great Harvest Bakery in Alexandria.

“Absolutely,” says Sue Lawrence. She has driven all the way from her Baltimore home for a loaf of Great Harvest’s honey whole wheat. “I plan my sales trips for Metro Feed [a pet food chain] around being able to come to Great Harvest. This bread is amazing. It is really worth the trip.”

Three years ago, McKechnie opened the doors of his bakery and ever since the down-to-earth baker has found quite a following for his soft-crusted chewy bread. About 3,000 loaves, which sell for $3.25 to $5.70 each, leave his store each week.

“It is worth the extra money and an extra stop),” says Alexandria resident Matthew Howe. “I want real bread. Some people don’t care, but bread is a staple in my diet. Bakeries are big these days and there is a reason why. This stuff doesn’t have a shelf life of 50,000 years like Twinkies.”

In fact, a loaf of Great Harvest bread will last
about a week, but odds are good a customer will consume it long before then because this bread is the sort that just “melts in your mouth the lock it in the trunk of the car so I don’t eat the whole loaf on the way home” kind.

The 2-pound loaves come in about 20 varieties, but only six or eight types are baked on any given day. The biggest seller is the honey whole wheat, at $3.25 plus tax. Other popular flavors include sunflower millet, tomato herb and cinnamon raisin walnut, which all go for $3.95. Every Friday, Great Harvest bakes a raisin Challah (also $3.95’).

The highest priced loaves are cranberry orange, $4.95, and blueberry wheat, $5.70.
In addition to selling bread, Great Harvest appeals to its big-city customers by serving up a large heaping of friendly, small-town atmosphere.

It is policy to offer every customer a generous hunk of soft, hot bread. Butter and honey are available, too. Rock ‘n’ roll music is always playing in the background. And during any weekday, owner McKechnie can be found in his tie-dye T-shirt and sneakers, handing out hunks of bread, bagging orders, ringing them up.

His mom Mary Rose works behind the counter every Friday. His pregnant wife, Martha, and their 2-year-old daughter, Kelsey Rose, often pop in to see Pop. But it is the customers who give the place its homey feel, says McKechnie.

“The customers are one of the biggest things that keeps this place alive. We know it is easier to pick up a loaf at the Giant or Safeway. It is an extra trip for someone to come see us. When they do, we want them to know we appreciate that.”

Although the bakery has the feel of a mom-and-pop operation, it is actually part of a 112-store national Great Harvest franchise based in Dillon, Montana.

Last year, it earned $50 million in revenue. The average gross-sales at each bakery were $550,660. Not bad for a company that started out as a roadside stand with a sandwich board which read, “Hot Bread, Free Slices.”

That was 1972, when Great Harvest founders Pete and Laura Wakeman were selling bread to put themselves through the agriculture program at Cornell University. After graduation they opened the first bakery in Great Falls, Montana and it became an overnight sensation.

“My idea of a whole wheat specialty bakery was unheard of at the time, especially in a small rural city,” Laura Wakeman told the Journal. “During the first few weeks, lines formed outside the door before we even opened. The entire day’s baking, done by hand, sold out in less than an hour.”

As the Wakemans perfected their methods, they were constantly asked to open new stores. By 1978 they came up with a plan to franchise, and today there are bakeries in 35 states.

Next year, 24 more stores will open. And the demand to create new franchises is tremendous; annually, the Wakemans receive 7,500 applications from potential franchisees.

The cost of opening a bakery ranges from $106,000 to $308,000, including a $24,000 franchise fee. Each month the franchisee pays a 7 percent royalty on gross sales.

The key to being approved, says McKeehnie, 38, is to share in the Wakemans’ corporate philosophy: “Be loose and have fun, bake phenomenal bread, run fast to help customers, create strong, exciting bakeries. and give generously to others.”

Accepting that philosophy came
naturally to McKechnie. So did the business end of matters. He has an M.BA. from the University of Chicago and a master’s from the London School of Economics. Before becoming a Great Harvest franchisee, he was director of finance and administration for a Fairfax defense electronics firm that was bought out in 1991.

McKeehnie had never been a baker and didn’t know much about the five-hour sponge and fermentation process that creates Great Harvest bread. So he traveled to four other Great Harvest bakeries, including one in San Diego and another near Chicago to learn the art.
“There is a support system, but basically each store owner is free to make his or her bakery unique,” says McKechnie, who envisioned his bakery to look like a friendly production facility—and that is what he created.

Walk in and see dozens of loaves cooling on wire racks. Get there early enough and watch baker’s pound dough, working it to get just the right consistency. A big rotating oven stands in the middle of the shop. Behind closed doors in the back is the flourmill. And there is a big mixer.

Two park benches line a small alcove. In the comer is a basket of toys. A few newspapers are usually left behind by customers for others to read. On the wall are two big bulletin boards for flyers and business cards.

McKechnie has lots of regulars. All seem to know him personally. One couple meets there every Tuesday morning for a hot slice of bread and hot coffee, 20 minutes to talk.

“I wanted to create a place so comfortable that a woman would feel at ease enough to nurse her child,” McKechnie says. Last month, that goal was accomplished.

McKechnie prides himself on having created a place where people feel comfortable, preschool classes
can come in for tours, and leftover bread is sent to local food banks.
“I have this yearning to get more from, business than income,” says McKeehnie.

“There is a certain amount of psychic income I get from this place. I am not just sharing in the transaction of selling a loaf of bread. I share in my customer’s happiness, their sorrows. I feel lucky to know the people who come into this place. Retail can be hard. They are the ones who keep me going.”

Not in the mood for just a slice? Following are some other ideas on how to eat your Great Harvest:

Laura’s Bread Pudding

You’ll need:
1-pint milk
3 eggs
2 teaspoons cinnamon,
2 teaspoons vanilla
cup sugar

Here’s how: mixture over bread, covering completely. Repeat with another layer of bread and mixture. Bake 30 minutes.

1-cup brown sugar.
A twist of lime, twist of lemon
1/2-teaspoon vanilla
1-cup raisins (plumped by soaking in water, rum or gin overnight)
2 cups water
1-teaspoon cornstarch

Directions: In a pot, mix sugar, water, twists of lime and lemon, and vanilla; bring to a boil. Stir in cornstarch. Simmer and stir for 6 minutes. Add raisins.

Presentation: Ladle topping over pudding and top with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Yields 6 large or 12 medium-size servings.

Great Harvest Bread Turkey Stuffing

You’ll need:
2 loaves Great Harvest honey, wheat or white bread
3 pounds bulk sausage
16 ounces silvered almonds
8 ounces sunflower seeds
2 tablespoons onion flakes
4 tablespoons butter
2 – 14.5-ounce cans clear chicken broth (more for wetter stuffing)
1 pound fresh sliced mushrooms
3 stocks chopped celery Seasoned salt and Parmesan cheese (to taste)

Directions: Slice bread into crouton-size pieces and leave out to air dry for 2 or 3 days, or put in oven on low heat until dry. Melt butter in a saucepan and sauté mushrooms, almonds, sunflower seeds, celery and onion. Brown sausage in a separate pan. Mix ingredients together and store overnight in refrigerator. Makes enough to stuff a 25-pound turkey.

Baked French Toast

You’ll need:
2 egg whites 2 whole eggs
1/4-cup skim milk
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4-teaspoon vanilla
1/4-teaspoon cinnamon
8 slices Great Harvest bread
Note: Good bread choices are honey whole wheat, orange pecan, raisin, cinnamon raisin walnut or white.

Directions: Preheat oven at 350 degrees. Mix all ingredients except bread. Dip bread slices into egg mixture and coat well. Arrange slices on a cookie sheet (sprayed with non-stick cooking spray) and bake in oven for 15 to 20 minutes, turning when golden. Serve immediately topped with fruit, applesauce or yogurt.


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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.