Small Planet Bakery's current bakehouse exudes history. You can see it on the walls with years of newspaper clippings and photos of past employees accrued throughout the 40 years they've been in the building. You can see it on the bakery equipment—some of it in disrepair while others just carry that yesteryear vibe. You can see it in baker Chris French's workshop where a Kenny Rogers vinyl sits un-ironically atop of a pile of odds and ends and tools. You can see it most vividly in French himself—a man who's clearly spent his 38 years at the bakery smiling and doesn't intend to stop anytime soon.
French is the sort of man who can give molasses bread dough a pinch and know if it needs more water. He doesn't really even measure the recipes anymore and doesn't seem to need to look up anything other than the specifics of the day's order.
French has stood by Small Planet Bakery during times where near-crushing diet fads threatened the bread business—he cites Atkins and the gluten-free movement by name. However, through all of that, Small Planet has thrived, making over 20 varieties of bread at any given time.
Unfortunately, by the end of this year, French and Small Planet Bakery are going to be forced out of their historic location off of Seventh Avenue near Seventh Street. The 40 years of Small Planet operating in this building are but a tick in its existence. French shows off the original wood flooring—it's maple. He heads to a large cargo lift and explains that the building, which sits right next to the train tracks, used to field ice deliveries from the railway, where workers would then break massive five foot by five foot blocks into smaller chunks for people before anyone had a refrigerator.
The building was built in the 1920s, he says. It burnt down in 1930 and was rebuilt. Small Planet's bakery, located at 411 N. Seventh Ave., Suite 101, is a building with character and integrity, much like French himself. But after a 10-year discussion with the city, the warehouse will be torn down as part of the Downtown Links project. French estimates that this will happen by the end of the year.
Clearly, after working in the same building for nearly four decades, there are emotional repercussions to the move and the loss of the building as a whole. French points to the photos on the wall. He can name all of the former employees by memory.
He points to a photo of a man covered nearly head to toe in molasses—that was the time French was out of town in the summer and the molasses barrel expanded and subsequently exploded from the heat.
He points to a photo of two young women sitting on a bed. The bed is made of bread and they lent their bakery to those two young artists to make the fun project.
Around the corner sits a hand-painted sign advertising a Mexican bakery. That sign is from when a film that used Small Planet as the setting for their project. They used French's hands for detail shots during actual baking scenes, and—he laughs—they made him sign a release to be a hand model.
"At least the building can be immortalized in that movie," French says, continuing with his tour.
However, the losses aren't all so qualitative. French isn't sure if his custom-made oven, which he helped build and design himself, can make the trip. The city, he says, has promised to get a new one, but there isn't really replacing an oven that he engineered and built and calibrated to bake en masse to his specifications.
Despite the pending move, French remains optimistic for Small Planet's future. The bakery is still churning out bread for local markets and grocers and restaurants like Maynard's, 5 Points Market, Hub and Diablo Burger. Three days of the week are spent baking for restaurants and another three are dedicated to retail baking.
Like walking into a brewery, Small Planet has that unique sweet smell from grain reacting to the fermentation process—which in this case is the yeast causing the bread to rise during the proofing stage.
French is very aware of the artisan bread movement and he's thankful people are getting interested in bread again. With other local bakers like Barrio and Time Market making rustic loaves in town, it might seem like Small Planet doesn't fit into the trend.
However, the bakery, which just turned 40 years old last month, has been baking with GMO-free, organic flour since the beginning. Certain bread varieties might come pre-sliced, which he says might not look as romantic, but his preservative-free loaves still fit the bill in composition. And you can get their sourdough loaves if you're a committed DIY bread slicer.
"There's a dichotomy going on between what we've been doing and what the other bakers are doing now," he says. "But it's all artisan bread."
He says this as he pounds and rolls and slaps the dough into shape. It's a noisy process, which is augmented by loud machinery and usually some loud music. He guesses that he'll continue baking for Small Planet for a while after the move, but will likely retire shortly thereafter. His ambition was to make bread, which he did at the Granary before moving to the new start-up Small Planet 38 years ago, and he's not looking to take it much further.
"We've always decided to stay small, even when grocery chains wanted us to bake more," he says. "We're small but we're happy."