Bread before dinner at a restaurant is something we take for granted, a minor distraction that's usually there to fill the gap between cocktails and entrees. But every once in a while, the bread becomes the star, making us stop to appreciate the jagged crust, the tender crumb and the delicate tang of a loaf made with patience and enough skill to let the flavors and textures develop fully. And if you've eaten recently at one of Denver's top restaurants, chances are good that you may have asked the staff the source of its wonderful bread -- whether it's a slice from a country boule that offers just the right heft under an open-faced croque-madame at Acorn or the delicately aromatic lavender sourdough at Rioja. And chances are equally good that the answer was Grateful Bread Company.
The man behind the dough is chef and baker Jeff Cleary; he and his wife, Kathy, run the wholesale bakery out of an innocuous warehouse space in Golden, amid the tangle of curving lanes and off-ramps of West Colfax, Highway 6 and I-70. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside, the mouth-watering and nostalgia-inducing waft of fresh bread permeates every corner. With 23 employees and a list of more than sixty current restaurant and hotel accounts that reads like a best-of list of Denver's most buzz-worthy dining rooms, Grateful Bread is the culmination of a career in baking and cooking that started when Cleary was still in his teen years.
As a child, Cleary helped his grandmother prepare Sunday suppers for the family; his nana on the other side of the family was also adept in the kitchen, making candies and chocolates typical of rural Pennsylvania, where he grew up. His leanings were clear even at that age: By thirteen, he was enrolled in a vocational program in which he spent half the year in culinary school and the other half in traditional classrooms. Before he even graduated, he'd purchased -- mostly with his own money -- a bakery inside a converted Philadelphia & Reading Railroad station in Minersville, where he used coal-burning ovens to produce regional favorites like rye and pumpernickel loaves and also made doughnuts and fasnachts, a favorite in Pennsylvania Dutch country. By nineteen, he not only had a vocational culinary-arts degree, but had also earned his associate's degree in culinary arts from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.
For many years, Cleary's career -- starting at the flagship Hyatt Regency in Atlanta -- was as a chef, not a baker. Things were different back then, before the age of celebrity chefs. "In Atlanta in the late '80s, we couldn't even get radicchio or mascarpone," he remembers. But he kept his baking skills alive at each of the kitchens he worked in, always making sure that fresh bread was part of the program. (After he moved on from Pennsylvania, his family eventually sold his bakery, and the train station was restored as a historical landmark.)
In 1992, Cleary moved to Colorado for some downtime and skiing -- "goofing off," he says -- and started working again in a bakery, mostly doing wedding cakes, to earn money. After a stint as a bartender at the Embassy Suites, where he met Kathy, he returned to restaurant kitchens in 1995 and helped open Baci in Genesee Park. That's where he wound up cooking for Julia Child -- a childhood hero of his -- when she stopped at the restaurant on her way to the Aspen Food & Wine Classic.
A couple of years later, Cleary met Pascal Trompeau, and the two opened Cafe Bohemia near the University of Denver. It had a tiny kitchen but received accolades from the Denver press (the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News gave it its highest grade). "I had six burners and a Fry Daddy, basically," Cleary jokes, adding that because of space and equipment limitations, "we really had to think about how to put a menu together." There were other limitations: One night Cleary got a call telling him that he had to stop serving alcohol; he says the landlord's son -- a lawyer -- had updated the leases and didn't match the names with those on the restaurant's liquor license, thus nullifying the license. Rather than stop serving alcohol, Cleary got out altogether. (Pascal Trompeau continued on in the space with his now-revered Trompeau Bakery.)
Keep reading for more about chef and baker Jeff Cleary.
It was at Cleary's next restaurant, Intrigue, that Grateful Bread started its rise. Although that restaurant didn't work out (the space is now home to Lucile's Creole Cafe), it was there that he began selling bread to Frank Bonanno, his first customer, and to Mel's Bar and Grill. When Intrigue closed, Cleary was able to keep his oven, a twenty-quart mixer and a few sheet trays. "That's where Grateful Bread started," the baker reflects. "I took everything to a 400-square-foot cabin in the mountains and kept baking."
That was almost ten years ago. "I was doing all the mixing, shaping, baking, delivery and billing myself," Cleary remembers. His first employee was a delivery driver, who's still with the company today. By 2008, he had one additional employee to help with the baking: Kathy had joined the business full-time. And since then, Grateful Bread has grown in both size and reputation. Jennifer Jasinski was one of Cleary's first customers, and now he custom-bakes several bread varieties for each of her four restaurants: Rioja, Bistro Vendôme, Euclid Hall and Stoic & Genuine. Although Cleary says he has to turn down 95 percent of the requests he receives from would-be customers, new clients include some of the hottest names in town right now: Sarto's, Chop Shop, Brazen and Mercantile Dining & Provision. Kathy, who manages client accounts, also landed Hosea Rosenberg's Blackbelly Market, Grateful Bread's first Boulder customer. And Park Burger and Park & Co. keep the novice employees more than busy with hamburger buns for all of their locations.
Even with high-volume customers, Cleary insists on maintaining artisan methods. Each burger bun for Park Burger is rolled and shaped by hand; the only pieces of electrical equipment used are mixers and ovens. Once you include all of the bakery's bun customers, that's over 50,000 hand-rolled burger buns each month. But baking is more than an art, Cleary notes: "A lot of it is the science behind it; the biggest factor is temperature." Grateful Bread uses a method called the 240 factor (which even takes into account the heat caused by friction) to arrive at the perfect dough temperature once the mixing is complete. "It's supposed to be 80 degrees when it's done," he explains, "but I think that's too high. We use a lot of ice in the summer to get the temperature right." And he pays close attention to other details. Everything is meticulously tracked: batch numbers from deliveries of King Arthur flour (the oldest flour mill in the country), times, temperatures and additional ingredients. Monitoring is so specific that Cleary knows exactly when and how a new grain season affects loaves baked during transition months.
Lately, business has been so good that Cleary bought a new gas-powered deck oven over the summer and is planning to add a third shift -- although the bakery already operates 24 hours a day, every day of the year, with two shifts. That extra shift will allow his four delivery trucks to hit the road earlier and make more deliveries, he notes. As for expanding the bakery itself, "We'll have to evaluate again in the spring, when the [restaurant] patios open back up," he says. "But we have space to potentially double in capacity."
Jeff and Kathy Cleary are finally at a point where they can pause to enjoy what they've built; they took their first vacation in twelve years in 2014, and Jeff manages to get away occasionally to forage for wild mushrooms, something he's been passionate about since he was behind the burners in his first restaurant. Sometimes he even takes local chefs with him.
But baking remains his obsession. And if you can't get to Grateful Bread, where retail sales are held several times a year, Cleary has some advice for the home baker: "Buy a scale and weigh everything," he says. The reason? "Cooking and baking are two different thought processes," he explains. "In cooking, you can think à la minute. Baking is a formula, not a recipe. A lot of it comes down to practice -- and patience."
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Wise words from a baker who has spent more than thirty years perfecting his craft.