French Meadow revolutionizes bread baking
Company Profile French Meadow Bakery
French Meadow's four functional breads are Men's Bread, Women's Bread, HealthSeed Spelt Bread and Healthy Hemp Bread.
After proofing, loaves of French Meadow's breads are rolled into a series of rack ovens.
From left to right: John Lough, national sales manager; Mike Simon, bakery production manager; Lynn Gordon, president; Steve Shapiro, vice president; Maria Joiner, office manager; and Nick McCreary, managing partner of Organic Concepts.
The demise of the bread industry has been greatly exaggerated. Yes, the category is not performing like it used to and unit sales are slightly declining. However, questionable research that reports 40% of Americans are eating less bread than a year ago simply do not hold up when looking at data from supermarket scanners. Instead of a mass consumer exodus away from the bread category, consumers are merely looking for new products in the bread aisle. And, number one on their wish lists are premium breads that not only offer great taste but also provide healthful benefits. This shift is one of the many reasons why Minneapolis-based French Meadow Bakery has consistently grown its sales by 15% or more for the past 20 years.
Returning bread to its proper position as the staff of life has been Lynn Gordon's ambition since she founded French Meadow 20 years ago. “The products that French Meadow sells are always born of my personal needs as a consumer," Gordon says. “Generally, they are products that are not available, and products that I want."
Gordon's first foray into bread baking was formulating a loaf that could conform to her macrobiotic diet, which prohibited her from consuming breads loaded with yeast and sugar. Baking a great tasting bread is difficult enough, but doing so without yeast and sweeteners posed immense challenges. However, French Meadow overcame these challenges by incorporating natural leavening and sprouted grains into its baking processes. Today, the bakery still uses these same processes, but on a larger scale.
In its 20-year existence, French Meadow has moved from Gordon's kitchen, to the night shift at a cheesecake factory, to a 25,000 sq. ft. bakery in Minneapolis.
French Meadow's line of breads can be purchased from the freezer case in both natural stores and conventional supermarkets nationwide. Although its largest customers are Whole Foods and Wild Oats, its products have found freezer space in Safeway, Publix, Wegman's and Kroger. “In a conventional supermarket, we work best in a store within a store concept," John Lough, French Meadow's national sales manager, says. “It does not work to place our products in the regular freezer case."
Selling bread from the freezer case has been one of many challenges that French Meadow has faced since it was founded in 1984. However, the company has overcome these challenges by sticking to a simple business plan: provide consumers with a great tasting bread that contains a laundry list of healthful ingredients.
Bread without yeast?
French Meadow's dedication to enhancing the value of the bread category has not come without its challenges. Number one among these challenges is the bakery's insistence on manufacturing certified organic loaves of bread without bakers yeast.
French Meadow's Minneapolis bakery is yeast free for two reasons. First, the bakery believes that the natural leavening process creates a better tasting product that is both naturally sour and naturally sweet. Second, Gordon says that bakers yeast creates an imbalance in intestinal flora, and does not allow for important nutrients to be digested. “The natural leavening process breaks down the complex carbohydrates and the glutens, rendering the bread more digestible and the nutrients more easily absorbed," Gordon says.
Although the natural leavening process has its obvious nutritional and taste benefits, most wholesale bakers stray away from this process due to its time constraints. “Instead of being proofed and ready in 45 minutes, our process is spread in a cycle over three days. The dough must adapt to a seasonal cycle to allow for a consistent product year round." Mike Simon, French Meadow's bakery production manager, says.
To prepare its doughs for bread baking, French Meadow uses a starter that dates back almost 20 years. The company mixes this starter with stone ground flour and allows it to rest overnight in a controlled temperature environment. After resting, the dough is divided, moulded and proofed three to six hours before baking. The company also uses various sprouted grain mixes in its line of functional breads. For example, the company's Men's Bread uses a sprouted grain mix of organic quinoa, organic amaranth, organic alfalfa, organic spelt, organic kamut, organic barley and organic oats. These grains soak in cold water from 48 to 56 hours. After soaking, the bakery grinds the grains and adds them to the mix.
The ingredient listing reads as follows: Organic whole wheat flour, organic low fat soy flour, organic wheat flour, filtered water, organic flaxseed, organic rice bran, oat fiber, soy germ isoflavone concentrate, organic sesame seeds, dried cranberries, organic roasted unsalted soy beans, sprouted organic quiona, sprouted organic amaranth, sprouted organic alfalfa, sprouted organic spelt, sprouted organic kamut, sprouted organic wheat, sprouted organic barley, sprouted organic oats, unrefined sea salts.
The product, Women's Bread with Soy Isoflavones, is one of four functional breads baked at French Meadow's bakery. And, although these breads don't share shelf space with Wonder bread and Sunbeam bread, they are stealing market share from traditional pan bread brands by offering consumers a bread that packs a nutritional punch.
The foundation of French Meadow's product line is its four functional breads: Women's Bread, HealthSeed Spelt Bread, Healthy Hemp Sprouted Bread and Men's Bread. Besides being unique in their names, these four breads also are unique in their functional benefits and the ingredients in their formulas.
French Meadow's first foray into functional foods was the creation of its Women's Bread. Similar to most of the company's new products, Women's Bread was created to satiate the needs of Gordon. Two events in her life prompted the creation of a bread catered to women. First, Gordon's mother passed away at the age of 42 from ovarian cancer. When Gordon approached a similar age her children and doctors urged her to get a hysterectomy to lessen the chances of Gordon getting cancer. However, Gordon did not want to take the hormone replacement therapy that followed the procedure. “I researched and discovered that soy isoflavones were a good source of phytoestrogen, and I knew I needed estrogen," Gordon says.
In lieu of hormone replacement therapy, French Meadow formulated a loaf of bread that contains 512 mgs of soy isoflavones, which Gordon says lessens the severity of symptoms associated with menopause. Soy isoflavones also are ideal for lowering cholesterol and supporting a healthy heart. The company also uses organic flaxseed, organic sprouted grains and organic cranberries in the formula. These ingredients support healthy skin and increase the metabolism of fats.
After the women's bread caught on, Gordon realized that there was a nationwide market for functional foods that support healthy lifestyles and specific dietary needs, such as a diabetic diet, an intolerance to wheat, and the growing popularity of low-carbohydrate diets.
The bakery's next bread launch in the functional food category was its HealthSeed Spelt Bread. The company launched this bread after its consumers began requesting a bread that would provide the protein and fiber content of a nutritional bar without the sweeteners. To formulate this product the company turned to flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and sprouted legumes and grains to deliver a bread with five grams of dietary fiber and six grams of protein per slice. This bread also contains high levels of omega-3 (346 mgs) and omega-6 (1,035 mgs) essential fatty acids.
The popularity of this bread has propelled it to a national stage, and it was recently recognized as the official bread of the Fat Flush Plan, a best-selling diet book.
Although French Meadow's Women's Bread and HealthSeed Spelt Bread spiced up the bread category with unique, functional products, the company's next foray into functional bread proved how distinctive the company really is. Healthy Hemp Sprouted Bread uses hemp seeds and HEMPOLA Hempseed Flour and a combination of more common flours and grains to formulate a bread chock full of nutrients. According to the company, each slice of bread is rich in protein (7 grams), dietary fiber (6 grams), minerals, vitamin E, iron and essential fatty acids such as omega-3 (250 mgs), omega-6 (860 mgs) and omega-9 (380 mgs). The omega essential fatty acids have been shown to promote heart health and suppress tumor growth in breast and colon cancer.
“Hemp bread sales have gone through the roof in the last two years," Lough states. “It's one of the most heart-healthy breads on the market."
Despite the bread's health benefits, convincing mainstream supermarkets to carry the product has presented its challenges. “When you really state that the bread is all about nutrition, that it's high in omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9, then our customers start turning the corner," Lough says. “And, when they (customers) try it and taste it, they all love it."
It also does not hurt to have celebrity supporters of the product, most notably George Washington. Each package of Healthy Hemp Sprouted Bread features the Washington quote: “Make the most of hemp seed, sow it everywhere!"
Similar to Women's Bread, Healthy Hemp Sprouted bread also has gained favor on the best-sellers list by being recognized by Dr. Barry Sears, who penned The Zone Diet.
French Meadow's fourth, and most recently launched, functional bread provides gender equality to the bread aisle. The company's Men's Bread is formulated with sprouted fava beans, an ingredient high in zinc, which Gordon says strengthens the immune function and supports a healthy prostrate.
Formulating for functionality
When French Meadow formulates a new bread, it has no template. Very few high-volume bakers have studied how hemp seeds and fava beans influence dough, and fewer bakers have launched commercial breads using these noncommercial ingredients.
As a result, French Meadow pools two unique sources together to help it research and develop new products. The first source is the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI), a nonprofit corporation that seeks to enhance Minnesota's farm commodities by offering technical services to various manufacturers. French Meadow employs the services of AURI and its specialist in cereals and nutrition, Charan Wadhawan.
Similar to its line of breads, French Meadow's product conception process also is unique. All of the bakery's ideas come from Gordon, who then works with Wadhawan on formulating a loaf incorporating the ingredients that will give the bread its necessary health component. After Wadhawan finalizes the formula, Simon begins testing the formula in a wholesale bakery setting. “It's a process of elimination and trial and error," Gordon says. “We'll taste four or more different formulas, and add different ingredients to change the taste and texture."
The odd couple
Besides AURI, French Meadow also uses the research and development resources of an unlikely source: Cargill. “At first, I was very opposed to Cargill because I had perceived them to be the evil empire, and the big guys with cigars," Gordon says. “We're an alternative company on the cutting edge, and I really didn't think Cargill was on the cutting edge."
However, Cargill has a large supply of soy isoflavones, an ingredient that French Meadow uses extensively in its bread products. Despite this seemingly good match, Gordon ignored Cargill's advances until one of the company's representatives used a bit of trickery. “After calling me about 40 times, Lee Knutson (Cargill's category manager) finally reached me because he caught me off guard by using a phone that didn't show caller I.D.," Gordon says. “Once I was forced to have a conversation-with him, he posed many questions that piqued my interest. He offered me a very good price, R&D support and his own support."
By pooling the resources of both AURI and Cargill, French Meadow has lined up a formidable research and development program, thus enabling it to stay on the cutting edge of bread production. To further its innovation, the company has launched Organic Concepts, a separate baking company that operates a bakery and research and development lab in Eagan, Minn., and is owned by French Meadow and ran by Nick McCreary. This new bakery will ease the capacity at French Meadow's bakery, which currently operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
According to Gordon, the French Meadow name did not transfer to the new facility because some of the products being baked at the new facility contain bakers yeast, a forbidden ingredient at the Minneapolis plant. The new plant also will help fulfill one of Gordon's goals. “One of my goals when I first started was to be the organic Pepperidge Farm," Gordon says. “I want to produce an entire line of products from bread to Texas toast to cakes."
French Meadow is slowly beginning to realize Gordon's goal as it continues to expand its offerings. The latest introductions to the bakery's stable of products are 100% Spelt Garlic Texas Toast, 10 Grain Spouted Parmesan & Garlic Texas Toast and Crusty Sourdough Garlic Bread. “These are products that have never been done before in the natural or mass market," Gordon says. “They are innovative in their category because they are organic and made with real butter. The new garlic breads also contain no trans fats and are non hydrogenated."
By continuing to innovate bread products that taste great as well as provide countless health benefits, French Meadow has successfully expanded from Gordon's kitchen into a wholesale bakery that has a nationwide presence in natural stores and conventional supermarkets. With a new bakery in Eagan and a 6,000-sq.-ft. expansion planned for the Minneapolis facility, French Meadow is poised to return bread to its proper place as the staff of life.
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