Raising the bar on ingredients - Grand Central Bakery

Grand Central Bakery

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Raising the bar on ingredients

Buy it right: Piper Davis finds the very best farm-grown ingredients for Grand Central's kitchen.

Buy it right: Piper Davis finds the very best farm-grown ingredients for Grand Central’s kitchen.

Q. You’ve worked hard over the years to make sure the bakery’s ingredients are sustainably grown. What are you most proud of?

A. In general, I’m proud of the fact that we’re not complacent. The job is never finished. We’re always learning about and exploring new and better options (for farm-raised ingredients) that have better production standards and hopefully competitive pricing.

Q. What is something customers might not know about Grand Central’s products?

A. The diversity and number of producers we work with to buy ingredients. We’re dealing with eight to 10 row-crop farmers and buying all kinds of specialty products such as berries and rhubarb from independent producers.

Some of our best kept secrets might be our line-caught tuna, which is fished off the Oregon Coast and processed locally by the folks at Sacred Sea. It’s younger, smaller Pacific Albacore that’s low in mercury, sustainably caught and absolutely delicious.


From field to kettle: Locally grown greens are ready to stir into soup at the commissary kitchen.

Q. A lot of people think that local producers are the best source of top-quality sustainably grown food. Are there exceptions to that rule? Why might we, for instance, bring in meat from farther afield than the Willamette Valley or Seattle area?

A. There is a balance between where something is produced and how it’s produced. Over time, I’ve come to weigh both of those components separately. Sometimes the local product is the most sustainable. Other times it’s produced in a more conventional way that isn’t in alignment with our values. Meat in particular presents a real challenge, because while there is an active and vital beef and lamb industry in the Northwest, both pork and chicken production is very conventional. To find those progressive producers who can meet our scale and price point, we’ve had to look to places such as California and Iowa.

Q. What rules guide food purchasing at Grand Central?

It’s a puzzle to piece it all together, and there are no absolute rules.

We try to buy our wheat flour from farmers using sustainable practices and doing it in our region. I don’t want to serve any meat from animals that were fed sub-therapeutic antibiotics or hormones.  Also, we avoid GMOS as much as we are able to given the lack of labeling.

Our eggs used for baking need to be free range and cage free, and we raise the bar for the eggs for egg salad and breakfast sandwiches: these come from chickens that spend the majority of time on grass – not  just cage free, but also pasture raised. For row crop vegetables and fruit, we prioritize buying directly from local farmers – there’s such an abundance of good producers in the region.

Fruit for pies and pastries rotates with the seasons.

Fruit for pies and pastries rotates with the seasons.

Q. Why not buy only products that are certified organic? Wouldn’t it be simpler?

A. Certified organic is a great bar and a nice clear distinction. However,  it’s not always the answer, it’s generally more expensive, and quite often, it’s not local. Michael Pollan talks about monoculture organic – it’s not as bad as nonorganic production, but it’s still corporate agriculture. At Grand Central, we want to purchase from farmers who own the land, work the land they own and live off the land.

Q. The word sustainable can be confusing. What does it mean for Grand Central in terms of ingredients?

A. It means that we buy products that are grown, raised or caught in a manner that either leaves the land in better shape or at least in as good of shape as before. The growing system sustains itself and the land is left as healthy or healthier than when the farming started.

Q. What are your favorite ingredients right now coming out of the kitchen?

A. Well, it’s summer, so everything tastes better. We had a simple vegetable soup at the bakery recently that was a mixture of onions and summer squash and tomatoes, and it just tasted so fresh and amazing to me.The berries are outrageous right now – we’re using them in pies and hand pies, in our fresh fruit coffeecake and on our frangipane tarts.

I can’t wait for local, ripe tomatoes  – we make a fabulous BLT.

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BLTs, made with Niman Ranch bacon, arrive on the bakery’s menu when local tomatoes are ripe and juicy.


Q. Speaking of BLTs, where does Grand Central get its bacon?

A. At this moment I am proud to say we serve Niman Ranch bacon that comes out of Iowa. It’s an example of the complexity of purchasing – Niman has a commitment to certain production practices that I believe strongly in. There are no producers at that scale in the Northwest who also share those same sustainable production practices. And, maybe most importantly, the Niman bacon is really delicious.

Q. Which production practices are you talking about?

A. For pork, it’s really important that an animal be able to root, nest and  express its natural instincts. Depending on the climate, they should be living outdoors (if it’s not too hot or cold) or in deeply bedded pens. There should be zero use of farrowing or gestation crates (which confine the mother and separate her from her young) and no use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics. For me part of humanity with animals is letting them be who they are meant to be.

Q. With seven cafes in Portland and three in Seattle plus a large wholesale bread business, how does Grand Central Bakery manage to work directly with a lot of local farmers instead of a few large food wholesalers?

A. We have a hub-and-spoke model of bringing all products into the commissary, making delicious fresh food out of it and then delivering it to our cafes. That makes it efficient for farmers because they’re able to drop at one location. Also, we are conservative with the margins we expect off our menu items and we look for savings in other places in the organization, like doing our own laundry and  taking on our own mechanical  work. These things allow us to afford a little higher food cost than the average quick-service restaurant.

And the local products, the good products – anything that’s raised without hormones or antibiotics in the meat sector, a local vine-ripened tomato in season – are going to cost more. The industrial farmer is always going to be able to grow and process a tomato for a lot less money than a small-scale farmer can.

A fall special, the Salmon Sandwich features local vine-ripened tomatoes and Bristol Bay Sockeye.

A fall special, the Salmon Sandwich features local vine-ripened tomatoes and Bristol Bay Sockeye.

Q. Ingredients are once a personal passion for you. Now you’re working on a larger stage with Chefs Collaborative. What’s that all about?

A. I’m a board member of the national organization. Our mission is to provide opportunities for chefs to network with each other in order to improve their purchasing practices and their skills in the kitchen.  Through that work, we hope that those chefs set a good example for the greater culinary community, and inspire more sustainable purchasing across the food landscape.

Chefs Collaborative is focused right now on issues around antibiotic use in animals and not allowing the Pebble Mine to happen in Bristol Bay, Alaska. But in general, we want to get food professionals in the same room and share information and skills so that eventually these practices, instead of being the exception, are second nature.

Everybody wants to do the right thing. It’s just that our system is stacked against it. So we all have to get into a room together to figure out how to gin the system.

Q. It’s unusual for quick-service restaurants to buy directly from farmers. Is there anything customers should expect to encounter at a Grand Central cafe, given the unpredictable nature of farming?

A. Well, we hope they’ll encounter crazy delicious food. On the other hand, when you’re dealing with seasonal ingredients, you only get to have certain things at certain times. So the upside is the incredibly delicious BLT, and the downside is you can only get that incredible BLT for six weeks out of the year.. Also, there are seasonal variations in some products. For example, we buy salad greens from local farms, and the greens that grow in the fall aren’t the same that grow in the summer or the winter. Sometimes that’s confusing for customers because they’re used to that bag of Earthbound Farm greens that are the same year-round. Those greens are the result of monoculture, of an agriculture factory, as opposed to our greens, which are the result of a farmer with 10 different species he is growing, trimming, washing and mixing.

Rustic Whole Grain, a newer loaf, uses locally grown and milled whole-grain flours.

Rustic Whole Grain bread uses a variety of stone-ground flours from local grains.

Q. Local wheat is getting some buzz in artisan baking. Does Grand Central Bakery use local wheat flour?

A. It all depends on how you define local, whether it’s the so-called foodshed (which extends east to Idaho and north into British Columbia) or the Willamette Valley. All of our flour comes from wheat grown in the Northwest; our unbleached white flour is from the Shepherd’s Grain farmers cooperative in Eastern Washington. If you’re talking about the new local wheat economy, which refers to using some of the land in the Willamette Valley to grow food instead of grass seed, we are fully supportive of it. Our new Rustic Whole Grain loaf is 100 percent whole grain and features Yecora Rojo hard red wheat grown in the Willamette Valley. We buy all of our whole wheat flour from Camas Country Mill in Eugene – we were one of their first customers. They work with local farmers, much of their land is transitional from conventional to organic production, and they’re just really nice people who we like to support.