Batch Bakehouse, or Batch as they’re more commonly referred to, opened their doors at 1511 Willy Street in 2009 hoping to be the premier neighborhood bakery in town. Focusing specifically on serving a small but discriminating customer base and using only the best ingredients, Batch Bakehouse quickly became a go-to bakery in Madison. Now, Willy Street Co-op Owners are lucky enough to find these exceptional pastries and breads at both Willy East and Willy West.
On my recent visit, head baker and part-owner Ian Garthwait was skillfully finishing up kneading and shaping a late-afternoon batch of baguettes while pastry chef and part-owner Lauren Carter formed pastries across the table in the somewhat cramped kitchen. Behind Lauren, the traditional pizza ovens that have been repurposed for the bakery’s use are a reminder of the building’s former life as Picasso’s Pizza. On classifying their bakery, Ian says, “We’re an artisan bakery and we try to be eclectic so we wouldn’t call ourselves an Italian or European Bakery, but when you say New American Bakery, a lot of people would think spongy white bread and M&M cookies, so while a lot of our pastries are French, a lot of them are American too.”
When they opened a year ago, Ian and Lauren were the sole bread and pastry producers. Their success, however, has enabled them to employ nine additional staff, some full- and some part-time, to assist in the kitchen and operate the retail shop. And, as it’s always worth noting, their full-time employees enjoy paid health care and dental insurance as a part of their benefits package.
The story, according to Ian, goes that Ian Gurfield (Madison entrepreneur and owner of the original Ian’s Pizza on Frances St.) was visiting Portland, Maine, and happened upon a local bakery called Standard Baking Company. It was so beloved by its many patrons that when Gurfield returned to Madison in 2007, he began seeking partners to open another Standard Baking Company or a similar bakery. When the owners of Standard Baking Company got the call from Ian Gurfield asking them if they would consider opening in Madison, they declined but instead handed the phone to their baker, Ian Garthwait. Ian had recently announced to his employers that he was preparing to move to the Midwest in the coming weeks. Ian Garthwait made it to Madison and is, in addition to acting as head baker, managing the administration of this small, locally owned business. And, having returned to Madison from San Francisco to work with Batch, Lauren Carter supervises the daily production of the pastries and, as such, has the final word on quality control for their eclectic mix of croissants, cookies, and other delicacies.
Neither Ian nor Lauren says they necessarily thought they would open their own bakery, but as Ian says, “Ian [Gurfield] is pretty good at helping people realize what they’re good at. He has this great skill in overall organization and lining up the right people to get the job done. I don’t know if I would have started a bakery otherwise. I’ve never owned a place and it’s very much a learning experience.”
Though the owners of the bakery take a very conservative approach to growth, Ian admits knowing they’ll eventually need to expand. For example, the croissant dough production, which requires three days, was recently eased by the addition of a reach-in cooler, but this also meant sacrificing space for other tasks. Another tactic used to control the growth has been the decision not to purchase any advertising for the bakery so far. They rely solely on word of mouth. In doing this they feel they’ve been able to keep pace and not stretch themselves too thin.
Lauren and Ian agreed that simple, high quality and local ingredients, are key considerations for their products. He says, “Our mind is towards quality and doing what we have to do to get there.” But he also says, “Our focus on local is more on our customers and getting to know them. We’re a neighborhood bakery; we’ve set our sights higher, but the first thing is to get to know the people who walk in the door and be the place where anyone can stop in and get something great.”
The indulgent Monkeybread has become a favorite for many of their customers, including many of Willy Street Co-op’s staff. One avid fan at the Co-op recently explained, “They’re cinnamon-y sweet with a buttery pastry, and the frosting is the perfect complement to the bakery underneath. It’s like the best part of a cinnamon roll in every bite.”
A number of Lauren’s filled croissant creations follow seasonal cues, inspired by what can be foraged from area farmers’ markets. Batch also purchases meats from nearby Jordandale Farms, eggs from New Century Farms, and cheese from Farmer John. And, Ian reports they’re looking for sources for local flours, but like many area bakers, the have had little success in finding growers or millers capable of producing the volumes they need.
Another favorite is their delicious bread. On making bread, Ian explains, “With bread it’s very, very simple. It’s four ingredients—flour, water, salt, yeast—and it could be pretty horrible or it could be very, very good.” To make Batch’s breads he pre-ferments a starter of water, flour, salt and yeast for several hours. Next, the bakers begin mixing the dough at 3:00pm each day. The following morning at 3:00am, the dough is ready to shape, and baking begins at 4:00am. Not long after, a small portion of the baked bread is delivered to Willy Street Co-op and the rest is sold out of the retail area of their building.
In these times, it’s not every neighborhood that can celebrate not one but multiple independently owned businesses springing up around them. While in so many parts of the United States, neighborhoods are losing access to local businesses; Willy Street in Madison continues to be reinvigorated by the entry of new and creative food producers.
For more information about Batch Bakehouse, see their website at: www.batchbakehouse.com or find their fresh products in the Co-op’s bakery and bread aisles.