Celebrating 20 years in business, with its latest cookbook hot out of the oven, Metropolitan Bakery, Philadelphia, delights in baking delicious breads and creating incredible pastries, popcorn and granola, among other foods. Since 1993, its artisan passion and craftsmanship have driven its growing production volumes using as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. Though the company ships products throughout the country, its flagship location and bake shops allow Philadelphians to enjoy tempting baked goods, as does its recently opened bakery cafe. 

 From its classic artisan cracked wheat, multigrain and raisin nut loaves, organic miches, pumpernickel, focaccia, muffins, rolls and baguettes to its healthy,

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award-winning, whole-grain granola, Metropolitan Bakery, Philadelphia, has lived by a mantra for 20 years that it describes as “the art of old-world baking.”

One of the first artisan bakeries to start up in Philadelphia, Metropolitan is led by owners James Barrett, who is the chief baker, and Wendy Smith Born, the retail/wholesale manager. The two friends take the time to do things the “old-world way,” because they wanted crusty, hearty, spectacular breads that can only be made by artisan methods, Barrett says. One taste, and it’s clear: Metropolitan sure knows how to bake top-notch products.

To say that the bakery doesn’t take shortcuts is an understatement. The dough often takes two days to create, as it’s mixed, hand-shaped and signed before being left to rise in flour-dusted wicker baskets in cool, dark rooms. Only after this long, slow, cool rise are the loaves ready to be baked in steam-injected, stone-deck ovens from France. Once they are cooled and packed, the breads are delivered immediately to Metropolitan’s four bake shops, specialty stores, hotels, Philly’s best restaurants and bread lovers across the country.

“We care about the quality of our ingredients, about the process, which is very labor-intensive, and about making bread the artisan way,” Barrett says. “Many of our items are made by hand. Take granola, for example. We use the most flavorful maple syrup from Vermont we can find. We select ingredients by tasting them and try to buy them as locally as possible.”

It’s a painstaking process that requires patience, but the reward is worth it. The proof is in the unrelenting devotion to quality. “Each type of bread has its own schedule,” Barrett points out. And that’s just the beginning of how the many thousands of artisan breads are created each day. The rich loaves have crackling mahogany crusts and nutty, soft, aromatic interiors that can easily be mistaken for old-world breads from Europe.

All of the products are trucked from Metropolitan’s main production facility in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood to its four local bake shops in the city and to the Home Page Café, the city’s collaborative effort that assists formerly homeless individuals in finding and keeping housing as well as multiple outreach and job programs.

The hearty flavor and complex texture of Metropolitan’s pastries, rolls, muffins and other items rival most baked goods from Europe. The breads are featured on the bakery’s website, and can be ordered online and in a “Bread of the Month” subscription. The many items have also been showcased in O, the Oprah Magazine; Saveur; Gourmet; Family Circle; and Martha Stewart Living, among others, as well as featured on NBC’s Today show.

Today, Metropolitan is a Philadelphia institution, with 75 employees, 45 of which work at the bustling 10,000-sq.-ft. artisan production facility. The online business is brisk, as is the wholesale business. The granola is available in several Whole Foods Markets across the country, while the popcorn and other confections are sold in specialty stores throughout the region and across the U.S. “We also have four truck routes and work with a jobber that distributes things further out of town,” Born adds.

In addition to the four bake shop locations, Barrett and Born recently opened a cafe next to the flagship bake shop in Rittenhouse Square. The two friends are also involved in a variety of special interests, including a nonprofit art gallery for artists who work in the food industry. And to celebrate their 20 years in business, Born and Barrett just published their latest cookbook, called 20 for 20—Twenty Recipes Commemorating 20 years, available in its bakery shops and online. The book, like the bakery, exemplifies Metropolitan’s artistry. Barrett even bakes bone-shaped, all-natural dog bones, sold singly and in eight-packs.

For the love of food

“I got into this business basically because my family is very food-oriented,” Barrett explains. “One side is of Italian heritage, so we’re really into food.”

Early on, embarking on his career, Barrett explored various options, but says he kept going back to his “true love of food.” After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he studied in the south of France at theÉcole Francaise de Boulangerie d’Aurillac, where he was inspired with European quality and where his artisanal baking began. Later, he worked as pastry chef at the popular White Dog Café, an organic restaurant in Philadelphia’s University City committed to serving local, seasonal ingredients from farms that practice sustainability. “That’s where I met Wendy,” he remembers. The two became friends and decided to go out on their own.

Born was in academia before deciding to work at the White Dog Café. “We were there for quite a bit of time,” she says. “I was always very interested in food and worked for a nonprofit called Share our Strength in Washington D.C. But the corporate world and the commute weren’t for me. That’s when James mentioned that he was thinking about opening up a bakery and approached me. I wanted to be involved in another small business, so immediately agreed because we had a great friendship.” 

What’s artisan?

When Metropolitan Bakery opened, breads made with all-natural starter, a long-slow-cool rise and crackling crusts were unusual in Philadelphia and across the country. The terms “artisan” and “locally sourced” weren’t yet associated with bakeries. “There were three bakeries that you could call artisan back then,” Born recalls. “We were all more or less doing the same thing, but our model was one I think everyone ended up switching to as the others began by baking at each of their bake shop locations, which is very expensive and involves a lot of training. We started out with one commissary that serves each location, which helps as you add locations. The other bakers ended up moving to larger production plants with retail offshoots that they truck product to. In Philadelphia, real estate is so expensive in the areas the bread is sold, I can’t see how you could do otherwise, realistically.”

The day Metropolitan opened, there was a line to get in, Born remembers. “And it wasn’t really the day we were supposed to open,” she says. “But a food writer who had tried our bread knew of us and knew of the work James did at the White Dog Café, so mentioned in the paper that we were opening on Nov. 3. Actually, we weren’t supposed to open until Nov. 11, but a crowd formed, so we put a rack up and sold bread until 6 or 7 p.m. It was a very good sign.”

Just three years after starting up their bakery in a cramped space on Columbus Boulevard, Barrett and Born relocated to Marlborough St. in Fishtown. “We ran out of space within about five months,” Born says. “We underestimated how much space we needed, and we needed it fast.”

The production bakery still uses four natural starters, fed from the day the bakery opened: White; wheat; spelt; and rye. These have been maintained since the days when chief baker and owner Barrett worked at the White Dog Café restaurant. Yeasts are fed a mixture of flour, water and catalysts such as mashed bananas, raisins or even Concord grapes, and for two weeks, become a mixture living on a diet of breakfast, lunch and dinner that ferments, becomes bubbly and pleasantly sour-smelling.

“We have had the starters and the initial culture, the foundation for all of them, for about 26 years,” Barrett says. “The starters were originally created at the White Dog Café. They will outlive all of us. I baked all of the bread for the restaurant, and that’s where all of my [baking] experience started.”

Barrett says he and Born are especially proud of the breads. “They’re influenced mostly by European processes, in general—not just by the French, though I studied there. It’s old-world for sure, because it’s based on old-world techniques, but there are bits drawn from German, Italian and French influences. We make 40 different types of bread throughout the year and 18 to 20 different types on a regular basis. We also bake many more products for the bake shops, such as a lot of pastries, refrigerated products, muffins, popcorn and granola.”

A popular bake shop item is Metropolitan’s Top Crust Pies, which showcase a whole-wheat pastry crust covering and a tasty savory filling, usually vegetable-based. The pies are sold in takeaway containers labeled with heating instructions. Pastries, scones, Danish, croissants, brownies and a full line of breakfast items, as well as tarts, macaroons and cookies abound at the bake shop, which also features a French-style cannelle, a fluted treat with a sugary exterior and soft custard-like interior, baked in tiny copper molds for authenticity.

What sells the most? “In breads, it’s the French baguette, which is the most popular and universal,” says Barrett. “But the multigrain and whole-wheat sandwich breads are also up there. We also make a good San Francisco sourdough. But what sells well at retail doesn’t always sell in wholesale. At the bake shops, the croissants, cannelles, muffins and scones are probably our lead breakfast items, and the Danish and cookies sell well.”

Granola groove

Another favorite is the baked granola, which has been part of the product line for 19 of the bakery’s 20 years, Barrett mentions. Sold online and in specialty shops and select Whole Foods Markets, the baked All-Natural Granola comprises a substantial blend of crunchy oats and grains and toasted nuts, laced with maple syrup and perhaps some chocolate bits and a hint of coffee or sundried berries. The handmade granola was awarded “Best in the U.S.” by Epicurious.com. It’s packed in attention-getting, flavor-coded, standup pouches with resealable zippers and clear viewing windows. Flavors include Coffee and Chocolate Chip, Original, Pomegranate Cinnamon and a new Gluten-Free/Dairy-Free version that is “selling quite well,” Born says.

“We just can’t keep it in the stores,” says Barrett. “Granola was our first foray into packaged items that we sell nationally. We decided to pack it in the standup pouches after switching from clear plastic bags because it needed a sturdier package that would protect it from breakage and extend its shelf life (six months to one year). It really has a following—we ship a lot of granola.

“As time went on, we added more flavors. We then started making popcorn and added the gluten-free granola because of the demand for gluten-free products. We make sure that we’re adhering to all of the gluten-free standards and have them checked periodically.

“We launched our popcorn about three years ago,” Barrett continues, acknowledging that experimenting with different products and flavors is a fun sideline for him. “I had a craving for candy corn, and just went into the kitchen and started making it.” The popular flavors include rich Bourbon Infused, Spiced Peanut Butter and Stout with Smoked Almonds, the latter of which is made with a stout from a local brewery. All of the granola is sold in the same reclosable standup pouches emblazoned with the black-and-white Metropolitan Bakery logo.

Ideas come from everywhere

These days, Barrett is inspired to create new bakery treats based on a suggestion from Born, someone at the production facility or a customer. “Otherwise, I draw inspiration from reading, from travels, from my cravings—ideas come from everywhere,” he says. “I love to experiment. While I travel, so much of my inspiration lately has come from the U.S. and not from Europe.”

Born says that may be surprising, but the economies in Europe are faltering. “The last time we went to Paris, we felt the depressed economic situation,” she says. “We tasted the bread there and didn’t think it was as good as what we do, and that’s not how we remembered things there. Some of the breads just weren't as good as they used to be. We’ve actually had people come to us and say, ‘Your bread’s better than what we had in Paris.’”

The U.S. bakery industry has really come into its own, Barrett believes. “Parisians aren’t consuming the baked goods and baguettes there that they once did,” he says. “A lot has changed there, it seems. It’s very expensive, and there’s very high unemployment right now.”

Metropolitan’s single Marlborough Street production location remains the bakery’s sole production site. “We produce 3,500 to 5,000 pieces a day, depending on the season and on orders,” says Barrett. The 10,000-sq.-ft. facility produces enough product to truck to the five shops, hundreds of wholesale accounts and granola and popcorn customers. There’s one room for mixing, proofing and shaping the bread dough, another room for baking and a separate pastry room where muffins, Danish, fruit bars, rolls, tarts, granola, French cannelles, focaccia, cookies, tarts, popcorn and many other delicacies for the bake shops and café are made.

There’s also a warehouse area with room for dry-ingredients storage on one end and bread packing, delivery andstaging on the other. There are two large walk-in proofers where the all-natural starters are fed. Above the first floor is a multi-room administration level.

Healthy baking is part of Metropolitan’s focus, but it won’t cut corners. “Yes, we’re trying to make healthy products, but if you want to eat a good croissant or a great cookie, and it’s not made with great butter and other great ingredients, then why bother?” Barrett says. “I experimented with making a whole-wheat croissant and we just couldn’t sell it. No one wanted it. People looking for croissants want the real thing, so we try to make things healthy and use local grains when they’re available. The spelt berries we use for our spelt bread are grown on a small family farm right outside Philadelphia.”

Looking to what’s next

Born feels she and Barrett have really been blessed. “There were times when we weren’t exactly sure we’d survive,” she admits. “I didn’t think about it because on one hand, 20 years passed very quickly and on the other, it went by very slowly. But at the beginning, it was really crazy. Anytime you start a new business, you never know what’s going to be involved. You think you know what to expect, but you really don’t. And even now, it’s still difficult.”

The bakery doesn’t really have much competition in the area, because it’s too expensive to start a bakery. “It’s too costly to do what we did,” Born adds. “It’s not particularly profitable here [in Pennsylvania], and the overhead’s huge for a bakery like this.”

In addition, bakery concepts are changing, Barrett points out. “Marketing the products is different now,” he affirms. “Today, there are cafe bakeries going up, and pizzerias with bakeries and the artisanal café and sit-down restaurant/market is popular. The word artisan is no longer as meaningful as it once was because it’s used on everything, so we often refer to what we do as handmade products or hand-forged.”

As for the road ahead, Barrett hints that the two bakery owners are starting to diversify, as they’ve been very involved in several philanthropic projects over the years. “We’re at a point in our careers where we’re interested in feeding our personal interests,” he says. “Wendy comes from a very artistic background, so what we did was to open the [nonprofit] art gallery.” Dubbed Metropolitan Gallery 250, the gallery allows emerging artists to show their work and is supported by the local food and business communities.

“We also opened up the café a year ago, so we could extend James’ great chef and pastry chef expertise,” adds Born. “This gives him a way to express his baking creativity. We prefer to create the trends rather than follow them. We’re doing it all. We follow James’ palette more than anything else and just reach for the stuff we’re interested in. We’re lucky because we’re at a point in our careers and lives where we can do some of the things we want to do.”

The pair’s goal is to make more new shelf-stable products, add another granola flavor in 2014 and perhaps do something with pizza, which they have been making for years. “We get requests to open more locations all the time, but real estate here is so expensive that we’re trying to weigh things,” Born says. “There are so many residential areas that need cafés, we may open more of them. We’ve been at baking a long time, so as James says, we want to look at our own interests and see what we can do.”

Barrett and Born say they’re most proud of the many products they make, and that they’re still standing after 20 years, yet they each have the energy of five people. “I’m definitely proud that we’re still here after 20 years. It’s amazing,” Barrett says, adding that despite it being a hot trend, he will not be jumping on the cronut [combination donut and croissant] bandwagon. “No way,” he laughs.