Michel Suas is a teacher, and bakers across the United States are his students. The James Beard Award winner founded the San Francisco Baking Institute (SFBI) in 1996 with his wife Evelyne. In 2008, they opened the retail bakery Thorough Bread & Pastry, whose artisan products are crafted by professional bakers that have graduated from the Institute.
During the pandemic, Thorough Bread & Pastry is learning daily how to adapt. Their most successful lesson came from an employee. He suggested that they start selling baking supplies such as flour, yeast, and sourdough starters at the outset of the stay-at-home order.
This intuitive idea coincided with a bread-baking craze that has swept the nation. At the beginning of the pandemic, grocery store shelves were ransacked for flour and yeast. In fact, flour sales were up 155% for the week ending March 28th, and baking yeast sales clocked in at up to 457% for that same week. When locals in the Castro District found out that their favorite neighborhood bakery was selling these items, they were delighted.
“The baking community has been growing in the neighborhood. People will come by and show us photos of what they’ve made [with our baking supplies],” says Miyuki Togi, instructor at SFBI and temporary manager at Thorough Bread.
This same community is what inspired her career in baking. “People are always very generous and want to share information and knowledge,” she says. In 2006, Ms. Togi started as an intern at the SFBI, and she was one of the original bakers when Thorough Bread opened two years later. When she heard that the bakery did not have enough personnel at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, she stepped in to assist in a managerial role.
With the help of Ms. Togi and the rest of the Thorough Bread staff, the bakery has adjusted to San Francisco’s new normal and maintained its reputation as a community-oriented establishment. The exquisite bakery sells artisan breads and pastries. The menu has expanded, offering baking supplies as well as take home soups, salads, and lasagna-making kits. The changes have provided more work for the staff, which Ms. Togi celebrates as a way to keep more bakers employed. “Taking risks is important! Unless we try, we don’t know if things will work or not.”
As could be expected of a bakery run in part by a school, Thorough Bread approached the pandemic methodically. It tested many different menu products to find what customers liked, and what they didn’t.
It is in the business’s blood to take risks. Co-founder Michel Suas, a native of France, started baking at age fourteen. After becoming the head pastry chef at a Michelin Guide three-star restaurant at age twenty-one, he and Evelyne took their talents west and road tripped around the United States before settling in the Bay Area in the late ‘80s.
San Francisco in 1987 was undergoing a “bread revolution,” during which what is now commonplace artisan bread claimed its seat at the table. Pioneered in large part by Berkeley-based Acme Bread, the revolution had an important European consultant: Michel Suas. Mr. Suas worked with many top bakers in the early ‘90s who were keen on the artisan bread movement.
His consultantship expanded in ‘96 with the founding of SFBI, at which students can take five-day or weekend workshops, as well as a longer professional training program. Mr. Suas also wrote a textbook, Advanced Bread and Pastry: A Professional Approach which he hopes will become the industry standard.
It is clear that Mr. Suas is passionate about bread, but even more so about sharing that passion with others. Although the pandemic has thrown a few curveballs at Thorough Bread & Pastry, it has enabled the team to help expand the baking community. In these uncertain times, there is so much left unknown. However, San Franciscans can be certain that Thorough Bread will continue to provide flour, yeast, and a community to share the highs and lows of your sourdough baking experience.