It is an auspicious day for the Bread Poet, yet one like any other, and by 8:30 a.m. he has already been at work for a couple hours, taking care of paperwork, helping his first crew set up for the day’s production and prep for the day’s rush. Jon Lee is short handed this morning, September 15, 18 years to the day after he opened Bread Poets, whose motto, “Where bread is an art form,” informs this morning’s work, because, like for any poet, the art is in the process.
And so this morning, he stands at a large, rectangular wooden table and helps make what will be the second bread produced this day, the Poet’s White, which right now is 32 pounds of dough, weighed, calculated, and placed into a round molder, which shapes and cuts the dough into loaves, which are then put back onto the floured table and flattened by hand. A bun-sized piece is added to make a larger loaf, which is again run through a molder, rolling the loaf before it is again shaped and kneaded by hand, brushed with an egg wash and placed into pans.
His employees, Lee indicates, feel he is a bit militant about the process, but baking for retail is about producing the exact same product day after day, and the time, the weight, the temperature are all factors that can be controlled and replicated.
Bread is bread, he says, it’s like pizza joints. There is a similarity but a difference in the end, and Lee is always striving for improvement, in the systems, in the recipes, in the product: a fresh, stone-ground whole-wheat artisanal bread.
Dressed in a Bread Poets ball cap and polo and wearing a white apron, Lee fits in with his employees in the bakery, though his six-foot two-inches and solid build betray the three-sport high school athlete who won a state title for Bottineau in javelin as a sophomore and who was recruited to NDSU by track and field coach Don Larson.
Lee credits his time at NDSU for really teaching him a work ethic. It was all about the team, he says. “That is where I really learned to work at becoming better, to work as part of a team.”
It is a sentiment that Larson, who has been the head coach of the Bison track team for 37 years, echoes.
“I can’t say that Jon was a conference champion,” recalls Larson. “But he was always consistent, always dependable on teams that in the late eighties were deep in javelin, throwers who were often placing first through fourth in meets.”
Indeed during the years Lee was throwing for the Bison, they began a run of 13 consecutive outdoor titles (1987-99) in the North Central Conference.
After competing for four years, Lee left NDSU in 1990 with a bachelor’s in mass communications - public relations, a minor in business, and no plan. He fell into a PR job with a bread company in western Montana that franchised whole-wheat bread bakeries, and soon he was working on the business end and training franchisees.
In 1993, while waiting for a franchise opportunity in Montana, which ultimately fell through, Lee moved back to Bismarck, where he eventually took a job with Hertz Car Rental. In 1995 he transferred to Rapid City, South Dakota, to manage a location there. While on a trip to Hertz corporate headquarters in Utah, during which Lee hit up a couple Ogden-based bakeries, he had an epiphany. He asked himself what he really wanted to be doing. And the answer kept coming down to opening his own bakery in Bismarck.
Lee credits his experience in Montana to opening his eyes to the possibilities of a bread company in Bismarck, he says, but it was his time with Hertz that really prepared him to start and operate his own business. He explains that although the company had tight controls, they were also hands off in terms of letting managers run their own stores, an experience that was invaluable in preparing him for starting and running his own business.
He spent about a year working on recipes for what would become his wheat and white breads and that he initially wanted to call the bakery MoHos after the molasses and honey that he was using in the bread. He laughingly explains that it took him quite a while to realize what a truly awful name for a business that was.
It was after a late-night viewing of one of his favorite films, “Dead Poet’s Society” he started designing courtesy cards with the logo “Bread Poet’s Society.” It took him about a week before he realized that Bread Poets as a name better captured what he wanted to do as an artisanal bread shop.
That seems a lifetime ago, he says. “We were kind of winging it when we started. Since then the base recipe has changed at least 20 times. The base systems have changed another 20. Through trial and error the product we make is dramatically different than it was to begin with, but it has been gradual, and I am not sure if the customers who have been with us over the years have even noticed.”
His Poets Wheat recipe is the formulation that all the other breads they make are based on, and he tests new recipes and product in the afternoons after production. Like Purple Heart, which he describes as an AnthoGrain™ bread high in anthocyanins, which are natural flavonoids that are antioxidants and are responsible for the red, purple and blue hues in flowers, fruits, vegetables and grains. Or Rocky Mountain, which includes the super foods red quinoa and hemp in its recipe.
“What I love about the process is taking a number of raw ingredients and working with your hands and creating something tangible, something greater than its sum,” Lee says. “And today we are pretty sold out, and tomorrow we start again. In this business you make the product, hopefully the customer buys it. You see the end result.”
So on this morning the Poets White has moved into the ovens, Lee and his bakers are starting on Hawaiian buns, and soon he’ll get called away to fill a catering order from their sandwich shop Sonnets, which is attached to the bakery. Then it will be on to making challah, a traditional, Jewish braided bread. For the Bread Poet, the art and the process continues.
— Shadd Piehl
Photos: Layn Mudder