On any given night, servers at fine dining restaurants in Denver, Colorado bring hot, fresh bread to their guests’ tables. Typically, these high-end restaurants rely on dedicated bakeries to provide the artisan loaves, rolls, baguettes and buns for their everyday operations. This is where the Grateful Bread Company comes in.
In 2007, husband and wife duo Kathy Mullen and Jeff Cleary started up their own commercial bakery, the Grateful Bread Company. After outgrowing their first space, they now rent baking space in Golden, Colorado, from which they bake bread for many fine dining restaurants around Denver.
Kathy and Jeff started out with very little money and equipment. In the beginning, they worked out of a tiny space and had only a few small accounts. However, their dedication to producing an outstanding product and providing exceptional service has served them well. Their quality product is no longer a secret, as they provide bread to several prominent Denver restaurants and hotels, including the Ritz Carlton, Luca D’Italia, Table 6, Elways, and Z Cuisine.
Jeff bakes special sweets like sticky buns for the Farmers' Market.
The two make a great pair. Kathy works in the office to organize the daily orders, run financial reports, take special orders and set up new accounts. She also takes samples of their breads and delivers them to Denver restaurants to encourage greater awareness of their product. Kathy has a keen sense of organization and care for her customers, traits she has gained from a colorful work history. She once worked in a scuba shop in the Cayman Islands. After that, she spent some time in Alaska working as a wildlife biologist. She has held different clerical positions as well. She even hopes to publish a novel someday. For now, she is never far from her business phone and the bakery, where her husband Jeff spends the majority of his time.
Jeff’s story is very different. Growing up in Minersville, Pennsylvania, he began his culinary journey at age 13 upon enrolling in a culinary arts program. At 16, his parents helped him open Cleary’s Bakery, his very own bakery business, out of an old train station in Minersville. Long before he had graduated from high school he gained acceptance to Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts in Providence, Rhode Island.
His three-year vocational degree and years of experience gained him a position at the prestigious Hyatt hotel in Atlanta, where he was promoted to Chef Tournade before he even turned 21. Eventually he went on to open his own restaurants in Denver, one of which was declared one of Zagat’s America’s Top Restaurants while it was still in operation. Jeff now bakes exclusively, creating countless breads, pastries and other baked goods through his and Kathy's joint venture, Grateful Bread.
Jeff learned the bakery trade at a young age. “It was a trade then. It wasn’t what it is today... it’s a lifetime trade. It’s not something you learn in a year,” he says. “It’s something you build over a long period of time.” Jeff has incredible talent and experience as a baker, but he also loves cooking. “[I] would like to go back to that someday, while still continuing to bake,” he says.
“Perfection is something that, while you can’t ever achieve it, we’re always striving for it.”
To Kathy and Jeff, a keen awareness of their customers' needs is essential to their growth. “I just think it’s really important to just get people what they need, and I just treat the customers the way I’d want to be treated,” Kathy says. She is dedicated to sampling out their product and making new contacts every week, but never pushes people or makes false promises about quality. The two stand behind their work completely. Everything is handmade with incredible attention to detail. Jeff strives for perfection in every job, going so far as to throw away an entire batch of bread if something comes out slightly wrong. Kathy says that Jeff is known as a perfectionist. “Perfection is something that, while you can’t ever achieve it, we’re always striving for it,” she says.
Croissants for sale at the Cherry Creek Farmer's Market
Every Saturday during the warmer months, Kathy brings a selection of breads and pastries to the Cherry Creek Farmers’ Market in Denver, which has helped build awareness about their brand outside of the wholesale market. Although the Grateful Bread Company does not have a traditional retail storefront, Kathy is happy to sell bread to people who come by their bakery, but only when they happen to have extra bread on hand.
“Usually we don’t make a lot extra. Since our labor costs are so high, we have to really watch our costs everywhere else,” Kathy says. Although they employ three bakers to work in the bakery, Jeff often works 70 to 80 hours a week to meet deadlines. He sometimes sleeps at the bakery if he is preparing for an especially busy weekend.
“I usually get here, depending on the day, between two-thirty and three-thirty in the morning, and we work until we’re done,” he says. “It’s thirteen-hour days, fourteen-hour days some days. Eleven or twelve hours is a short day.”
One of the ways Grateful Bread reduces its labor costs is by restricting the areas they serve around Denver. “We try to offset some of the labor costs—since we are so labor intensive, doing everything by hand—by just having a really tight delivery area. We’ll deliver to downtown, Highlands and Cherry Creek. We don’t go to the Tech Center or north of Denver so we don’t spend all that gas and labor with driving.” Kathy regrets turning down business in those areas, but hopes that someday they will have the ability to serve a greater portion of the city.
Jeff Cleary rolls out bread dough in his bakery on a daily business.
One of their newest clients is Mangiamo Pronto!
, an up-and-coming Italian restaurant in the LoDo neighborhood of Denver. Enrique Guerrero, head chef and co-owner of Mangiamo Pronto, elaborates on why he chose the Grateful Bread Company as his bread supplier. “When [Kathy Mullen] brought her bread, I [thought], the last time I tried bread like that was when I was in Italy,” he says. “No doubt, we went through them. I decided within five minutes of tasting [their] bread.” Enrique says that some restaurants prefer to make their own bread rather than go through an outside bakery, but at Mangiamo Pronto!, he feels that buying bread from the Grateful Bread Company allows him peace of mind without the extra labor. “If you want to make your own bread, I think it’s a great idea. But, it costs you a lot and it’s a lot of work. We don’t have the location to do that. We don’t have the kitchen. So, we decided to go with the best [bakery], that’s the reason we picked [Grateful Bread].”
Jeff works with Enrique and all his chefs to create customized breads for each restaurant. This allows every menu to showcase something special. Jeff performs rigorous tests and trials to be sure he can develop a viable, consistent formula for each new type of bread.
“I write the formulas as we need them, depending on what it is. Sometimes it takes more testing for some doughs than others…it took seven or eight times to get [the 14-grain bread] right,” he says. The ciabatta bread is probably the most popular, but their red quinoa bread is a new favorite, especially at the farmers’ markets.
“The red quinoa bread…that one is so popular,” Kathy says. “It has a nutty flavor and it’s a complete protein so it’s real healthy.” With whole wheat flour, quinoa, and a little honey, this bread has a unique and appealing flavor. Kathy says she can barely keep it from flying off the shelves.
“We feel really fortunate to have some great customers who are as committed to quality as we are and who appreciate the effort that goes into producing a consistently high-quality product.”
Jeff takes great pains to make sure he produces a consistent product. “Throughout the year we have to do different mixing procedures with temperature control,” he says. “The biggest thing is controlling the internal dough temperature.” Every time the weather changes, he and his bakers monitor the temperatures of the flour, the air and the water to be sure the internal dough temperature comes out correctly.
A baker works in the Grateful Bread Bakery
Jeff pointed out that there is a difference between a recipe for a loaf of bread, and a formula for large-scale production. “The Baker’s Percentage will give you say, X percent of flour, X percent of the starter, X percent of salt, and X percent of yeast. It’s a formula,” he says, referring to his precise measurements. “With a recipe you can take a little extra salt...you can change things. With a formula you can’t do that. You can’t put extra salt in it. It affects the end product.”
Every type of dough requires its own mixing procedure and its own starter—a bread base usually containing yeast. Jeff’s systems are impeccably organized to ensure the consistency and reliability their restaurants count on. “Our customers are always saying that our bread is consistent…we’re all about the quality and making sure it’s a good product,” Kathy says. “We feel really fortunate to have some great customers who are as committed to quality as we are and who appreciate the effort that goes into producing a consistently high-quality product.”
Jeff oversees daily production of up to 800 loaves of bread. A light day is only about 300, which still requires ten to twelve hours of labor. In a week alone they go through about 2,000 pounds of flour. They deliver bread twice a day, six or seven days a week using a converted refrigerated truck now lined with shelves for holding loaves, buns and baguettes.
Crusty loaves of bread cool on racks at the Grateful Bread bakery
Most of Kathy and Jeff’s customers are local restaurants that have constant, standing orders to fill their daily needs. Jeff says that this is one thing that differentiates a wholesale bakery from a retail bakery. “We know exactly what we’re going to do every day because of the orders,” he says. “With a retail bakery, you don’t know what you’re going to sell.” They keep a daily production sheet as well as an update sheet, since they get special orders daily. Some types of bread, like the pullman loaf breads, take a few days’ to prepare and deliver, since they need extra time to cool.
Jeff advises people interested in baking to get a job in a bakery. “Decide if you like it first, because it’s a lot of work,” he says. “If you enjoy it, then you can go to school or you can pursue it different ways to learn your trade.”
Kathy agrees. “People think it will be fun. They imagine baking in Grandma’s kitchen or something, and it’s not. It’s hard work.” Baking requires long hours and intense physical labor every day, but Jeff appreciates being his own boss, and they both find joy in the work. “We try to do everything we can for our customers,” Kathy says. “I think we’re building a solid business. Our hard work is paying off, and it’s gratifying.”