Tucked into the center of a low-slung and rather drab business strip on Olive St. in St. Paul, Saint Agnes Baking Company doesn’t exactly look the part of a neighborhood bakery. And, on a Saturday morning, there are no sweet butter pastry smells wafting out to greet passersby. For that you have to step inside, where a narrow hall opens up into a large production bakery filled, as unlikely as it may seem, with the pleasant chatter of bread-drunk people and the heady smell of flour.
Most days, the folks here have limited access to Saint Agnes’ breads, which are served at restaurants around town and sold at the Minneapolis Farmers Market. But, on the first Saturday of every month, the bakery pushes aside its heavy equipment and opens up its doors to the public.
“Saturday is the one day a week we don’t bake, so this started out as a chance to let people who like our bread come and see where it’s made,” says owner Gary Sande (pictured above with wife Dianna Sande). “Eventually, we added the tables and it became sort of an event, where people could try the kinds of specialized breads that you might find at a neighborhood bakery.”
From 10am to noon, the bakers give tours, showing kids how the equipment works — from stand mixers to bread slicers and a nifty little machine that ties the bags — and how bread is baked. Sometimes, there’s a local artist or craftsman selling goods and it’s not unusual to find Sister Rosalind Gefre dispensing chair massages.
In a previous life, Dan McGleno — Saint Agnes’ CEO, affectionately known as Klecko — was a comedian, and he says he runs First Saturdays like a stand-up routine. “People come for different reasons, for food, for love, but they want to be entertained, so I try to make it informative and fun — it’s always evolving, but you throw in a fiddle and a nun that gives back rubs, and it grows.”
The edges of the space are lined with tables and baking racks piled high with sweet and savory breads, pastries, and the occasional dog biscuit. For the curious, there are generous samples, each one helpfully labeled with a hand-drawn parchment sign, such as this one: “The Polish Bride — cranberries and honey wedded to a sunflower seed sourdough.”
“We try to maintain a balance, so about 50 percent of the bread is what people expect to see, like the St. Paul Sourdough,” says baker Lauren Allen, known around the bakery as Lorenzo (left). “The rest is fanciful stuff. The once-a-month stuff you see here, you might not see again.”
Fanciful might mean a beautifully formed loaf of crusty bread featuring chunks of pineapple or a jet black squid-ink and pumpkin-seed ciabatta featuring a rather interesting smell. The latter sold out, a testament to Lorenzo’s comforting belief that one should not bake bread for shock value alone — it also has to taste good.
“I want people to try things they haven’t tried before,” he says. “Not to make them uncomfortable, but to raise the bar on what’s possible — and because I’m really jazzed about what I’m doing here. It’s one thing to get a beautiful black sheen on the bread, it’s interesting, but it’s another thing to make it taste good, to get a really excellent flavor profile from it.”
Lorenzo says the specialty bread keeps people coming back to the bakery every month, but he hopes it also gets them thinking about bread in new ways. “Sometimes people ask me what they should try and I say, ‘What do you like?’ and they don’t know!” he says. “It’s easy to just accept what’s out there. If I can reassure them, get them to try new things, maybe they’ll learn what they like, what makes a good bread, and demand more of it.”
But for all that, Lorenzo will also say that when it comes to First Saturdays, the bread is almost secondary. Looking across the card tables of smiling people drinking coffee from styrofoam cups, it almost reminds one, in the best sense, of an old-time church basement social — a bread social if you will.
Lora Child (left) and Patricia Choffrut (right) sit elbow to elbow, loaves of bread piled in front of them. They have a long, circular history with First Saturday: Choffrut has shown her watercolors on previous First Saturdays, a connection she made through Child, who met the Sandes while traveling in France, of all places. And Choffrut is Child’s French teacher.
“Now,” says Child, “we mostly come to see each other.”
“I do try all the breads. Today I got the pesto with pine nuts, “ says Choffrut, who is also a French cooking and language instructor. “I’ve never had it before. It feels like the bread you get in France.”
“It’s a shame you can only eat so much bread,” adds Child.
“There’s really a small-town atmosphere here, I think that’s part of it,” Choffrut says. “You get a piece of paper if you have coffee and pastry, and then you pay for it at the door when you leave.”
“And the people watching!” says Child.
“There’s a huge variety of people: old, young, West Bank… ” says Choffrut.
“You can be completely anonymous or you can socialize with a stranger,” says Child.
“Today, I got here before 10 o’clock and people were lined up for the drawing,” says Choffrut. “Klecko was here, standing in front of everybody reciting some funny anecdote about dog bones, so it’s also theater.”
At another table, a gentleman of a certain age declines to provide his given name, calling himself Marvelous Marvin the Good Samaritan instead. Sister Rosalind introduced him to Saint Agnes, and he comes in from Lakeville for First Saturdays. “She helps me with my back,” he says. “I’ve got nowhere else to go when I’m sore.”
Today, the Hungarian Raisin Rye is his favorite. “Of course I come for the bread. How many other places let you sample the bread before you buy it?” he says. “I like to to visit with people — and I usually drop off a joke with Klecko. Do you know what an angry German is called? A Sauerkraut!”
There’s a lot of whimsy at work on First Saturday, but there’s also a lot of planning involved in pulling together a successful retail event and creating the right atmosphere, that certain something that makes people want to hang out in a large, nearly windowless production bakery of a Saturday morning. “It looks kind of thrown together, but everything is so calculated,” says Klecko. “It takes me an entire month to plan two hours, from the funny parchments to what Lauren and I are going to bake to outsourcing the ingredients and coming up with an overall theme to entertain people.”
In 30 years of baking, Klecko has entrenched himself in the Twin Cities bread community and taken Saint Agnes with him for much of the ride. In 2003, he founded the St. Paul Bread Club, which meets at Saint Agnes on a quarterly basis to talk about baking bread. Membership is free and anyone who can demonstrate a reasonable level of interest in the subject can take free baking courses. “And by interest, I mean, they have to show up at the sourdough class with a slice of something they baked — even a failed attempt,” Klecko explains.
In six years, the Bread Club has grown to 500 people and split into local “slices” that meet up monthly for bake-offs and field trips. Kim Ode, Star Tribune columnist and a long standing member of the Bread Club, recently published Baking with the St. Paul Bread Club, a collection of member recipes. Klecko contributed a section on how to start-up your own bread club.
Saint Agnes recently started selling bread at the indoor farmer’s market located inside Golden’s Deli, which is next door to the St. Paul Farmer’s Market. Next quarter, the St. Paul Bread Club will meet there, too. “Who wouldn’t want to give bread demonstrations in the middle of a farmer’s market?” asks Klecko.
“Every person who creates food lines aspires to a platforms like this,” he adds, returning to First Saturdays. “We put out the samples, people can compare the price to the ingredients, they can see it’s not a gouge, and they trust us — and we take that seriously. It makes me feel good that I’m building family traditions. You know, maybe someday there’ll be people telling their kids about that crazy Pollack baker that made the Hanukkah bread.”
Five years into First Saturdays, Sande says the event has helped the bakery shift its role in the community. As a wholesale bakery, Saint Agnes has always occupied the middle ground between the corner bakery and the big, corporate bakery. Delivering bread to various restaurants around town, they got to know the chefs serving the bread but they never got to meet the people who were actually eating it. “In the end, it has changed how we feel about ourselves,” he says. “The delightful thing about Saturdays is the contact you have with the people. It’s like being a neighborhood bakery, a place for people to rub elbows with each other — it’s always a good feeling to see people happy and energized.”
First Saturdays at Saint Agnes Baking Company
Saint Agnes Baking Co.
644 Olive St.
St. Paul, MN 55130
HOURS: 10am-noon, first Saturday of each month