The story of Duluth’s Best Bread is the story of the city’s contemporary food revolution, writ small.
You’ve got young blood (brothers Michael and Robert Lillegard, who are 25 and 30 respectively); you’ve got urban renewal (a bakeshop established in the former Cake Occasions spot in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood); and you’ve got an artisanal product (bread, croissants, and sweet rolls made by hand).
The Lillegards themselves are anything but typical bakers. Robert (who runs the business side of things but stays out of the kitchen) is a freelance author who contributes regularly to The New York Times, and Michael has a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Minnesota Duluth.
“Coming to the end of undergrad, I thought: What kind of job do I want?” says baker Michael Lillegard, speaking while portioning out dough into loaf-sized balls on a recent Friday afternoon. “So I went to grad school so I wouldn’t have to think about it for another year and a half. I wanted to be a college teacher, but I didn’t want to get a Ph.D., so I wouldn’t be a professor. My advisor said: ‘No, you’re not going to do that [be an instructor]. That’s a waste of talent. You’ll be bored out of your mind.’ I took that to heart. …”
Meanwhile, Michael’s casual, backyard brick-oven baking with his father was going great guns, focusing on bread and pizza. Michael’s lack of interest in taking a desk job, combined with Robert’s interest in running the “business” parts of a business, created a synergy that set the stage for the founding of Duluth’s Best Bread, which has been up and running in its current form since late 2015.
“I found I love the business side of things and strongly trusted Michael as a business partner,” wrote Robert via email. “He was always better than me in sports and school, so I knew he’d be a good entrepreneur. I didn’t actually care what business we did. In fact, while waiting for our baking licenses, we had a brief and disastrous foray into selling martial arts weapons over the internet. It’s good that as brothers we trust each other and are close friends.”
The booming state of local and artisanal food in Minnesota has been a backdrop to the bakery’s founding and growth.
“There’s an increasing interest in eating things produced locally,” says Michael Lillegard, with whom we continued our conversation. “People like walking into a place where the people are from here, and they work here, and they’re making everything here, and it’s got a high quality of artisanship.” The Lillegards’ bread can be picked up at their shop, but its local provenance and artisanship is helping it get around town, too. It’s available at a variety of local markets, and their sweet treats get out to places like At Sara’s Table, Red Mug, and Beaner’s Central Coffeehouse. The bakery goes through about 400 pounds of flour a week.
The shop’s bread has a crust that’s crisp and substantial without being impenetrably tough, and it has an interior that’s fairly dense and mostly uniform without having the insubstantial, monotonous appearance or taste of factory-made bread. Cold fermented and made with wild yeast, the bread has a distinct flavor and character, but it’s not particularly aggressive or assertive — it’s a good high-end utility bread. The shop’s cranberry (well, craisin) and wild rice bread is a modest variation on the theme. The mild nuttiness of the rice and the widely scattered tang of the light sprinkling of craisins represent a conservative evolution of the basic bread’s character.
Duluth’s Best Bread shines most ostentatiously through its croissants, which are pure dynamite — their crispy, crackly, multilayered exteriors are a sheath for a rich, buttery, moist interior. The shop’s chocolate croissants use first-rate chocolate from the Minnesota chocolatiers at Meadowlands. The chocolate has a bright, almost fruity character and a moderate amount of sugar that turns what could be a novelty croissant into a surprisingly refined experience.
“[The chocolate] fits really well with the pastry. As you know, croissants aren’t really a sweet, they’re somewhere in between,” says Lillegard. “[The pastry] is buttery, so it goes really well with sweets, but it also works really well as a sandwich.”
If the croissant were less excellent, we would have objected to the relatively modest stripe of chocolate running down one side of the pastry, but as it was, the bites without chocolate were just as pleasing as those with it.
And the cinnamon roll that we sampled was a gorgeous specimen, lightly iced, cinnamon-forward, delicate in texture, and large without being grotesque. (For the record, we think that grotesque can work, too — see Naniboujou Lodge.)
The context for Duluth’s Best Bread is a neighborhood that boasts at least two other leading exponents of regional flavor.
“Duluth Grill and Bent Paddle [Brewing] … set the stage for us coming here,” says Lillegard. “There’s this building of a culture. … Since they built the interstate here, this whole neighborhood has been, to some extent, vacant. So it’s a rebuilding of what once was a business district.”
Although the shop’s footprint is small at the moment, it’s a distinct part of a scene that Lillegard sees as rapidly expanding. “It’s like my yeast culture: You inoculate it a little bit, and you don’t really see anything going on, but a little bit later it just — PSSHT — blows up.”
Duluth’s Best Bread, 2632 W 3rd St, Duluth MN; 218.590.5966. 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Thu and Sat; otherwise at locations including the Hillside and Denfeld Whole Foods Co-ops, Stokke’s Adolph Store, and Gannuci’s Italian Market