It’s Not About the Bread

Barrio Bread’s Don Guerra does more than bake slow-fermented, heritage-grain artisan breads — he also cultivates “belongingness.”

March 7, 2015

FeaturesIssue 11: March/April 2015

Don Guerra works alone. He spends 70 hours a week baking bread in a two-car garage-turned-bakery. His process is slow—the life cycle of a loaf is 24 hours—but his work is quick. He mixes flour into dough, shapes dough into loaf, bakes loaf into bread—time after time, 750 loaves a week. He has the build of an endurance athlete and baking 750 loaves a week—alone—is an endurance sport.

Sunrise or sunset? Don Guerra makes every loaf of Barrio Bread in his home's garage, which has been converted into a bakery. He's often up at 4 a.m. or baking until midnight.

Sunrise or sunset? Don Guerra makes every loaf of Barrio Bread in his home’s garage, which has been converted into a bakery. He’s often up at 4 a.m. or baking until midnight.

Don Guerra works with people—with farmers and millers, teachers and students, with Arizonans and with bakers from across the world. Twelve hundred people regularly buy loaves from Guerra’s Barrio Bread and he knows all but a handful of their names.

Guerra has one employee supporting his work. He founded Barrio Bread in 2009 and ran it as a one-man show until 2011, when he hired his first employee, Ginger Snider, who now works eight hours a week helping with packaging and distribution.

Guerra has a community supporting his work. When the 44-year-old baker shows up at markets, customers rush over to his van to help him unload baskets full of bread. Two of his neighbors volunteer as delivery drivers. Others help him distribute at markets. “A huge part of my success and how I can get so much bread out there is that people want to be a part of the process and lend a hand,” he says.

Guerra works quickly to make slow-fermented bread, rolling out baguettes and shaping loaves.

Guerra works quickly to make slow-fermented bread, rolling out baguettes and shaping loaves.

Don Guerra is a community-supported baker—almost every loaf of bread he makes has been pre-ordered online; he is a baker literally powered by consumer demand. Without a brick-and-mortar storefront, he sells his bread at four schools, one farmers’ market, at the Tucson CSA’s Tuesday and Wednesday pickups, and at River Road Gardens.

Shaping a loaf of bread.

Shaping a loaf of bread.

Guerra is supported by a community that buys his bread—and Guerra supports his community by envisioning a future for local food that extends far beyond bread. “The bread is a vehicle to connect community,” says Guerra. “To get people to be proud of where they live and invested in their communities.” He pauses. “I guess I say ‘community’ a lot.”

Originally from Tempe, Guerra moved to Tucson to study anthropology at the University of Arizona. He dropped out after his junior year—“I ran out of money”—and moved to Flagstaff where, by chance, he got a job working the night shift at a bakery. “My first day there, I fell in love with it,” he says. “And that was it.”

He bounced around bakeries, learning from the best and honing his craft. He ended up at Arizona Bread Company, where he baked at night and took business classes at the community college during the day. The business plan for his first bakery was a school project. “I took it to a bank and they said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this,’” he says.

Guerra was 26 years old when he opened the Village Baker in Flagstaff. Business boomed—“We were doing a thousand loaves a day,” he says. One of those loaves was usually claimed by a graduate student named Jen. “We’d chit-chat,” says Don. Eventually, Don and Jen started dating; eventually, she’d move with him to Ashland, Oregon, as he opened a second Village Baker and she finished her master’s degree in special education. By then, Don had all but stopped making bread, consumed instead by running two bakeries in two states. “We realized that if we wanted to have kids, we needed to figure out a business model that was more conducive to family,” he says. “We missed Arizona. We missed our families. So we said, ‘Let’s go home.’”

In Tucson, Guerra took a break from bread, enrolling instead in the University of Arizona’s College of Education. “I realized that with the bakeries, all I did was teach. I’d trained over a hundred people,” says Guerra. “It was so fascinating to learn about pedagogy, about meta-cognition—learning how people learn.”

He got a job at Miles Elementary teaching math, health, and physical education—in 2009, he was named Arizona’s Elementary Physical Education Teacher of the Year. But he couldn’t stay away from bread. “I loved teaching but the whole time I was dying to be a baker again,” he says. “That was how my wife and I met, and I wanted to be that person again. I thought, If I could just get back to that place, it would all come together.”

So he started making bread on the side; he started selling loaves in the parking lot after school. That model—selling bread at school—would eventually become a central part of Barrio Bread’s business plan. “I chose accounts that fit my lifestyle,” he says. “I designed a business after my life instead of my life after my business.”

Guerra says that he loves to connect with the community through bread. Weekly deliveries out of the back of his van are just one way he stays connected.

Guerra says that he loves to connect with the community through bread.
Weekly deliveries out of the back of his van are just one way he stays connected.

Today, Guerra bakes bread in the garage of his midtown home—the sweet smell of yeast and grain wafts out the front windows, permeating the air to the street. (The bakery is licensed under Arizona’s Home Baked and Confectionary Goods program.)

Guerra’s day begins at 4 a.m. He bakes until 7 a.m., when he takes a break to wake up his son and daughter, 10 and 12, and get them ready for school—and then it’s back to the bakery, back to the flour, dough, and solitude. “It gets wonky in here sometimes,” he says, smiling and covered in flour.

On Fridays, the day before he sells 200 loaves at the Plaza Palomino farmers’ market, he works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., takes a break to eat dinner with his family, sleeps for a couple of hours, and is back in the bakery by midnight. The obvious question—“Do you sleep much?”—gets an obvious answer. “No,” he says, simply. “I’ve never been a big sleeper.

“The thing I like about baking is the physicality of it. It requires physical and mental endurance, plus art and science.”

The bakery is warm, not hot—76 degrees, year-round. Guerra slides eight Barrio baguettes into the Italian oven that anchors his operation. It’s a deck oven, he says, peering across the 500-degree stone tiles to check on the bread. An exhale of steam lingers around the loaves.

A student at Second Street Children's School snags one of Guerra's “Epi” breads, shaped to look like the head of a wheat stalk.

A student at Second Street Children’s School snags one of Guerra’s “Epi” breads, shaped to look like the head of a wheat stalk.

The bakery smells like memory—like the first kitchen you remember; the first restaurant where you earned your first paycheck. It smells like bread, of course, but what does bread really smell like? Yeast and Sunday; honey and home.

“What goes into bread is a lot of intangible things,” says Guerra.

Tangibly, what goes into bread is flour, water, yeast, and salt. Bread begins with fermented dough and Guerra’s dough begins fermenting by way of a sourdough starter. Made of flour and water, a sourdough starter is how bakers capture and propagate wild yeast; most artisan bakers have what’s called a mother culture, which they take from every time they bake, feeding and growing the culture to source the yeast needed for a batch of bread.

After he cultivates his starter, Guerra combines several flour varieties—say, Red Fife, White Sonora wheat, and Hard Red Spring—into a batch, along with water and salt. The dough “rests” for four hours, which is when it comes to life, as the yeast are activated and start munching through sugars and exhaling carbon dioxide into air pockets—the very process that gives bread its lift.

At this point, the dough is a bundle of creamy smoothness—it is a discrete thing, one you can pick up and shape. Guerra shapes the dough into loaf-sized portions and, after another hour of room-temperature rest, the dough goes into cold storage to proof for another 15 hours before it’s baked. “Slow fermentation—that’s where you get all the benefits,” he says.

Indeed, unlike with commercially produced bread, which goes from flour to loaf in as little as two hours, slow fermentation is the hallmark of artisan bread. During extended fermentation, an enzyme is produced that breaks down phytic acid, a nutrient blocker present in the outer layer of bran that can prevent a grain’s nutrients from being absorbed into the body. Long fermentation develops flavor and texture; it creates a stable pH and increases shelf life. Hours of fermentation allow yeast and other bacteria to break down gluten—the protein that gives dough its elasticity—into smaller components that are more easily digested.

Lines form wherever Guerra appears.

Lines form wherever Guerra appears.

“The process is everything,” says Guerra. “People have been eating poorly processed grain. I could take a semi-decent grain and turn it into a great loaf because of my process.”

The fermentation is slow; the transformation, sudden. Flour, water, salt, yeast. Flour water salt yeast. Flourwatersaltyeast. Bread. Disparate ingredients cohere into one sustaining unit. It is poetic. (Pablo Neruda: “Then life itself will have the shape of bread, deep and simple, immeasurable and pure.”) But there is also something so not poetic, not abstract nor artistic, about a loaf of bread—it is one of the most tangible things there is. Don Guerra is an artisan baker, but he is also just one producer in a web of producers that make up our local food system.

I see Don’s entrepreneurial capacity as extending beyond Barrio Bread,” says Matt Mars, an assistant professor in the UA’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. “He has a vision for the whole local food system, one based on collaboration and community.” Struck by this vision, Mars spent two months interviewing Guerra, summarizing his findings in a case study called “From Bread We Build Community,” soon to be published in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.

“From a purely entrepreneurial perspective, what’s brilliant about Don’s model is that he never has inventory. He always knows how much to make, and how much is going to be sold and who is going to buy it,” says Mars.

Students jump into action to help him unload his van. He often pays volunteers in loaves of bread.

Students jump into action to help him unload his van. He often pays volunteers in loaves of bread.

Another brilliance is folding fickle customers directly into the business—which, in turn, embeds the business in customers’ lives. Rather than buy an artisan loaf once in a while, when they’re in their “artisan bread phase,” says Mars, customers return to Barrio Bread regularly—“it’s part of their routine. They’ve met Don, they get how he works, so they value the bread more.” It’s precisely this sense of value that Guerra is trying to export to other facets of the local food system—the value he’s working to collect and cohere into a local food identity.

“Local food systems tend to struggle with this, bringing cohesion to a system and a supply chain that is otherwise fragmented and not very well articulated,” says Mars. “Don is a connector, a hub. That’s a special ingredient in a local food system—someone who can transcend their own business to understand that the local system is stronger when competition is put aside. Someone who can pull everyone along the supply chain together under a common vision that is relevant to the community.”

A supply chain is a narrative—it has a beginning, middle, and end. Seed to farm, grain to mill, baker to buyer.

“When you open the garage door to his bakery, it’s palpable—you see the beginning, middle, and end,” says Pizzeria Bianco’s Chris Bianco. “The bread comes from wheat that comes from a good place and good people.”

Since Guerra met Chris Bianco in 2012—since Gary Nabhan first introduced him to White Sonora wheat; since he met Jeff and Emma Zimmerman of Hayden Flour Mills, Steve Sossaman of Sossaman Farms, and Brian and Ralph Wong of BKW Farms—he’s become an integral part of a collaboration between farmers, millers, bakers, and seed savers working to bring native and heritage grains back to southern Arizona farms and tables. As farmers have learned how to grow heritage grains and millers learned how to process it, Guerra has had to figure out how to make bread from that which is harvested locally.

“The challenge in working with local wheat is variability,” says Guerra. “We all learned about it together. What can you do with this variety? Well, let’s try it and see what it does.

“Every bag of flour is different,” he says. “Baking with local grains offers some good life skills. If you push too hard on something, it’s going to push back. If you push too hard, it’s going to shut down.”

Guerra estimates that 100 of his 750 weekly loaves are made with local grains. Part of the challenge is the price point—Guerra is committed to providing his community with affordable food, which means he has to take the loss when he prices a loaf of heritage grain bread at $5.50. (He hasn’t raised his prices from $4 to $5 a loaf in four years, even when the price of a bag of high-quality organic flour has more than tripled since he started baking.) “I’m growing a strong root system, so that when I need to change, the community will be there for me,” he says.

Chris Bianco made every pizza he served at his famous Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix for 17 years. “There’s a vulnerability there,” says Bianco. “Say you’re a professional athlete. There will be a day that comes when you won’t be able to run as fast and jump as high. How can you still serve your craft? What will you leave behind?”

For Guerra, the answer is education. He teaches community baking classes and weekend workshops for adults; he worked with Avalon Organic Gardens to help them develop their bread program; he teaches seed-to-loaf classes at Tucson Village Farm for kids. (“There are always two kids out of 60 who are going to be bakers,” Guerra says. “They come up to me at the end of class and say, ‘I’ve figured it out.’”)

Bright light, local bread: Guerra is all smiles after a morning lining up loaves in the bakery's storage carts.

Bright light, local bread: Guerra is all smiles after a morning lining up loaves in the bakery’s storage carts.

“I want more people to make a good loaf themselves,” he says. “And I want the business to grow organically. If I can get more people making good bread, maybe they’ll come back and work for me someday.”

Guerra has traveled across the world to teach other bakers about his business model—the idea of a community-supported baker is exportable to other communities, he says. The idea of entrepreneurial leadership driving food system change is replicable in other locales.

But for now, when he’s at home, Guerra focuses on the craft. For now, he loves the solitude. As his kids become independent teenagers—as they move out of the house and into the world—he’ll think about doing the same. For now, “I love that my hands are in every loaf,” he says. “When I’m in here alone, I can really just laser focus on the craft.”

It’s all about the bread. And it’s not really about the bread. It’s about the craft—but really, it’s about the community. “I want to be a village baker in all senses of that term,” Guerra says. “People want to belong. I want to do more than just live here—I want to belong. The local food movement makes me belong to a local tribe. Maybe that’s why we’re so fanatical about it. Taste, sure, but belongingness.”

“I might make a loaf with Hayden’s Red Fife,” says Guerra, “and it smells like dirt, like soil, like dust. It smells like Arizona.” ✜

Megan Kimble is the editor of Edible Baja Arizona. Follow along on Twitter @megankimble.

This article appeared in Best Food Writing 2015

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