Virtuous Gluten

For 18 years, Beyond Bread has been serving from-scratch sandwiches, salads, and soups, quietly building a brand that goes beyond food.

November 11, 2016

Issue 21: November/December 2016Table

Beyond Bread is beyond a café—way beyond. The small business is nothing short of a local institution, and has been since it opened its first location in 1998. When Baja Arizonans move away, we miss its communal vibe and the breads’ earthy flavors. When we move back, as we so often do, we are thrilled to see Beyond Bread flowering, now with three restaurants and a pie shop scattered across town.

As I eat a Gordo’s Gorgonzola roast beef sandwich on rustic bread at the flagship location on Campbell Avenue between Glenn and Fort Lowell, I am reminded of the virtue of patience. The patience required of a chef to craft nearly every food item from scratch. Cashiers’ patience to accommodate customers who just can’t decide what to order from among the 30-some sandwiches—or maybe a salad, pasta, soup, or some of the richest macaroni and cheese I’ve ever tasted. I am awed by the patience it takes to explain the relative merits of the 20-plus bread types baked every day; by the patience required to answer scores of people asking, “What’s the soup of the day?” (There are always at least three soups to choose from, as well as a daily salad special or two.)

Randie and Shelby Collier have exercised significant patience and invested much love over the past 18 years, as they grew their dream of running a tiny bread and pastry bakery to a trifecta of bakeries with more than 200 employees.

Prior to opening the first location, Shelby worked in restaurants in Madison, Wisconsin, including apprenticing with a “self-proclaimed master baker” for a year and a half. He loved the craft but sought a new direction, which ended up being westward to Tucson.

The couple’s decision to start Beyond Bread here was by no stretch accidental. They did their research, comparing various similarly sized cities, and decided that Tucson represented a great opportunity for them. Independent bakeries were few at the time, Shelby’s parents lived here, and both liked the feel of the city. So they moved to Tucson in the heat of July, when they were both 29. They relocated halfway across the country, had their first baby, and opened the first Beyond Bread location, which was across the street on Campbell Avenue from today’s location—all within a year.

“The first week we opened, we were doing breads and pastries just to get started,” Shelby said. “We were planning to make sandwiches in a couple weeks, but [almost immediately] a cashier said to a customer, ‘We’ll make you a sandwich!’ So we started that day.”

Soon, customers were spilling out onto the lawn to eat. Within two years, they had outgrown their 40-seat space and relocated across the street to “increase production,” Shelby said.

Avocado, bacon, provolone cheese, chicken, lettuce, and tomatoes make for a mouthwatering sandwich.

Avocado, bacon, provolone cheese, chicken, lettuce, and tomatoes make for a mouthwatering sandwich.

And increase production they did. Shelby estimates that the three locations combined make an average of 1,500 sandwiches every day. The Speedway and Wilmot location has become the main production hub. Each store cuts its own vegetables and bakes a few of its own pastries, but the Speedway restaurant is the commissary where the meats and cheeses get sliced, the soups are created, and the dressings crafted.

Beyond Bread employees bake 1,000 to 1,500 loaves of bread daily, all on site at the Speedway location. Some varieties are always available, like the signature white, wheat, and challah, while others are available rotationally. Randie’s personal favorites are the pretzel bread, the brie and scallion, and the ancho chipotle white cheddar.

“We do as best we can for a large-scale operator making practically everything from scratch,” said Shelby.

The breads all share a recognizable underlying flavor profile and chew, partially attributable to the conditions in the kitchen where the loaves are baked. Most loaves are naturally leavened. They begin with a sourdough mother. The ovens are European. Bakers control the temperature of the water and moisture of the air, and the water hardness level seldom fluctuates.

The newest location, at Ina and Oracle, opened in 2010. “Instead of having two kids, it feels like we have five,” Randie said.

Two offshoots grow from the family tree: a pie shop and a catering business. The Colliers had some extra space directly behind the Speedway location and turned it into Back Dough, a little storefront bakery which crafts “small pies with ripe flavors,” Randie said. These include 22 daily cream and fruit pies, four seasonal pies, meat potpies, and quiches.

The catering business’ offerings are diverse, ranging from what the menu calls “behemoth” pretzel bread sandwiches cut into 25 generous pieces, to delicate tiramisu cake served on an edible chocolate plate.

Beyond Bread partners almost exclusively with regional vendors and suppliers: their dairy is from Arizona-based Shamrock Foods; they purchase from Stern Produce and pour locally roasted Arbuckles’ Coffee; Maya Tea provides their chai concentrate. Dinnerware is made by Tucson-based HF Coors. Arizona Lithographers does their printing; Signs Now makes their signs. As little as possible is outsourced, and as much as possible is recycled.

“We do as best we can for a large-scale operator making practically everything from scratch,” said Shelby. “Everything but the mayonnaise is made here in Tucson. We’re not just supporting the local businesses; we’re supporting 200-plus people. We don’t buy pastry filling. We really don’t want to ‘buy the bucket.’”

In addition to embracing the virtuosity of patience with homemade food and gracious service, Beyond Bread is widely known for its charitable contributions to the Baja Arizona community.

To start, every day each location donates its leftover breads to the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. Beyond Bread gives gift cards, raffle prizes, and auction items to local nonprofit organizations and causes. They host community nights, when a percentage of dinner proceeds go to fundraisers. Beyond Bread organized all the food vendors for the first Tucson Festival of Books in 2009, and continued to do so for five years. “We gave a lot of time, and our staff did too,” Randie said.

Behind the Speedway location of Beyond Bread, Back Dough is a little store front bakery which crafts “small pies with ripe flavors.”

Behind the Speedway location of Beyond Bread, Back Dough is a little store front bakery which crafts “small pies with ripe flavors.”

Cycling is Shelby’s personal passion, so the organizations Beyond Bread sponsors are mostly biking-related. They include the University of Arizona’s cycling team; El Grupo, which provides youth with bicycles and related education; and Cyclovia, the biannual festival that closes streets to cars so they can be used for nonmotorized movement instead.

“We really are embedded in the community in so many facets. We appeal to a wide swath of people—everything from kids to older people to families to college students,” Shelby said. “People love to come in and see each other. A variety of people are attracted to meet and converge here. People do business; they close on their houses here. They plan their next vacation.”

“We even did a wedding at the Campbell location for a couple a few years ago,” Randie said.

Beyond Bread embraces one more virtue: fortitude. The Colliers do not intend to give up Beyond Bread any time soon. “Part of being a business owner is giving back. We are grateful to the community as they supported us. Tucson has been good to us,” Shelby said. ✜

Angela Orlando is a cultural anthropologist who writes about the Sonoran Desert, indigenous foodways, cooking, and eating.

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