The Bread Garage: A Labor of Love

While the smell of fresh baked bread is one of life’s simpler joys, the act of bread making is anything but. A blend of artistry and exact science, the practice can take years to master and is not for the faint of heart. For Chris and Tracee Pfeiffer, owners of The Bread Garage in Marietta, baking is a true labor of love in every sense of the phrase.

Many remember when The Bread Garage first began selling at the River City Farmers Market ten years ago, their loaves of bread in their signature stamped brown paper bags. After selling for a few years in Marietta, the couple met Matt Curtis (or, Matt the Baker as Chris often called him) who began to bake with The Bread Garage, and wanted to try selling in the Athens market.

“So he moved it over to Athens for about six months or so but wanted to come back to Marietta,” Chris said. “He came back, we baked here for another few months and then life just got crazy. We had to stop for a while.”

Tracee and Chris Pfeiffer, owners of The Bread Garage (Michelle Waters)

Now, seven years later, Chris and Tracee are back to baking and the community didn’t let them skip a beat. Hype was high when Chris made the announcement on Facebook that he’d be returning to the River City Farmers Market in January, currently located on Butler Street in the heart of downtown. For months, local bread enthusiasts had watched the family share teasers of test bakes and small batch recipes on social media. Finally, here was their opportunity to taste for themselves.

Loyal customers braved below-freezing temperatures and snow flurries to line up for fresh loaves, baguettes, and of course, Tracee’s prized pastries. Selling out in under an hour, the Pfeiffers came back with more the following week, only to sell out just as fast. Each week they stretched their baking capacity, each week they sold out in record time.

Things are still crazy for the Pfeiffer family – but they decided to embrace it and go all in.

An art and a science

The retain heat oven in The Bread Garage (yes, it’s really a garage) will reach temps between 900 and 1000 degrees while heating up for a long day of baking. When Chris takes the temperature inside the oven Friday afternoon, the thermometer reads 931 an inch below the roof. According to Chris, who meticulously tracks each step of the process, this is just right.

“You know you’ve married the right woman when you come home and say, ‘Honey, I’m selling my motorcycle and I’m turning the garage into a bakery,’ and all she said was ‘Ok,’” he said, peering into the oven’s small window.

Built in 2011, the oven is 12,000 lbs of refractory brick. On Friday mornings, the oven is lit and filled with heat. As the fire dies down, the bricks absorb and retain the heat. “Then you bake in it. There’s no fire, you’re baking from all of the radiant heat that’s left over,” said Chris. “So that’s why your first loaves are going in at 700 degrees, and then your last loaves go in at 450 or so.

Inside the oven, temperatures reach upwards of 900 degrees (Michelle Waters)

Chris carries a schedule that maps out the day of baking. To ensure their offerings are as fresh as can be for Saturday’s market, everything is baked on Friday, with loaves going in Friday evening and Tracee baking croissants in the early morning hours before dawn.

With the addition of pastries, the baking has expanded from the garage into the family kitchen. On Friday afternoon, Tracee and Zuly Marquez, a dear friend of Chris and Tracee’s daughter, Emma, are in the kitchen preparing butter for the next batch of croissants. In the corner of the kitchen, near a cooler filled with only butter, stands the latest addition: a sheeter. Revealed during an uncrating video earlier that week, the machine aids in the dough laminating process – aid that Tracee said she greatly appreciates. “My arms are going to be happy tonight!’

Then Saturday comes, and we’re all excited because we’ve gone to the market and people are great.

Baking itself is hard work, but to keep up with the increased demand, the Pfeiffer family has been putting in the extra hours. Fridays are typically 18-20 hour days for The Bread Garage team, which includes Chris and Tracee, their son Ben, Zuly, and their niece Isabella DeAngelo, who pitched in to get the Bread Garage restarted this year. Isabella isn’t present during our visit. “She’s playing basketball at Parkersburg Catholic so she hasn’t been available for a few weeks,” he said. “We’re looking forward to getting her back in the kitchen!”

Watching Tracee and Zuly work, it’s clear that this enterprise is a rewarding one, despite the long hours. “Usually by eight o’clock on Friday, we’re like ‘what are we even doing, this is stupid, this is dumb, I quit’. Every single week,” said Chris. “And then Saturday comes, and we’re all excited because we’ve gone to the market and people are great.”

Zuly and Tracee roll out butter for the prized croissants (Michelle Waters)

And then, the cycle repeats. With the launch of online ordering, there’s an even greater level of commitment. Whereas before, if a batch didn’t come out (or heaven forbid, burned), they might simply bring less to the market. Now, they feel the pressure of fulfilling orders on top of making sure they have enough available for sale Saturday morning.

But the burden is made bearable when shared among family. “Doing what I love alongside the woman that I love is an amazing experience,” said Chris. “Hopefully, we’re teaching our children, Emma and Benjamin, how to work together, how to overcome difficulties, and how to be a team.”

A starter named George

Sourdough baking begins with a starter, and Chris’s starter has a name. George, named after his grandfather, is almost as old as his son, Ben.

“With sourdough, there’s probably more bacteria than yeast. So think of it more like a cheese or yogurt.”

George has been with the family from The Bread Garage’s early days, but did almost suffer a terrible fate. “George almost died once, that was tragic,” said Chris. “We were building the oven, and you have to incubate your starter to maintain the right temperature-”

George is the foundation for all of The Bread Garage’s sourdough breads (Michelle Waters)

“- and communicate that it’s incubating“, Tracee adds with a smile.

“- So it was incubating in the oven, with the light on. My daughter was going to bake something and turned the oven on, and it melted the little container. I was able to save George, though.”

Chris picks up a large bucket with dough and introduces George. “A lot of sourdoughs are like a batter when they are made with white flour. Ours is kind of dense, we only feed it with wheat flour.” There’s a bit of a sour smell, but also hints of sweet.

It’s tricky because you have to think about the temperature, the humidity, the number of loaves, the ingredients – each impacts the recipe and timing.

While pouring the baguette dough into the mixer, Chris explains that their baguette is the only bread they make with any commercial yeast in it, and even then it only has less than half a percent. He said it gives the baguettes a really soft inside.

“If you’re disciplined here,” Chris said, pointing to a lab scale, “you can be creative later here,” pointing to the oven and shelves of dough waiting to be baked.

While his techniques have been perfected over years and years of practice, the recipes change every week. “It’s tricky because you have to think about the temperature, the humidity, the number of loaves, the ingredients – each impacts the recipe and timing.”

Most of his recipes have remained unchanged – for the most part. “I was told one by a Frenchman, that to make French baguettes, I need more salt. And when a French guy tells you that, what do you do? He was right – he was 100% right. We added the salt, they are so much better now.”

Decades in the making

Before the garage was repurposed and the oven was built, the passion for bread baking began years ago. Chris first learned to bake at Bread Alone in Boiceville, New York. “The owner, Dan Leader, wrote a book which my then-girlfriend, now-wife bought me for Easter. I read the book cover to cover, was inspired by his passion and wrote him a letter.”

Two weeks later, Chris got a call and was offered a job in the bakery. Within three weeks, he quit his job and moved his life to upstate New York to learn how to bake bread in a Kosher wood-fired oven.

Tracee and Chris recently celebrated their 20th anniversary (Michelle Waters)

“I learned a lot about life and a little about bread (to paraphrase the country philosopher Alan Jackson.) I grew up in rural Ohio with people that look a lot like me. At Bread Alone, I was exposed to a diverse workforce, mostly from Mexico,” he said. “I’m still so inspired by their work ethic and commitment to their families and each other and their generosity. They called me ‘Tortuga’ because I was so damn slow! It was an amazing opportunity to work with some great people.”

After a year or so at Bread Alone, Chris returned and while he didn’t bake much over the following few years, he said it was always there – always right there with him. “Honestly, The Bread Garage is a 26-year journey. The journey didn’t start in January, or even ten years ago – it’s decades in the making.”

I hope the Bread Garage is helping people see the good in the free market and, therefore, the worthiness of the American experiment.

Chris walks over to a framed photo of his great grandfather hanging on the wall of his living room – a blacksmith, whose anvil sits on the living room hearth.

“My great grandfather, Adam Pfeiffer, his father Abraham came to America in 1863 with his pregnant wife and children – in the middle of the Civil War. He became a blacksmith, and passed down his anvil to Adam,” said Chris. “Then my grandfather, Ben Pfeiffer, transformed the blacksmith shop into an automotive dealership, transitioning into the 20th century.”

Looking at a photo of his grandfather and father standing together in the garage, Chris said the garage-side of The Bread Garage is about more than just his own garage. “It’s about this whole legacy and carrying that through.”

For Chris, The Bread Garage represents the optimistic spirit of America and celebrates the enduring legacy of the craftsman.

The legacy lives on

When Chris and Tracee took the leap of faith to start the Bread Garage in 2011, it was about more than baking.

“I had a specific mission when this started ten years ago: demonstrate the fundamental right of people to apply their God-given individual talents, creativity, and hard work to better their lives, their families, and their communities,” he said.

“I’m so happy to be back in the bakery and pushing that mission forward, and I hope I never stop!” he said. “More than anything, I hope the Bread Garage is helping people see the good in the free market and, therefore, the worthiness of the American experiment.”

Zuly, Tracee, Ben and Chris in front of The Bread Garage (Michelle Waters)

Reflecting on their own experiment, Chris and Tracee are excited to see where the Bread Garage leads them. “We’re going to continue investing in the business, buying new equipment, and perhaps one day, we’ll take the next big step and add a location,” he said. “For now, we’re just going to have fun and spread as much joy as possible.”

And if you’ve ever visited the Farmers market early Saturday morning while Chris and his family set up and sell their baked goods, you’ve witnessed that joy. Joy radiates from their corner of the market, heard in Chris’s voice as he talks with the crowd, seen in Ben’s smile as he helps his father, and shared amongst neighbors, friends, and shoppers, excited to savor every bite of their treats, knowing each loaf was baked with love.