Ask any restaurateur and they'll tell you that it isn't easy to build a business that can withstand the test of time, especially in a market as notoriously fickle and fractured as Dallas. When someone can manage to overcome economic uncertainty, the whims of the public and bad luck to keep their establishment open for a few decades, it usually means that something wonderful lies beyond their doors. There is no place in town that this assumption is more true than Empire Baking Company.
In the 21 years that Meaders Ozarow and her husband have operated their bakery, the food scene has changed dramatically. As food trends marched toward a simpler, less chemical-laden future, places like Empire had been keeping it simple since day one. I sat down to talk with Ozarow about how she's seen Dallas and its consumers change in the last 20 years, the gluten-free craze, and America's unique array of delicious baked goods.
Empire Baking Co. has been around for 20 years, so you've seen a lot of changes in both consumers and food trends. How have things evolved since you opened?
It's interesting for us because we started 21 years ago doing something that I thought had value based on the way that I grew up. People's tastes have changed only in that people are becoming more educated. They're reading the labels, paying attention to their diet, and looking for the best of whatever they're looking for. I read about a big commercial bakery making the conversion to unbleached flour in their recipes, and they were raving about how amazing it was that they didn't even have to use a chemical to make it white. We were doing that 20 years ago.
The only thing that is making that happen is people looking at the labels of the foods they buy and being conscious of what they put into their bodies. I feel like commercial bakeries were trying to scam the public into thinking that they were eating "artisan" bread when they were trying to make bread faster. I just saw the other day that they're now selling "sourdough flavoring." It all kind of seems disingenuous. We started out being honest and just doing what we were doing. The restaurant business has always been more oriented toward that kind of good quality product, because they were already baking everything anyway, but our consumers started really getting into that after all these diet fads made people cognizant of what was on the label. We're selling more wheat bread now than we used to, but we're still selling more white. But it's closer than it used to be.
Has the gluten-free craze, something that a lot of chefs and restaurateurs complain about, affected your bread-only business?
We don't do gluten-free. I am super-respectful of people who make dietary choices for their health and people who know their bodies and what works for them. But, we do what we do. If someone comes to us and asks me, I always have a few suggestions that I'm happy to recommend. For my money, Udi's gluten-free rolls from Denver, Colorado is one of the best gluten-free rolls.
You have to realize that we went through the '90s and the low-carb trend. But bread is a 10,000 year old food. People are going to eat it. But I'm certainly not going to say "oh, it's silly to not eat gluten." There are people who are have Celiac disease, others who have allergies, or whatever. They should be able to find good baked goods, but that's just not our thing. Do I think the gluten-free craze is oversubscribed? Probably. But there are people who are going to be helped because of it. It won't completely go away.
What about the way that wheat is farmed in this country and the GMO craze? Is that having an impact on your products?
At this point in time, wheat is just a monoculture. There's no variety in terms of seed diversity. This is actually good for us, because it's going to force people back to heritage grains. There's some thought that the way that we've fiddled with wheat that could be causing all these issues with intolerance. We want to be able to source these heritage grains and bake with them.
Right now, we're being forced into just a few options. We've used King Arthur flour for 21 years because we know that they're sourcing the best of the best, but ConAgra comes to me all the time to tell me that they've got the same thing. But they don't. You're ConAgra, and that's just not the way you think. We are getting some wheatberries from Montana that we've been grinding in house, and that's something that we would have never been able to get when we first opened. No way.
Are there other fads that you've felt pressured to jump into, like cupcakes or cake balls or whatever?
Sometimes we step in and offer something that's trendy, like cupcakes. We did a few, but they didn't sell incredibly well for us. People were going to specialists for those things. Sometimes we dabble, sometimes we don't. I'm personally crazy for madeleines right now, but I don't really see them fitting in here. We have to stay true to our school, and I don't think people expect to come to us for that. We're not French, that's not really our thing.
What do you think people in Dallas want when they go to a bakery?
People here are getting more sophisticated. The great thing about social media and the internet and all that comes along with them is that everything is accessible. This is going to come out wrong, but my mother was one of the more sophisticated people in my hometown of Abilene, and that was because she was paying attention to things in culture and subscribing to the right periodicals. Now, anyone who is visual can find amazing art and food and whatever else with a few clicks and not have to worry about subscribing to the right magazines or going to the right art openings. People now have so much more access to ideas, and that has only made Dallas more sophisticated. And that also means that the concepts are more sophisticated here now, too.
Empire isn't a French pastry shop. What made you decide to stay away from the staggering monolith of French pastry?
We fight it a lot. Because good butter, yard eggs, and good flour are the basis of French pastry, we have a little overlap. When we started, I had been to France and I love the culture, but I'm not French, and I knew I couldn't do that. I had to do what I knew, and that was brownies, cookies, pies at Thanksgiving. Our style is very American, and we want to be true to that. We're not too fussy, and I think we have to stay true to what people expect from us. I always go back to "would my mother have made it at home?" It feels like homemade, even though they're not.
What do you think are the quintessential American baked goods?
The blueberry muffin. There are a lot of really bad blueberry muffins out there, but ours are really good. Definitely chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal raisin cookies. Oatmeal rasin never seemed as interesting as chocolate chip to me, but they're still good. Sweet breads like banana bread and pumpkin bread are always big sellers for us. We do an M&Ms cookie because when I was a kid, I was always excited when my mom was making her regular butter cookie recipe with M&Ms. That was special. And cinnamon rolls, can't forget about cinnamon rolls. Oh, and carrot cake! Apple pie is so cliche, but it's so simple and good that you can't forget it. I've always said that apple pie is the true measure of a good pastry chef.
What about the stuff at Empire that isn't baked, the sandwiches and salads. Where do those recipes come from?
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I started working with a friend that I knew from the furniture business. She grew up in Houston, I grew up in Abilene, so we had grown up eating the same things. She had no formal education as a chef, but she was one of those people who just had an amazing sense of taste. I wanted our chicken salad to taste like Marty's, an old bistro that used to be where Eatzi's is now. They used a shredded chicken and mayo and the traditional stuff like celery, and I was determined to figure out how to make it. We never did figure it out, but our own recipe doesn't have any magic in it. Most people buy pre-made tuna salad and then try to dress it up, but it's bad to start with.
We knew that we had this amazing bread that needed to be highlighted, and the best way to do that was with a sandwich. Our smoked turkey sandwich has been available for 20 years, and we still sell huge amounts of it. The same with our tuna salad. It was just white albacore tuna and Hellman's mayonnaise. These are the sandwiches that you would make for yourself if you weren't so busy. We were really mindful that our sandwiches were going to be refrigerated all day, even though people thought that was a terrible idea. In New York City, you pick up a sandwich because it's a vehicle. Whether it's a burrito or a sandwich or whatever, it's a vehicle for consuming food without having to have a formal meal. We say all the time that we're McDonald's fast with good food.
It seems like the combination of simplicity and really good quality has worked out well for Empire Baking Company.
This whole trend of minimal ingredients really plays to what we started out to do. We've stayed true to ourselves since we opened. You can get excited about every food trend in the world, but not all of them are true to what we do. I really love what Christina Tosi has been doing at Momo Milk Bar in New York City, she's a genius. I wanted to do a version of the Compost Cookie here at Empire, but that just didn't fit. I didn't want to use the Kellogg's cereals and ready-made ingredients. I did struggle with that decision, but I ultimately knew that we couldn't do it without making our own cornflakes and everything else. I'm not saying that you can't diversify sometimes, but you don't want to latch onto every trend that comes along. To endure, you have to be creative and challenge yourself, but don't get too far away from where you are.