Empire Baking Company Goes Old-School with Heritage Grains

Empire Baking Company's whole wheat levain made with heritage grains from Barton Springs Mill.EXPAND
Empire Baking Company's whole wheat levain made with heritage grains from Barton Springs Mill.
Lauren Drewes Daniels
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Recently, Texas Monthly ran an article about Barton Springs Mill in Dripping Springs, where miller James Brown is persuading farmers around the state to grow the kind of grains that basked under the sun a century ago. Texas Monthly called the endeavor the “last frontier of the farm-to-table movement.”

The article mentioned Dallas' Empire Baking Co. as playing a key role in bringing these grains to our city by way of their whole wheat levain. Specifically, owner Meaders Ozarow, who founded the bakery in 1992, is using Barton Springs Mill's Rouge de Bordeaux wheat, which is grown near New Braunfels.

Ozarow’s investment in Rouge de Bordeaux wheat is based in part on hopeful optimism. The other part is because she appreciates what Brown is trying to do, explaining that she felt very strongly about supporting his endeavor.

“We heard that James Brown was going to farmers and saying, ‘I’m going to give you all of the seeds, and I’ll buy the entire crop. If it doesn't work, if something goes wrong, I’ll share the losses with you,’” Ozarow says.

Because that’s just how hard a sell heritage grains are over a moneymaker.

“Essentially, no one is going to grow anything different than what their greatest source of revenue is unless someone says to them, ‘I’ll buy all of it and I’ll share the losses if it doesn’t work,’” Ozarow says. “We’re both experimenting in this. I knew James Brown was going about this the right way. He really understood that he had to give the farmers incentives.”

With the wheat growing across acres of Texas farmland near towns such as Lamesa, Rockdale, Quanah and New Braunfels, now the challenge for Barton Springs Mill and Empire Baking Co. is to get the heritage grains in front of the public and convince them this isn’t a fad.

The strategy is somewhat reminiscent of the days when craft beer appeared in abundance on the Dallas scene some 10 years ago. There was a challenge in asking people to try something new.

Michael Peticolas opened Peticolas Brewing Co. in 2011 and can speak about introducing a new form of an old favorite. He’s optimistic: He sees Dallas as a culinary town that is willing to buy in.

“Beer is cool, people like to support it and wear the T-shirts,” Peticolas says. “And, actually, I think bread can receive the same reception. Will people go out and find it for the same reason? Maybe they will. It is actually cool to learn about the old-school way of doing things and to learn about that process. I would wear that shirt, too.”

Empire Baking's whole wheat levainEXPAND
Empire Baking's whole wheat levain
Lauren Drewes Daniels

For anyone in the farm-to-table or craft beer scene, it’s a delicate balance of running a business that is delivering a product the public wants versus a product they should like — even if they don’t know it yet. Add in a gluten intolerance and the fact that bread is often seen as a throw-in at many restaurants, and it could be a long road, but Ozarow is committed.

“This is where we think it’s going,” Ozarow says. “You can’t always just do what’s commercially the most successful. If we did, we’d just make chocolate chip cookies and white bread the rest of our lives. And there’s nothing wrong with chocolate chip cookies and white bread, but there are a lot of other interesting things, too. White bread has been our top seller for 25 years, but we know that wheat is better for you. We do sell more wheat now than we did, but we still sell more white.”

You can find the whole wheat levain at Empire Baking Co.’s retail store for $8.99 a loaf. It’s hearty and fragrant and large enough to invite some neighbors over to share alongside some local cheese and craft beer. And, who knows, all kinds of cool T-shirts.

Empire Baking Company, 5450 W. Lovers Lane (Northwest Dallas). 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.

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