D.C. Restaurants' Moveable Yeast Why do we care if someone imports their bread?

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Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

When Taylor Gourmet opened the first of its three Washington-area stores in November 2008, the advertising pitch was simple: The deli would sell Philadelphia-style sandwiches, named after Philadelphia streets, sandwiched between Philadelphia bread.

They meant it literally: Every morning, the deli’s owners explained, they would schlep rolls all the way down from Sarcone’s, a small neighborhood bakery in historically Italian South Philadelphia.

With deli meats from Italy, robust provolones, and a mix between traditional house-made fillings and modern sandwich-making twists, Taylor became a hit. Washingtonian penned a love letter to its crusty rolls and their fresh-baked aroma. The Washington Post called Taylor Gourmet a local favorite. Washington City Paper added it to a “50 Best Restaurants” list. Nearly every piece of hype mentioned the out-of-town rolls.

So when the time came to put together a story about the growing number of D.C.-area establishments that brag about bringing in bread baked in some distant oven, Taylor owner Casey Patten seemed like a natural person to call.

“The roll is like no other,” he told me. Sarcone’s deck ovens create a significant bottom crust, he said, offering a workout for your jaw—and a perfect home for dense, wet fillings like Patten’s saucy chicken cutlets or homemade meatballs drenched in marinara. Such conditions could reduce other rolls to a sopping, soggy mess.


During my first interview with Patten, he described in detail the bread transportation arrangements. According to Patten, 500 to 1,000 rolls make the trip down Interstate 95 every day. And when I asked about future expansion plans, he told me that if his arrangement with Sarcone’s ever fell through, he had a back-up Philadelphia bread supplier.

During a follow-up interview, Patten’s story changed significantly. I had pressed him for a ride on the bread-delivery van, to no avail. After several requests, Patten made a surprising admission: Taylor had stopped using Sarcone’s a few weeks earlier. He said capacity concerns forced him to switch to a Washington-area bakery as his business expanded. He declined to name his new supplier.

I followed up with a call to Louis Sarcone Jr., a fourth-generation baker and vice president of the bakery. He confirmed Taylor no longer uses his bread. He told me they actually stopped purchasing the rolls back in September. According to Sarcone, Patten cited transportation costs, tolls, and winter snowstorms in their decision to try another bakery. “They told me they’d try it out and if it didn’t work they’d come back.” He told me, adding, “They never did.”

Taylor never updated its website, either: As this story went to print, the site still claimed they used Sarcone’s rolls.

Among the people who never noticed: me. And I’m a food critic. I’ve eaten a boatload of Taylor’s subs over the last couple years. If I perceived a subtle difference in the crustiness of the rolls, it was only after I found out about the switch—hardly a double-blind taste test.

But the more interesting question was: Why did I care?

Sure, no one likes to be hoodwinked. But it’s not as if the deli had swapped in, say, USDA Select in place of Wagyu beef. In theory, the same ingredients combined in Washington could create the same loaf of bread. And yet Taylor, along with several other newcomers to the local dining scene, was pushing authenticity rather than simple taste when it bragged of sourcing its rolls a few hours to the north—a play on comfort, emotion and food memories.

It’s an appeal that seems to be working—at the cash register, if not in Taylor’s hired ovens.

Locavorism may sell books, but in D.C., long distances sell bread. The loaves with the longest journey from bakery to plate are probably the ones at Locolat Café, on Florida Avenue just north of U Street NW. The café sells exotic chocolates, savory waffles, and tiny, crusty French baguettes.

“French,” in this case, is not a redundancy: The loaves ship from the baking powerhouse Le Nôtre in France. Par-baked demi-loaves arrive frozen in boxes of 60 from a local distributor after a flight across the Atlantic.

Most of the loaves don’t even get finished in a stateside oven. Instead, the staff slices them lengthwise and adds meats, vegetables, and cheeses. The baguettes finish cooking on a sandwich press; a process that infuses the bread with the flavors of its fillings to create a compelling panini.

Owner Geert Piferoen claims he orders his baguettes all the way from France not just for the superior quality, but also for the price. According to Piferoen, nothing in the area comes close at a similar cost.

If it’s truly finance that drives his decision, Piferoen isn’t passing the savings along. A thin baguette just a few inches long costs $2.49. The loaves are so small it would take more than four at a cost of $10 to come close to the volume of the full sized baguettes offered at Whole Foods. The comparison is pointless, however; the loaves have very little in common other than shape.

Locolat’s baguettes boast a slightly blistered, crunchy exterior that left me covered in shards of browned crust after tearing into one on my couch. The rich, buttery flavor and chewy texture made my Whole Foods baguette taste like Wonder bread in comparison.

Piferoen may not brag about the source of his baguettes directly on his menus, but he doesn’t need to. Nearly every mention of his delicious sandwiches in local restaurant reviews publicize the bread’s lineage.

Locolat’s not alone in its attempts to market out-of-town loaves. Commercialized par-baking and expedited shipping make bread available anywhere willing customers are willing to pay the shipping costs.

Calvert Woodley Fine Wine and Spirits sells H&H bagels shipped from New York City. Brabo in Alexandria opened up by touting breads from Ecce Panis in New Jersey. Dino in Cleveland Park sources its bread from Tribeca Oven, which began life in Manhattan before relocating to New Jersey. Owner Dean Gold subscribes to the theory that New York’s water significantly contributes to the superiority of the region’s breads.

The hype stands in significant contrast to the era’s biggest food-buying trend: locavorism. Locolat’s baguettes float to town on gallons of jet fuel even as other pricey restaurants tout local ingredients, listing area farms, and even specific farmers, as the sources for meats and vegetables on menus. So why not do the same for bread? The distant sourcing may be in part because customers react so profoundly to the perceived superiority of pedigree baking.

H&H Bagels, for instance, built a reputation making authentic New York bagels available wherever someone is willing to pay for shipping. Every morning Calvert “fresh bakes” the frozen bagels for a steady stream of morning customers.

The provenance, though, can distract critical impulses just as easily as it can ramp up an eatery’s feeling of authenticity. Actually eating H&H Bagels as purchased in Washington is a distinctly underwhelming experience. I bought a few at Calvert Woodley to compare to a locally baked version from Bethesda Bagels. The imports displayed a few small dark patches that seemed the result of uneven cooking. After cutting one open, the irregularities revealed themselves as holes that had almost risen to the surface, but had not broken through. The texture was bready, almost doughy; toasting did little to improve the inferior bagel.

In comparison, the exterior of a bagel baked in Bethesda and purchased locally was an even, golden-brown. The bagel’s innards were dense and chewy, presenting a subtle tangy taste I could only describe as “bagely”.

I asked Stephen Fleishman, owner of Bethesda Bagel, to compare the two. “The biggest problem is perception,” he said. “People hear New York bagel and think it’s a better product.” Bethesda, to some, doesn’t quite have the same name appeal as the Big Apple.

The odd thing about the imported-bread braggadocio is that Washington has finally become a pretty decent baking town. And the guy who deserves a chunk of the credit is Mark Furstenberg, the man who opened Marvelous Market and Breadline. Furstenberg traveled to Paris to learn from the masters at Le Moulin de la Vierge and L’Autre Boulange, in the process bringing artisanal baking to a city accustomed to buying bread at Safeway.

One day last month, I snagged a plain roll from Taylor’s K Street NW location and took it to Furstenberg’s home in Kalorama. Furstenberg reached into the crinkling brown paper bag I brought, pulled out the sesame seed studded roll, and frowned. Next, he placed his nose against the cut end, inhaled deeply and nodded, confirming some inner suspicion.

Handing me the roll, he instructed, “Smell this.” I took the roll and sniffed the same cut end, noting nothing special. Nervous, I stuck my nose deep within the precut bready void meant for Patten’s delicious fillings and took a deep breath.

“It smells like grocery store bread,” I said.

Furstenberg shook his head as he corrected me.

“Yeast. It smells of yeast, but not grain.”

Furstenberg pulled out a mahogany-colored whole grain loaf he had baked that morning. He told me to take another whiff. The difference was clear: Furstenberg’s loaf was deep, grainy, and complex.

The ingredient in the Taylor roll that invoked “grocery-store bread” was indeed yeast. Yeast-heavy dough is quick to rise, less temperamental, and processed start to finish in a matter of hours. Commercial bakers lean heavily on the leavener to produce bread reliably and quickly. In other words: From a haute-baking point of view, Taylor’s rolls were lousy.

Mass-produced breads may hit shelves quickly, Furstenberg explained, but they have little personality. Look at the internal structure of yeast driven, quick-rise pizza crusts, bagels, or baguettes. The shape and baking process that finish the product may be different, but at their core, they’re all the same. It’s all white bread.

Ditto the idea that where something was baked might influence how it tastes. “People have been baking bread for 6,000 years,” Furstenberg said, downplaying the idea that local water might make a difference. “There is nothing mystical about the water. A good baker filters it anyway to remove chlorine and other impurities.”

Fleishman, for his part, says nobody noticed a difference in his bagels when his water-tweaking machine broke six months into operation. He never bothered to fix it: The key contributor to the flavor and consistency of his bagels isn’t water, he says. It’s process.

“I think those guys have done a tremendous marketing job,” Furstenberg sniffed about Taylor.

I had my first hoagie at the Penn State Sub Shop in central Pennsylvania, where I lived as a kid. I remember nothing about the bread. But I do have a distinct memory of shredded lettuce, and onions shaved so thin they were almost a whisper. I can still see them fall out of my sandwich onto oil stained paper while I ate. To this day whole leaf lettuce on a sub makes me shiver.

Patten’s description of his first visit to Philly’s Primo Hoagies sounds fairly similar. He ordered a cold-cut sandwich and watched dutifully as a sandwich maker grabbed whole salami from the deli case and sliced his meat to order. At that time, Primo used Sarcone’s bread.

The loaf became his ideal for sandwich bread. And, despite Furstenberg’s dismissals, there’s nothing wrong with that: The great, big problem with trying to evaluate the bread on its own artisanal merits is that, for the sandwich Patten serves, a comparatively bland loaf of white bread may be just the ticket. And the fact that he had to travel a long way to get it was a way of underlining his authenticity, not his baking chops.

Pedigree and geography have little to do with a baked goods’ character, but the perceived effect has a huge impact on consumer preference. Geert Piferoen may claim he chose imported bread from France because of quality and cost considerations, but I have a hunch the decision has as much to do with an experience that resonates with his Belgian roots. Our nostalgia for our past is what makes this marketing shtick work so well. Restaurants that market imported or pedigreed bread aren’t selling excellence, even though some may sell excellent products. They’re primarily selling an appeal to our past.

Back at Taylor, Patten is still trying to recreate his own memories. He declines to say which bakery he’s using these days. But he says the effort to match Sarcone’s bread has been time-consuming, with scores of taste tests and no small amount of tweaking. After two years of running the store, now he at least knows the lingo, throwing around terms like “jump” to describe how his new rolls expand vertically when the baked, and “run,” to describe the lateral expansion he’s worked to avoid.

Patten says the only reason he stayed mum about the bread change was that he wanted to finalize his new supply. He says he thinks he’s almost got it.

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Our Readers Say

I haven't noticed any difference in quality and I order from Taylor once a week. As long as the quality doesn't decline I don't really care where they get their bread. Not sure this deserved such a long article.
Great article! Personally, I only get the roast pork at Taylor (the other Italian sandwiches were just too dry without the broccoli rabe). This is the kind of bait-and-switch that's akin to advertising your authentic margherita comes with imported mozzarella di buffala, and you actually use the skin stuff you bought at Safeway.
Interesting. Does this mean that Taylor's will now have enough bread to actually stay open until they close? Or, will they continue short-stocking supply so they can close down 3 hours before their scheduled closing time?
But I thought you couldn't make bread as good in DC? It's the water! YOU CAN'T DO IT!
All this ado about local bread, and no mention of Firehook?
doug, you're like the guy who insists the world is flat, despite evidence to the contrary. Did you read the article? You can bake good bread in DC. It's not the water.
Definitely a very interesting article. I'll have to try those bagels up in Bethesda. But it's true, as long as the sandwich tastes good at Taylor's, I don't really care where the bread is from.
I smell yeast and a sarcasm detector fail!
Although I'm disheartened by the false advertising I'm still going to purchase their sandwiches. In the end, as long as they continue to make great sandwiches I'll continue to be a loyal customer. Thanks for the heads up on Locolat Café - will definitely check this place out!
Love Taylor, though I must admit I am in it for the arinchini more than the subs. The sandwiches just gild the lily for me.

I will continue to eat there, but I will be judging them. I am not a fan of being taken for a fool. Side eye goes well with a chicken parm hoagie, I hear.
Thanks for this article. I, for one, was even more disappointed by Taylor's response to this situation in their "State of the Hoagie" than anything else. Here is the comment I posted on that post:

This post lacks transparency, and fails to address a number of points that the WCP article brought to light.

1) You say you made this change "recently" but Sarcone's said it was September. Four months ago is not "recently."

2) Even if you did make the changes to support a local business and reduce your carbon footprint (hardly believable over the obvious fact that you realized it would be significantly cheaper / more convenient to have them produced locally by a no-name baker), you continued to market that you were using bread from the "legendary Sarcone's bakery." The bread, according to you in published interviews, was a significant differentiator. In fact, you mentioned the bread in nearly every article that has ever been written about you guys. In every article / review that published after September, you conveniently did not correct any instance that said you were so fanatical about your bread that you used Sarcone's (I looked; there are several examples like this). You were marketing your product under false pretenses, and using the "legendary" Sarcone's reputation to help in part to build your reputation and story. Those are abhorable business practice, and most definitely show that you are operated by people with questionable ethics.

3) Your "State of the Union" fails to address what the actual issue is here - which is that you, put plainly, lied. While I'm certain that you are correct - that the new bread is fantastic and no one will tell the difference (I haven't noticed in the 2 dozen plus sandwiches I've had from your shop since Sept), you don't address why you weren't honest about it. And that's a big problem.

4) You really do owe the good people at Sarcone's a public apology. You've used their name improperly, and now dragged them into this mess.

Solely because of your lack of transparency - both through lies of commission (your website and marketing claiming to use Sarcone's) and lies of omission (not correcting stories and articles published since Sept. that talked about how you used Sarcone's bread), you can consider me and my family former customers.
As a former Philadelphia resident, I've been a huge fan of Taylor since moving to the city, but am disheartened by the apparently misleading practices they have been engaging in over the past few months. Personally, I did notice a change in the quality of the rolls recently and had even remarked to my dining companions that I thought the bread wasn't quite up to snuff and worried that Taylor had stopped using Sarcone's. They still make a great hoagie, and the replacement bread they are using is good, but it is noticeably a step down from Sarcone's.
Taylor's was a big disappointment for my husband and I. And when you don't have a car and rely on shitty Metro bus (no nearby subway for Taylor's) to get to your much-talked-about destination the disappointment is even more visceral. We really wanted to like Taylor's but felt it was all hype and noticed that the bread was really poor quality. If the bread is bad on a sandwich then what is the point?

Is Furstenberg still associated with Marvelous Market? I ask because MM quality has gone tremendously downhill since at least 20005. At one time they did have marvelous bread and cakes but no longer - and not for a long time. Whole Foods bakery is only slightly better and only for certain items but still priced too high for the quality being offered.

The only places I have ever been able to buy very good fresh baked bread in Washington, DC (sorry but Bethesda is NOT DC) is Vace Italian Deli (across from the Cleveland Park Library on Connecticut Ave NW south of Porter), Bread and Chocolate (23rd & M Sts NW and upper NW Connecticut Ave just south of Chevy Chase Circle), Potenza Bakery (15th & H Sts NW) and McGruder's Market (upper nw Connecticut Ave just south of Chevy Chase Circle). Bread and Chocolate also has pastries and cakes which (from all those we have tried) are excellent. B & C coffee is also very good and much better than Marvelous Markets coffee at their Dupont location (the coffee there is VERY bad - their Georgetown location has a different brand which is quite good and I cannot understand why all MM locations do not serve this?).

I would like to add that in a city where one finds it extremely difficult to buy well made fresh bread - pizza is also really poor quality (and for some bizarre reason outrageously over-priced). Vace has the very best pizza you can find in DC.

Lastly, Furstenberg sounds hypercritical especially if he's still the owner, or has any say in quality at Marvelous Market. Not only for that reason but because Marvelous Market frequently brings in baked goods from a Brooklyn NY bakery. I've noticed for the past two years they've brought in babka from a Brooklyn bakery and after reading the ingrediants on the package decided it too was inferior (something like hydrogenated palm oil was listed). Why in heaven's name out of all the wonderful NY bakeries would you purchase babka from a bakery which uses hydrogenated oil?

Because it's DC and no one will be the wiser.

For bagels it doesn't surprise me in the least that not-a-one is to be found within the District. Good food and more accurately, affordable good food, is very hard to find here.
Oh and a big YES for Locolat Café (1781 Flordia Ave NW - next to MINT Fitness). The very best coffee in all of DC. And the pastries we tried were fantastic and probably also the best in DC.
...and this is why I stopped reading the Post. Please, CP, leave these kinds of precious princess-and-the-pea stories for the other paper.
When I hear "Taylors", I think of Taylor's Refresher, not Taylor's Gourmet.
Mark Furstenberg is as close as DC has to a bread god. No, he's not with MM or BL anymore.
Why lie? Their bread now is better then their bread before! And it's local! Aren't we supposed to applaud people for going green and local? I am in the restaurant industry and I know where their bread is coming from now and it's, by far, the best artisan bread bakery in DC, hands down. Quite frankly, it pisses me off that they are not giving credit to a local bakery that is doing a fantastic job making a bread that, I think, makes the sandwich what it is.
The new and improved bread is from LYON BAKERY!!!!
No, I don't think so..I heard is was Uptown Bakery
I think that's B.S. Panorama bakery must be the ones making the beard!!!
Taylors doesn't recycle any of their plastic, glass bottles or cans either. basically their whole website is a sham.
As a Philadelphian, I can say that Taylors sammies are good. I have not had one since the switch, but I bet they're still good; however, they ain't no Sarcone's. And they ain't no Paesano's... orrrr Jake's. I'll take it though!
Total BS. Taylors lied. Then they lied to cover it up. Then they issued theyre ridic release where they totally avoided the issue. these guys can't be trusted to do anything they say theyre doin.
Theoretically you could make the same bread here, however no one is. There is a difference. Sarcone's is the best italian bread in Philly, a town with great bread. I knew there were times I went to Taylor even before September and didn't get Sarcone's.

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