I love bread. I love cookies. I love to bake. I admire anyone who has taken these same loves and kneaded them into a career that combines their own passion for flour and sugar with a business that brings fulfillment to not only themselves, but to the community around them. Matt Kreutz and Colleen Orlando have created this version of the American dream with Firebrand Artisan Breads. A wholesale brick oven bread bakery that has grown at an alarming rate in seven years, now encompassing a retail location in The Hive Complex on Broadway’s Auto Row in the Uptown neighborhood of Oakland.
Firebrand was the last tenant to move into The Hive, joining fellow culinary tenants such as Drake’s Dealership and Calavera, alongside other additions such as Numi Tea and ImpactHUB. The vision for The Hive as an innovative micro community within Oakland began when Signature Development Group bought the old, bland building on Broadway’s Auto Row, previously a Lincoln Mercury Dealership for 30+ years. Broadway’s Auto Row began in 1912 as a residential development boom came to Oakland in the years after the 1906 earthquake. Most top auto brands were represented through the row’s heyday into the mid-1950’s. As Signature peeled back the layers of the building, the original brick facades were unveiled and brought back to life to become spaces that pay tribute to the original architecture while giving home to dynamic local businesses. In an ironic twist, the building now occupied by Firebrand had fire damage on its brick, which was left intact during the restoration.
I had the opportunity to step behind the counter at Firebrand on a couple of occasions in the past two weeks; once late at night to see the brick ovens in action as bread was baked for the coming day, and again on a sunny morning as Colleen prepped dough for croissants.
Walking through the doors of a bakery at 9:00pm is not something one would normally do, unless you are part of a team such as the one supporting Matt Kreutz. I headed down after the kids went to bed and watched in awe while the place bustled with activity as everything from pretzels to rolls to sourdough loaves moved around on rolling racks joggling for position into the ovens. At the center of the space sat one of the two wood fired brick ovens used for the artisan varieties. I stood and stared at the huge round oven and finally asked Matt just how the thing got in there to begin with. A masterpiece in and of itself, the Spanish Llopis oven has a revolving brick hearth. Shipped from Spain, the oven was put together on site over 4 days by a pair Spaniards who make the trip over to assemble it in place.
Matt hurried between the two brick ovens, loading loaf after loaf, each type scored in a signature pattern with a simple razor blade, and then heavily dusted with flour. No timers in sight, Matt kept an eye on the dozens of loaves, using intuition and a sixth sense that comes with decades of experience on when to pull them out with the huge wooden paddles.
While he worked, we chatted about how far Firebrand has come in the past seven years. Growing from a one-man operation to now a medium size business of over 50 people, Firebrand has become an example of how supplying a high-quality artisanal product with consistency and a dose of passion can send referrals and recommendations in your direction at an alarming rate. Matt told me he has not had to make a sales call in four years; customers come calling to him because of the reputation he has built in the culinary realm. Firebrand has also made an effort to hire within the Oakland community, and has even offered opportunities for local elementary school classes to come in for behind-the-scenes baking lessons. With a busy schedule that includes fulfilling wholesale orders for clients such as Pixar, Blue Bottle, Boulevard, Michael Mina, and Whole Foods, the team at Firebrand defines their namesake, truly “passionate about a particular cause.”
As the first batches were coming out of the ovens, I headed home to bed while Matt and the Firebrand team remained at the start of their workday. Several days later I popped back in to meet Colleen Orlando, co-owner and head of the pastry side of Firebrand. A graduate of CCA Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco, Colleen joined Matt as the bread production manager in 2012, later developing the pastry line in 2014. Now a full scale department of their new location in The Hive, Colleen has proven to be the perfect fit for this artisan whirlwind of a company. While she rolled and prepped dough for croissants, we chatted about Firebrand’s top selling pastries (ham and cheese croissant and the goat cheese pretzel), as well as her favorite loaf that comes out of the brick ovens (walnut whole wheat loaf – a dream for toast or the perfect vehicle for a smear of cheese). She filled me in on the benefits of baking with European butter, and I admired the rows of amazing spices from our local Oaktown Spice Shop.
After a quick 45 minute chill I came back to watch an unholy amount of European butter get smeared on to the dough. Folded and rolled again, the dough became a buttery sandwich which would later be cut and formed into croissants. While 10 pounds of butter sitting on a cart is enough to give you pause, Colleen was quick to let me know this was going to make A LOT of croissants :o)
As I wrapped up my visit and started the difficult decision of what to take home with me, I stopped to watch day old croissants become reinvented into decadent almond versions. Sliced, then doused with a vanilla syrup and a thick strip of almond cream in the middle and a dollop on top, these croissants become twice-baked goodness.
My final decision became too hard, so it was a sampling of each type of cookie as well as the golden raisin fennel baguette that won the ticket home. From a thick and chewy ginger cookie with chunks of crystallized ginger to a chocolate chip to die for, I was happy with my decision to bring them all home. The winner by far, and quite possibly the best cookie I have ever had, the Double Chocolate Cookie with Brioche Caramel Croutons. This cookie has popped into my head literally every day since I ate it. Thick, rich, and dense like a brownie, with crunchy and chewy bits of caramelized brioche throughout it…I kid you not, it was life changing for this cookie aficionado.
As my friends and I devoured the baguette with a few glasses of wine later that evening, I thought more about how much I admire what is happening behind the counters of Firebrand. A passion for baking, a love for our local community, and a lot of hard work have brought great success to this artisanal brand. It seemed appropriate that when I asked both Matt and Colleen on separate occasions when they sleep, they both laughed. I guess when you are doing what you love, sleep doesn’t matter.
Firebrand Artisan Breads is located at:
2343 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612
Mon-Fri 7:00am – 7:00pm
Sat-Sun: 8:00am – 7:00pm
Lunch is available daily from 11:00am-3:00pm with a selection of sandwiches and salads from Pal’s Takeaway.
More information about Firebrand Artisan Breads, including details about their baking classes, is available online at www.firebrandartisanbreads.com
Historic Image of Broadway and before/after images of The Hive buildings supplied by Signature Development Group
All other images by Adrienne Schell