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Ones to Watch | By Lynne Miller

Menu items at Flour Bakery and Cafe in Boston

One of Joanne Chang’s projects as a management consultant was to run her company’s undergraduate recruiting program. She interviewed graduating college seniors to see who might be a good fit for the firm. One question she asked was, “If you won the lottery today, what would you be doing?”

Chang was then only a couple of years older than the students, so she asked herself the same question. That, ultimately, led to a career change. Chang had a sweet tooth and a life-long passion for food, so she decided to see if she could make a living as a professional cook.

“I had spent a lot of time cooking with my mom and playing around in the kitchen, baking,” Chang says. “I had always loved to cook. It had always been a lot of fun.”

But, a degree in applied mathematics and economics from Harvard wasn’t going to open doors to a culinary career. So, Chang went back to school in the kitchen. Over the course of a few years, she worked as a cook and pastry chef in several restaurants, including New York’s Payard Patisserie & Bistro and Boston’s acclaimed French restaurant, Mistral. While working at Mistral, she hunted for a location for her own bakery. In 2000, she and her financial partners opened Flour Bakery & Café in Boston’s South End. Last year, Chang by herself opened a second, larger store in Boston’s Fort Point Channel area.

“At that point, we were six years old,” she says. “I had so many strong people at the original Flour bakery who were going to move on. I needed to find another venue for them.”

Flour blends French and American baking traditions. Sticky buns, homemade Oreo-like cookies, banana bread, and a selection of tarts and pastries are some of the favorites. Flour makes 15 types of cookies, five breads, five types of cakes in six sizes, five flavors of tarts in five sizes, and four types of bar cookies. The café also offers an assortment of sandwiches, salads, soups, quiche, pizza, and brioche.

With all those choices, Chang was hard pressed to identify the No. 1 selling item on the menu. “We’ve tweaked the menu to the point where everything we have sells,” she says. “If something’s not selling, we stop making it.”

Both stores have a contemporary look with stainless steel accents and open views of the kitchen. The original store can seat up to 20 diners, while the second store can handle about twice as many people in the dining area. The dining rooms fill up quickly during busy times, particularly during the lunch hours.

The original Flour café attracts 700 to 800 customers a day, while the second store draws 500 to 600 people each day. The average check ranges from $8 to $12. The cafés have a following with morning commuters, local residents, office workers, and parents with small children in tow.

“We have a very loyal customer base,” Chang says.

Since its inception, Flour also has offered limited catering service. Cookie and sandwich platters for breakfast and lunch groups are popular. Catering is attractive since the orders represent guaranteed sales, Chang says.

“It’s money you know you’re going to make,” she says. “Catering does well.”

The bakers at Flour use quality ingredients. For instance, one of Flour’s most popular cookies is made from real butter and vanilla. No trans fats are used in any of the baked goods, Chang says.

“We focus on really, really fresh food,” she says. “We make everything at both locations. Customers appreciate that. They see it’s not made in some commissary. You can see a person covered with flour behind the counter.”

Through the years, Flour has attracted its share of flattering media coverage. Gourmet, Food and Wine, and The New York Times, among other publications, have featured the bakery in stories. Flour has earned several Best of Boston awards. Chang’s sticky buns even beat Bobby Flay’s on the Food Network’s Throwdown! with Bobby Flay.

Flour Bakery & Café
President: Joanne Chang
HQ: Boston
Year Started: 2000
Annual Sales: $3.5 million
Total Units: 2
Franchise Units: 0

The company’s Web site profiles the bakers and pastry chefs who work at both stores. Chang credits the staff for making Flour a success story. “We have great bakers, chefs, and counter staff members,” she says. “They care about the food. They make sure every single item that goes out is delicious.”

Like many foodservice operators, Chang has found it challenging to attract and retain talented help, particularly in a competitive labor market.

“For me it’s really important the staff be well trained,” she says. “I spend a lot of time with managers trying to guide them on how to motivate and inspire [people] and how to be good leaders. It’s always hard to find people who care as much as you do.”