A passion for bread

Lynn Gordon made her prosperous bread business from scratch.

The Minneapolis entrepreneur began French Meadow Bakery in 1985. She baked bread at night in a rented cheesecake factory, with help from her dad and a borrowed French chef. She begged shelf space in a handful of local food co-ops and delivered the bread herself. Her kids colored the advertising posters.

Today, Gordon and co-owner Steve Shapiro produce two million loaves of bread a year. Their nationally recognized bakery employs 70 and distributes to all 50 states. Twice named one of America’s 10 best bakeries by Bon Appetit magazine, French Meadow has built “a reputation for excellence and quality,” says Gordon, company president.

What did it take to make this bread business rise? “Tenacity and determination and dedication and commitment,” she says.

Beginnings

Gordon, 47, grew up in the Twin Cities. Her mother died of cancer at 42, leaving three young daughters. Early on, Gordon’s father, Bob Smith of White Bear Lake, instilled in his children an awareness of the link between diet and health. “Dad gave us things like wheat germ and blackstrap molasses, and we had a huge garden.”

As a young mother, Gordon taught cooking at the Traditional Center for Macrobiotics in St. Paul. Later she became interested in the all-but-lost craft of naturally leavened bread and went to California to study with French baker Jacques de Langre.

“Now there’s a great resurgence of artisan breads,” says Steve Shapiro, French Meadow vice president. But in the early 1980s, few American bakeries were producing “real bread,” made the old-fashioned way with fermented starter instead of yeast, he says. “No one in the U.S. knew how to do it. It was a lost art.”

Gordon began buying naturally leavened bread from California for her students at the Traditional Center. “I was having hundreds of loaves shipped UPS.” That convinced her there was a market for Old World bread in Minneapolis.

Working all night

In 1985, divorced with three young children, Gordon rented time in a Burnsville cheesecake factory, going in at 8 p.m. and baking all night. Her mentor, de Langre, sent a French baker to Minnesota to help her.

During the day, Gordon, formerly a top-selling travel agent for Dayton’s, made sales calls, did store demos and talked to customers. On weekends, she and her dad sold bread at the Minneapolis Farmers Market.

Gordon’s father, now 76, played an important role in getting the venture off the ground. “He made deliveries, helped in the bakery, did anything I needed — and he wouldn’t take any money for it,” she says. “He was a big part of my business.”

A bakery booms

Gordon’s initial market was Twin Cities food co-ops. As word of French Meadow spread, she began getting mail orders. Then the bakery got some national press and natural foods distributors started calling. Gordon went to a gourmet food show in Chicago and landed 300 new accounts.

Steve Shapiro joined the business in late 1986 to oversee operations. That left Gordon free to concentrate on sales. She traveled extensively, developing bread accounts in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Canada.

In 1989, Gordon and Shapiro moved out of their leased facility and opened a storefront bakery in busy Uptown Minneapolis. Three years later, they added an 85-seat cafe. French Meadow Bakery now bakes 7,000 loaves of bread a day; 90 percent are sold outside Minnesota, shipped frozen by 12 natural foods distributors.

The fourth child

Gordon built her company without going into debt. As a successful entrepreneur, she is often asked for advice about starting food ventures. “The food business is a low-margin business,” she warns. “And it’s highly competitive.”

Seventeen years ago, French Meadow was one of the “pioneers” in the organic market. “But now, organic is far more competitive.” In a crowded marketplace, having a good product is no guarantee of success, she says. Many good products “just can’t get distributed; they can’t get shelf space in stores.”

Food ventures also demand tremendous time and energy. “If you don’t have a huge amount of money to spend, you must be willing to devote at least 10 years of your life” to establishing a product. “It takes tons of work, day and night.”

After 16 years on the road, Gordon recently hired a national sales manager. “But I still work all the time. I’m out in the stores, I talk to people, I do 10 food shows a year.” Such commitment is only possible if you truly love what you are doing, she says.

“Your work must be your hobby and your passion. I still work seven days a week. I don’t have to — it’s my choice. French Meadow is like my fourth child. I love it.”since college. “I had a little digester in the basement. Instead of brewing wine, like other college kids, I was brewing methane. So I knew it worked.”

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