It’s a little after 6 a.m. when Kenny Freeman reaches into a tub to grab a pinch of flour and sprinkle a dusting over the top of wooden butcher block countertops in the back room of The Bread Box.
Turning over a large tub of dough, he’ll scrape out the sticky, yeast filled mass onto the countertop before portioning it out into 4-ounce sections. Freeman’s coworker Cisco Wilson loads the portioned out piece onto a tray so a machine can divide the dough into smaller, bun-sized chunks.
“Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith blasts over the loudspeaker as Wilson rolls out the buns into small orbs, before loading them onto a lined pan.
This is the magic behind the bread that more than 25 restaurants and coffee shops around the city of San Antonio sell to customers each day.
This is the magic of The Bread Box.
Aleem Chaudhry oversees one of those restaurants, Gino’s Deli Stop n Buy. When Chaudhry was growing up in Pakistan, he used to wake up to his mother frying roti bread in a pan with butter. He still remembers the smell now, but now that smell is delivered daily from 9 to 10:30 each morning from Chris Chapman, The Bread Box’s delivery driver.
Chaudhry chooses to use fresh bread made locally instead of what he calls “industrial scale” loaves, and to him, it makes a big difference.
“Baking is not a science – it is an art,” Chaudhry said. “Believe me, the same two breads in a bakery are never the same, even if they are coming from the same batch, same dough, same recipe. You bake them and they will be totally different. The only people who will get the exact same bread is industrial scale. Bread is not supposed to look the same.”
Chapman delivers crates filled with specialty bread, concocted in collaboration with Chaudhry and The Bread Box just for the convenience store deli. Gino’s custom loaf is one of many varieties The Bread Box cranks out daily, starting at 6 a.m.
For hours, the work will look the same: dough is weighed on a scale, put into a machine that makes division marks for smaller chunks, and then torn apart and rolled before being placed on a lined pan. Songs from Bowling for Soup, Pink Floyd, and Aerosmith provide an energizing soundtrack to match the flurry of activity.
Once a baking rack is full with pans stacked one on top of the other, it is wheeled into a proofing area, where the temperature is meticulously controlled so the dough can rise.
“The molecular biology process is always intriguing – how you control the humidity, the temperature, if the wheat is green enough,” The Bread Box owner Tina Kent, said.
That’s what keeps it interesting for Tina, who runs the business alongside husband Lucas. They operated it first out of a garage, and now out of a 4,000 square foot location on Bitters Road in North San Antonio.
The couple first became interested in baking bread when they were dating. Lucas noticed Tina had a library of books on the topic. Tina “read them like romance novels,” she said, and then Lucas did, too. Bread developed as a love language for them when Lucas began baking it in his roles at restaurants while Tina worked as general manager at Cappy’s.
Eventually, the pair opened The Bread Box and now operate half of their business through their restaurant and the other half through a commercial kitchen that delivers pastries and bread to area restaurants and coffee shops.
There was just one hiccup. Tina realized she was allergic to flour after she was in the kitchen surrounded by clouds of it in the air. But that hasn’t tempered her love for baking, and she now wears a medical mask when she works in the kitchen.
The commercial side leads Chapman to make deliveries across the city. He typically starts driving at 6 a.m. and doesn’t get done with his route until after noon or later. First, he stops at Theory, PRESS Coffee, and Philoçoffee, delivering an assortment of muffins, croissants, and hand pies.
Later on, he’ll make his way to The Good Kind, restaurants run by Tim McDiarmid in the Pearl and Southtown. McDiarmid describes herself as being “very into hippie bread.”
She grew up in a remote part of western Canada, never seeing or consuming processed food. Later on, she lived in New York City and was exposed to “an awesome bread scene” that had bakeries on every corner.
When McDiarmid moved to San Antonio, she found that tortilla was king and artisanal bread options were less common.
“It is just a different world,” McDiarmid said. “It is all about tortillas down here. When I grew up on the West Coast, Vancouver and Victoria were doing really amazing artisanal breads. But that’s just not here yet.”
When McDiarmid found The Bread Box, she was happy to see that more variety existed, but still hopes that San Antonio bread bakers will develop other options that involve alternative grains or wood-fired ovens.
Even after Chapman finishes his delivery route, the kitchen at Bread Box is a scene of constant activity as the dough is still being weighed, formed, and placed on trays. Around noon, the first trays of bread begin to emerge from the oven, radiating heat and savory smells.
“Corner,” Lucas yells as he emerges from the kitchen with a hot baking rack. “Hot, hot, hot, pardon me.”
A bagging crew arrives at close to 2 p.m. and begins shaking plastic bags open to package the bread that will be delivered the next morning. The bags are divided by order for each restaurant or coffee shop, and then placed in black crates that will be stacked five tall and loaded onto a delivery truck the next morning.
Throughout the three years The Bread Box has been open at its current location, bread has remained a labor of love for the 36 Bread Box employees. Each has their personal favorites. Tina’s favorite is Lucas’ walnut and cranberry sourdough.
“It has this great punch to it and the crust is delicious – sweet and chewy,” she said.
Kaylan McNatt, who Lucas says really keeps things running as the bakery manager, loves the potato and bacon bread and focaccia loaves. Isaac Trevino, who oversees the bagging team, prefers the small brioche rolls. Ivan Reyes works the griddle as the English Muffins cook but has an affinity for the jalapeño cheddar bread.
For Lucas, who plays a role in each step of the process, it can be too hard to decide on just one.
”You’re so involved in making each one, it’s hard to pick one, and even if you do, it changes all the time,” he said.