"We walked in and it was beautiful," says Gene Webb, owner of what is soon-to-be a brand new bakery in Shorewood.
"It’s a 90-year-old building, and there were layer upon layer of modifications that had been made. But, we pulled the ceiling out and found undamaged plaster, beautiful windows and gorgeous 90-year-old woodwork. The environment really provided the feel we were going for. There’s a great view of the neighborhood and the neighborhood can see you."
The 2,400-square foot space at 4401 N. Oakland Ave. was the former home of Lakeshore Gallery, and most recently Performance Running Outfitters. But, it’s soon to become a neighborhood bakery aptly named the North Shore Boulangerie.
The space will house a classic French bakery and café, where Webb says he’ll serve pastries and coffee in the morning and simple, well-made classic French dishes for lunch.
"It will be the place where you go to meet a friend, have a salad or a nice bowl of soup, and enjoy the natural light and a good discussion," Webb says.
Webb has secured a loan of $50,000 from the Village of Shorewood, which will help to finance a project which is projected to cost about $400,000.
Webb himself grew up in Illinois. He came to Milwaukee to attend Marquette University where he earned a degree in biology. After graduation, he went on to graduate school at Carnegie Melon and specialized in yeast biology. Ultimately, that’s where his bakery dreams began, though he hadn’t an inkling of it at the time.
"Yeast is fascinating," Webb tells me as we sit near a crackling fire in his East side home on one of the coldest days of the year. "It’s a lot like us in the way it behaves. But, yeasts are easily grown and modified. So, scientists use them as a model system … oddly, a lot of what we know about cancer, we learned from yeast."
Yeast, as it turns out, is a game changer in the world of science. But, it’s also the driving force behind fermentation, the magical process that allows a dense mass of dough to become a well-risen loaf of bread. It’s a leavener, a dough developer and a flavor builder.
But, more about that later.
Webb took a job at the University of Chicago. He began as a research faculty, but slowly learned that he was "much better at organizing things." So, he took a position as the director of planning.
While he spent his days in higher education, managing infrastructure and fretting over budgets, he also maintained a side interest in cooking. In fact, about ten years ago, he made the decision to take some time off from his job to immerse himself in the culinary world.
"I staged with Marie-Blanche de Broglie in Paris for about a month," he explains. "It was good to learn the fundamentals of French sauces and the various forms of savory cooking. It was the first time I spent time with a chef one-on-one."
Webb admits it was a game-changer. And the experience was only enhanced by his natural sense of curiosity, which – up until that point – had fed his love for science.
"I’d been cooking for years, but having someone step by step describe what you’re doing and why you’re doing it … it’s wonderful," he goes on. "It was something I really enjoyed. I liked the rationale behind it, behind why you’re doing what you’re doing. I love looking in the bowl and understanding why things are happening."
Although Webb focused his work on the art of savory cooking, he says the biggest takeaway from his experience in Paris was the realization that he really enjoyed the art of baking.
"All along, I thought that cooking and baking might be something I wanted to pursue," Webb tells me. "But, when the economy took a downturn, it wasn’t a good time to start."
So, his bread-fillled dreams lay dormant until about a year and a half ago.
"The economy stabilized and I knew the time was right," he says. "There was a group of chefs from Alsace who came to the U.S. to start the French Pastry School in Chicago. I talked with them and looked at their program."
Ultimately, he decided to invest the six months it would take to earn his credentials in pastry. During that time, he studied with pastry greats Chefs Jacquy Pfeiffer, Sébastien Canonne, M.O.F and Pierre Zimmermann.
Meanwhile, he developed a business plan for the bakery. He scouted sites downtown and north into Whitefish Bay, but ultimately decided on the space in Shorewood as the perfect location.
"The goal was to become a neighborhood bakery – in a neighborhood that was large enough to support it," Webb goes on. "It’s the perfect location – a great established neighborhood with good foot traffic, plenty of young families with children."
In the morning, Webb says, the space will be alive with daily bread baking and pastry production. During the late morning, staff will transition to pastries and smaller production items. And, as the day wears on, the cycle will include mixing up the next day’s levain – a term for the starter dough which captures natural yeasts from the air to enhance the flavor of classic artisan bread.
Webb says he’s choosing the levain-style of bread in part because of its flavor. But, he’s also interested in bringing a higher quality to market.
"Bread made with traditional yeast is starchy," he says. "Because traditional yeast uses up all the sugar, but leaves the starch behind. But, breads made with natural yeast develop more slowly. The yeast digests much of both the sugar and the starch, so the bread is more easily digested."
The process is lengthy, but levain-style breads produce an exceedingly tender, flavorful product with a crisp crust.
"Unlike savory cooking, in baking, once you make a mistake in the texture, it only gets worse, never better. So, working with such a long process can be risky," he says. "But, although it’s a bit of a gamble, you end up with a really excellent bread in the end."
In addition to bread, Webb says the bakery will carry a variety of classic pastries – beignets, croissants, and breakfast pastries. The café will also offer soups, salads, quiche and lighter entrees featuring fish and fowl.
"In the U.S., we’ve tended to caricature French cuisine and see it as fussy," he says. "But, there’s so much more to it. When you really get down to regional French food, it’s just well done. It’s not necessarily highbrow … what I’m hoping for is classic food, done well, and served in a welcoming environment. "
In turn, he says the food in the café will be inspired by the dishes of Alsace, which means a combination of German and French influences.
Webb says he’s in the midst of settling on a coffee vendor, which he projects will be a locally owned company, and he’s secured a liquor license so that the café can serve a variety of affordable, but high quality, wines. He’ll also be looking to hire a barista, kitchen staff, and front end help in the coming weeks.
"I envision hiring people who would enjoy being at a café long-term," he says. "Ideally they’ll be people who would be invested in getting to know the neighbors and the customers. I’d like it to be a nice place to work, a friendly place to be."
If all goes well with construction, Webb hopes to begin inviting community groups into the bakery to do tastings around mid-February, with an official opening in early March. Bakery hours will be 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with table service in the café beginning around the lunch hour.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.