Half a Loaf

When bakers break up, who gets custody of the recipes?

However entertainingly operatic, the details of the Sullivan St separation are too complicated to go into here, and subject to the same side-choosing as in any divorce. A side story of skulduggery is more dramatic still, if potentially litigious: as Lahey tells it, a former distributor of Sullivan St breads hired former Sullivan St bakers to start his own bakery, opened suddenly with an extremely similar product line, and started making deliveries to Sullivan St customers with no notice of a change of vendor—initially in stockpiled bags with the Sullivan St name and logo, yet. “It was almost the perfect crime!” Lahey says Mario Batali called out to him one day, getting off his Vespa. (A lawsuit Lahey brought against the distributor over money he was owed was settled out of court.) The threat to their business galvanized Lahey and Von Thun Calderón to join in battle, and within a year they had won back many of their lost customers. But after weathering the crisis, the sparring partners split for good two years ago.

Now customers have to choose sides, and going by name and appearance won’t help. Aside from the two apparently twin bakeries and also the former distributor, who all sell to many restaurants and supermarkets, other reputable bakers are selling filones and puglieses—breads that hadn’t existed in New York before Lahey starting selling them. But he didn’t think to invent a word—like, say, frappuccino, which turned out to be the most valuable part of the lamented Coffee Connection chain when Starbucks bought it (or at least the part that Starbucks most valued)—that could be trademarked; instead, he picked names that had other established usages. It would be challenging to trademark them.

Not impossible, though, as Jeffrey Lindenbaum, a lawyer at a firm specializing in intellectual property who represents Lahey, explained to me. A “secondary meaning” of a geographically descriptive term like pugliese (or another kind of term) can be claimed after the product has been in commerce for five years or the manufacturer produces convincing evidence that the name has acquired “distinctiveness.” (Incredibly, numerous bread companies obtained trademarks on names for breads that include the word ciabatta, a common enough Italian term meaning “slipper” that was unknown in this country before Carol Field published a recipe for a then-obscure regional bread. Obviously, enforcing a trademark presents its own set of challenges.) Or, if the appearance of a loaf, like the fat filone, is different from anything else on the market, it can qualify for a “trade dress” trademark (think of a Coke bottle). Or, if the way of making the bread is revolutionary, a baker can apply for a “method patent.”

But Lahey never thought to try for any exotic trademarks or patents. He sought trademark counsel only during the formal split, in which he got the Sullivan St Bakery name and Von Thun Calderón got the original location on Sullivan Street, which she renamed “Grandaisy.” And, as she explained when I visited her at the original premises, “his nature is to change things.” She, by contrast, wanted to keep alive a “beautiful community bakery,” one that would be a “nice place to work.” A former graduate student in anthropology who was raised in Colorado by Bolivian and American parents, Von Thun Calderón calls running a bakery in New York, with its workers from many countries whom she encourages to get professional certification and GEDs, “applied anthropology extraordinaire—we’re an NGO that makes money.”

Both former partners took the high road in a comparative blind tasting I asked each one to do (separately, of course!) of three of their signature breads. They gamely participated, closing their eyes while I cut slices as identical as possible in crumb-to-crust ratio, chewing carefully with their eyes still shut, and not hesitating—going out of their way, in fact—to say when they thought a bread they suspected wasn’t theirs was better. “This has a nice malty flavor to the crust,” Lahey said of a pugliese roll that turned out to be Gran­daisy’s, and called his pizza bianca “woefully underseasoned” (he thought Grandaisy’s was too). Von Thun Calderón thought the crust of Sullivan St’s sesame bread—a poor choice for a comparison, she gently pointed out, “because all you taste is delicious toasted sesame seeds”—was “more complex and layered and chewy” than hers, and wondered why her filone had a wild-yeast smell but didn’t taste as sour as she thought it would. She also wondered why Lahey’s bread was so much yellower than hers, even though she assumed they use the same flour.

The answer gets back to the question of intellectual property. In fact Lahey did come up with a revolutionary bread-making method, one that caused an enormous stir when The New York Times published an article about it: “no-knead” bread, which takes Field’s oft-stated principles of minimal yeast and maximal rising times to days-long extremes. Bloggers couldn’t stop praising the recipe, and it became one of the paper’s most e-mailed articles. Lahey says that readers come to his bakery simply to meet the man who let them have tasty homemade bread on their own tables every day. “It would be nice if they paid me a little something!” he said. “Or at least bought some of my bread.” But they don’t—they love their own bread, they say proudly—and none of the other bakeries that copy him pay him, either.

And in the larger picture, he says, that’s fine. The no-knead method was born at the request of an Italian cook who wanted to serve a Roman-era bread at a Roman-themed dinner, and was Lahey’s attempt to reproduce the most ancient way of making bread. To try to patent it would be absurd. Using the method at his bakery has resulted in a much more tranquil work environment. “What didn’t you hear?” he asked after a few hours of tasting and conversation at a table overlooking the production floor. “The whir-whir of mixers.” The reduced working of the dough results in a yellower crumb—the clearest visual difference between the two bakeries’ breads. Lahey got a book contract as a result of the Times article, and he is about to open a new restaurant called “Co.,” serving pizzas and bread. A successful restaurant can bring the kind of name recognition—and potential for self-branding—that bakeries don’t, no matter how wondrous their breads.

Besides, the market for “craft bread” is so small, he says, that rather than squabble, bakers should do their best to help each other increase sales and steal back sales from the industrial producers that caught on to the idea that “artisanal” bread sells (“I hate the word artisanal”). He wants to start a group called the Craft Bakers’ Association to share knowledge and also use collective buying power—something essential for small bakers, who have been hit by the sudden rise in the price of flour. Since December 2006, Von Thun Calderón says, her flour bills have tripled. In unity there is strength. His former partner, Lahey told me, will be the first baker he asks to join his group.

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Corby Kummer is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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