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    How Great Harvest Took its Bread-Making Prowess National

  • By milling its flour fresh every day since 1976, Great Harvest has systemized bread-making as a nationwide brand.

    Great Harvest (3)
    Janet Tatarka, Great Harvest director of bakery-café training; Cranberry Orange (top) and Dakota breads.

    At 200-unit bakery-café chain Great Harvest Bread Company, 28-year brand veteran Janet Tatarka wears many hats. Technically, she is the director of bakery-café training, but what that means falls into two big buckets of tasks, she says. First, she manages the training of Great Harvest’s new Freedom Franchise owners, which begins with a three-week intensive course at the brand’s Dillon, Montana, headquarters and ends six months after the store is open. She oversees the larger services the brand offers its franchisees, like sourcing the wheat berries that will be milled store-by-store and baked into the Dakota Bread and Cranberry Orange loaves across the country. Second, Tatarka oversees the Great Harvest R&D team. Here’s what it looks like to manage an in-house bread program on Great Harvest’s scale.


    What does Freedom Franchise mean at Great Harvest?

    If you go to the extreme, a bakery owner could do whatever they wanted in their store, but, at the same time, people are still coming to us because of the help and systems that we have in place. Within a Freedom Franchise concept, there are very few things that we require from a bakery owner: They hang our signage, pay their royalty, and buy wheat berries from us that they then fresh-grind from scratch every day. That’s it. For the most part, people are selecting from the range of recipes that we have tested, but if the bakery owners have their grandma’s recipe that they want to scale up and put in their store, they’re more than welcome to do that.

    Can you walk me through your wheat-sourcing process?

    When we are sourcing wheat, we’re looking for performance and taste. When you think about the coffee industry, they always have this person going around the globe to find the perfect cup of coffee. That’s what we’re doing with the wheat berries. There’s a ton of varieties of wheats out there, and they all have certain characteristics. For us, they have to grind right in-store every day, they have to have the right flavor, and they have to have bake-ability.

    We’re a Montana-based company, and we’re very proud of the fact that we’re able to source that wheat in Montana. Because wheat’s a natural product, you have a whole crop year—it could be too dry, too wet, too cold. Whatever’s going on, you can’t limit yourself, so we can go other places if we need to, but our strong preference is that we source here in Montana. There’s an area called the Golden Triangle, and that’s our sweet spot. We have had relationships with farmers and distributors up there for years. We go through the buying and testing process every fall and buy enough wheat to get through another year. There are some years when Mother Nature has played nice and we can get through that process pretty quickly. There are other times when things didn’t go the way they should, so we just keep working to find the right wheat.

    What is the biggest challenge in managing a bread program of this magnitude?

    We can—and we have—systematized a lot of the process, but it’s still bread made fresh from scratch every single day. The art of it is the biggest challenge, because there’s an aspect of feeling the dough. I can have the recipe written out, but we’re grinding this flour fresh. The weather, the stars, and the moon—how did they line up today? It changes things. From feeling the dough to proofing to just making the call at the oven when it’s done, it’s still the call of that person doing it. And with unemployment at an all-time low, finding people at the bakery position is getting a lot more challenging, let alone somebody who has that passion and really, really cares about it.

    How have you overcome that hiring challenge?

    That’s ongoing, for sure. Honestly, it has to start with a passionate owner. That creates a really great work environment and, without that, it’s never going to happen.

    Where do you see bread trending?

    There’s a bit of a renaissance for bread right now. Consumers are getting a lot more savvy. They want bread with substance. They’re tired of fluffy stuff that doesn’t have any flavor to it. Everyday bread will get a bit healthier. At the same time, when I want to treat myself, I want that Cheddar Garlic loaf or Extreme Cinnamon Swirl loaf. I think the indulgent can be sweet and savory.