Grand Central Bakery

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Humble Beginnings, Rich Rewards

The following is a letter co-owner Ben Davis sent to all Grand Central employees on our 20th anniversary in June 2013. We thought it said so much about our bakery that we asked him to share it with the community.

Bob Kerr and Ben Davis (right), at GCB Hawthorne in 1993.

Bob Kerr and Ben Davis (right), at GCB Hawthorne in 1993.

Greetings Grand Central, As we wrap up our 20th year of business in Portland, I would like to share with you all some of my thoughts about our humble and often bumbling beginnings.  My start at Grand Central came after returning from another summer of fishing in Alaska, driving from Homer to Denver in six days in my trusty 1982 Corolla to attend graduate school in cartography at Metro State College.  A bum knee was relieved by driving The Alcan highway with my left foot out the window, occasionally getting smacked by some large Yukon insect. Finally arriving in Denver, I suffered through a doubtful first week, wondering if mapmaking and surveying was something I was meant to do. One morning I abruptly walked out of class, ran to my unfurnished apartment, bought my 20-year-old roommate who I did not know a case of Coors, left it on the counter with a note he needed find a new roommate, and drove out of town not looking back.  I slept that night outside of Rock Springs, Wyoming, in some rancher’s field.  That knee-jerk decision would eventually lead me to helping out as a night baker at the new Division II bakery on East Marginal Way in Seattle, where I fell in love with the craft of baking and started learning what I could about my mother’s business over the next 18 months. I was living with Bob Kerr at the time and convinced him to quit his suit-and-tie job working in the Columbia Center in downtown Seattle and join me in starting a new Grand Central Bakery operation in Portland, Ore.  The year was 1992.  After many trips to Portland looking for locations, I stumbled across the newly vacated Dragonfly Nursery at 2230 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. My intent was to open a wholesale bakery with possibly a small retail where a baker could ring up the occasional loaf of bread in his or her apron.  However, this location on Hawthorne was calling for a more formal retail presence, so we carved out what space we could for it.   An eight-door hearth oven sat 6 feet behind the espresso machine with loaves of crackling bread within earshot of customers waiting for their latte…which was usually a long time because the espresso machine was always breaking down.

A former nursery on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard became the first Grand Central Bakery Portland.

A former nursery on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard became the first Grand Central Bakery Portland.

he bakery sold out by 1 p.m. on the first day of business, June 11, 1993. That's co-owner Claire Randall next to the potted tree!

The bakery sold out by 1 p.m. on the first day of business, June 11, 1993. That’s co-owner Claire Randall next to the potted tree!

Bob and I hired Claire Randall to manage retail and be our sales manager. When we opened on June 11, 1993, we all were totally unprepared for the response.  All 11 of us (Bob, Claire and I plus 8 employees) got hammered by customers flocking in. We ended up closing the door around 1 p.m. with absolutely nothing more to sell.  The last item rung up was a piece of Polly Wedding Cake, created by our baker Krista Grimm. We stared at each other all thinking, “What the hell was that?!”  But it was good problem to have. The next couple of years were pretty much a bleary-eyed blur for me.  Working 12-14 hours days was the norm.  My favorite part was riding my bike (same blue Tera Tech bike I have today) in to start the day’s bake at 5 a.m., then 4 a.m., then 3 a.m. as the bakes got bigger and bigger.  I would pedal down Hawthorne in the middle of the road all alone in the dark and hope the Como was not over-proofed in the walk-in.  When it rained, I wore my Alaska rain gear — yellow Helly-Hansen with Extra Tough rubber boots — which would waft out remnant smells of fish if I started to sweat.  Years later I learned the bread crew would call me “Big Bird” amongst themselves.  Good name for a 6’8” guy in a yellow rubber suit.  If they knew what it smelled like in that thing, they might have called me Pelican.

Bob and Ben 20 years later, still co-workers and fast friends.

Bob and Ben 20 years later, still co-workers and fast friends.

After a year, we started hitting our stride.  We hired more people weekly and grew trying to keep up with demands of retail and wholesale.  I’m not sure how we got to the size we are today; it was never planned, that’s for sure, but our growth to date came from what felt right at the time and what we could handle. There have been so many impressive people who have helped make GCB what it is through the years.  The contributions by past and present employees through hard work, creative ideas and dedication amaze me.  This place is so much bigger than any one person, most certainly me.  It is all of us, past and present, so thanks for that. Seeing us all “grow up” personally and professionally over the years is one of the wonders GCB has allowed — the relationships formed, families started, houses purchased, folks going off to start their own bakeries and career paths is all so rewarding to witness. The warp and weft of interpersonal connections that make up the fabric of this place are strong and have become an important part of this city.  Grand Central Bakery touches many people every day in some form or another.  We should all be proud of that.  It’s a good thing. Thanks to you all for the ride. Cheers, Ben