“Where should I eat while I’m visiting Atlanta?”
It’s a question I hear all the time. It may seem cliché to those who favor the latest dining fad or the undiscovered gem, but when friends or strangers ask for an Atlanta recommendation, I point them in the direction of Holeman & Finch Public House.
It would be fair to say that the Holeman & Finch brand is one of the foremost culinary and libation brands in Atlanta, perhaps the Southeast. What began as a little known, late night industry hangout across the street from the swank Restaurant Eugene, transformed into the go-to eat and drink spot for chefs, epicures, and yuppy cocktailians alike.
The burger has received more press than pink slime. Any decent article about spirits may be lucky enough to get a quote from Greg Best or Andy Minchow. And the tiny kitchen manages to push out an impressive array of charcuterie, offal, hand cut pasta, and ever-changing specials like hot chicken and ramen ‘noodles’ made of pork skin. They even cook a few vegetables, quite nicely in fact.
In the five years since the opening of the Public House, Linton and a variety of partners have expanded with H&F Bread Company, H&F Bottleshop, and they also run the Peachtree Road Farmers Market, the seminal farmers market in the city. Simply put, I eat and drink better – smarter, more local, with broader tastes and food understanding – because of the team behind Holeman & Finch.
When the original retail front of H&F Bread Company opened just a few doors down from the mother ship, I would occasionally drop in for bagels, baguette, pizza dough, or little black sesame crisps that were silly addictive. Within a year they were closed. I thought it a failed experiment. That they suffered due to a poor location, the common fate of so many storefronts. It turned out running a demanding retail shop was a distraction from their primary goal – to transform the wholesale bread industry in Atlanta.
It wasn’t too long after the closing that I first met Rob Alexander, head baker of H&F Bread Company. Rob has an enthusiasm for wine, particularly the dangerously lovely Burgundy, and when one has the Côte de Nuits fever, the city becomes smaller and you are bound to run into other folks of like mind.
The first thing you notice when talking with Rob is that his passion is palpable. With the unmistakable quirk of a savant, he will tell you of his passion for fermentation, the time he spent in France as a baker’s apprentice, or some new product he is excited about releasing. And his product is superb. When someone asks me what to order at the Public House, but even if they don’t, I tell them, unequivocally, that they should order the bread box. It seems an odd choice, and many expect bread to be free, but the mixed assortment of delicious carbs is absolutely worth the small price of admission.
I recently got together with Rob and talked with him a bit about his career in baking, and how it came to be. Like many artisans, I knew Rob would have an interesting story, and I wondered if he always knew he would end up as a baker. He was quick to say that wasn’t necessarily the case, though later in life he realized it was possibly a childhood dream forgotten. He recalled a memory of a Christmas ornament his parents gave him as a young boy, a reindeer with a baker’s hat and a whisk, but it wasn’t until after high school, while hiking the Appalachian Trail, that he began to plot his career in the culinary field.
After his sojourn up the East Coast, Rob sought out inspiration the old fashioned way – at the bookstore. “Part of the story is that I decided to be a cook, a chef, and I was in the cooking section of the bookstore and I saw a book called Bread Alone by Dan Leader, and because of that book and the story and the romance and the pictures I was like, this is it – this is what I want to do, because at that time I knew it was something I had passion for. I didn’t choose it because it was the road less traveled, but it turned out to be significantly the case.”
Rob looked into the C.I.A. and some other schools, but bread programs he found were often in industrial baking. Rob put it bluntly – “There was no clear path to become a bread maker in America like there is in Europe. It’s not part of our culture to buy bread regularly every day, or every other day. We have an expectation that the bread should last for 5 days or a week in a plastic bag.” Though he does comment this is changing with the advent of the farmers markets, “More and more people are finding that they enjoy shopping that way.”
But Rob eventually found The Bread Bakers Guild of America, a non-profit which promotes the principles and quality of artisan baked goods. From there, Rob learned of a school in Minnesota called the National Baking Center, with some of the nation’s foremost authorities on artisan baking. But an internship with the school had a catch – “I had to be employed and have references and letters of recommendation for eighteen months before being accepted in the program. At this time I was working in a small kind of town square shop in Chattanooga, as an apprentice baker. “
He quickly found out that not everyone at his new shop had the same approach towards baking as he did. “I was placed with a bread baker, and…I protested, if you will, to management, that he wasn’t doing things I had read in Dan’s book – it wasn’t real bread, so they moved me to work with the pastry chef. My foundation is actually in pastry.”
In 1998 Rob found a way to get a work permit to France through the International Educational Exchange. The program required Rob be an active student, so he enrolled at a local community college in order to be eligible. Of his ‘quick’ trip to France, Rob said, “I got a 90 day work permit and ended up staying the whole year.”
Rob spent his time in France in the Pre-Alpes region, an area called the Drone – the lower half considered Provence, the upper half more mountainous. “It’s an Agricultural region. I worked in a little bakery in the Village of St Tomas and Royans, and it’s a valley. The village has 300 people and I joke that 150 of them lived underground because I never knew they existed. There was only a small cafe, the bakery, and the church, the rest were houses.”
When asked if he spoke French before his exchange, Rob laughed, “I brushed up on my French and actually got my teacher to write a letter along with my application for the work permit, saying that I spoke intermediate level of French, however…it was a little bit of a stretch, I’ll admit.”
In the little village near the Alps, Rob found an experience many bakers would relish. “I lived with a family, their house was adjacent to the bakery and I got up in the morning to feed the starter and go back up and have lunch and take a nap in the afternoon and start working at four in the afternoon. It was a cultural immersion, I consider myself lucky. Had I found a job in Paris then I, probably like most people, would have gravitated towards English speaking people. I was kind of a novelty for the community.”
Rob returned from France in 1999 and finally obtained the internship through the National Baking Center, eager to continue his education, “Instructors there were very good, and I was a gopher.”
After returning from Europe, Rob was looking for his next destination, and heard of a Frenchman opening a bakery in Raleigh. “I agreed to work for probably the cheapest that I’ve ever done. I told them I’d only stay for a year. I made it real clear. I wanted to work at different bakeries and experience different regions, I wanted to go Montreal.”
The tenure in Raleigh ended up being eighteen months, after which Rob returned to France for another six months, honing and sharing his skills. He returned home to Chattanooga, charged with opening a bakery for a prominent local family. It was after this time that Rob landed his highest profile position to date – corporate baker for all of Thomas Keller’s operations, encompassing Per Se, Bouchon, and The French Laundry.
For contractual reasons of non-disclosure, Rob can’t talk about the experience with Keller’s empire, though the brief time of the job certainly had an effect. “It was very tough. I was so excited to be part of his organization and out in Napa Valley, and I had moved my family out there. The next morning I went out and knocked on some doors and found a family that are very well liked and respected in St. Helena…this family saw the potential in me to help their company.”
After three years with Model Bakery in Napa, Rob and his family returned home to Chattanooga. While working locally, Rob found the ad for Holeman & Finch on Craigslist. “I’ve found almost all my jobs, like with Thomas Keller, on Craigslist.”
Rob won the position with H&F after meeting with Linton (“We talked for hours, I can get going”), though his family remained in Tennessee. Even now Rob continues to travel back and forth multiple times a week from Chattanooga, spending many nights in an apartment near Restaurant Eugene.
Now with a few years of experience, and outstanding growth, H&F Bread Company could perhaps be called Atlanta’s first superstar wholesale provider to local restaurants. The oft-seen window sticker, with its recognizable bird and soft shade of green is a badge of honor, their name has become a footnote below dish descriptions, a clear and recognizable quality which restaurants desire. Demand has quickly outpaced supply.
At the time of our first meeting, H&F Bread Co. was preparing to move to a much larger location on the Westside, as they were at maximum capacity with a lengthy waiting list of restaurants. In talking with Rob, he seemed quite up to the task of ramping up production of numerous specialized orders while maintaining quality. “It’s a challenge – the customer is always right. I try to keep it under control, but we are maxed out. When we move, I think I’ll be reinvigorated with more excitement and certainly more financial opportunity.”
H&F Bread has been operating in the new Ellsworth Drive facility for a few weeks, and I’ve since had the chance to visit. It is quite impressive. A harried team of bakers is working around the clock, and in this short time they’ve increased production by around 40% with little addition of labor. The workshop is pristine, with larger ovens, temperature and humidity controlled fermentation rooms, impossibly giant mixing bowls, and numerous other “toys” not often seen in small scale baking operations. And they still have plenty of room to add more of everything. This is clearly a large investment, a speculation that H&F Bread will greatly exceed this current success – a level of production no one else in Atlanta can match.
Though he appreciated the accolades I offered once he pointed out the bread I was eating during our lunch meeting was his, Rob was quick to point out the solid team behind their achievements, the growing, dedicated staff putting in the hours every day, Linton and Gina for setting a standard of quality in their brand, but he also emphasized the amazing performance of customer service and the sales representatives, led by Barb Pires. “For me, building a successful business transcends a good product.”
While I appreciate Rob’s humility, it’s easy to understate the product when H&F Bread Co. is better than good. Rob has been an important part of changing the way we eat, purchase, and celebrate bread in Atlanta, and for that I am glad his long journey has brought him here.