Amy Scherber '82
St Olaf Magazine
September 1, 2004

The New York Breadmaker is preserving a tradition, one loaf at a time.

Flour, water, salt, yeast: Only four ingredients comprise a loaf of bread. But anyone who has tried to bake a loaf at home knows that while it is easy to make bread (or some approximate), it is difficult to make great bread. And it's nearly impossible to make money making great bread, given the cost of equipment, labor and ingredients.

Amy Scherber '82 has found a way. In 12 years, Scherber's eponymous company, Amy's Bread, has grown from a tiny storefront in a rough Manhattan neighborhood to a multimillion-dollar business with three retail outlets and a wholesale business that supplies the city's best restaurants.

A loaf of bread is an apt metaphor for Scherber's business success. She combined several ingredients of her St. Olaf experience, let the mixture ferment for a few years and baked it off in French bakeries and the kitchens of Bouley and Mondrian — two of Manhattan's top restaurants — until Amy's Bread was ready to be broken.

“I knew I wanted to open my own business, but I didn't know it would be a bakery," Scherber says. "I didn't think during college that everything would piece together like it did, but I ended up using all parts of my education. Economics gave me the basic knowledge of how to build a business. Psychology has helped me deal with 110 employees. It's been invaluable, really, because staffing is the most demanding part of running a business. My art classes fueled my creative side, and I've designed the logos and visual aspects of our stores. And working in the cafeteria all those years showed me that I love being around food."

Scherber, who grew up in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, moved to New York after gradua-tion to work at a marketing firm. Longing to be her own boss, she left after three years and enrolled in the New York Restaurant School, where she discovered an aptitude for bak-ing. "So much of being a successful baker is intuitive problem-solving," she says. "Each day you face different conditions, and you're always making adjustments. Consistency is the ultimate goal. Knowing how to problem-solve gets you closer to it."

Having settled on bread as her medium, Scherber moved to France and learned to bake from the masters. There, she discovered what plagues the bread industry in her own country and abroad: In search of greater output and profits, bakers have swapped artisinal techniques for commercial automation. The result is ersatz baguettes — bland, unyielding loaves with pale yellow crusts and cottony white insides. Pain industriel.

She returned to New York and found work as a baker and chef, forming a business plan on her days off. Scherber decided to bake using traditional methods and the best ingredients available, which is why Amy's Bread is more than a business. It keeps alive a tradition.

Instead of using commercial yeast, which rises quickly and develops little flavor, Scherber decided on a natural sourdough starter, known in the business as levain. (Like grapes in winemaking, a good starter is a product of its terroir, its origin and environment. One of Scherber's starters can be traced back more than a century to a farm in Idaho.) She found the best flour and ingredients available, organic whenever possible. The result is a selection of artisan specialty breads, from simple rustic country loaves to her signature semolina with golden raisin and fennel breads.

Scherber chose an unconventional location for her first bakery — a tiny 650-square-foot storefront in Hell's Kitchen, a neighborhood that embodied its moniker back in 1992. "I used to bake until 3 or 6 in the morning, and in those days the streets were filled with the drug dealers and prostitutes who had been pushed out of Times Square," she recalls. "When I was done with work I'd get on my bicycle and ride out the door really fast and zoom home, because I thought no one could catch me that way."

Hell's Kitchen has since become one of the city's more upscale communities, and Scherber's business, now expanded to 1,300 square feet, has flourished along with it. In 1996 she opened a second, larger facility in Chelsea Market, where her staff bakes about 6,000 pounds of dough a day. In 2001 she opened a third store near Central Park on Lexing-ton Avenue, a popular lunch stop for uptowners shopping the city's tony boutiques.

Scherber has won a host of accolades, including a 1999 Business Owner of the Year award from the New York chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners and a nomination for best pastry chef/baker by the James Beard Foundation, which puts her among the upper crust of American bakers.

Scherber credits her college education for her ability to develop a loyal and motivated staff, in an industry where turnover is outrageous. "At St. Olaf, everybody's competitive and hard-working, but honest and fair and respectful," she explains. "When you leave and go out into the working world, you expect that from other people."

By Nick Fauchald ’01
Nick Fauchald '01 writes and eats bread in Manhattan, where he is an editor at Wine Spectator magazine.