Near the intersection of University Boulevard and Central Expressway in Dallas, you’ll see DART tracks, a body shop and a big parking garage. A gas station. A Jack in the Box.
And you’ll smell the delicious aroma of freshly baked bread.
Empire Baking Company occupies a warehouse-looking building where the front and side doors are always locked. It’s Willy Wonka’s version of bread-making: busy and even a little magical, and not open unless you’ve been invited.
The better place to find Empire Baking Company’s bread is, well, everywhere else. In addition to a retail store on West Lovers Lane in Dallas, Empire has built a bread empire in Dallas-Fort Worth. It supplies bread for the Adolphus hotel in downtown Dallas, the Mansion, Al Biernat’s, Goodfriend Beer Garden & Burger House, Parigi and many other restaurants. The company's employees bake hundreds of hamburger buns, baguettes and dinner rolls for huge hotels like Hyatt and Sheraton in downtown Dallas.
It’s not all pinkies-up kinds of places, either: Empire supplies those wacky 10-inch hamburger buns for the giant sandwiches at the home of the Texas Rangers.
Suffice it to say that much of the best bread you’ve eaten at notable restaurants in Dallas probably started in Empire Baking Company’s kitchen.
Chefs love the company because, they say, Empire makes some of the best bread in town.
“I don't have the facility to make as much bread as I need,” says Robert Lyford, market chef for Patina Green in downtown McKinney and an Empire customer. He’s known for being obsessive about sourcing the products he uses in his restaurant.
“I say, do what you’re good at and have the pros do what they’re good at,” he says. With Empire, "I'm starting with a better product than I could produce myself.”
Behind the bread
Empire’s co-founder Meaders Ozarow says she’s “intimidated by bread.” When she and her husband, Robert Ozarow, opened Empire in 1992 in Dallas, they hired bread makers to make a product they believed restaurateurs wanted. They loved to eat great bread, but they were not bakers.
“I’m in awe,” Meaders says as a team of her pastry chefs tosses baguettes into a hot oven.
Making bread is complicated. On one visit to Empire, two pastry chefs stood in front of a 12-deck oven at 460 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Each baguette baked for about 10 minutes, unless it was situated in a hot spot, which requires extra attention. Each deck of bread was on a different, and non-existent, timer. It was a well-choreographed dance as the pastry chefs scored the baguettes, tossed them in, shuffled them around and pulled them out.
“Everything, pretty much, is by eye,” Ozarow says.
Said another way: This is not a job you could learn in an hour or two.
The pastries and breads wheeled out of the bakery are puffy and pretty. They don’t give away the fact that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of variables that could make that day’s bake go wrong.
The bakers are constantly thinking about the humidity. (Which they know “by feel,” they explain.) And the water temperature. (55 degrees, which, in the summer, requires adding ice to water before it’s mixed in bowls so large, a giant could eat cereal in them.) And timing. (The bakery is open 24/7/365. Even on Christmas.)
Empire Baking Company turns out 15,000 “pieces” a day, on average. That includes small items like croissants and larger ones like focaccia.
The recipes thrive on seven starters, the foundation of every bread product. Starters are made of flour, salt and water, which naturally ferment to become the “mother” — the beginning step to everything Empire makes. What’s more, starters can die, so someone at Empire needs to “feed” the starters every six hours.
What if somebody forgets?
“It has never happened,” Ozarow says. In the bakery’s 25 years, employees of all kinds have been tasked with feeding the starters, from bakers to salespeople to the cleaning crew.
Bread’s role in Dallas
In the beginning, Ozarow says she “was begging people to come.” Chefs would tell her that they give bread away for free at their restaurants. Why should they pay for Empire’s?
Bread is hard to make well, that’s why. Time consuming, too.
“It’s totally worth it,” says Graham Dodds, a Dallas chef who oversees the culinary operations at the Statler hotel’s restaurants and bars. He buys Empire’s product because it is better than what they could make themselves.
“They are always consistent,” he says. “I can always depend on them to be exactly the same every time.”
Today, Empire has been able to find chefs and foodies who believe in paying for bread. The company is also on the front end of interesting trends.
Sliders, for instance, were once hard to find. But now these small burger buns are on restaurant menus everywhere, and Empire makes 1,000 slider buns for restaurants in Dallas per day.
Same goes with brioche buns: Those are made with challah dough, and Empire has been making them since Day 1. But today? “Now even Jack in the Box has a brioche bun!” Ozarow says.
Empire now makes something like 550 baguettes, 3,500 hamburger buns and 220 croissants every day. Next time you’re at a restaurant, biting into a slice of cranberry-cinnamon walnut bread or sourdough, you’d be right to wonder: Did this come from that shop on University Boulevard?