The Philadelphia area is known for a number of foodstuffs; cheesesteaks, soft pretzels, the historic Italian market, but Pete Merzbacher of Philly Bread is determined to make Philly known for its bread.
Pete came to the Philly en route of western Massachusetts, where he had access to Hungry Ghost Bread, a local bread bakery near his college campus. “It’s the kind of bread you can enjoy without olive oil or butter – I was known to eat almost an entire loaf on my way back home on the bus,” says Pete.
After graduating, Pete took a job at Talula’s Garden in Center City where he learned a number of kitchen fundamentals, such as cooking homemade stock, blanching vegetables, roasting chicken, and scrambling eggs to perfection. Bread, however, he learned to bake through trial and error. “When I started to bake bread, I tried to match the taste of Hungry Ghost bread. After much experimentation and with the help of the Tartine Cookbook, I found a recipe that brought me closer to the Hungry Ghost taste I know.”
Philly Bread started as a CSA model, delivering loaves of bread by bike to its members. The support from CSA members allowed Pete to expand his business into a wholesale retailer.
Pete relies on Castle Valley Mill for non GMO, stone-ground grains. “If the goal is to make the very best bread, then you can only use the freshest and best grains.” Each loaf is carefully crafted with minimal machinery. “Every step of the process other than mixing is done by hand. There’s no machine that compromises the quality of a baker’s hands.”
One of Philly Bread’s most popular items is his notorious Philly muffin. A play on the traditional English muffin, Philly muffins were created by accident. “I had old dough and a hot skillet. I put the two together and my roommates loved the final product. It turns out everyone else did too.” It’s a muffin anyone can enjoy – the size, texture, and the mild sour taste all contribute to the Philly muffin’s perfection.
His secret to great bread? Pete credits his employees. “The whole staff is passionate which is critical.”
As a growing business, Philly Bread has had its fair share of challenges. Right now, distribution remains at the top of that list. “As we grow we are looking for partners to distribute our product. The less time we dedicate towards distribution challenges, the more time we get to spend making excellent breads.”
Pete is optimistic about Philly Bread’s future but also the Philadelphia area’s relationship to bread as a whole. “Someday the world will see the Philadelphia region as the more than the home of the cheesesteak. But more broadly I want Philly Bread to be known as the bread with a unique flair.” Pete continues to push boundaries in his bread baking abilities and he continues to ask, “Baguettes will never vanish, but did innovation end there?”
Philly Bread is a new producer of slow fermented sourdough bread and aims to make bread lovers in San Francisco, Paris, and Munich jealous of Philadelphia. Find Philly Muffins in the bakery department of the Swarthmore Co-op and other local area co-ops.