Interview with Thanos Petalotis of Bread Is Gold.
What are you doing here?
We are offering local bread that is made out of purely hyperlocal organic ingredients. Flours we find in the periphery of Berlin up to 100 km from city. Our intention is to present bread in a totally different way to make sure people appreciate the simplicity and beauty of bread and give it the right level of attention it deserves.
Through the retail store we want to make sure people get a closer look at what bread is about. We don’t only convey the knowledge about bread but also we are a bridge between people. They come in and share their personal story and affection towards bread.
Equally important is to appeal to human senses. That you come in and have the smell of bread and also taste and feel bread to build an emotional connection to bread.
Another element is to connect people through bread by making sure the space is inviting and people can walk freely and meet on eye level. It is more a destination than a store, a place you meet and ask questions and exchange stories.
Everybody has a story to share because everyone eats bread. There are lots of rituals around bread. That’s why the topic is interesting.
My partner, Kolja Orzeszko, Collie and I used to work for many years in a corporate environment, a multinational company, and had lots of responsibilities: a large team, budget responsibilities, making global decisions. It was a role you aspire to. And then over the past years we noticed that that it did do not reflect who we are or what we strive to do. The corporate environment limits your creativity and where you would like to move. You can’t use all your capabilities. Usually you are restricted to a specialized role and knowledge. Most importantly it’s a job that doesn’t give you a sense of purpose. It’s repetition of mundane tasks. At the end of the day the content and pattern are repeating.
The company got a new CEO and thus person wanted to focus on cost saving activities. This killed space for creativity and vision. Collier and I then decided to leave and start our own venture that gave purpose and ability to follow our passion and creativity, to explore and take decisions.
How did you decide what to do?
We sought a topic. We were working for a sports company. We thought health is super exciting. providing health services. But then we decided it was too complicated and stigmatizing. It lacks the lightness and joy that you strive for in a new enterprise. Collier had a dream of a bread store. I thought it was weird. There’s bread on every corner.
Then I had an inspiring conversation with my parents over breakfast. My father said “the bread is bad” and I tried to understand why my father thought it was bad. My mother referred to how bread brings people together. It’s on the table. You share. I was fascinated by the social element. This is super relevant in today’s world. Social media is not social. Bread is warm, it appeals to the senses, it has depth.
Tell me about the experience of work
One difference I notice is that every day is different. We do everything, from carrying boxes to supporting the bakers, selling, marketing, speak to farmers. We combine many different roles. Our job is highly unpredictable. We do everything. It’s hard to know what will be necessary, the content is diverse.
The job is very human. Less interaction with devices. People are here and they ask you questions directly. You speak to them face to face. Not artificial or technological, but direct human interactions. We are not only talking to senior Vice Presidents. Some are homeless. Diverse people. Elderly and lonely people spend time here. Others just want the bread. We deal with characters. This job is very different to a corporate environment, where people have the same background.
The labor is very physical. We made jokes. There’s no hotline. Fix it yourself. Make sure you fix your stuff. Also there are constraints.
How do the constraints feel different?
Here budget constraints are source of creativity. They spark new ideas. Lets create our own shelf.
In the corporate environment budget constraints result in things like lack of ability to do research. It takes away elements of your work. It means a lack of investment into future opportunities. That takes out the inspirational part.
Here to achieve an objective you have few means. In corporate environment, the objective is taken away from you.
Tell me about the math, the scale of the business?
The digital context is about scale. We take a different approach. It was important for us to start on small scale. We have an idea. We don’t know if it works. In the corporate environment you throw money at marketing agencies. We want to make our own experiences. We have destiny in our hand. So we wanted to start at a small scale, testing without risk. Everything you see here is upcycled or bought for very little money to create a sense of what we want to achieve.
We don’t have our own infrastructure. We don’t own our bakery or assets or trucks. We rent these things. We want to validate the ideas first. The bakery is owned by baker and we use part of his capacity. He works at night. We bake in the day.
We also spoke about growth. Our intention is not quantitative growth, but qualitative growth. We want to reach people with our message, with quality products. Our breads are special.
We are closed Monday and Tuesday to have the space for reflection and to drive new initiatives and ideas.
How did you decide the price?
We stayed with the market but also calculated our costs to be sustainable economically. €5 is fair. We don’t want to exclude people. The price is not an absolute figure. It’s a nice value proposition. If you put into context nutrition, taste, conversation, and it lasts longer.
The founders are not getting paid yet, but the workers are. We opened in March. We have some time before expecting to get paid. We said that we will put the money back into the business. We are changing things as we go along, instead of taking money for ourselves.
Tell me about the product
When we looked at breads today we had the impression that offerings have an industrial character. The ingredients are homogenic. The taste is neutralized. The taste the same. It’s difficult to understand what is behind the bread.
We started our journey by interviewing 70 strangers in the streets. We asked “What’s your view on bread?” These were eye-opening insights we generated. Lots of people shared their frustrations: digestion, lack of access to good bread, the offerings are not what they want.
How do we translate these concerns into a new edge, new and creative to existing offerings? What is important is people having access to high quality bread. People lack trust to the offerings. Behind every offering is a person you can relate to and trust.
We don’t import the flour. Let’s use single origin flour. No blends. Attach someone’s name to each flour we receive. There is our farmer who we met and talked to. We create connection between producer and consumer. We took the analogy from coffee: direct trade and single origin. The difference with coffee is that everything happens locally.
A key element is long fermentation. Conventional bakers do it quickly. Long ferment creates costs. We work with the dough differently. Industrial production generates quick turnover and standard processes. It affects the crust and crumb. It also affects digestion.
Tell me about how it feels to have your loaf in your own hands?
It’s more than in my hands. It’s the moment it’s in the oven. Once it’s baked I get joy just looking at it. I see the work that has been put in by the farmer and baker. Ben, our baker says the truth comes out of the oven. The product is a source of truth. All the work you have done is visible.
Why do people buy from you and what do they say?
This is crazy but people say it reminds them of home or their childhood. It’s not confined to Germans. We only use local ingredients. But it reminds them of bread in Portugal. It sparks emotions you cannot explain in a rational way, emotions you cannot explain.
One person tasted it and he got goosebumps. Not because of the taste, but because it reminds him of childhood.
In these magic moments, everything you’ve done makes sense and has purpose. It’s more than making money. It’s the qualitative aspect. This gives people the chance to have this kind of experience. It sparks different thought processes. They have appreciation of high quality products. It transforms the way we perceive food. It takes out the commercial side and focuses on the qualitative side.
Why should people trust us? We ask ourselves what is it that people feel or see in us or the store?
It’s a very focused selection. 2 breads: Wheat and rye. We will stop at 4. The 4th one is to tell stories with rotation. The third is a seeded bread.
People trust us because we can explain to everyone where the grain comes from. We know the farmers. We work with the bakers. We have a personal connection. This makes us credible. A conventional bakery has sellers doing transaction. Give you bread, ask you to pay and that’s it. This automatically shows how engaged we are. People trust and come in and come regularly.
Sometimes things can be improved. Conversations with customers. And select it and offer it to people. I see joy in their face. It’s a magic moment. I can make people happy by giving them something simple that sparks emotions.
Do you have connections with other artisans?
We have not started exploring that network. We did have some support with the host baker. Other bakers were inspired.
We do have interesting networks with farmers. There are young farmers who want to take a different approach. We meet them a lot. A young farmer wants to change the focus of the farm to organic grains and test altesorte (old varieties). He is in the northeast of Berlin. There’s a farm who does dairy cows with horns. They allow the babies to stay with the mother. Inspiring. This is the network we want to explore further. Not just bakers, but young farmers and consumers who want to demonstrate sustainable and healthy approach to food, sustainable restaurants and consumers. We are inspired by this network, exchanging ideas.
The window presents bread as jewelry.
Bread for us is an emotional product. How do we give it the level of attention it deserves? And how can we present bread in a different way? If we look at conventional bakeries, they stuff the bread on to one shelf. How do we make it a product you really desire, that triggers emotions and also reflect on traditional consumption and connect to bread in a different way?
Something that surprised me about the journey is how relevant this kind of area is nowadays. Berlin and San Francisco are driven by digital start-up economy. People are in it to make lots of money and make an exit. In this fast-paced world people are looking for very simple things they can discover and appreciate. Something tangible that you can see, smell, touch. People want to reconnect with their senses, take away this technical determinism. Use nature and show how nature is something we should preserve. Enjoy something simple in a meaningful way, rather than chasing or creating another scalable digital solution. Nowadays people want deeper connection than a social media like. If people need slices we do it by hand.
The ingredients are simple but the connotations are not.
Water salt flour sourdough.