Portland’s iconic bakery is built on the strength of a baguette.
Bakery is my favorite word in the English language. It signals sweet anticipation, the scent of sugar, yeast, and warmth. Standard Baking Company fulfills that promise perfectly. There’s nothing precious, no glass cases filled with fussy pastries. Instead, there’s a certain Maine rusticity, breads on wood and metal shelves, sticky morning buns nestled next to blueberry scones, tucked up beside the most remarkable pecan financiers and heavenly pistachio croissants. Most mornings there’s a line out the door of the compact storefront: locals coming in for their coffee and treat, or out-of-town visitors who have read about Standard as a Portland must-try. The line moves quickly, as customers can’t wait to get outside, open the bag, and take that first bite of buttery deliciousness.
No matter how charming a bakery is, it’s also a business. It’s taken owners Alison Pray and Matt James almost 23 years to make Standard the place it is today. It all started with an “infamous trip,” I’m told, as I sit with the couple, listening to the story of their success. “We took a month-long trip to France and Tuscany. I had never been overseas,” says James. “It was eye-opening,” Pray continues. “The caliber of pastries and the skill involved in bread baking were so elevated, unlike anything I’d seen. What also struck me was the community aspect.” In Europe, it’s not unusual for every neighborhood to have its own bakery, where the bakers know you by name and whether you prefer your baguette pale or bien cuit (well-done). Pray had an interest in community development, and noticed that bakeries created better neighborhoods in cities and villages. “I wanted to learn to bake traditional European- style breads,” she says. Her enthusiasm helped her land a job and apprenticeship at Clear Flour Bread in Brookline, Massachusetts, where for three years she learned and perfected her skills. James joined her later, learning to bake bread as well. Previously he had worked for Dana Street at his Old Port restaurant, Street and Co. When the couple was ready to make the move back to Portland, Street helped fund the first Standard Baking Co. on Wharf Street in April of 1995. The space was a former woodshop, raw and in need of renovation. They purchased used equipment, except a new German bread mixer that Pray felt was essential to making the best bread possible. The space was hot, and so small that customers were forced to duck when Pray used the long bread peel. There was no signage, but an open door releasing the aroma of freshly baked bread was all the advertising needed. “We had one simple goal,” says Pray. “How many baguettes can we make?” At first, they baked nothing but baguettes, mostly for Street and Co., plus a few other wholesale accounts. Before long, they branched out to include rosemary focaccia, morning buns, and scones. “We’d arrive at 3 a.m. to start baking, and by 6:30, the first ferry from Peaks Island would arrive. Commuters would find their way there for coffee and a bite to eat,” says Pray. Others found their way to the bakery, too, and “we just kept growing,” she says. “The second year was 100-percent growth, and by the third year we had some cash flow and were able to purchase real bread ovens.” The couple found themselves working 15 hours a day, seven days a week, yet “it felt excruciating to try to define ourselves,” says Pray. “We didn’t know quite what we were yet. We were just baking and people kept coming in.”
With the swift growth came a desire for a bigger, better space. Parking near Wharf Street had always been difficult. “When we started to envision the future, we knew we had to make it easier for our retail customers,” she continues. “We wanted to create a community by making it easier for people to reach us.” Street had heard about a space opening up, a former pool hall located below his Fore Street restaurant. It was three times bigger than the Wharf Street bakery, matching the long-term plan to triple production. The move brought the opportunity to invest in a European bread oven and hire additional staff. “We’ve been really fortunate to have a lot of people interested in working with us. There’s an amazing range of ages, from first jobs in high school to retirees,” says Pray. “Once we figured out how to train people,” James adds, “we had happy, skilled bakers. We’re still trying to perfect the training program.” Product development is a constant process that everyone enjoys. Pray is still the lead baker, but she relies on Tim Gosnell, who heads up production and recipe development, to do a lot of the footwork to get to the final product. “New items mean you have to swap out something old,” Pray says. “We don’t want to disappoint anyone, but we want to keep it exciting.” They’re currently working on a porridge bread, made with local, organic, and stoneground grains. James is a big fan of the Maine miche, a chewy, hearty, 100-percent whole-grain loaf.
“The first four years were rehearsal for a real business. We had no business plan. It’s hard to imagine that we’re sitting here 23 years later,” Pray says.
The couple’s dream of creating a community around a bakery is now reality, an established part of Portland’s culinary landscape. “We just keep trying to make the best bread and pastry we can. We can’t rest on our reputation.”