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Masters of the Southwest
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bread baking, community making
Bread Baking, Community Making
Rebecca L. Rhoades
March, 2017, Page 124
Photos by Tom Spitz
Fresh-baked goodness lines the shelves at Barrio Bread. The bakery produces upwards of 700 loaves every day.
Artisanal Baker Don Guerra Has a Mission: to Feed His Fellow Tucsonans While Building Arizona’s Grain Economy
It’s 9 a.m. on a typical Tuesday. On a side street in Tucson’s historic El Encanto neighborhood, a long line of hungry residents and tourists snakes in front of a nondescript shopping center and through the doors of a small store at its southern end. The mouthwatering aroma of fresh bread lingers in the air. Inside the glass walls, a dark-haired, goateed baker is crouched over a long conveyor belt that protrudes from a hulking Italian deck oven. His apron and shorts are coated with flour, and bits of raw dough cling to his arms. His focus seems concentrated on the unbaked loaves he’s placing on the belt, which will load them into the oven’s heated chambers, but as customers file in, he greets each and every one of them warmly, many by name. “Welcome to Barrio Bread,” he says with a smile.
With the opening of his Tucson storefront, Don Guerra looks forward to spreading the word about our state’s heritage grains.
Those who know Don Guerra are not surprised by this reception—or by the crowds that wait daily for his bread. For the last eight years, Guerra, a former public school teacher, has been a fixture on the Tucson food scene, providing the city and its visitors with some of the tastiest organic baguettes, sourdoughs, whole wheats and dozens of other varieties of artisanal breads this side of Paris. Calling himself a community-supported baker, he originally ran his company out of his garage-turned-kitchen, single-handedly baking upwards of 900 loaves each week, offering them at schools, farmers markets and through local food-share programs—and selling out wherever he went.
The work was grueling, but the results were satisfying. Devoted fans would track his every move through social media blasts and follow him around the city, even helping him unload his van when he would arrive at his next market site. As more and more people learned about—and tasted—Guerra’s bread, they also became aware of the grains he uses to create them. Guerra is one of a growing number of local bakers, chefs, brewers, millers and farmers who are at the forefront of reviving the growth and use of ancient grains in Arizona.
“Every touch on the dough has an effect,” says Guerra. Each loaf is kneaded and shaped by hand; he uses scissors to create his pain epi, a baguette that resembles a wheat stalk.
“The term ‘community-supported baker’ has a few components,” he explains. “First is the bread, which is the economic element of the business. Second would be the educational outreach aspect, teaching the community about healthy organic bread, and how it’s made; and the third part would be my work promoting the heritage grains. Using this model to run Barrio Bread has been the right move because I’ve been able to use my background as an educator and teach my favorite content, which is bread.”
His work has garnered him and his bread an impressive amount of publicity and praise. Even the “New York Times,” in an article celebrating Tucson’s designation as a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy, referred to the baker as “a cult star among the nation’s slow-fermentation bread bakers.” But with increased attention came greater demand for his delicious product.
In recognition of the work he does to educate the public and strengthen the local grain economy and food shed, Guerra was awarded a $100,000 Local Food Promotion grant from the USDA—the first bakery in the country to receive this endowment—which allowed him to move out of his garage and into his current 1,000-square-foot storefront.
Sales employee Joy Vargo reaches for a loaf of beer bread.
“There has been such a great reception from the community,” he says of his new endeavor, which launched a few months ago.
When Guerra first opened the doors of his store, he wasn’t sure how many people would show up. In just three hours, he sold more than 450 loaves. “People are very excited. There’s more availability, and they can get the bread at different times instead of having to follow me around. My clientele base has definitely expanded.” He now makes and sells about 700 loaves each day. He’s also hand-picked a small number of apprentice bakers and support staff to help keep up with demand. “I’m really focused on the quality of the bread. We won’t make more until we nail it down,” he notes.
One of his apprentices, Kiera Salkowski, supports Guerra’s perfectionism. “It’s amazing the amount of work that goes into a single loaf of bread,” she says. “Everything is done with a purpose, and in the end, you have this wonderful product. Knowing what goes into it makes it that much more incredible and delicious.”
Every day, hundreds of customers line up to greet Guerra and buy his fresh bread. “People are excited to be part of the Barrio Bread tribe,” Guerra says. “They feel welcome, and they feel like they’re a part of the process.”
Eventually, Guerra hopes that his team will be able to take over some of the day-to-day duties of baking and selling—he currently puts in 13 hours a day/six days a week at the bakery—leaving him with more time to share his passion with others in the industry.
“Barrio Bread is bread with a story,” he says. “We talk about the grain. We know its origins. We know how many years it’s been growing here. We know our farmers by name. The grain travels through many people’s hands and through their experiences and expertise. Then I get to take it and make it into something that is going to feed my community. To me, that’s very exciting.”
Currently, 50 percent of the grain Guerra uses in his business is sourced from BKW Farms, located about 12 miles north of Tucson. These include durum, White Sonora, Khorasan and hard red spring wheat. The farm recently planted red fife, which will be available in about a year. “We’re a great team,” notes Guerra. “We talk a lot about growing the local grain economy. Everyone is doing their part to push it forward so we can have grains growing in this region for years and years and people processing those grains into food for the community.”
Barrio Bread also partners with Queen Creek-based Hayden Flour Mills. “Don was one of our first customers. Unlike other bakers, he was willing to work with a stone-milled flour,” says mill co-owner Emma Zimmerman. “Because our flour changes from field to field, bakers who use it have to be true artisans who are able to adapt and also willing to learn. Don’s commitment to using Arizona grains has been key to reviving our state’s small grain economy, which was nonexistent until about five years ago.” The mill recently purchased larger equipment that will allow for greater production of locally sourced flour, and as such, Guerra plans to be producing loaves made with 100 percent Arizona-sourced grains by the end of the year.
Even with all of his recent successes, Guerra still refers to himself as a community-supported baker. “A big part of this business is connecting people through bread,” he says. “I prepare each loaf this way [at the front of the store where guests can watch and ask questions] because I want to share the experience. I want it to be accessible, whether that’s through being here, teaching about ancient grains at conferences or to organizations around the world, or even conducting cooking classes. Barrio Bread is an educational outreach business as much as it is a maker of artisanal bread.”
And it—as well as it’s soft-spoken baker—is quickly becoming a Tucson icon. “Don’s just not some sort of hype machine,” says Dan Gibson, director of communications for Visit Tucson. “When we talk about Tucson, we talk a lot about authenticity, and he fits into that space. He’s somebody who chose to do something because he loves it. He does it because he wants to give a sense of place and reflect the community and area around him. It’s remarkable what he’s accomplished. Barrio Bread is this distinctive and amazing thing that we have only in Tucson. It’s a great story—and it’s an even better bread.”
Guerra takes loaves of pain au levain directly from the oven to the sales racks. “People are blown away that they can buy bread right off the loader, hot and fresh,” he says.
2017 Masters of the Southwest Award Winner
There’s nothing like biting into a hot, crusty slice of fresh-baked bread. Not only does it curb hunger pangs, but it soothes the soul, bringing to mind comforting memories of Sunday meals at Grandma’s house or travel to destinations where carbs are still king. But in Arizona, there’s bread—and then there’s Barrio Bread.
While customers consistently say that Barrio Bread has the best-tasting loaves they’ve ever tried, for owner and baker Don Guerra, his work is about so much more. Since 2009, Don has been at the forefront of Arizona’s grain revolution. “Arizona
is an amazing grain-growing region,” he says. “My focus is on the varieties of grains, how we get them and where they come from.” Don doesn’t just love baking with locally sourced grains, he also loves talking about them, sharing his passion and knowledge with his customers, fellow bakers and other food professionals and raising awareness about the products’ health and nutrition benefits, as well as the communities in which they are grown.
Dan Gibson, director of communications for Visit Tucson, says Don personifies Tucson in the best possible way. We think he’s shining example of the entire state, and that’s why we chose him to be a 2017 Masters of the Southwest award winner. Congratulations, Don!
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