There’s nothing quite like that first tear into a baguette, that first cut through ciabatta, that first waft of sourdough as the bakery bag slowly unfolds. Simple pleasures like these are at the heart of Bread Alone, the family-owned, values-driven bakery that has operated out of a growing number of Catskills locations since 1983. Committed to “simple life and living grounded in nature, community, and simple and honest breads and foods,” Dan and Sharon Leader have spent over thirty years continually setting and raising the bar for artisan baking across the country. Sourcing their ingredients from the local farms, fields, and orchards that are spread out along the Hudson Valley, the Leaders have become the ultimate model for creating traditional, honest products for communities across all walks of life, from cities to suburbs, from Hannaford to Whole Foods.
“Dan and Sharon raised a family of four children while operating and growing a bakery,” says Nels Leader, the couple’s eldest son whose birth inspired Dan, many years ago, to forgo a chef’s life in New York City for the country baker’s life in Boiceville, NY. “Entrepreneurs face incredible pressure, but Dan and Sharon have always managed to keep that pressure at bay thanks to their overriding passion and commitment to their business and craft. I wish there were a secret to replicate what they’ve done, but in truth I think that entrepreneurs like them have unique qualities that can’t be translated. In that way, I guess the secret is hidden deep in their bodies and souls.”
Growing up in Buffalo, NY, Dan remembers being enthralled by the chaos and allure that accompanied trips to the open-air markets with his grandfather, a burlap-bag maker for many of the local farmers. Simple acts like rubbing apples against sleeves before taking a bite, scratching dirt off potatoes, and smelling the melons summoned a manner of happiness that stayed with Dan for a long time.
Since the early 80s, the company has remained committed to a life that is closely connected to the land, relationships with farmers, and organic food production. “The name ‘Bread Alone’ represents the simplicity of what we strive to do,” says Nels. “In my opinion, there is incredible beauty to the simplicity of product and service that Dan and Sharon have strived to provide.”
For years, Dan’s love for Old World breads ran deep, prompting an exploration into Old World baking techniques and traditions. On one of his many trips to France, he was introduced to Andre LeFort, a 4th generation Parisian oven mason who agreed to construct two wood-fired brick ovens for Dan’s bakery. It wasn’t until the ovens were built that cost even entered the conversation. “The brick ovens in our Boiceville bakery have produced more wood-fired, organic bread than any ovens in the country, perhaps the world,” says Nels. “Bread Alone owes a great deal to these ovens. More broadly, I think that they have influenced many other folks to throw caution to the wind and follow a passion.”
Nels has wonderful memories of selling bread at the Union Square Greenmarket with his father, making change for customers and spending the day outside in the city. Much of his childhood was also spent in the Boiceville bakery. “The many pallets of 50-pound bags of flour and grains were my playground,” Nels recalls. “They were the ultimate fort.”
Bread Alone bakes all types of bread, all made with flour from organically grown grains, and produces about 80,000 pounds per week. “Our most popular bread is our whole wheat sourdough, a classic Miche that enjoys a long and slow 24-hour fermentation process. It’s my favorite bread,” says Nels. “We make it in a few different sizes and shapes. We have a sliced version that is distributed to hundreds of stores every day. I am probably most proud of this one because we are able to get it to so many people.”
“Sharon is an extraordinarily talented, driven, compassionate, and patient business partner,” says Nels. “She has filled nearly every position at Bread Alone over the years, always with skill, grace, and tenacity. She is as talented at the baker’s bench as she is in the office, and she has the capacity and hunger to manage the ever-growing Bread Alone team.”
Even though you can purchase Bread Alone products at many of the markets in the city, nothing beats taking a beautiful drive upstate to pick up exquisite breads and pastries in Boiceville, Woodstock, Rhinebeck, or Kingston. If you happen to stop at the Boiceville location, don’t forget about Spruceton Inn and Phoenicia Diner. Both are in close proximity!
“I love providing organic bread for the world. I hope it is a good, if small, contribution to folks we are fortunate enough to serve. I also love the opportunity and challenge of running this business,” says Nels, who serves as vice president of Bread Alone. “Some days the challenges seem to have no end. But we truly love baking good bread, and we can always come back to that.”
Pastries, such as their twice baked almond croissant and pain au raisin, are inspired by both American and European traditions; cafe foods are made in-house using local ingredients. “We strive to create simple, honest foods and pastries that share the same ethos as our breads,” says Nels. “We buy an enormous amount of fruit, vegetables, dairy, and protein from the Hudson Valley.”
For Nels, Bread Alone has a way of honoring its past while always looking forward. “I am at once extremely proud of what we do and extremely humble in the face of opportunities to improve. Though we certainly are older when compared to many of the new businesses in the Hudson Valley, we remain extremely driven and entrepreneurial. I hope that the future relates very closely to the past in spirit, but continues to reflect our ambition and willingness to evolve.”