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Breaking Bread with Bicycle Bread Company

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Mon, Apr 4, 2011 at 9:30 AM

click to enlarge Stephen Gordon of Bicycle Bread Company - T. NGUYEN
  • T. Nguyen
  • Stephen Gordon of Bicycle Bread Company

In the history of barters, there have been a few notables: a red paper clip for a house. Fifteen million dollars, Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, and three first round picks for Wayne Gretzky, Marty McSorley, and Mike Krushelnyski ("The Trade"). A beautiful scarf for a dirty old dust cloth. To this, we add: 10 loaves of freshly baked bread for a bicycle and the birth of Stephen Gordon's Bicycle Bread Company. Not too shabby.

Stephen Gordon graduated from USC with a degree in International Relations and a focus on Urban Planning and Development in 2008, but it was the university's relations with its community (or lack thereof) that motivated him to launch Bicycle Bread. Noting the dearth of healthy, easily accessible food options available in the local community (indeed, these neighborhoods are part of the larger food desert that swallows the South L.A. area), he opted to focus on local relations and development, envisioning a bakery that would offer fresh, healthy, whole grain bread to the immediate community.

First, though, he had to learn how to bake the bread.

Naturally, he turned to his mother. Gordon grew up in an exceptionally large family: one of 11 -- 11! -- children. His mother milled the wheat by hand and made fresh bread for the family every week. Following her footsteps, Gordon also sourced hard white wheat berries and found a church willing to give him free range with its oven. He spent almost a year after graduation learning how to mill the grains and bake the bread, working and re-working his mother's recipes.

Gordon eventually settled on a basic honey wheat loaf, two herb loaves (oregano and rosemary), and cinnamon raisin. He enlisted his brother (who, conveniently, is also a Trojan) to join his endeavor. When Bicycle Bread began in early 2009, the brothers, carless, would take their freshly baked bread from the church, catch the bus at the nearby Vermont and Sunset stop, and haul the bread in milk crates, along with a folding table and chairs, for the long ride down Vermont to campus. They found two locations with heavy foot traffic near USC and set up shop, handing out slices as samples. If someone picked up a loaf, they asked for a donation in return.

The pair then decided to expand their reach and deliver bread to folks who could not make it to their stands. Strapped for cash, they went about buying a used bike with the only dough they had. Hence, the ten loaves for a bike deal.

click to enlarge A loaf of Bicycle Bread Company's honey wheat bread. - T. NGUYEN
  • T. Nguyen
  • A loaf of Bicycle Bread Company's honey wheat bread.

"Everyone said, 'Don't start a business during the recession. Don't start without capital.' But I really wanted to do something with the community, and, so far, it's turning out okay," Gordon recalls. Indeed, since Bicycle Bread's earnest DIY beginnings, the stands have evolved into a watering hole of sorts. Students drop by on their way to and from class, local residents approach out of curiosity, the brothers slice bread, and everyone ends up talking. As Gordon puts it, "You have everyone interacting with each other in a way I didn't see too much of when I was at USC."

In August, Gordon found a proper kitchen space in the form of Rosita's Bakery, a panaderia not too far from campus. There, he, his brother, and a handful of friends-slash-volunteers bake Bicycle Bread's loaves. Often, one or both of the brothers will think of a special loaf -- "whatever we're hungry for, basically" -- and have it on the menu as the week's special. Jalapeño cheddar was a recent hit; the s'more bread (crushed graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate) was "oh man, so messy".

The loaves can be picked up fresh from the oven from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays at the bakery. They also sometimes can be found in front of Scoops on Saturday mornings. And, as corporate social responsibility is hardwired into their ethos, Bicycle Bread donates their bread regularly, most recently proudly being the unofficial carb sponsor of the Foshay SRLA team.

Eventually, Gordon would like to see Bicycle Bread evolve into its own bakery, a third space of sorts, where the neighborhood could break healthy bread together. Bread for community spirit? Sounds like a fair trade.

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