With the nearest Great Harvest Bread Company more than 40 miles away in Thousand Oaks, the western San Gabriel Valley's ripe for a bakery that mills its own wheat. Co-owner Patricia Diaz spent ten years researching franchises that would give her creative control without compromising corporate support. She discovered that a couple of college kids, Pete and Laura Wakeman, opened the first Great Harvest Bakery in 1975 in Great Falls, Montana. They bought wheat from local farmers. The business is now 200 stores strong, and the wheat still comes from Montana, handpicked by a guy named Jason.

Diaz bought in to the franchise and put a Great Harvest Bakery (corporate offices in Dillon, MT) on a corner in a South Pasadena neighborhood that features two wine stores (Winestyles and Mission Wines) and a Thursday evening farmers' market. We caught up with Diaz shortly before she opens her doors tomorrow, January 15th, at 6:30 a.m.

New employees undergo wheat and bread education at Great Harvest Bread Company; Credit: Steve Julian

New employees undergo wheat and bread education at Great Harvest Bread Company; Credit: Steve Julian

Squid Ink: These aren't exactly prosperous economic times. Why open a new food business now?

Patricia Diaz: Honestly, we decided prior to the recession, but we thought there's never a good time to start a business, so we decided to forge ahead. We used a lot of our savings, our retirement money. The franchise fee, itself, is $35,000.

SI: What were you doing previously?

PD: I was a school principal for five years, and prior to that, an education consultant and a classroom teacher. My husband, Chris, who co-owns the bakery with me, was a financial analyst for a manufacturing company.

SI: So you walked away from everything to open this?

PD: Yes, and the look you gave me is the look that everybody also gave us. They thought we were a little nuts.

Patricia Diaz; Credit: Steve Julian

Patricia Diaz; Credit: Steve Julian

SI: Would you say your background, then, is with people more than food or business?

PD: People, definitely. And that's how we hired, too. We hired based on our mission statement. Our employees train and train and train. But what's unique about us is that each of our employees goes through bread tasting in just the same way someone at a wine shop learns to judge wine: they take a bite, understand the flavor, and spit it out. We'll cleanse the palate and do it again for all the breads and scones we offer. That way, each employee can talk knowledgeably to customers about our breads.

SI: What breads and other foods will you offer?

PD: Most of our ingredients are going to be from the honey whole wheats. We'll offer savory breads, breads with cheese; our white bread is made from golden wheat; scones and sweets. Our wheat will be grinded every day in our own mill, which is here in the building. We'll also serve Peet's Coffee. I was so excited when we became a vendor. We'll offer a variety of meat and salad sandwiches, like pepper bleu roast beef and Louisville chicken salad, for around six dollars each. So, we have our 3 basic breads: honey whole wheat, white, and our Dakota, which has a lot of seeds.

Credit: Steve Julian

Credit: Steve Julian

SI: So you're a foodie?

PD: Absolutely. I started off very young when the Food Network barely came on. My grandmother on my dad's side is, pretty much from the days of the Mexican Revolution! These women made their own ice cream, their own soaps, their own everything, so I grew up with strong women in the kitchen – the same thing on my mom's side. So instead of going outside to play with cousins, I would stay in the kitchen and help them out. I would cook for the entire family in high school. Then the Food Network channel came on. Bobby Flay started out. The Two Hot Tamales, and I was fascinated. I started buying the books. I've always been into taste and the senses, but I just love to eat.

SI: How much corporate support do you get?

PD: Oh, like 120%. Mainly, a lot on the systems and marketing, the quality of ingredients, vendors. They do all the research for us. We get to make our decisions. That's why it's called a “freedom franchise”: as long as you utilize the wheat, which has been hand selected by one person, Jason, up in Dillon, Montana, you can mostly do what you want. When the wheat's ready to be harvested, they select samples from different lots and do a lot of test baking. The ones that fit the bill are the ones that go to our distributors. They also encourage us to purchase from local vendors, especially with honey.

SI: What's the downside to owning a bakery?

PD: Ha! We'll never be thin people!

Great Harvest Bread Company: 1019 Mission Street, South Pasadena; 626-549-2882.

Steve Julian is the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at 89.3 KPCC.

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