One of the World's Best Bakers Is Considering Turning to Robots for Help

The James Beard Award-winning baker from San Francisco's Tartine Bakery wants to bring his legendary handmade loaves to the masses, even if that means depending on robots to do some of his bread making.

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Jun 9 2015, 8:30pm

"Chad isn't here ... "

The Tartine counter dude has run up the spiral stairs at the rear, asked somebody in the office, and scrambled back down to report the news. "… Yet. Should be pretty soon, if you want to wait."

I don't believe him. I have a funny feeling Chad Robertson—Tartine founder, cult baker, cookbook guru, and now, as he merges his business with Blue Bottle Coffee, Tartine's CEO—will stand me up today. We were supposed to meet last week, before his publicist emailed to say that Robertson suddenly had to get on a plane, and could we push it to next week?

"Chad's schedule is a bit crazy these days!"

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In April, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Blue Bottle Coffee was adding Tartine to its expansion plans as the two companies merged. Blue Bottle raised over $25 million last year—some of it from prominent players in Silicon Valley—to help fund ambitious openings in Los Angeles and Tokyo (James Freeman, a soft-spoken, ultra-wonky coffee geek, started Blue Bottle at the Berkeley farmers' market 12 years ago; in 2012, Freeman's company raised nearly $20 million in a first round of funding). Robertson already had plans with a Japanese business investment company to help launch a bakery in Tokyo. Now, Tartine's bread and pastries will travel wherever Blue Bottle goes, and Robertson, backed by millions in capital, is planning to open massive bakery commissaries with enormous, custom-built ovens, in Brooklyn, LA, Tokyo, and the Bay Area.

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All photos courtesy of Tartine Bakery.
pain au raisins;

Standing in the café in San Francisco, the scale of Tartine's expansion is almost impossible to believe.

The counter dude gives me a cup to pull from the coffee urn up front. I find a seat—just opened—in the room perpetually clogged with Instagrammers, jutting chairs, and a shambling line that ends, as it often does, way out and around the corner on the sidewalk.

A high, wet fog has kept the sunlight out of San Francisco for a couple of weeks now—the gloom suits Tartine like a thrift-store cardigan. Robertson and his wife, Liz Prueitt, opened the bakery in 2002. Robertson had spent the previous eight years baking bread up north, mostly in Point Reyes in the small-dairy country of western Marin County. He was a model of the silent, brooding artisan, immersed in the moods of ambient yeasts.

Tartine became that thing San Francisco loves: a neighborhood business with the earnest, scuffed-wall vibe of a college co-op commissary, turning out obsessively perfect food. Even after the world took notice and Tartine Bakery became the first place famous New York food writers would taxi-drop, dragging luggage en-route from the airport for a morning bun or a loaf of levain, Robertson and Prueitt's place always felt like it belonged to the Mission.

This morning, Tartine smells comfortingly of darkly tangy, caramelized at the edges, and butter-steamy. I walk to the back again to the spiral stairs opposite the blasting deck oven. A tall, bearded baker who is not Robertson, shaggy hair under his head wrap, has pulled out four pans of croissants, brown and shiny along the band of their girth-spirals.

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"Let me see if he's here." A kid just clocking in has asked if he can help, drops his backpack, peels off his sweater, runs upstairs to the office, and comes back with bad news. "I don't think Chad's coming in," he says with a little smile of apology. "He's been super busy lately."

The thing is, I'm not even mad. Robertson—though he and Prueitt recently bought a house in San Francisco—doesn't really belong to the Mission anymore. Chad Robertson belongs to the world.

"There he is," Robertson says. "I wasn't sure where we were meeting. I guess it's here."

He's at Bar Tartine, the restaurant a couple of blocks from the bakery. It's late morning; the restaurant won't open until dinner. Robertson looks like he's finishing up a meeting with co-chefs Cortney Burns and Nick Balla. With the Blue Bottle merger, ownership of Bar Tartine is transferring to Burns and Balla, who jump up when I walk in and then glide back to the kitchen.

Robertson has a partly feral look like he's some California surfer, wiry and handsome—the kind who turns into a werewolf, only he's stopped halfway through the change. He has luminous, pale-blue eyes and a short, scruffy beard that spreads across his neck. He's wearing the uniform of the dynamic San Francisco male—gray hoodie and black, short-brimmed cap—except they're nicer, made from better, plusher fabric than the ones most guys wear.

Robertson's flying to Tokyo tonight to scout locations for Tartine's commissary bakery. "It's a quick trip," he says. "I have to be in Toronto next week." Robertson will be in Canada to talk on stage about a new documentary he's in, The Grain Divide. It's about the new culture of wheat and other grains, the revival of heirloom varieties and milling techniques, the farm-to-table movement applied to bread and pastry. Robertson plans to talk about regional grain economies.

"I'm really busy, but it's a different kind of busy," he says. "I really love change. A lot of people don't, but I do." A decade ago, Robertson was focused on how to perfect his technique for making spontaneously leavened bread. These days, Tartine bakes 250 loaves of that bread per day. Robertson's challenge is now figuring out how to make thousands of loaves per day in four bakeries around the world.

He talks about scaling up as if it's the culmination of something: the future of the craft-food movement. It's why he's working with chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson to mass-bake low-cost sandwich buns for Loco'l, the sustainable-ingredient, healthy fast-food chain expected to launch in Watts this fall, followed quickly by a location in San Francisco's Tenderloin.

"The farm-to-table movement is like a 1-percent movement," Robertson says. "I'm looking at getting better food to different parts of the country, trying to mainstream something that has historically been for the wealthy alone. The most exciting thing I can do now is scale," he says, meaning dialing up Tartine, from one guy jamming on an acoustic guitar to full-on EDM sound system levels.

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Robertson's been in Germany, looking at high-volume ovens. He's going back in a couple of weeks to take another look. "The technology is incredible. They make perfect loaves, they're incredibly engineered tools." Since they're optimized, Robertson says, to bake notoriously finicky rye loaves, they can handle Tartine's slow-rising, high-moisture doughs.

And, Robertson says, they're capable of producing so many loaves. Some degree of automation is inevitable. The guy synonymous with artisan baking, in other words, is contemplating robot labor. How else can you produce thousands of loaves per day?

"I'm for sure going to automate what makes sense to automate," Robertson says. "But then we're adding a mill on the front end, to grind grain just before we mix the dough. We're complicating some things while we're streamlining other things," Robertson says. "We're trying to scale something super artisanal, but take full advantage of all the technology that's applicable."

The scaled-up craft bakeries Robertson's visited in Sydney—as well as Steve Sullivan's Acme Bakery in the Bay Area—all rely on degrees of automation. "When you want to bake as much bread as possible, you need robotic assistance," Robertson says, "You have to get out of the way. If you have 12 or 15 oven decks, you can't physically load it fast enough."

Robertson suggests automation isn't inherently a craft killer. It's how it fits into a system. "You can source your grain from a regional economy, you can fresh-mill it, and you can bake 20,000 loaves using robots."

Robertson says he's taking his two top bakers from Tartine with him to Germany next time to see the factory process and try to zap their skepticism. "When I came back last time, they were like, 'Chad, we've been with you for years, we trust you, but you're starting to sound a little crazy.'"

Maybe he is a little crazy, checking his phone's screen as we talk. Robertson says his goal is to make craft baked goods available to everyone. "We're working on a whole sandwich menu," he says. "You can't really find a good thing to grab out of a case. No one's making it and putting it into broader distribution, more accessible. I'm really excited to make that happen."

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The guy who changed craft bread in America is now on a mission to make the grab-and-go sandwich not suck. Has he sold out to capital? Is Robertson taking the money and compromising his artisan ideals?

"There's this whole culture against growing," Robertson says, "against having people come in and finance your creativity."

"Selling out is—if that word comes up, I'm like, 'What does that word even mean to you?' It's an easy word to throw around, but I don't know what that means. I've lost no one, everyone works extremely hard at Tartine Bakery. I've got the best team I've ever had. That said, in a way, they're so good, doing the same thing for years, they make it look so easy. I wanted to kind of throw in a curveball. I wanted to say, 'What if we all go to a place where we haven't been before?'"

Point Reyes, that whole solo artisan baker thing: That was long ago, in Robertson's past. "It was really just one stage of the thing. I wouldn't go back to that, ever," Robertson says. Except maybe, when he's old, and the struggle to bring good bread to the masses is behind him. "Maybe I'll build an oven by the ocean and bake one day a week and go surfing," he says with a slight laugh. "Maybe."

Right now, though, Robertson has to take a call from his wife. "I'm leaving for Tokyo tonight. Sorry, I've got to get this."