Duluth brothers open bakery in Lincoln Park
Robert Lillegard wanted to start a business but needed something to sell; his brother Michael wanted to bake but didn't want to run a business.
So they teamed up.
Together they've launched Duluth's Best Bread, an artisan bakery in the former Cake Occasions space at 2632 W. Third St. in Duluth's Lincoln Park. And it's turning into a good partnership.
"I set the direction and make the plans so that Michael can bake," Robert said. "I have to be the mind, so Michael can be the hands."
"He makes everything sound good," Michael Lillegard said. "I make everything taste good."
The brothers, who grew up in Duluth's East End, rented the 1,200-square-foot building for this summer before buying it 11 days ago.
It's where Michael Lillegard, 24, spends much of his time, making dough from scratch and baking sourdough, ciabatta and focaccia breads and other special-order breads, French croissants and cinnamon rolls. All are made from recipes he's perfected. Sometimes he sleeps in a sleeping bag in a back room during the croissant dough's three-hour rising before getting it promptly in the building's big pizza oven.
That oven — a remnant of the building's days as Mama Mia's Pizza — was a big reason why they bought the building for $100,000. It came with the building, saving them about $20,000 to buy one, the pair said.
Starting last week, they opened their doors to the public, but only on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., selling their 1- and 2-pound sourdough bread loaves for $4.50 and $7, $1 off the usual price, and selling croissants for $3, a 50-cent discount.
But their focus is not on having a retail store.
"It's not our goal at all to have people come in and buy," said Robert Lillegard, 29, a freelance food writer who wrote "The Duluth Grill Cookbook." "It's to make good-quality bread and get it out to people where they are."
They count Perk Place, Alakef Cup, the Whole Foods Co-op and Lake Avenue Cafe in Duluth and Wednesday Bakery in Superior as among their customers. They also sell their loaves through local farmers markets and Stones Throw Farm, a community-supported agriculture program.
"We're slowly introducing it to places that appreciate it," Robert said. "People really like it. If there's an office with at least 10 people who want it, we'll make deliveries to offices."
Last month, Sclavi's Italian Restaurant in Superior started using Duluth's Best Bread's ciabatta. Grilling it in garlic oil, the ciabatta is served with meatballs and with sausage and peppers and with their red sauce and garlic sampler. The Italian specialty bread also is served plain for dipping in sauces.
"It works well," said co-owner Anthony Sclavi. "It complements our food beautifully."
Sclavi and his brother, Dan, took a liking to the Lillegard brothers who approached them about using their bread. Both businesses are local and family startups. Moreover, they enjoyed the Lillegards' quick wit.
But the quality of the bread was what mattered. And it passed the test
"Their product was outstanding," Sclavi said. "It had a life to it. It couldn't be compared to anything else."
He wants to use their foccacia, too. He just has to come up with a good food pairing for it.
For Michael Lillegard, baking started as a hobby making pizza in 2010. By the time he got his master's degree in mathematics in 2014, he was more interested in breadmaking. He started out lean, using a wood-fired brick oven in his parents' backyard and later baked at a Superior bakery.
Testing and retesting recipe variations, he came up with the recipes he uses today. His math skills came in handy in calculating ratios, temperatures and humidity levels.
His mild sourdough country bread — the bakery's signature offering — is made European-style, with four ingredients: flour, salt, water and wild yeast. It's made by hand, naturally leavened, cold-fermented and baked with high heat and high moisture to create a real crust and a soft, chewy interior. It contains no sugar, dairy, eggs, preservatives or dough conditioners.
With Robert overseeing the business and with community connections, they started selling the loaves at farmers markets in 2014. After getting a commercial food license this year and setting up operations at the West Third Street building, they've started building their customer and venue list.
There, bread production jumped over the summer to more than 2,000 loaves. Michael now bakes four to five days a week, usually 35 loaves a day in addition to making pastries. He figures he could quadruple his output before they would need to hire a second baker.
But growing big isn't the point.
"I want enough people who appreciate old-fashioned, technique-driven baked goods and get them out to select markets," Robert said. "We want it to be the Tesla of bread."
Starting up a business can be stressful and scary, but brothers Robert and Michael Lillegard have approached the creation of their bakery, Duluth Best Bread, with plenty of humor.
On their website, duluthsbestbread.com, they outline their ingredients policy in this way:
“All of our wheat and yeast is free-range, cage-free and humanely treated. Our salt isn’t farm-raised, but wild-caught and allowed to live out its natural salt life before being slaughtered. We make no guarantees about the water.”
Among the inquiries in the Frequently Asked Questions section is whether the bread is gluten-free.
“This gluten is free!” is the response. “The gluten in our bread doesn’t cost anything extra because it’s included in the purchase price.”
The site also warns that their bread “may be habit-forming, especially if you toast it and put butter on it.”