Celebrated bake shop still grateful

Covid has been a hurdle but the community has rallied to fill the gap

Bob Wooley
bwooley@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 12/16/20

Lost in the plight of restaurant owners being hammered by COVID-19 shutdowns and cutbacks, are the equally devastating toll they’re taking on small vendors who supply restaurants with delicious …

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Celebrated bake shop still grateful

Covid has been a hurdle but the community has rallied to fill the gap

Posted

Lost in the plight of restaurant owners being hammered by COVID-19 shutdowns and cutbacks, are the equally devastating toll they’re taking on small vendors who supply restaurants with delicious specialties. One such vendor gained a reputation as a prodigious purveyor of fine artisan breads and pastries through decades of hard work and dedication to craft.

Grateful Bread has been putting authentic loaves, boules, bâtards and more on tables of some of the metro area’s most well-known eateries since 2005. Now, with COVID-19 rates rising, and takeout the only option for most restaurants still operating, the storied bakery is kneading all the dough it can get.

“We’re just starting to determine how bad the hit has been (since the most recent halt to indoor dining). The wholesale was down by 85% at one point after the first shutdown,” said Founder and Head Baker, Jeff Cleary. “Then retail started picking up and outdoor dining in the summer helped.”

He said they finally made a small profit again in October for the first time since March, but that was short-lived.

A trained chef and successful restauranteur, Cleary has been part of the Denver food scene since 1992. His baking history goes back to when he worked as a chef, making bread for his restaurants, and partnering with French pastry chef Pascal Trompeau to open the original location of the fabled Trompeau Bakery near DU. In 2002, Cleary and his wife, Kathy Mullen, opened awell-reviewed restaurant, Intrigue, but an economic downturn and a massive spring blizzard in 2003 made it hard to keep the business afloat for more than a few years. They sold it in 2005 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Starting that same year in a 400-square foot cabin in Evergreen, Cleary and Mullen turned one wooden baking table, a 20 quart mixer and a small, six-tray electric oven into the Grateful Bread Company. Cleary baked six days a week while Mullen worked other jobs to support the new endeavor. In 2008, having outgrown the space, they relocated to their current digs on the border of Lakewood and Golden and have been building the business ever since.

From the beginning, Cleary and Mullen have held firm to the goal of hand-shaping every loaf, hand-rolling every pastry and using the best ingredients they can gather, refusing to cut corners or quality. That philosophy rings true  — even in a global crisis.

“Staffing was tough before the pandemic, because there was a labor shortage in Denver,” Cleary said. “After Covid, there were a lot of skilled people laid-off around the country, so I was actually trying to hire people because it was very difficult to find skilled bakers. And we were just getting to the point where we were stabilizing — not making money, but stabilizing and then this [latest shutdown] happened.”

Cleary and Mullen said they’re going to add a second retail day, but instead of people lining up and waiting as they do on Saturdays, there will be online pre-orders that customers can pick up on Thursdays. As much demand as there is from the public for their baked goods, opening more than two retail days per week would simply be impossible, according to Mullen. Their business model has always been one that focuses on wholesale customers, and logistically, they’re just not designed to be a full-time retail bakery. But both Cleary and Mullen agree the retail customers have been what’s kept them going through the pandemic.

“We started (retail) at the Cherry Creek Farmers Market in 2008, and then when we stopped, people still wanted to be able to buy things,” Mullen said. “So it started really small. At first we were doing the Saturday retail once every three months, and then it was once a month and now it’s every week. Our customers have been amazing, how supportive they’ve been. We’re really grateful to have such great customers.”

Prior to the beginning of the pandemic, hour-long waits in line were commonplace. But Mullen said as soon as Covid started, she got a ticket machine and a megaphone, allowing folks to wait for their goodies in a more socially distanced way. They also have a line monitor to make sure there’s no more than six people waiting indoors at a time and masks are being worn. 

“It’s been amazing. This summer it was like a carnival out there. People were bringing lawn chairs and pulling tickets an hour and a half before we opened, so our retail has about doubled,” Mullen said. “We made 3500 items last Saturday and sold out of almost everything. And I hate for people to have to wait. We try to keep the wait down to under an hour, but some days it’s at least a couple of hours.”

Mullen said starting Dec. 17, they’re going to allow people to pre-order from a scaled-back list of items and then pick up on Thursday afternoons without waiting in line. She said it should help ease the pressure on the Saturday crowds and help further offset the plummeting wholesale orders.

As for the future, like everyone, they’re hoping things get back to normal soon. Cleary said he’s confident they can ride out the current storm but if the indoor dining ban lasts several more months, he’d be forced to cut back on staff, something he doesn’t want to do.

Grateful Bread’s retail shop is open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2:30 pm, but do yourself a favor and get there early.

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