Tartine Bakery has been a San Francisco staple since 2002, but now it’s a global brand, with seven locations around the world. Here’s how (and why) it tackled its largest and most ambitious project to date: an expansive 40,000-square-foot bakery, cafe, and restaurant complex in Los Angeles.
— Lesley Balla
Check your step tracker after walking around the massive Tartine Bianco complex in downtown Los Angeles, and you’re sure to hit at least half your daily quota.
Taking over what’s in essence an entire city block, the building comprises a working bakery with giant state-of-the-art mixers, proofing rooms and ovens in perfect view of any passersby; a cafe and marketplace for croissants, huge loaves of bread, plus an all-day dine-in menu; and a second restaurant, Alameda Supper Club, in partnership with Phoenix chef Chris Bianco, which includes two bars, a patio, and a private dining space. And that’s just on the first floor.
This is a far cry from the original Tartine Bakery that Chad Robertson and wife and pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt opened in San Francisco in 2002. It’s even more impressive than the Tartine Manufactory that opened in 2016, both in size and scope. But when the opportunity rose to expand — and when Robertson and Pruiett decided it was finally the right time to grow — they jumped in head first.
Unsure where it would all land, hard lessons have been learned along the way, but with the right partnerships and strategies, they’ve solidified the direction and business model to continue growing into a global empire.
To create Tartine in L.A., it took additional partners like Chris Jordan, who serves as chief operating officer and oversees the coffee roastery and upcoming lab, and Chris Bianco, known for his award-winning Pizzeria Bianco and Tratto in Arizona. Investors include restaurateur Bill Chait, who helped build and open some of the city’s hottest restaurants in the unlikeliest of places (i.e. Bestia). The project is so multi-faceted, it needed this much star power just to get it off the ground.
Opening in the Row DTLA complex, a new 30-acre walkable district built in a series of historic warehouses nestled between the Arts and Fashion Districts, they could take a shell of a building and dream big. Like, really big: The first floor is all consumer-facing, with a coffee roastery and lab, prep and test kitchen, giant walk-ins, grain silos and flour augers in the basement.
In addition to the flagship, there will be several smaller Tartine All Day cafes opening in Silver Lake, Santa Monica and West Hollywood — to start.
“We could only do this in the context of a really large city,” Robertson said. “We would never build this large in San Francisco. There just aren’t enough people there. We built to service satellite projects we have planned. It’s big, but it won’t be long before we’re fully utilizing that space.”
Embracing Change — and Technology
Tartine is clearly no longer just another neighborhood bakery. In San Francisco, Robertson and Prueitt quickly grew out of their original location, so they opened the Manufactory and several more outposts, including the latest, the Manufactory Food Hall at San Francisco Airport’s (SFO) International Terminal. A similar thing happened in Seoul: Demand was so great at the first location, the group needed to create more outlets, and a wider source and supply system, to keep the carb-loving masses happy.
For L.A, they reversed the strategy and went big first. The flagship would open on a grand scale with the intention of feeding smaller neighborhood outposts later. On an operations level, they also had to broaden staffing and technological advancements.
“We’re scaling to be able to hire the right people and create the right environment that focuses on collaboration and respect,” Jordan said. “And we embraced new technology so we can focus on what we need. When we’re completely up and running, we expect to have 200 to 300 people working for us. Everyone so far is from Los Angeles, with the exception of one person who moved here from San Francisco.”
It will take hundreds of people to oversee the entire operation. There will be positions to fill everywhere, from the walk-up coffee and ice cream window to the Market and 100-seat cafe, to the slightly more upscale Alameda Supper Club and bars (the latter opens this spring). Not to mention the several kitchens prepping and preparing each unique menu; the Coffee Manufactory roaster and Coffee Lab; and the bakery’s thermal oil ovens, vacuum silo systems that deliver flour from bulk sacks directly to the bowl, the lift-and-tilt bowls that can dump 300 kilograms of dough right onto the table, and the high-tech Japanese dough divider.
That last piece of expensive machinery spits out pieces of dough perfectly weighed at the pace the baker sets, and then they can shape each piece by hand. Robertson is quick to point out that just because there’s more automation, Tartine’s quality will not wane. For instance the croissant dough for the satellite cafes and food hall at SFO is made in advance and frozen, but bakers proof and bake on site.
“To some people it looks like we’re simply freezing the product, but it’s actually the best quality croissant we’ve ever had,” he added. “It’s because we scaled and utilized technology to optimize the way we’re doing things. It’s all about embracing the right technology and design. We put things in place so you can get a warm Tartine croissant at the airport now.”
They’re also considering going cashless at the Row location. Discussing safety issues, extra administrative work, and risk associated with cash transactions, Robertson said it’s something they’d like to try. Tartine will use Toast as its point-of-sale system.
“You’d think the baker baking in the woods wouldn’t be so focused on technology and innovation,” Jordan said. “But it’s inspiring to see what’s happening, how much it’s being embraced. We can have the recipes and the equipment, but at the end of the day, it’s all about taste and consistency.”
Banking on ‘If You Build It, They Will Come’
All the principals credit Row DTLA for solidifying the idea of Tartine coming to Los Angeles. Robertson said he and Prueitt were always interested in opening something in Southern California, but the timing was never right. Once connecting with Jordan, a coffee guru who worked with both Starbucks and Verve, and Chait, everything started to come together. The space at Row was a blank slate that could be molded and shaped to the group’s vision.
“I thought it was an insane property, but I didn’t know what I would do there,” Robertson said. “The more I thought about it, I knew I had to put a group of people together to tackle it, like Chris J. for coffee and Chris Bianco as our chef partner. I never would’ve done this by myself.”
David Fishbein from the Runyon Group, the real estate company that oversees Row and similar projects around L.A., helped find the tenants for the ambitious development. “There weren’t restaurants beating down the doors to come to Row. They had to believe we wanted to grow something over time,” he said. “But once we signed names like Tartine, and chefs like Melissa Perello (from San Francisco’s Frances) and Chris Bianco, other chefs take notice. Then it shifts from us having to find great talent to people coming to us.”
The already open boutiques, galleries, and food and beverage concepts, plus the outdoor-only Smorgasburg L.A. which takes place in a lot behind the buildings every Sunday, already brings foot traffic. But instead of looking at Tartine as competition, places like the Paramount Coffee Project cafe, Pukinico, Rappahannock Oyster Bar, and Hayato were excited to see it open. If anything, it will attract even more people to the somewhat remote complex, and since there’s no on-site residential component, more regular, daily foot traffic is needed.
“There’s value in being around other businesses and activations that drive business. It’s not just one chef or restaurateur in charge of their own destiny,” Fishbein said. “Hopefully it’s all synergistic. It’s important to be around other things that people want to come and visit and do.”
Lesley Balla is a food, drink and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in regional, national, and online publications including Angeleno, Zagat.com, The Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly, Eater, Tasting Table and many more. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @LesleyLA.