Campus Dining and the Cal Poly student body have participated in a strained relationship for quite some time. It’s that unhealthy type of relationship based more on attachment than love, where restraint to a meal plan and convenience take the place of romantic attachment, and passive-aggressive arguments manifest in the form of upset digestive tracts.
In the end, nobody is happy. Campus Dining makes healthier meals, and students are unimpressed by the taste. Campus Dining tries to make better-tasting meals, and students complain about the lack of nutritional quality. Even when Campus Dining tries to go organic, things go wrong.
It seems to me that a decent amount of the options are perfectly edible and have the potential to be reasonably healthy. But I cannot speak as loudly as the masses of angry patrons of the Polytechnic sustenance providers.
What I can do is point out a bright spot to the dining disbelievers. A crumb of hope, if I may be so bold.
At the very least, the one thing Campus Dining consistently gets right is bread.
It goes without saying that bread, part of the largest food group on the recently retired Food Pyramid, is an incredibly important asset. Believe it or not, the buyers for many Campus Dining locations, including VG Cafe, 19 Metro Station, The Avenue and Sandwich Factory, as well as University Catering, all have some portion of its granular affairs in order.
The common denominator among all these entities is that each orders a significant amount of its bread from Edna’s Bakery.
Edna’s is not some homey, low-output artisan establishment, nor is it an industrial behemoth. It manages to straddle a line somewhere in between the two, and that is just how its owner of nine years, Phil Korte, likes it.
The goal is both quantity and quality. Edna’s produces literally hundreds of different bread products, which it supplies to 600 regular customers, mostly restaurants and hotels between Paso Robles and Los Angeles, many on a semi-daily basis. At the same time, it maintains high standards in terms of ingredients and baking methods in a way that sets it apart from most bakeries with similar output.
Customer orders come piling in throughout the daytime hours, but the real work begins around 4 or 5 p.m. The baking process for many products starts around this time and continues through the night so that everything is fresh and ready to be shipped out by the Edna’s fleet of vans early the next morning.
So, how have Korte and his bakery managed to be successful and grow to around five times the initial size despite so many self-imposed challenges? Don’t expect anything outlandish here; it comes down to a logical and methodical business approach and just a pinch of good luck.
Korte was not always a wholesale commercial baker. He had a solid career in the telecom and computer industries in Santa Barbara, and then in Chicago before he decided it was time for a change.
“I had always wanted to own a business,” he said. “So, when I left Chicago I was looking for a business to buy.”
He had his eyes on a property management firm in San Luis Obispo, but when he arrived with the intention of purchasing it, he found out it had been sold a day earlier. However, not all was lost. The former owner of the property management company had a lead.
“She said, ‘I have a friend who has a bakery for sale. Her name is Edna,’” Korte recalled. “And the rest is history.”
If only it was that easy; running a bakery is no piece of cake. Korte had taken over a business with declining quality standards and a lackadaisical corporate culture. So, he implemented a hands-on management style.
“I laid everything on the line for it, down to my last nickel, so failure was not an option,” he said.
In the early days of his ownership, Korte would regularly go out and make deliveries himself. He wanted to speak directly with customers to gain insight into what they were looking for in their baked products. He endured a steep learning curve and hired a new head baker before Edna’s resembled what it looks like today.
Today, Edna’s works more like a well-oiled machine, and it has to do so because the bread-baking process is so delicate. The main difficulties arise in proofing, which is when yeast is called upon to cause unbaked dough to rise.
“Proofing is a very touchy situation,” said Korte. “Ideally we want to proof at a 100 degree (Fahrenheit) temperature and 80 percent humidity, and that allows the (dough) to rise consistently.”
Risen dough must be removed from the proofing environment before the yeast’s chemical properties are exhausted, just in time to be put in the oven.
Edna’s uses few of the preservatives and other chemicals that many commercial bakeries use. Its higher-quality, natural ingredients don’t lend themselves well to a long shelf life or making things easy for the people who have to bake with them. Edna’s breads typically have a shelf life of approximately one week, which creates logistical challenges.
“A lot of our customers have used what I call ‘store-bought bread’ and they’ve been conditioned to believe it can sit out for three weeks and be fine,” said Korte.
Edna’s customers, therefore, must adapt their businesses and orders based on immediate demand more than future predictions, which can benefit both the businesses and consumers. Businesses are less likely to have to worry about excess bread inventory, and consumers get to eat fresher, more natural bread.
Edna’s might be doing well, but Korte is far from complacent with his business model. A recent Millennial-centric addition is the ability to place orders via text message, a boon for young restaurateurs who aren’t as comfortable on the phone as previous generations were. Beyond that, Korte is working on expanding the current 8,000 square foot space and building a new proofing room, as well as actualizing a small retail space so that individuals can purchase baked goods for personal use.
Until then, a few hundred local restaurants and Campus Dining locations are the best places to get one’s fill of Edna’s. Remember to savor the part of the meal most can agree it got right. Then we’re all breadwinners.