Magazine

Joanne Chang won’t rest until everything is perfect

Boston’s most famous baker is building an empire on flour, sugar, and an unrelenting focus on every last detail.

“I was reading cookbooks in my teens,” Joanne Chang recalls, “And just kind of being obsessed with wishing I could have sweets  like normal people.”

Photograph by DAVID YELLEN

“I was reading cookbooks in my teens,” Chang recalls, “And just kind of being obsessed with wishing I could have sweets like normal people.”

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and Joanne Chang arrives at the Allston headquarters of her rapidly expanding empire, prepped and ready for work. Tall and trim, the 46-year-old is hardly the picture of a jolly pastry chef. She wears skinny black jeans, a sporty puffer coat, and Frye boots, her hair slung back in a loose bun. With four bakeries, three cookbooks, her Asian restaurant Myers + Chang, and this new 8,500-square-foot commissary, Chang seems to be in constant motion, and that’s only in part because she spends most of her days bicycling between locations. This afternoon, as always, she’s looking cool, collected, and clever, with a smile that’s become her trademark.

Chang’s back story, at this point, is well known. The Harvard-educated math wiz spent two years in the corporate world before ditching it for the kitchen, working her way through some of Boston’s finest restaurants as a pastry chef. Fifteen years ago, she liquidated her savings and begged money from friends and family to open Flour in the South End, helping to push the neighborhood into the boho haven it is today. A series of successful business moves later — she seems to have a knack for knowing which blocks are about to go through a real estate boom — she’s finally begun to think about a strategy for Flour’s growth. “About a year ago, for the first time, I actually created a plan,” she says. “Until now, it was relatively seat-of-your-pants.”

Advertisement

This Allston production kitchen is a large part of that plan. Chang calls the space BK or Big Kitchen — she says “commissary” sounded too sterile and impersonal — and it’s become the starting point for many of Flour’s most popular items. The breads and pastry mixes are now prepped here before they’re made into sandwiches or baked on-site at the cafes. BK is meant to afford Chang the economies of scale necessary for Flour’s coming expansion.

Chang already works five and a half days a week, including three or four evenings cooking on the line at Myers + Chang. Yet despite her grueling schedule, she’s scouting locations for a fifth Flour Bakery + Cafe, perhaps in Harvard Square, and is in talks to open a second restaurant with her husband, restaurateur Christopher Myers, on the Novartis research campus just outside Kendall Square.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“This is the first time I’ve told everybody we are planning on opening something,” she says. “We have to — I can no longer be haphazard about it.”

A teenage Chang baking cookies at home in Dallas around 1986.

As Chang walks through BK, she stops to say hello to every person on the floor. The bakers shaping 2-foot-long loaves of focaccia pause and smile, others grin to greet her as they blend batters in one of the five industrial mixers, each bowl the size of a steel drum. One team member nods as he stirs a vat of apricot and cranberry jam for Flour’s granola bars, while another employee waves as she leads a handful of guests on a tour before their on-site cooking class. Chang prides herself on knowing all 270 of her employees by name and writes “Thank You” on each of their paychecks. Growth, she knows, may mean some of those personal touches get harder to manage.

There is a sweetness in the world of Flour, and it isn’t just the pastries. While swearing is common in other kitchens, Chang has banned it anywhere in her facilities. Since food regulations require that workers cover their heads, all employees wear hats or bright handkerchiefs — a playful instructional poster reminds them to pull their hair back in a tight topknot like Tupac rather than loosely like Rihanna. And a quote from Mother Teresa is scrawled on a whiteboard for added customer-service inspiration: “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

Advertisement

But just as baking leaves little room for error, achieving Flour’s level of sweetness requires precision. Chang’s employees are expected to be on what she calls “Flour time,” where five minutes early is on time, and if you’re on time, you’re late. “She sets very clear expectations, and she doesn’t really waver,” says Chang’s executive pastry chef Nicole Rhode. “If you’re not meeting them, it won’t be a surprise.”

Chang is ever mindful as she wanders the floor of BK, checking in on each employee with a quick hello or question about a recipe, sampling as she goes. She finally pauses before a spread of pies, cookies, and breads laid out before her, buffet style. It’s testing time. For the next 15 minutes, she and her production pastry chefs, Sarah Murphy and Rona Shen, discuss how to achieve the perfect goo factor for a pecan pie and whether the consistency of a batch of fan-favorite Oreo-style sandwich cookie meets the “mom test” — the standard by which all Flour products are judged.

“If you wouldn’t serve it to your mom, we won’t serve it at Flour,” says Chang as she nibbles. (Her other standard: If she finds herself sampling long after a testing session is over, the item is actually good enough for the menu.)

Finally, it’s time for Chang to head to her on-site office — she calls it her “breadquarters” and shares it with some of her workers — where she’ll begin balancing the books to further plan Flour’s expansion. But before she leaves the bakery floor, she turns to look at some bags of meringue ghosts that have been prepared for Halloween. “Did you make the chocolate-dot eyes?” she asks, inspecting the bags to ensure every tiny decoration is in place. “Otherwise, they’ll end up looking like little white poops.”

The entire first year that Joanne Chang ran Flour at the corner of Washington and Rutland streets in the South End, she thought she was going to sell it. After she spent two years scouting locations and raising more than $300,000 from family and friends, Chang lived in an apartment upstairs from her business, waking each day at 2 a.m. to begin baking. She was preparing all the food and managing the staff of 12, and none of it seemed to be up to her standards. “You go in every day and you see how the tables aren’t wiped and the milks aren’t filled, the pastry counter doesn’t have the signs on it, and the light bulbs are out, and the music isn’t on,” she recalls now, cringing. “And the people are grumpy.”

Chang didn’t take a salary that first year, not that she would have spent it: She barely left the building. The diary entries she kept were grim. “It’s been almost ten months and I’m so unhappy,” she wrote in July 2001. “I want to get rid of this — Mom says I have to hold on for a year. Why is this so hard?”

Chang will be the first to admit that she hadn’t faced more than her share of struggles up to that point. The child of Taiwanese immigrants (her parents met as graduate students in Houston), she grew up in Oklahoma and Texas and coasted through grade school. In high school, she was so focused on her studies that her parents used to encourage her to have some fun, enjoy her teens. She used to tell them she was going to a friend’s house when in fact she was sneaking off to the library. She enjoyed the hard work, and it paid off: Chang was valedictorian of her class and was accepted to MIT and Harvard, among other programs. MIT had a mandatory swim test — Chang doesn’t swim — and she ended up at Harvard.

She started course work in astrophysics before ditching it for a degree in applied math. She was humbled at not being the most gifted person on campus but also relieved. “It was one of the best experiences in my life,” she says. “I was surrounded by people who were brilliant and accomplished, and I realized I could still be OK even though I was no longer the best.”

Chang graduated and took a job with the Monitor Group, a multinational consulting firm based in Cambridge, where part of her responsibilities included recruiting college students. One of her warm-up questions was to ask them what they’d do if they won the lottery. Over time, Chang began asking herself the same question.

Growing up, Chang was served traditional Chinese cuisine at home, and the family was more likely to have fruit for dessert than a sugary treat. She still recalls her first gluttonous piece of chocolate cake, eaten at a friend’s house. “I was like, There is the whole world of sweets that people eat after dinner,” she recalls. She became fascinated with food.

“I was reading cookbooks in my teens and helping my mom in the kitchen and just kind of being obsessed with wishing I could have sweets like normal people,” she says. She began making, and eventually selling, chocolate chip cookies in college (she used the Nestle Toll House recipe) and says she often brought cookies to study groups. At Monitor, she mocked up a business plan for a company called Joanne’s Kitchen and prepared cakes and cookie orders for her co-workers. It was enough to make her wonder whether it might be a better alternative to business school.

So instead of applying for an MBA, Chang typed up a resume and mailed it to the top chefs in the city: Lydia Shire, Jody Adams, Todd English, and Gordon Hamersley. She was 24 and said she was ready for the new challenges of the kitchen. Forty-eight hours after Chang mailed in her applications, Shire hired her to run the bar-food program at Biba, and she was soon promoted to the garde-manger station, making appetizers and salads.

Chang leads a staff meeting at  the south end flour and leaves the company’s new allston production kitchen on her preferred mode of transportation.

DINA RUDICK/GLOBE STAFF

Chang leads a staff meeting at the South End Flour.

Shire remembers Chang as serious, quiet, and ready to work hard. “She was a great sponge and was always really cheerful and happy,” she says. “That kind of work ethic is pretty much all you really want when you’re training and teaching someone.”

Chang had left a high-paying job for one paying $7.75 an hour, without vacation time or health insurance, yet she was thriving. Her early interest in pastry led her to seek a job at Bentonwood Bakery, a cafe that Rick Katz, now of Picco, ran for several years in Newton Centre. There, she would get elbows deep in flour and eggs, working with his small team to absorb the early morning rituals. “I learned all of the foundation of what my baking is from him,” Chang says. She finally felt as if she had found her calling.

But when Katz sold the bakery in 1995, Chang was left reeling. She stayed on under the new owners for a couple weeks, but then found herself sitting at the bar at Rialto, talking to chef Jody Adams about how Adams was attempting to reinvent her pastry program. Despite her relative inexperience — Chang had never worked in pastry at a restaurant, never mind as a head pastry chef — Adams saw a spark of promise and gave her a chance.

“I adored her from the moment I met her,” Adams says. “I knew she was smart and spunky and fearless and an incredibly kind soul.” What’s more, Adams was willing to develop talent in someone she believed in, something that Chang now emulates and considers essential to Flour’s success. “I go for the drive and the willingness to grow and learn and the energy of the person,” Adams says, “and then I help them get there.”

Chang leaves the company’s new Allston production kitchen on her preferred mode of transportation.

Together, the pair created a dessert menu that ran counter to trends. The mid-’90s was an era of pompous pastry, when restaurants were rolling out Charlie Trotter-inspired architectural confections that towered over their plates. Instead, Chang focused on reinterpreting classic desserts to fit Adams’s Mediterranean menu, and in so doing established a base line for her own dishes at Flour. Today, the bakery’s best-selling pastries — the chocolate chip cookie, the sticky bun, the Oreo cookie — are riffs on baking standards that Chang has painstakingly taken apart and reassembled in her own image. They’re sweet without being cloying, and they often have a savory edge.

Rialto’s pastry station was in the middle of the restaurant, and Chang’s focus would often manifest itself in a kind of scowl. Christopher Myers — who managed and co-owned Rialto and with whom she would open Myers + Chang in 2007 and marry a year later — remembers her seeming somewhat possessed. “When Joanne gets intense, she gets in a zone — at the time she was not a big smiler in the zone,” he says. “I was constantly reminding her that she was onstage.”

Eleven years her senior, Myers was gregarious where Chang was shy, experienced in restaurants where she was a novice. He became her confidant, a trusted adviser who supported her when she moved to New York to study under Francois Payard at his namesake Patisserie and Bistro. And after she returned to Boston to take the position of head pastry chef at Mistral a year later, it was Myers who helped her map out her plans for Flour, even coming up with its name.

Theirs was also a relationship forged in part through Chang’s business frustrations. During that difficult first year at Flour, she would stop her Esplanade runs at his restaurants to seek his advice. Exhausted evenings ended with a call to him, often in tears. Eventually, she says, he guided her through that pivotal year and gave her the confidence she needed to succeed. If Chang was the flour in the relationship, stable and sensible, Myers was the yeast. He was the thing, she says, that helped the bakery rise.

“If it weren’t for him, I’d still be living above the first Flour,” Chang says. “He’s the one who kind of saw the potential to do more — and encouraged me to think bigger.”

Dusk is creeping down Washington Street on a late October evening, and a gaggle of twentysomethings in thick plastic glasses, knit hats, and man buns floods into the South End Flour, giggling and hugging one another. The shop is closed, and they’re gathering for one of several all-staff meetings that Chang is hosting this week in advance of the frantic holiday season. Chang likes to joke that they sell everything for the holiday table except the turkey, and this Thanksgiving that was set to include more than 1,000 pies and 2,000 rolls.

Chang, dressed in her immaculate white chef’s coat, stands before her young staff outlining her “vision of Flour.” Her friends call her the “spa” for her ability to focus calmly and completely on whatever matters most at that moment, and right now she’s walking the room through a perfect visit to the bakery, one where smiling staffers greet and serve customers in a clean, beautiful, cozy setting. It’s the antithesis of the stressful scenes that used to play out here 15 years ago, a version of life where there’s no errant frosting on the side of a pastry box, where the milks for the coffee are always filled, and where customers always get their orders quickly.

“I wait for no more than — how many minutes?” she asks, dipping into the Socratic method. “Seven,” the room answers in unison.

FROM FLOUR BAKERY + CAFE

Chang’s original handwritten recipe for sticky buns, complete with diagrammed pecan placement.

Chang has a no-nonsense approach to management. If something is bothering her, she says, “I’m not going to pussyfoot around — I’m not going to sugarcoat it.” Over the course of her career, Chang soaked up insights from Shire, Katz, Adams, and her husband. But it was Mistral’s Jamie Mammano, she says, who introduced her to the “Perfect will be just fine, thank you” approach to leadership (though she notes the line is always delivered with a smile).

“She was a tough woman to work for when she was in the kitchen,” says Nicole Rhode, who joined Flour in 2001 and is now a partner in the bakery. Chang’s penchant for micromanagement and exacting standards have also made her exceptionally loyal to those who share her vision. Over time, she’s cultivated a team that she can trust, so much so that Chang says part of the reason she’s expanded Flour into Fort Point, Cambridge, and Back Bay was to provide her staff opportunities to climb the ranks.

She’s scouting locations for the next Flour and launching the new restaurant outside Kendall so her team can continue to grow. One afternoon, as she sits in the back office of her Fort Point location, she discreetly points to all the staffers working the floor and quietly says what position she’d eventually like to promote each one of them to.

“She wants everybody to stay forever and is committed to finding exactly what everyone needs to keep them inspired and motivated,” says Rhode. She pays well, feeds meals to staffers working long shifts, and offers paid vacation to full timers. Her managers hold regular growth seminars so staffers interested in making the jump from barista to baker, for instance, can chart a trajectory for themselves. Each summer, she gives out about 50 Red Sox tickets to employees, though to be eligible for the drawing they must first offer a suggestion about how to improve the business. (Tonight, Chang will introduce the latest addition to the rah-rah routine: the Shoutout Board, where employees can highlight great work done by others.)

“She had so many locations and so much other stuff going on that you don’t expect her to be as present as she is in the bakeries,” says Tanya Li, the 27-year-old manager of the Back Bay Flour, who has worked at the company for four years. “She makes people want to work for her.”

Lydia Shire and Jody Adams both note that as women in the kitchen, they had to work harder to make a name for themselves and get ahead. But Myers says that Chang has never defined herself — or her success — in terms of her ethnicity or gender, and that in fact there are few things that rattle or agitate her spa-like demeanor. “She doesn’t worry about winning a Beard Award. She doesn’t internalize restaurant reviews. She has no experience with schadenfreude,” he says. “You wouldn’t know it, but she’s very shy. She’s not a natural extrovert. But she’s pushed herself, and now she can smile and make it look easy.”

As her star power and profile have grown, so has her big-picture thinking. And that means she can no longer micromanage to the degree she once did. Not that she doesn’t try: Every time a customer posts a picture on Instagram of a Flour pastry, Chang studies it. If she notices something as small as a pile of napkins astray in the background, she’ll forward the image to a manager.

DAVE BRADLEY/FILE

Today’s iconic version of sticky buns.

All of which, of course, may become increasingly difficult as the company continues to expand. Chang can bicycle to all her locations now from the loft she shares with Myers in the Leather District but knows she might one day expand a bit farther out — though not too far. “I can’t imagine a Flour I couldn’t get to all the time,” she says. She does acknowledge that there may be a point where things start to feel less intimate and where the experimental ideas — a red-bean pop-tart, perhaps? — fall victim to both the execution needs of a big operation and expectations of the public. When they come to Flour, customers want their raspberry pop-tart, just like they want “Thunder Road” when they go to a Bruce Springsteen concert.

“So the growth thing now has become a thing where I am concerned,” she says. “At what point is it too much? At what point do I not know everyone’s name? Does the personal thing get lost?”

Chang’s mentor Rick Katz, who has no plans to expand his Picco in the South End, believes that’s almost inevitable, though he says if anyone can be successful, it’s Chang. “Honestly, as soon as you go from one to two places, things suffer,” he says. “In my mind, as soon as you go from one to two, you’ve opened a can of worms. After that, it’s a matter of can you trust the people that you’re putting in each location?”

Chang says her team has given her the confidence to focus on growth. “That’s her role now,” says Rhode. “Once we do grow, I think she’ll be able to maintain that face-to-face quality that makes us really unique.”

Chang hates change even as she recognizes its value. “I don’t ever want to become a big chain bakery,” she says. “That would make me so sad.” But she knows she needs to keep growing to see her vision for Flour come to life. The bakery shouldn’t just be a place for delicious food, she says; it should be something that makes the lives of her customers and staff better.

So she keeps tweaking and re-tweaking her recipe for success, trying to get to something perfect. “Everything is always just to improve the us,” she says. “The Flour.”

Janelle Nanos is the editor of BetaBoston. E-mail her at janelle.nanos@globe.com and follow her on Twitter @JanelleNanos.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.