The Interview: Joanne Chang
Boston’s James Beard Award–winning baker dishes on her expanding culinary empire and why it’s so darn hard for her to be mean.
Joanne Chang just wants you to be happy. She doesn’t care whether you delight in her ginger molasses cookies or find solace in her sticky buns, so long as you walk away from her award-winning bakeries, dubbed Flour, with a smile on your face. “You should feel happier when you leave than when you came in,” she tells me as we sit at Flour’s Back Bay location on a Friday afternoon, where even at 4 p.m. there’s a line. It might seem like a tall order in a city known for short tempers and bursts of profanity, but with new bakeries popping up in Cambridgeport and Harvard Square and another due to open in the Back Bay this winter, Chang is making Boston sweeter than ever.
How many Flour bakeries is too many?
If you had asked me that 10 years ago I would’ve said two Flours is too many Flours. I lived above the first Flour—I literally could run downstairs at any moment if I was worried. So how many Flours is too many? I don’t know the answer to that. None of us are thinking that we have just got to grow, grow, grow, grow. Everyone is thinking that we have to make things awesome.
Is that stressful?
I think it’s stressful for everybody. We haven’t let our standards go down; we’re still constantly looking at everything, even though there are four, soon to be six, Flours. We’re looking at every single pastry and sandwich, and that’s stressful for everybody. But I feel that everybody gets it. I have an executive chef, an executive pastry chef, and a director of operations, and that’s all we think about: How do we make sure that if you walk into this Flour versus the first Flour that it’s just like it was 16 years ago, or, ideally, even better?
You need a cup of coffee and your only choices are Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks. Which do you pick?
Do you see Flour competing against Starbucks or Dunks?
Yes and no. I think we compete against any place you would go to get coffee and pastries or a sandwich. But do I view us as in direct competition? I think that we’ve created a niche, and people know what they’re getting from us. If you’re just someone looking for a cup of coffee, and there’s a Flour, a Starbucks, and a Dunkin’, then obviously we’re in competition. But I really view Flour as an experience. I think I view Starbucks as a convenience.
How hard is it to grow a business when your specialty is fresh, handmade baked goods?
It is hard. But we have created systems to make sure that the quality stays high. We still bake everything off at each bakery, but what we have done is consolidated production. For example, we used to make cookie batters at each location, and each person would go and bake off their cookie batters and I would be running around like crazy looking at everything. Now we have one central location where we make the cookie batter, and it goes out to all the locations and then they bake it.
Does that bring peace of mind?
It does, but it has its own stresses because if they mess up the cookie dough, every place gets messed-up cookie dough. That’s the trade-off.
Is Flour a single brand, or do the individual locations have their own identities?
I feel strongly that each Flour is its own ecosystem in that the neighborhood and the staff bring a lot to the personality of each one. We don’t want the Flours to be cookie-cutters of each other because the neighborhoods are different and the staffs are so different. I do think about the brand, but I don’t call it that; I think about the consistency of who we are, what we’re trying to say, and what we’re trying to do.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
For nostalgia, I would say Baking with Julia. I don’t remember when it came out, but I know I was looking at it as I was dreaming about opening Flour, and it was the book that I would go to sometimes when I was deflated. I was working and trying to figure out how to open my own place. I would read this book and look at the pictures. I just remember reading that at times and saying, “Okay. This is what I want to do.”
Would you ever do a Baking with Joanne TV show?
I don’t think so. I don’t love being on TV. I’ve done it in the past. It’s good for business. Talk about brand—it’s great for pushing the brand. Christopher [Myers, the local restaurateur and Chang’s husband] and I talked about it a long time ago, and I actually looked into it. It’s just not my thing. I love being here.
What would you pick for your last meal?
Wow. My last meal would be dinner that my mom made me. It’s been a long time since my mom has cooked me dinner, but I have many, many fond memories. During college, when I would come home so homesick, my mom would make me all my favorite dishes. She does a tofu with rice—it’s spicy with black beans and cilantro. She does a stew with eggs and beef and sui choy and ginger and star anise. She does a lot of stir-fried greens that I really love.
Did you get drunk the night you won the James Beard Award?
[Laughs.] No, we didn’t. We actually went out and got pizza and pasta and great red wine, and I don’t even know the name of the restaurant. It was a small restaurant that was just nearby. We bypassed the whole party scene. It’s much more my style. I was excited, but I think I would’ve been very overwhelmed.