The Interview: Joanne Chang

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joanne chang

Photograph by David Yellen

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.

Does life in any way feel different now that you’ve won a James Beard?

No, I don’t think so. When I came back from Chicago it was interesting to me how many people knew about it who weren’t in the food business. In the food business we all knew about it, but I was shocked that random people knew about it. It made me realize that it was a big deal that people were really aware of.

Have you worn the actual medal?

I got it, and then I packed it because we were coming back from Chicago. And then I packed it in my backpack because I was going to show the team, and then I forgot about it. And then one day I was cleaning my backpack and it fell out. So for about three weeks, I thought I lost it. I hadn’t told anyone that I lost it. [But] now I don’t know where it is; it’s somewhere.

Tell me about the most memorable meal you’ve ever had.

We went to Paris in 2000-something for a couple of weeks on vacation. We ate everywhere and it was awesome and we loved it. And about 10 days in, it was New Year’s Eve, and Christopher said, “What do you want to eat tonight?” and I looked at him and said, “I have to have Chinese food.” I couldn’t do another night of the butter and whatever we were eating. I just needed soy and garlic and ginger. So there was this little Chinese place where we had dinner, and it could have been the crappiest Chinese food in the world, but it was so good. And that was the night we got engaged.

Wow. Did you see it coming?

He was on edge the whole night, which I didn’t understand. I was like, Maybe he’s upset we chose Chinese food and maybe he’s not enjoying it. He just seemed so different. I was like, Oh crap, maybe we should go eat more French food. And then he proposed after we went walking, so it all made sense.

Have you ever heard that the bagels in Boston are bad because of the water?

[Laughs.] No. Really?

Yeah. So why are bagels in Boston so terrible?

Are they? I don’t know. I mean, to make a bagel requires commitment. You can’t just, like, make 10 bagels. People have asked us for years, “Why don’t you offer bagels?” It requires a whole other setup. You have to sell a lot of bagels to make it worth your while. You have to make the dough, and then hand-shape the bagel, and then you have to boil them, and then you bake them, so it’s a multistep process. I think it’s just hard to make money on them if you don’t make a lot of them, and then if you make a lot of them, you’re going to be a bagel bakery.

You’re known to travel among Flour’s various locations on your bike. Do you think the city is doing a good job accommodating bicycles?

It could do better. I don’t fear it, although it’s the one thing Christopher and I fight about. For me, it’s such a convenient way to get around, especially because of the locations of the bakery. I’m shocked sometimes at how rude drivers can be to bikers. Why are they so mad at us? And I’m a driver, too. I think it’s important for bikers to drive at least occasionally, and for drivers to bike at least occasionally.

You have a reputation for being very nice, to the extent that several people who have never met you told me how nice you were. Can Joanne Chang be mean?

I don’t think it’s in me; I really don’t. I don’t have it in me to be negative. Of course, there is stuff that you’re like, “Ugh,” but I know how I feel when I’m being the best me I can be, versus when I get into gossip or I’m just being mean.

Can you explain?

The other day, one of our chefs at our production kitchen came up to me. He’s a very religious man. I’ve known him for six or seven years. He started out as a dishwasher, worked his way up to prep cook, and now he’s our production chef at our production kitchen and he’s awesome. He came up to me and said, “Joanne, you’re so nice. Why are you so nice?” And he said, “You don’t have religion, so how do you do it?” And I said to him—and this is how I feel—I know how hard life is for everybody, for the richest person in the world, for the most beautiful person in the world, for the poorest person, for somebody who’s in jail. For every single person who walks this earth, life is hard. I feel that very strongly. Life is challenging. And so I feel that if I can try to make life better, then that’s what I want to do.

And this is something you try to instill in your employees?

Sometimes a customer will come in, and they’re having a bad day and they’ll be mean. It’s hard for the staff—my staff will say it’s the hardest thing about working here, when they have to deal with a mean guest. And I always try to get them to understand that they’re being mean to you, but they’re not really seeing you. They’re just in the middle of something personal that’s with them right before they walk in the door. So they’re yelling at you, but they’re just yelling at whoever they’re mad at. I just try to equip my employees to smile. And it’s tough.

How many employees do you have?

Our count went up to 358. We have about 50 per location and we have four locations, plus the commissary, which is 50, plus we’re hiring for Harvard Square, plus Myers + Chang.

Do you still know all of your employees’ names?

Yep. So far! We just hired a bunch of people at Harvard Square that I’m still working on.

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