Picture a baker’s skilled hands carefully fashioning sourdough baguettes on a floured tabletop. When the crusty golden loaves emerge from the oven, each displays its own personality. Multiply that process by a hundred thousand and place it in a 33,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art bakery that operates around the clock. Handcrafting their staggering quantity of baked goods is the culinary contradiction that explains why Semifreddi’s is one of the Bay Area’s most beloved bakeries.
Only the sweet scent of cinnamon wafting from the windows of the enormous earth-toned edifice, perched on the edge of Bay Farm Island, hints at the hive of continuous motion concealed within. In 2009, Semifreddi’s moved into its new home. Redesigned for sustainability, the building incorporates natural light and fresh air, with 20 domed skylights and 44 solar light tubes and houses huge stainless steel vats, racks and ovens to handle gigantic globs of living, breathing dough. Its 120 full-time workers make it one of Alameda’s largest employers. Quite a leap from the tiny Kensington kitchen where this family business started baking back in 1984.
Despite the fact that Semifreddi’s turns out 170,000 loaves of bread and 30,000 pastries a week, co-owner Tom Frainier says, “We call this a ‘bakery’ not a ‘factory,’ because we are mechanized but not automated.” Rather than taking over, machines allow the bakers to focus on the artisan aspects of their work.
Every three days, 50,000 pounds of organic unbleached wheat flour from Idaho arrives in tanker trucks and is siphoned into immense fabric silos. French spiral mixers knead 250 pounds of flour, water, salt and yeast at a time. A mechanical loader’s wide arm scoops up 32 loaves and deposits them into the oven, where they are steamed for a few seconds and baked until golden brown. Then the loader collects the hot loaves and slides them onto a cooling table.
Although the enormous mechanized components of the bakery are impressive, it’s the human touch that adds the distinctive look and taste to the bread, so bakers shape every loaf by hand. Their rapid repetitious movements often resemble a choreographed routine.
To the beat of lively music, one quartet of bakers prepares rustic sourdough, performing a ballet of pounding, folding and kneading the dough. Then the loaves are tossed in a graceful arc to land on a soft pile of flour where two more bakers roll and cradle the loaves into baskets that will shape them as they rest and rise.
At another table, bakers grasp coils of dough and unfurl them into long bands that resemble pastry Slip ’N Slides. They sprinkle double handfuls of sugar along the length of each strip, roll them into chunky cylinders, cut off generous pieces and plop these into muffin pans to become morning buns.
The pastry team works at night so that fresh products — 75 percent of which are sold within 30 miles of Alameda — can be loaded onto 19 trucks that hit the road starting at 3:45 a.m., 365 days a year. All this to deliver handcrafted sweet, sour and cinnamon breads and rolls, crunchy biscotti and decadent cheese Danishes into the waiting hands of hungry customers.