The Unstoppable Joanne Chang

food and beverage

The Unstoppable Joanne Chang

Seven Questions for Continuum’s Flay-Slaying Neighbor

October 4, 2016
by Ken Gordon

You don’t have to be a foodie, or a fan of Food Network, or a pastry nut, or a regular at the Flour Bakery in Boston’s Innovation District to dig Joanne Chang. You simply have to talk with her. Or try one of her amazing pastries. Or dine at her famed Asian restaurant, Myers + Chang. The woman is an unstoppable force on the Boston, and national, food scene. She not only demolished Bobby Flay on the "sticky buns" episode of Throwdown—she’s opening three new Flour Bakeries. As Chang has had a shop in Fort Point since 2007, we count her as one of Continuum’s most interesting new neighbors, and decided to cook up the following confection of a Q&A. Bon Appétit!

Continuum: Congratulations on launching three new Flour bakeries! While baking famously requires precision, I wonder how much business-expansion does. In 2014, you said, “I’m learning how rewarding it can be to give direction, delegate, and watch how successful the team around me can be without me.” How are you preparing for the rewards and challenges three new bakeries will provide?

Joanne Chang: What I said in 2014 still holds—it's really pretty awesome to describe a vision, trust your team to push it forward, and then see the team and the bakeries flourish. I'm preparing by being as clear and communicative as I know how about what Flour is all about. It's constantly connecting with each manager, listening intently to how they deal with issues and with staff, pinpointing where someone might be interpreting the vision incorrectly, and gently pushing everyone forward to constantly be pushing themselves to improve.

Continuum: One of your employees told the Boston Globe that you “[make] people want to work for [you].” Would you please say a bit about how you foster positive employee experience? What do you expect from employees, and what should they expect from you? And do the people who work for you have a markedly different experience from those who work for other bakeries or restaurants?

JC: I want my staff to say that working at Flour was the best job they ever had. I expect that they will be passionate about the food we make and the hospitality we strive to give to everyone who walks in the door. I want them to own their part of knowing how we work to make every day smooth and productive. I also want them to learn while they are with us—not just about pastry and coffee and sandwiches, but also about respect, kindness, generosity, compassion. How to act in a professional work environment. How to communicate clearly when you want to make a point. How to deal with conflict and difficult issues. I want the staff at Flour to care. They are not just employees to me but awesome people who are at Flour to be part of a team that loves what we do...and likewise, I don't want Flour to be just a job to them. Staff can expect that I will always listen, I'll always try to make our guest and staff experience the best it can be, and that I'll always share what is on my mind as we continue to grow. I don't know what it's like to work at other places so I can't say if our staff have a different experience. But I know that everyone who works at Flour chooses to work with us and thus we treat them as such.

Continuum: My understanding is that you’re a huge reader. Do you have a favorite book? And has this book in any way affected who you are as a chef and/or business owner?

JC: I'm constantly reading, but it's been a long time since I actually sat down and read a book cover to cover. I read magazines and newspapers all the time and I'm always reading cookbooks and recipes and learning more about other restaurants and bakeries. I don't know that I have a favorite book, but I have a few that have influenced my career as chef and bakery owner. The first is a business book called The E-Myth that, coincidentally, focuses on a pie baker and her new bakery. What it does is clearly lay out the idea that if you are good at a certain thing and you make that your business as an entrepreneur, you will soon have to wear another hat than “doer” and become the “manager.” I'm paraphrasing, but it helped me see that as much as I love baking, if Flour was going to grow I would have to find someone else to do the baking while I focused on how to run a strong business. The second book is Setting the Table by Danny Meyer. It's a classic among hospitality professionals and it teaches how to view the guest and the team in a way that promotes generosity, kindness, warmth, and all of the things that are the reason we are in this business.

Continuum: You opened your second bakery—which you winningly call “F2”—in Fort Point Channel, in 2007. Is there anything about this Innovation District locale that requires a different approach from the other bakeries? Continuum is new to this neighborhood, and we’ll looking for all the advice we can get.

JC: We have seen this neighborhood change dramatically since we moved in! For the first few years it was a pretty quiet part of town. Not much happened after 5 p.m. and we even considered closing early. But we knew that there would eventually come a time when people would come to this neighborhood and see what we see: proximity to downtown and public transportation, easy access to the water, lots of interesting and varied architecture, a close-knit passionate artists’ community, museums and hotels and convention centers all within an arm's reach. Sure enough, we are now in the middle of what's considered one of the buzziest 'hoods in Boston. I think the name “Innovation District” tells you all you need to know—the people here now are energetic and full of new ideas and eager to see the area develop. So we have been focused on trying to be as attuned to all of the possible ways we can stay ahead of the curve on offering the best pastry and hospitality to our guests.

Continuum: According to Harvard Magazine, your innovation process is as follows: When you get a new idea, you dig through your bakery’s recipes as well as non-Flour recipes. “Then I’ll tweak it to my liking—maybe more zucchini, less chocolate, moister, with a tighter crumb. We try the recipe a few times till we get what we like, then scale it up.” My question: Does the customer enter into the innovation process at any point? If so, how does this work? And if not, why not?

JC: Yes, of course. If we put something out there and guests have strong feedback, we go back to the drawing board and see what the issue is. While we are testing, we will often sell things as "specials," and we ask for guests to tell us what they think. We do this with our sandwich menu twice a year--we run our possible new sandwiches for the upcoming season as specials and put signs all around the bakery so that people know and can contact us with their feedback. For pastries, it happens a bit more organically: we will test something and have some extras and we put them out to see what our guests think. It's not quite as systematic.

Continuum: So you beat Bobby Flay on Throwdown. Any idea of how much that appearance on the Food Network has affected your fortunes? While that episode was surely only positive for you, I wonder if you think that food television has been all that good for eaters, and restaurants? Has Flay since come to eat a Flour or at Myers + Chang?

JC: Throwdown was hugely influential for us. This episode aired shortly after we opened F2 and we immediately saw an uptick in business. It put us on the map, so to speak. I'll always be grateful for Throwdown and Flay for featuring us. Flay has been to Flour a few times since but I don't think he has been to Myers+Chang (yet!). I certainly appreciate all that food TV has done for the industry and I am a recipient of the benefits! However, I do worry that the rise of the celebrity chef and the social media focus on food sometimes takes away from what this industry is about at the heart: making people happy with food and hospitality. It worries me that people can get the idea that cooking is all glamour and fun. We've seen a number of career-changers try their hand at baking/cooking only to see that the reality is a lot harsher. There is a lot of hard work that gets hidden from TV!

Continuum: My 14-year-old daughter is a baker, and she insisted that I ask you something about your Red Velvet Cake recipe, on page 618 of the Flour cookbook. It says on that page that you should use 1/3 of a cup, or 80 grams, of red food coloring. Shoshi wonders if this is a typo: Is it? She also asked me to ask you what kind of food coloring are you talking about…

JC: Ha! It's not a typo—but she is right, it is a ridiculous amount of food coloring! But that is traditionally how red velvet cake is made—with so much food coloring it makes the cake turn vivid red. We use a liquid food coloring that comes out of a bottle.

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Photo by Michael Harlan Turkell

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