As soon as I got off the plane in Madison, Wisconsin, I could tell it was a city that cared about food quality and ethics. The first thing I saw was a market with a big sign about “food miles,” a calculation of how far food travels to meet the consumer and a measure of environmental impact. Next, I saw an outpost of Ancora Coffee and Tea, one of Madison’s fair-trade coffee shops. And that was before I even got to the baggage claim.
Over the next few days in Madison, I found this same type of awareness in many eateries. For a Midwestern city, there were a lot of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free menu options. Several places I visited displayed large signs proclaiming exactly which farms and manufacturers provided their ingredients. One morning, I stumbled upon a planter box of huge tomato and kale plants outside the elegantly imposing Capitol. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the food and environmental consciousness in general and the Capitol veggie garden in particular. After all, Madison was once home to Governor Gaylord Nelson, the man who invented Earth Day. Green consciousness now permeates many Madison businesses, especially those involving food.
My first afternoon in Madison, I visited Bloom. Actually, Bloom is in Middleton, a Madison suburb. But it’s worth the trip to this sustainable, organic bakery, especially if you’re vegan or gluten-free.
Annemarie Maitri, Bloom’s owner, is approaching the anniversary of her fifth year in business. Her original vision was spurred by her love of desserts, “but also to be a steward of my community,” she said. For Maitri, that means shelling out for quality ingredients that cut into profit margins. “In fine dining, there’s a threshold where you can charge way more for better ingredients,” she said. “But not with a bakery.”
Many restaurants make their money back on desserts by using cheap ingredients. Not Bloom. Maitri spends $5 per pound on butter, which comes to about $1,000 per month. Her local organic eggs cost $4 per dozen. Half her selection is traditional pastries, the other half are vegan and gluten-free. Her current favorite gluten-free flour is coconut, but it costs more than other flours. “I love it, but I have to be careful,” she said. Unlike many bakeries, she doesn’t charge more for special-diet pastries. “I don’t want to penalize people for being gluten-free.”
On a lively stretch of Madison’s Williamson Street, Batch Bakehouse has become a neighborhood hub. Owner Susan Detering also carefully assesses ingredients. She uses local organic eggs from New Century Farm and Gruyere from France. But she can’t afford Wisconsin butter. “I would have to charge double for croissants,” she said.
Deterring handles the business side of the bakery, while partner Lauren Carter is the head pastry chef. So when Detering eyes a pastry, she sees the monetary breakdown as well as its deliciousness. “Forty-five percent of everything in the case is labor, including health insurance,” she said on a Friday morning as we gazed at a case full of muffins, croissants, bread and cookies. Much of the rest goes into ingredients, overhead and debt, leaving only a tiny profit margin. “There’s a misperception about bakeries that if there’s a long line, they’re making tons of money,” she said. “There’s a reason small bakeries closed when Wonder Bread came out.”
Vegans and Other Special People
When I think of a late-night Midwestern pizza parlor, vegan slices are not the first thing that pops into my mind. But at Ian’s Pizza you can usually find them in the case right beside vegetarian and meaty options. And if you want to guarantee your vegan slice, stop by between 5 p.m. and midnight on Monday, which has been Vegan Night for the last couple of years. You’ll find inventive toppings, such as lasagna pizza topped with spinach and noodles. Or try a vegan version of Ian’s top seller, the mac and cheese pizza. This heavy slice is all crust, Daiya cheese, macaroni noodles and vegan cream sauce instead of tomato sauce.
Adam May, marketing director for Ian’s, said customer feedback spurred the innovations in vegan pizza. He’s especially excited about the vegan pesto, made with arugula and walnuts. “We’ve had an amazing response from both vegans and non-vegans,” he said, adding that both will probably wind up on the menu.
Ian’s also has an amazing made-to-order salad bar. Start with raw kale, spinach, romaine or lettuce mix. Then choose between more than 40 mix-in options, including tofu, chick peas, nuts, Brussels sprouts and roasted vegetables. But be careful. They charge per item.
Around town I saw lots of vegan and vegetarian awareness. Gotham Bagels offers three types of tofu spread. Dragon-I Asian fusion restaurant has a huge vegetarian section of the menu. And the Saturday farmers market which surrounds the Capitol displays enough fresh veggies to make any herbivore drool.
At Bloom, Maitri decided it was most efficient to make half her pastries vegan and gluten-free. While these are two different sets of customers, her pastries are so delicious that the vegans don’t miss the gluten, and gluten-free folks are happy to forego eggs and dairy.
Her customers have many reasons for following special diets, Maitri said, from ethics, to allergies, to breastfeeding moms who think certain ingredients cause their babies to cry more. She loves to delight customers with many choices. “We’ve had mothers weep because all they want to do is give their kids a birthday cake,” she said. “It’s extremely rewarding.”
Bloom’s wedding business is booming. “When we do wedding tastings, we always throw in a vegan gluten-free. You’d be amazed how many people choose it.” Her theory is that people think they want butter, but they grew up on cakes made with oil. “It produces a different crumb,” she said. So the vegan cakes made with coconut oil are more akin to the Duncan Hines mixes of their youth. But, of course, much more delicious and organic.
Batch has also responded to customer demand for vegan baked goods. They make small quantities of vegan muffins, pies and tarts. When I visited at 10 a.m. on a weekday, they’d almost sold out. Detering is determined that the vegan pastries taste as good as ones made with milk, butter and eggs. Her favorite success? Chocolate ganache made with coconut cream. “I will eat it by the spoonful,” she said.
Concern for Employees
All the restaurateurs I talked to shared an interest in developing employees and ideally developing careers, not just jobs. At Ian’s Pizza, May is an example of one of the company’s core ideals: promoting from within. He started seven years ago as a delivery driver and worked his way up to marketing director. The most promising workers are encouraged to open new locations of Ian’s Pizza, or spinoff businesses. Currently, the other Ian’s locations are in Denver and Milwaukee. A franchise owner and a team of five to seven Ian’s workers from Madison moved to each new location to keep the corporate culture intact. “We get contacted all the time by people who want to open a location in their city,” May said. These strangers are invited to move to Madison and apply for a delivery driver job.
One of the ways small businesses survive is forming strong partnerships with other businesses. Detering has formed lucrative partnerships with local restaurants, as well as the beloved Willy Street Coop, now celebrating its 40th year of bringing healthful food to Madison.
Great Dane Pub approached Batch, wanting to upgrade its breads. Now the pub offers three sandwiches on Batch breads, including a vegetarian sandwich with broccolini on a cracked wheat loaf. Wholesale is more than 50 percent of Batch’s business, said Detering. “Those partnerships are vital to a from-scratch bakery.”
Ian’s has achieved some major community involvement, partly by design and partly by accident. My recent visit coincided with Ian’s eighth annual pizza contest. What started out as an amateur event for college kids now attracts pro eaters from the contest circuit. Last year, Molly Schuyler set a new world record when she gobbled down almost seven pounds of pizza in 10 minutes.
But Ian’s became most famous in 2011, during the big protests over Governor Scott Walker assault on collective bargaining. Since Ian’s is within a block of the Capitol, the streets were clogged with thousands of people. The mother of a young protestor called and ordered her daughter an Ian’s pizza during the protest. This mom turned out to be a prominent blogger. Soon people from all 50 states and 42 countries bought pizza for protestors. The demand was so overwhelming that Ian’s shut down delivery. They handled the donations by letting the public come in and get two slices and a drink for free.
Ian’s had to carefully navigate the political situation. “We’re a business that promotes a lot of the values [Governor Walker] might be attacking,” said May. “But as a business we don’t come out and say we’re anti this or that. We don’t want to alienate customers or employees who think differently.” After much discussion, they hit on a stance they could all live with. “We decided we’re not pro or anti-union. We’re pro-pizza and pro-democracy.”
Recommendations If You Go
After a few days in Madison, I concluded it’s a terrific spot for vegans and vegetarians traveling through the Midwest. Here are a few recommended items from my sources.
Batch: The biggest sellers are baguettes, croissants and chocolate chip cookies. Detering also recommends apple cake and salted caramel brownies.
Bloom: Popular pastries include the raspberry buckle, mint chocolate ganache cupcakes and salted caramel cupcakes. And, of course, wedding cakes.
Ian’s Pizza: Mac and cheese pizza is the top seller. Remember, Monday night is Vegan Night. And their salads are awesome.
Mirch Masala: This Indian and Nepali restaurant has a big bread menu, including terrific ginger naan.
Gotham Bagels: A neon sign that says “Hot Bagels.” After a red-eye flight, that sign drew me like a moth. –Story and Photos by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor