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Meet Lane Levine of A Friendly Bread

Today we’d like to introduce you to Lane Levine.

Hi Lane, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I never liked bread growing up. I hated how it always got soggy. My mother used to send me to school with a bag of crackers and a bag of lunchmeat so I could make my crunchy sandwiches at lunchtime.

I was a good student in school, went to Harvard for college, and then began a career as a non-profit community organizer. I worked on labor rights, LGBTQ topics, and even on the issue of social isolation among senior citizens. My side hobby of making bread started when I went to pick up challah (Jewish ritual bread) for a weekly Sabbath dinner, but the bakery was closed. So I learned to make challah myself. I later learned to make sourdough, which is chewy, crusty, and much less prone to sogginess. Sourdough, a fermented product, is much more digestible for people with gluten sensitivity; and causes less of a sugar spike for people with diabetes. Sourdough bread resonates with my customers because it is so delicious and can bring people back to bread after turning it into an enemy – whether because of the gluten, the sugar spikes, or other reasons.

I formed A Friendly Bread and started selling it on the weekends to friends and family, and I found comfort in the tangible nature of making and selling bread – versus the intangible returns that I was used to in my non-profit work. We sold at farmers’ markets and became the “milkman for delicious bread” during the Covid lockdown.

My customers kept telling me about the delicious grilled cheeses they were concocting with our wide varieties of sourdough bread: multi-seed with cheddar, walnut date with asiago, and the list goes on and on. When Baltimore’s “Battle of the Brands” came around, I entered the contest with three varieties of grilled cheese – and A Friendly Bread won the “Best Overall” category. A couple of days later, some friends went into our home fridge and saw the contest’s leftovers. They grabbed and heated them – and I realized people needed a packaged grilled cheese.

We had already begun transforming the business into a packaged goods business – we created a gourmet cracker, also made out of our bread, called Sourdough Toasts – which is now carried at Whole Foods, MOM’s Organic Market, and many wineries in Maryland. So we took that experience and developed our frozen Sourdough Grilled Cheese for the air fryer or toaster oven – and we have been working on getting the product carried in stores in the region.

You can currently order Sourdough Grilled Cheese from our retail partner, RoofTop Hot, for local delivery; and it is being carried in a growing number of stores – including Farm Chicks Corner Market, Eddie’s, Graul’s, and more. We are on the verge of launching the product with a retailer that operates 160 locations in 22 states – so we are excited about this growth.

I intend to build A Friendly Bread in Baltimore, continuing to make our products locally with the help of a strong and happy workforce. Coming from community organizing and labor rights, I have always committed to providing a dignified work experience for my staff. If I can’t provide good compensation, it’s not worth it. We provide medical/dental/vision insurance and paid sick and vacation time; and we strongly enforce work-life balance with 40-hour workweeks and 2-day weekends. Our goal by the end of 2023 is to provide a standard wage of $25 for kitchen staff.

Can you talk to us about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
I have received so much support – moral, financial, emotional, you name it – from my husband, other family members, and friends – even from my boss at the last job I left behind to build this business. Despite all that support, it has always felt like an uphill battle.
The scariest struggle has been making sure I have enough money to keep going – given the variability of success of a certain business model or the challenge of finding customers for a new product idea. Besides that, some of the major challenges are: producing our products efficiently and consistently, managing relationships with other businesses with different interests or styles of interaction, and emerging from conflict or criticism with my self-esteem intact.

My ultimate struggle has been remembering to enjoy and appreciate the journey amidst the stress. That is infinitely easier said than done.

As you know, we’re big fans of A Friendly Bread. For our readers who might not be as familiar, what can you tell them about the brand?
A Friendly Bread’s mission is to bring snack lovers back home to bread – by elevating bread-based classics with sourdough. We started as a fresh bread company, but we are focused on reimagining some Americans’ favorite snacks – grilled cheese, french toast, and more – with the excellent, delicious base of sourdough bread.

We have already developed a loyal following in Baltimore, supplying consumers directly at farmers’ markets and home deliveries. We started selling our bread to local grocers like Eddie’s and Graul’s – and even as far away as The Common Market in Frederick. People had weekly subscriptions or placed orders for bread deliveries when their favorite flavor was coming up. We have switched our focus to packaged goods like our Sourdough Toasts (gourmet crackers), which are now carried in Whole Foods and MOM’s, and our new frozen Sourdough Grilled Cheese.

What sets us apart is that we make a product that has to meet my over-exacting standards as a former bread-hater (and grilled cheese skeptic – I once sent back a grilled cheese three times at a restaurant because it didn’t melt properly). We are producing something that appeals to someone as picky as me. So when we make something – it has to pass a very high bar.

We also have always been known for our close relationships with our customers. I often take calls from impassioned customers who need help navigating our ordering system or need special guidance in understanding the menu. I have always embraced this: if my bread means so much to someone, I want to show my appreciation by taking that person’s needs seriously.

Our name originally came from a feedback comment from my husband (one of my core taste testers) during the recipe development phase of the business – but it has come to signify so much more: our relationships with customers; the accessibility and digestibility of sourdough; and the instant love people have for our packaged products when they taste them.

Any big plans?
We are excited about the launch and expansion of the frozen Sourdough Grilled Cheese. In addition to the first flavor, our Simple Country Sourdough with Extra Sharp Cheddar and Mozzarella, we will be launching Cinnamon Raisin with Brie, and then Challah with Swiss. After we succeed with those, we will add more flavors and other sourdough bread-based products – like frozen Sourdough French Toast and Sourdough Snacking Croutons.

B-More Kitchen, the incubator facility where we have been located for four years, has allowed us the space and time to explore our business model – but we are outgrowing it. To accommodate this growth, we hope to move into a new production facility next year. Our new facility will still be in Baltimore, but it will be all our own.

 

Where to find A Friendly Bread’s products:

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Camryn Simmerman (box of grilled cheese, Lane sitting down) Nick Hanyok (Lane at farmers market) Plaid Photo (Sourdough Toasts photo, cooked grilled cheese photo)

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