When Nicole Walsh and Jon Goodman were still living in San Francisco, they dreamed of opening a corner bakery. Something small and cute and unassuming, something like Brookline’s beloved Clear Flour Bread. Goodman grew up in Brookline, and he’d been eating bread and pastry from Clear Flour for as long as he could remember.
So when he and Walsh began to seriously consider opening their own bakery, they sought the counsel of Christy Timon and Abe Faber, who’d been operating Clear Flour since 1982, and whom Goodman knew because they’d been parents in the Brookline school system when he was a student.
“We started talking with them to pick their brains,” Goodman told Eater. “Little did we know that they were planning their retirement. Eventually, they asked us if we were interested in moving back.”
Moving back — and buying the bakery from them.
Walsh — who, as a teenager in Eagle, Idaho, owned her own cupcake shop — said the idea was originally to open a bakery in San Francisco. She’d worked at various restaurants and bakeries in the city, one of which was owned by a baker who’d worked at Clear Flour 20 years earlier.
“I hadn’t even met Jon yet,” she said. “Clear Flour was just a flutter, just another bakery on the East Coast. Who knew 10 years after [the Clear Flour alum] mentioned it that I’d be here?”
But when Walsh began to seriously ponder opening a bakery San Francisco, she balked, admitting there were certain barriers to entry that would have made that difficult.
“It’s a hard thing to do in San Francisco, with the clean, fresh tile,” she told Eater. “And the rent.”
So when Timon and Faber presented the opportunity to buy Clear Flour, it was a no-brainer.
“When they put the idea out about us coming here and helping them retire, the chance to blow off some of the flour dust and — not change things but just highlight them even more, and have an influx of young energy into it — it was special,” said Walsh.
Timon and Faber stayed on as consultants for the first six months of Walsh and Goodman’s tenure at Clear Flour, to help the newlyweds and new owners find their footing. Walsh and Goodman suspected Clear Flour would be a well-oiled machine — a bakery doesn’t operate for nearly four decades otherwise — but the extent to which that was true shocked them both.
“We weren’t prepared to see that it was done even better than we imagined it could be,” said Goodman. “From the way they source flour and other products to the way they treat their employees. It was incredible...and now 13 months later, we’re more than comfortable in their shoes.”
While they’re comfortable, Walsh and Goodman are aware that they’re carrying the torch of an institution. They’ve made some modernizations — they upgraded the point of sale system to Square, which streamlines things at the till — but for the most part, they’re not touching anything.
“I grew up coming here, so it’s the gold standard,” said Goodman. “It’s not just the quality of the bread, but the atmosphere. If I were going to open a bakery and didn’t own Clear Flour, this is the kind of place I’d want to open. I hold it to a really high standard, and I’m very conscious about not screwing it up.”
Walsh and Goodman say that a few people have left since the time they took over, but for the most part the departures were due to big life events — other job offers, or moves abroad. They’ve retained much of the staff — including general manager Inga Sheaffer and baker Yozo Masuyama, who’ve been with Clear Flour for seven and 20 years, respectively. Walsh attributes that loyalty to the fact that Clear Flour treats its employees with dignity and respect.
“This place is really cool; it’s a joyful place to work,” Walsh said. “Everyone in the kitchen loves each other. There’s a sense of home when you walk in. And we absorbed that, because we’ve only been here 13 months as owners. There was a foundation in place, and we’re really excited to keep that going.”
“They built this foundation where, in the words of the old owner Abe, everything just works,” said Goodman. “It works like a Swiss clock. Our job was to come in and look at it from a different angle and say, ‘Okay, what else can we do? Can we boost people up a little more and not change anything that would be damaging?’ We haven’t changed any bedrock; we’ve just polished the clock. But the clock is still moving. We didn’t need to worry about the big picture, just about maintaining the bakery, keeping people happy, and continuing to be creative.”
Walsh and Goodman are still in touch with Timon and Faber. Goodman speaks with Faber on the phone once or twice a month, and Timon recently came back as a guest baker for German week, during which she baked all manner of German breads and pastries. Walsh and Goodman say they think they’ll have Timon come back to do that every year for as long as she’d like.
“The plan for the future was that if Christy had cool breads she wanted to make, she’d come in and make them.”
Just over a year later, and with their feet firmly planted, Walsh and Goodman are doing a fine job carrying Clear Flour’s torch. They got over the hump of their first Thanksgiving at the helm — a holiday season that demanded they turn out 1,000 pounds of baguette dough for wholesale alone — and are now square in the middle of the December holiday rush. With any luck, bread-loving residents in Greater Boston will be blessed with another four decades of Clear Flour Bread.