ARIZONA AVE — Jack Bezian sold his signature sourdough bread Wednesday from his stall at the westernmost end of the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market just as he has for the last 19 years, except for one detail.
Rather than his usual literature on the health benefits of probiotics and fermentation, Bezian displayed a large, handwritten sign proclaiming that next week would be his last day at the market.
Despite a long track record, Bezian’s Bread has been ousted by a younger newcomer, Venice-based Red Bread, as a result of a process established by the City Council in 2009 that requires prepared food vendors to reapply for their spots every three years.
That means if Bezian wants his Wednesday morning stall back, he will have to wait until another “bread spot” is up for renewal, said Laura Avery, Farmers’ Market Supervisor with City Hall.
That’s a sour pill for Bezian to swallow.
“I’ve built my business here,” Bezian said.
Bezian’s customers aren’t happy, either.
They’ve signed petitions and are hounding city officials in person and by e-mail for some kind of explanation as to why their favorite bread man has gotten the boot.
Bezian has gathered over 600 signatures from people who travel from all over the Westside to pick up his product at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday before rushing off to work or errands.
He has no brick-and-mortar storefront — the only places Bezian’s customers can find his wares are the Wednesday market, a Saturday market in Pasadena’s Victory Park and the Hollywood Farmers’ Market on Sunday.
Jen Warr comes from Culver City to stock up on Bezian’s product for the week because it’s literally the only kind of bread that her family can eat.
Bezian uses a traditional method of bread baking perfected over centuries before the now-common baker’s yeast became a household item. He begins with a sourdough starter and ferments the bread, sometimes for a month, before baking it and bringing it to market.
The process creates a tangy, sour flavor that Bezian then enhances with various additions like sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, sesame seeds or Kalamata olives.
More importantly for a customer like Warr, it means no baker’s yeast.
“I go to the East Coast for two months every year,” Warr said. “I pack up priority boxes of bread to ship it.”
As far as the Farmers’ Market officials go, they say their hands are tied.
City Hall created the process at the behest of the City Attorney’s Office, which said that there needed to be a consistent process for selecting prepared food vendors, Avery said.
Under the system, prepared food vendors had to score well in five categories — business location, environmental sustainability, ingredient-sourcing, experience and value — to bring home one of the coveted spots.
Five judges rate the businesses based on objective facts and a presentation. That panel consists of three Santa Monica residents who are regulars at the market, one member of the Farmers’ Market team and one member of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment.
Avery did not provide the names of the judges on advice from the City Attorney’s Office.
Competition is fierce. This year, one-third of the spots were up for grabs, and only one of those, Bezian’s, was at the Wednesday market.
A look at the judges’ scorecards tells the story of what happened next.
On the basis of sustainability, value and ingredients, Red Bread beat Bezian’s handily by 90 points.
Bezian’s received 10 points for experience and five for location, while Red Bread was awarded five points for their experience and nothing for their location, Avery said.
Even with those categories going in Bezian’s favor, Red Bread came out on top.
Sustainability and ingredient sourcing won the day for the new company.
Red Bread uses bicycles to deliver their product, sources almost all of their ingredients from the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market and only uses compostable packaging materials, said Rose Lawrence, the company founder.
The flour comes from an organic distributor in Petaluma, Calif., although she is working on bringing it in-house by working with other Los Angeles bread bakers to get wheat planted locally for coming years.
Lawrence is a food-activist armed with a lifetime in the natural food world, the title of master preserver (her company also sells jams and other spreads) and a law degree from UCLA.
Like Bezian, Lawrence refuses to let commercially-purchased yeast anywhere near her bread.
Her sourdough starter is made with flour, water and know-how.
“Fermentation is as old as civilization,” Lawrence said. “It’s something I’ve studied, I love and I’ve really embraced.”
She applies that philosophy not only to breads, but to pastries. Those are made with the same process, but more tightly controlled to keep the nutritional value of fermentation without the traditional sour flavor.
The opportunity to open up shop in Santa Monica is big for the business, which only got underway in January.
“This is something we pour our hearts into and everything we love goes into this business in terms of a commitment to the environment, and social justice,” she said. “This is something we’ve worked for from the ground up, and little by little.”
The trick for Red Bread may be getting Bezian’s loyal Santa Monica customers to believe that their bread is anything like his.
If she can’t get it in Santa Monica, Warr said she will have to go to the West Hollywood location on Saturday, which means one less customer.
Others from Santa Monica and beyond echoed that sentiment.