Companion has been baking bread daily for St. Louis restaurants and grocery stores since 1993. You may have seen Companion’s fleet of trucks and vans around town delivering fresh bread to the shelves of your local Schnucks, Dierbergs, and Straub’s. Best known for their artisanal, European-style bread, Companion’s list of products includes everything from sweet treats like cookies, pastries, custom-decorated cakes to granola(featured in Triathlete Magazine) and even dips and spreads. Catering? Yup, they do that too. Beyond their two local cafés in Clayton and Ladue, Companion is poised to expand locally with the acquisition of a new facility in Maryland Heights scheduled to open later this year. Consistently nominated and recognized by local publications and their readership, the award-winning bakery was named as one of the top 10 artisan bakeries by USA Today in 2007. In this installment of our sponsor q&a series, we asked owner and founder, Josh Allen, about the early days of Companion, where Companion’s bread is heading to beyond the metro area, and the four pillars that shape Companion’s company philosophy.
Tri Club: We love getting into our sponsors’ origin stories. When Companion was established in 1993, what did the local landscape of bread makers/bakeries look like?
Josh Allen: There really wasn’t much artisanal bread in the market. St. Louis Bread Co. was still just a few years old and they had done a terrific job of showing the marketplace that bread could be a part of the conversation surrounding food. The micro vendor community was in its infancy in STL. Schlafly had opened in 1991. We opened in late 1993. Kaldi’s opened in 1994. We had a lot of chefs in town that were seeing the evolution of food in the major markets and were thrilled that they were folks beginning to sprout up in the area.
TC: How was the name of the company chosen?
JA: The Latin of “companion” is cum pane – which simply means “with bread”. So a companion was someone with whom you broke bread, a friend with whom you shared sustenance. It felt like a terrific name for a bread shop.
TC: Do you remember the first local restaurant or specialty store that decided to serve or stock Companion bread?
JA: Bill Cardwell took a liking to me early on and started using our bread on the table at his original restaurant in Clayton. That really gave us some real credibility in the foodservice arena. And Ladue Market gave us a chance too.
TC: Your first café opened in 2001. What have you learned about the business from the café side of the operation?
JA: We learn the same lessons from all facets of our business. That if we genuinely feed and support our customers and our community then they will take care of us. Up until 2001, we didn’t get the opportunity to interact regularly with the folks who were eating our breads. The café has given us that connection.
TC: Your staff are affectionately known as your companions. A handful have been with the company for more than 10 yrs., some even for 20 yrs. How are their milestones with the company celebrated or rewarded?
JA: We’ve always made a big deal out of every five year anniversary. Probably because I’m so honored and humbled that our companions have chosen to commit their working lives to our small company. It means a great deal to me. At five years, we give a watch and have a fun caricature drawn. At 10, we do a big gift for the companion and their family (big TV, patio furniture, etc.) – something they can show off to their friends. At 15, a nice big check. And at 20, we give them a substantial travel voucher and an extra week of vacation during which to enjoy it. I’ve never understood why so many companies wait til retirement to bestow gifts on their employees.
TC: Earlier this year, you announced an expansion of Companion into Maryland Heights via a 41,000 square feet facility which will house a production facility as well as a café. Can you bring us up to speed on the progress of construction, the anticipated opening date, and what you have in store for the rest of the facility? We’re excited hearing about potential classes and tours!
JA: We look at it as if we’re headed off to college. After 22 years, our South City facility is really outdated and too small. We’re building our showcase production facility that will include a café and baking school so that we can truly invite the community into our process. We’re eager to show off what we do and how we do it. It’s running a bit behind schedule. We’re hoping to open the doors in early November of this year.
TC: Did you ever envision that Companion would one day have a facility large enough to be described as a campus?
JA: Well, that’s a word we’re using because it fits the design aesthetic of the new place. The factory was built in 1963 and we’re embracing the idea of a mid-century elementary school in the design. So “campus” was a fitting description.
TC: Will the new facility play a large role in the expansion of Companion’s products into other cities and states outside of the metro area?
JA: Yes, our business is growing nationally. In addition to producing breads/pastries for fresh delivery around STL, we are also baking and freezing breads for national distribution. Our breads are in stores from Oregon to Florida and everywhere in between.
TC: Why those markets in particular?
JA: We are creating partnerships with a number of natural food stores across the nation. So we follow their growth.
TC: Community plays a big role for Companion. From supporting or sponsoring various local organizations like our triathlon club and Girls on the Run to events like the Clayton Kids Triathlon, why is it important for Companion to be involved in the local communities?
JA: We’re in STL. It’s one of the most generous communities in the country and we’re thrilled to be a part of it. Community is one of the pillars on which we built the bakery. If we don’t give, we don’t get. We believe that to our core.
TC: Speaking of triathlon, back in the day (before Companion we presume?) you dabbled in the sport for a little while. Do you miss it at all? How do you stay fit? Do the odd hours of a baker’s life make it hard to maintain a regular routine?
JA: I think triathlon is the best small business primer around. The relentless, unwavering commitment to training pays off greatly during the early years of running and building a company. I competed in Hawaii at the Ironman in 1990 and 1991, just before I dove headfirst into baking. With the business and five incredibly active kids, it’s hard to really train full time. I’ve done a few marathons in the last ten years and I’ve recently started do some crossfit type workouts. I enjoy socially active pursuits with a good dose of competitiveness.
TC: A quick look at your social media shows that you champion other local chefs and restaurants nearly as much as you promote your own business. How gratifying is it to know that these other chefs have chosen to serve Companion bread in their own establishments?
JA: Grateful daily for their support. We bake for them. They work their butts off in this industry and to know they trust us to be a part of what they serve to their guests is a huge honor and responsibility. We don’t take it lightly.
TC: Have any of Companion’s current products or menu items resulted from a suggestion or request from a customer?
JA: My grandfather told me early on to “shut up and listen to your customer because they will tell you how to be successful [if you let them].” Everything we do is a result of trying to best serve our customers
TC: In the 22 years since Companion was established, you’ve managed to pick up awards and accolades along the way. Is there one in particular that was maybe a pleasant, but shocked surprise or one that still humbles you?
JA: They all do quite frankly. Especially the “best bread” ones in the various publications. All we really want is to know that the folks who eat our bread enjoy it.
TC: Can you briefly describe how Companion’s philosophy revolves around the 4 C’s?
JA: I mentioned that they were our pillars – our companions, our customers, our community and our company. Simply put, our job is to take care of our employees. If we do that well, they’ll take care of our customers. If we take care of our customers, we have the resources to help our community. If we do that, our company prospers.
TC: Looking ahead, what’s the biggest challenge for Companion in the next year or two? What about long-term?
JA: Always the same, the constant focus on making a great loaf of bread despite all of the obstacles – temperature, humidity, temperament of the bakers, demands of customers, challenges of the facility, family commitments, time and energy. As we grow, there are a lot of distractions. We have to remind ourselves all the time that we’re simply coaxing flavor from flour, water and salt. If we can keep the noise down, our job becomes much easier.
Many thanks to Josh for taking the time to answer our questions. We are proud to be sponsored and supported by industry-leading, local companies committed to making the greater St. Louis community a better place and we are grateful to serve a revolving selection of Companion goodies at our monthly meetings for our members to gather and break bread together. Like Companion on Facebook. Follow Josh and Companion on Twitter and Instagram. Fair warning: you may get uncontrollably hungry if you spend any time browsing Companion’s social media!