MILL VALLEY, Calif. -- Mollie Stone's here makes no secret of the fact that it sells more of Grace Baking's branded pugliese, an Italian country bread, than it does of its own.
Indeed, when the six-unit, San Francisco Bay-area independent started making its own pugliese and a whole line of other artisan breads about two years ago, it still stacked a multishelf, 3-foot rack high with Grace Baking's artisan breads each day and usually sold them all. It still does.
At one store alone, across the bay from San Francisco in Sausalito, Mollie Stone's sells 40 to 50 loaves of Grace Baking's pugliese a day. And that's just one of the seven varieties of the branded bread it carries and routinely sells through each day.
"We couldn't discontinue [Grace Baking's] bread. I wouldn't even think of it. Our customers would get upset. We tried it in another one of our stores, and customers protested. They made it clear they wanted it back," said Angelo Damante, store manager at Mollie Stone's Sausalito unit.
"We have a good pugliese, too, but people get used to a particular texture. They get used to a brand and they want it," said Damante, pointing out that customers had become enamored of Grace's pugliese before Mollie Stone's starting making its own.
"If a customer asks me which pugliese is better, I tell them we sell more of [Grace's]. Grace Baking has a walnut sourdough that does exceptionally well, too. That's probably the second best-seller. They're all great products."
It's that kind of enthusiastic feedback from its supermarket customers here -- which include the likes of Lucky's, Safeway and Whole Foods as well as a myriad of independents -- that has spurred the Albany, Calif.-based baking company to find a way to take its artisan breads to supermarkets in other parts of the country.
The number of its accounts -- most of them supermarkets -- has grown from 50 to 350 in the past five years and the company expects sales for 1999 to hit $10 million, said Fred Doar, Grace Baking's chief operating officer, and a partner in the family-owned company.
Grace Baking has built brand recognition for its delivered-fresh-everyday artisan breads in the Bay Area with four of its own retail sites as well as with its prominent, bannered merchandising spots in supermarket in-store bakeries and delis.
"Since we've been so successful with the rollout of our products here, we wanted to go into other markets and we figured we could best do that with a frozen product," Doar said.
To gear up for supermarket distribution across the United States with its locally acclaimed products, the company has begun construction on a new facility that will triple its production space. The larger, 60,000-square-foot plant in Richmond, Calif., just a few miles from its current 20,000-square-foot facility, will enable the company to launch a fully baked, frozen version of some of its products, Doar said.
The company's brand name and the extent of its local popularity will be promoted when the nationwide rollout begins early next year, Doar said. Point-of-purchase materials and newly designed bags will help tell the story. A new logo features a character in baker's garb against a background that's an illustration of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
The logo is accompanied by this message: "Grace Baking. Good Bread Everyday by the San Francisco Bay." Doar explained that consumers associate good bread with San Francisco.
"Generally, when people think of San Francisco, they think of two things: trolley cars and good sourdough bread," he said.
And Grace Baking apparently leads the pack even in San Francisco. Doar pointed out that Chicago-based Information Resource Inc., an independent sales-tracking company, recently reported that Grace Baking leads in sales of crusted hearth breads in the San Francisco Bay Area.
A reader's poll in The San Francisco Chronicle this year named Grace Baking best bakery and The San Francisco Examiner featured the company's best-seller, pugliese, in a Personal Favorites column. Narsai David, food and wine editor appearing on local TV and radio, has called the products the best of their kind outside Italy.
The company was launched 12 years ago by baker Glenn Mitchell and his wife, Cindy. Mitchell had been head pastry chef at San Francisco's Hotel Meridien. In 1996, he served on the three-person U.S. baking team that took top honors at the Coupe de Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris.
While Grace Baking turns out about 40 varieties of artisan bread at its facility here, just two varieties -- pugliese and sourdough pugliese -- are destined for supermarkets in other areas, at least in the beginning, Doar explained.
The two varieties lend themselves particularly well to freezing, he said. The process used in making the two popular varieties helps preserve the loaves' integrity through freezing, thawing and reheating.
The loaves are fully baked, then frozen. At store level, they are thawed and heated for 10 to 15 minutes, just long enough to warm them through, Doar said.
"The color of the loaf is already set. We wanted to make this product as fool-proof as possible," he added.
The company's current facility will be closed. All Grace Baking's products, including a small variety of breakfast pastries sold at its own retail locations, will be produced at the new plant. Eventually more varieties of artisan bread will be added to the frozen line there, Doar said.
Retail prices of the artisan breads range from $1.69 to $2.99. The first two varieties to be made available frozen retail for $2.39.
Items at the high end of the retail range include an olive bread, walnut sourdough and "Fred Bread," a dark, densely textured loaf made of organic flour, cranberries, currents, pecans and raisins.
"They named that one after me because I asked Glenn to create a variety with raisins in it. It's very rich, more of a morning bread. We might add it to the frozen line. Some of our customers are freezing it now and it doesn't affect the quality," Doar said.