Semifreddi's. Photo: Pete Rosos
Semifreddi’s will mark its 30th anniversary this year — the East Bay bakery delivers fresh bread and pastries to more than 600 businesses daily . Photo: Pete Rosos

Tom Frainier likes to cuddle a freshly baked loaf at his Semifreddi’s bakery and exclaim, “Bread is sexy.”

Frainier’s passion for making a beautiful and delicious foodstuff based on the ancient art of fermenting grain is evident. The idea of creating many jobs also excites him.

“We are the offensive linemen of the food world and not the celebrity chefs,” the Semifreddi’s CEO said recently. “Every day the team grinds out what has been made for thousands of years. Our business mission has evolved from ‘take care of the customer’ into ‘take care of our employees.”

This is a man whose business card reads: ‘Chief Bootlicker.’

Tom Frainier: ‘Chief Bootlicker'(aka CEO) at Semifreddi’s. Photo: Pete Rosos

This year is the 30th anniversary of Semifreddi’s. But don’t expect a fancy celebration from this environmentally sensitive and employee-friendly business which produces 190,000 loaves of bread and 40,000 pastries every week. The family-owned company began in a 440 sq ft bakery in Kensington — the size of the reception area in their current 33,000-square foot facility opened in 2009 near the Oakland Airport.

The Semifreddi’s backstory: “Baking bread at 4am is grounding”

The family connection to Semifreddi’s began with Frainier’s sister Barbara Rose. Armed with a UC Berkeley degree in fine arts and a culinary arts degree, Rose connected with a friend in 1984 to launch Semifreddi’s in Kensington. A few years later Rose’s husband, Mike Rose, left his unsatisfying sales job to work for Semifreddi’s, now owned by the Roses and Frainier.

Frainier received his MBA from UC Berkeley and quickly climbed the corporate ladder at Clorox. By 1988 he was the youngest person ever promoted to manage financial planning and analysis for a major business. But he kept thinking, “I’m doing the right things. Maybe I’ll wake up one day and be happy.”

Baguettes waiting to be sleeved at Semifreddi’s. Photo: Pete Rosos

But even the promotion didn’t yield more pleasure. At 30, Frainier quit. Life immediately after, he said, can only be described through Tom Petty’s song, “Free Fallin.”

Soon his sister suggested employment at Semifreddi’s. “I found that baking bread at 4:00 a.m. is grounding. The bread is done; it’s eaten.”

Frainier and his brother-in-law actively manage the business. Frainier runs the operation and strategic planning. Rose oversees what he calls ‘the integrity of the product” (think quality control). The co-owner whose business card reads “mad scientist” explains: “I look at issues from outside the box to visualize ideas, but these idea sparks aren’t always practical.” The duo, said Frainier, have been called an odd, but effective couple.

Getting ready for the first rise at Semifreddi’s. Photo: Pete Rosos

No market research, no focus groups: “We have Bay Area palates”

The company is focused on its wholesale business with sales to independent and chain grocery stores. The owners don’t study market research reports or hold focus groups. “We have Bay Area palates and are 99% sure of our decisions on products,” says Frainier.

In the early years they tweaked recipes and innovated with products such as rustic sourdough, Odessa rye, biscotti and cinnamon twist challah bread.

The most recent bread to market — eight years ago — was the Dutch crunch roll. The bakers create the distinctive striated top by stroking on a thin mix of flour, water and sugar before baking. Cookies in chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and snickerdoodle styles are a newer product.

Of the 50 total Semifreddi’s products, the top-selling baguette is the sweet version. Ciabatta, rustic sour and cinnamon twists are the top loaf breads. The morning bun and croissant are bestselling pastries. The two Semifreddi’s cafés in Kensington and Berkeley offer breads, pastries and a menu of breakfast with squeezed-to-order orange juice, lunch, and weekly specials — from roast beef with homemade tomato pear chutney, to Philly cheese steaks.

Making croissants, one of Semifreddi’s best-selling items, at its main bakery. Photo: Pete Rosos

About 20 years ago, the partners decided to certify products as kosher. The rationale for the change was partly religious as Rose was returning to his Jewish roots. Also, said Frainier, “I didn’t want anyone to have an excuse not to buy our product.” Yet the company does not plan to enter the gluten-free market which would entail substantial investment into both space and equipment.

Fussy about his ingredients, Frainier sources non-GMO flour from Idaho, fennel seeds from India and posts the full list on the website. The only frozen ingredient is the blueberries for muffins to ensure year-round quality.

The bakery’s main facility, designed by a San Francisco design firm specializing in bakeries, is state-of-the art with process controls to measure flour and water for the dough. The flour is moved through a piping system to the dough mixers. This modern set-up yields a dust-free, hygienic environment for the workers, and ensures quality and consistency. For an excellent overview, see Frainier’s video of the operation.

The flags strung up at Semifreddi’s HQ in Alameda represent the nationalities of all of its employees. Photo: Pete Rosos

Berkeley is the best market for Semifreddi’s, says Frainier. “Sales per capita are highest in Berkeley. People appreciate good food there like nowhere else in the world. In my view, Berkeley Bowl is the crown jewel of grocery stores.”

Drivers deliver to over 600 businesses daily. Distribution Director Wendy Brace, who started as a driver, provides photos with exact instructions on how to stock customers’ shelves on each of the 30 routes. One of Brace’s supervisors, Craig West, left for five years but was more than ready to return. “I’m treated here like gold. It’s not like Tom (Frainier) is the big boss. He guides us.”

Morning buns, another bestselling pastries, underway at Semifreddi’s. Photo: Pete Rosos

Bake me a team: polishing the wellbeing of employees

Inside the bakery, a row of country flags strung above the production area might represent the company’s business interests since the website labels their Alameda address as “world headquarters.” But no, the bakery only delivers within a 35-mile radius of Alameda. The flags represent the nationalities of the employees.

Frainier relishes his role as “chief boot-licker” to polish the capabilities and wellbeing of his employees. The company continues its long-standing practice of offering a full benefits package and competitive compensation. On tours, Frainier greets his team members and informs visitors of their service: Emilio has 28 years, Wendy, 11. This random act reflects his knowledge of and compassion for his 144 employees. “I want to make peoples’ lives around me better,” he said.

But he added: “This business is all about speed. You can’t lollygag around here. We have to play as a team, know our competition and be aggressive. But we have to be likeable, too.”

The operation is run by what Frainier calls “green baking” principles: 20 domed skylights and 44 solar light tubes harvest sunlight. Over 95% of the company’s waste is recycled. Extra bread not to quality standards is fed to a compactor. These “crumbs” are incorporated into chicken feed. Somewhere, says Frainier, there are “Semifreddi’s fed chickens.”

Berkeley is the best market for the bakery: “People appreciate good food there like nowhere else in the world,” says Tom Frainier. Photo: Pete Rosos

Donations in kind of freshly baked bread and pastries and cash total $500,000 per year. Over 75 school tours are offered annually. The Bread Project in Emeryville represents the depth of the company’s Bay Area giving. The project teaches culinary skills to low income job seekers. After donating ingredients for many years, Semifreddi’s subsidized their lease on the company’s former space. Support is especially strong with Berkeley-based non-profits ranging from Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay, to the Berkeley Men’s Shelter, and the School of the Madeleine.

In addition to donations to non-profits, Frainier personally mentors and advisors many groups, including his role as assistant basketball coach at a West Oakland high school.

Though Frainier has helped Semifreddi’s grow successfully, he has stayed true to what he calls ‘slow capitalism:’ “We don’t want to freeze our bread to sell afar, or contract with people to sell our bread under their labels. We serve our employees; deliver good, fresh bread and pastries at a good price every day. This makes me happy.”

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Deborah Grossman is a San Francisco Bay Area food, drink and travel journalist who writes about people and places with a special emphasis on life at the table. Deborah finds the behind the scenes stories...