“Homey” and “neighborly” are two words Brett Benzer uses a lot when talking about his businesses, Farm & Flour and States Coffee & Mercantile. The words describe the vibe and aspirations Benzer and his business partner, Keith Gehrke, are going for — to run places that bring people together.
The co-owners are longtime friends, both born in the Bay Area, and both having spent some time in Portland before moving to the East Bay. Now, Benzer and Gehrke live in Martinez, where they are raising young families. Four years ago, they opened States, a coffee shop and boutique in Martinez, and a year ago, they followed it with Farm & Flour, a bread-focused bakery in Benicia. They chose to open in those neighborhoods, Benzer said, because they appreciated the vibe of these small, tight-knit communities, and felt they had something unique to offer with their locally roasted coffee and whole-grain, organic and naturally leavened breads. But now, they’re ready to expand to a bigger market. In about a year, they’ll open a second location of Farm & Flour in Berkeley, taking over the former Country Cheese Co. store at 2101 San Pablo Ave. (at Addison).
Farm & Flour opened in Benicia last August, and has since grown a loyal local following for its handcrafted breads, baked daily in-house, which it offers by the loaf or whole baguette, or as toasts and baguette sandwiches made with locally sourced and house-made ingredients. Naturally, it serves coffee from its sister business, States Coffee. Benzer said in just a year, Farm & Flour has already outgrown the bakery on First Street, and he and Gehrke have been looking for a bigger space to grow into. When they saw the space on San Pablo Avenue, they jumped on it.
“For us, it’s all about the space, the history of the building. We had so many flattering opportunities to do other locations, but they were not our style,” Benzer said. “When we found the Country Cheese location, it was everything we were into — it has history and it’s neighborly focused. We’ll be taking an original building and bringing something new.”
The partners were drawn to the standalone building, constructed of brick, just like the States Coffee building in Martinez. It’s big enough for them to create a large, open space for their baking operation and a coffee bar. There’s also an opportunity for outdoor seating. Not to mention Gehrke has history with this area of West Berkeley; he used to roast coffee for the now-defunct café Local 123 (now Highwire), nearby. Benzer said they’re hoping to restore 2101 San Pablo Ave., taking advantage of the brick, uncovering the windows to brighten up the space, and if possible, saving the old hardwood floors.
When it opens, Farm & Flour will look a lot different than the former cheese shop, the long-time location for the 50-year-old Berkeley brand that was put to rest when this last outpost closed in August. Gone will be the bright yellow sign and blue awning and the cartoon mouse mascot, peeping out from a wedge of Swiss cheese. Benzer said although the space will have its own look, it will probably have a similar aesthetic to the Farm & Flour in Benicia, with white oak furniture and black wood elements that the partners design and make themselves. Bright, clean lines and potted plants — a simple and minimalistic style that Benzer once again describes as “homey and neighborly.”
Benzer said the real focus at Farm & Flour isn’t about the aesthetic, though, but what they’ll offer there. “It’s all about the experience,” Benzer said. “Being welcoming, all about the service, being approachable.” And handcrafted bread will be the central force for making that happen.
Farm & Flour currently offers five types of loaves in Benicia: Country bread, stone ground California red wheat loaf, a baguette and two breads that are available on a limited basis: Danish rye and a gluten-friendly bread. Benzer said the Berkeley Farm & Flour location’s size and larger audience will allow the bakery to offer more types of breads, all on a daily basis.
Farm & Flour’s loaves are products of wild fermentation, made with organic ingredients and local whole grain flour. Benzer doesn’t have a background in baking, but said he’s always been passionate about bread. He got into making it for his kids, when looking for something that was nutritious and that could incorporate seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. He staged with local bakers to learn the craft and said he found inspiration in the community of like-minded bread makers, like Chad Robertson (Tartine), Josey Baker (Josey Baker Bread), Chase Agee (Base Camp), Eduardo Morell (Morell’s Bread) and Celine Underwood (Brickmaiden).
“We’re all good friends,” Benzer said. “We all have different styles that are an interpretation of each individual baker.”
The Berkeley Farm & Flour will also serve a similar menu of toast and baguette sandwiches, offered with house-made butters, jams and local honey. Toppings will change with the season. The bakery will also feature pastries, like fresh-milled scones and banana bread.
Berkeleyans will have to be patient to get a taste of Farm & Flour, unless they make the drive to Benicia. Farm & Flour aims for a July 2020 opening date. But Benzer hinted the owners are already thinking of what’s next.
“To see people love [our bread] and want it, it’s what’s allowing us to do another location. And more to follow.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Keith Gehrke was raised in Portland. He grew up in Concord, but lived in Portland from 2009-2013.