For six years, Philly Bread ran its wholesale baking operation out of a 1,400-square-foot rowhouse in Olney.
“We had flour in the basement, and then we hauled the flour up to the first floor and the second floor,” says founder Pete Merzbacher. “And we had two production lines. It was crazy.”
When it came time for the bakery to expand, Merzbacher wanted room to grow, so he chose a 4,800-square-foot brick warehouse in Germantown. The 29-person team relocated to 4530 Germantown Ave. in March 2019.
It was the first of a slew of changes for the bakery best known for its Philly muffin, the latest of which is rebranding as Merzbacher’s.
“I guess you could call it the tip of the iceberg,” Merzbacher said of the name change, which is meant to call attention to other changes, including the bakery’s presence in Germantown and its COVID-induced adjustments.
The pandemic prompted Philly Bread to shift from primarily supplying restaurants to servicing grocery stores this spring. “The first couple days, I was freaked out,” Merzbacher says, remembering the precipitous drop in restaurant clients that hit in mid-March. “I really had no idea how viable my business would be.”
But that dramatic dip in business preceded “a huge surge” of orders from supermarkets, which were scrambling to stay stocked. Whereas corporate bakeries might drop off a large batch of shelf-stable loaves every now and then, Philly Bread was used to being nimble and baking orders as needed. And in the first few weeks of the pandemic, during waves of panic shopping, clients would call hours after the bakery had delivered to say they were wiped out and needed more bread.
“We would get calls throughout the entire day, like, ‘Can you bring more?’ and that really made a lot of grocers realize that we weren’t just a scrappy small company … We were actually the reliable vendor that came through,” Merzbacher says.
Philly Bread already worked with some stores, including Whole Foods and Giant, Di Bruno Bros., Chester County’s Kimberton Whole Foods, and Fishtown’s Riverwards Produce; it’s also added a few new ones, such as FarmArt and Bodhi Market. As restaurants reboot and grocery stores regain their footing, it’s returning to a balanced mix of wholesale customers.
To go along with that, Philly Bread — officially known as Merzbacher’s as of Tuesday — is launching daily, direct-to-customer retail as well as a home-delivery service on Sundays.
Merzbacher says that shortly after the bakery moved to Germantown, locals would walk up and ask if they could buy bread. They decided to formalize the process by installing a pickup window, which will be open for online and walk-up orders Thursday through Sunday. For now, it will only sell Merzbacher’s breads and rolls as well as bread-baking starter kits, but he hopes to add other items to the menu in the future.
And as for the home-delivery service, Merzbacher himself will be driving the company’s hand-painted bread truck around Center City for now.
“When you start a bakery … you do it because you love bread, because you love what bread stands for. And then as you grow the company, you get bogged down in the weeds,” he says. “So to show up early on a Sunday morning, bake off a bunch of fresh Gold rolls — which are our family-friendly baguettes — throw ’em in the truck, and deliver them to people sounds honestly kind of fun for a bit.”