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The Spot: Metropolitan Bakery

"The shopkeeper said he had several people interested in the space, so we bribed him with pastries. We just kept bringing him raspberry tarts, until he agreed to sublet to us. We now own the building."

We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.

On Oct. 31, 1993, Inquirer food writer Elaine Tait published a story about a new bakery coming to Rittenhouse Square. She raved about co-owner James Barrett's thick, hearty, natural yeast breads, and suggested it was worth getting excited about the shop he was launching with business partner Wendy Smith Born. Doors would open at Metropolitan Bakery on Nov. 3, she wrote...incorrectly.

Metro's official target launch date was actually Nov. 10, a full week later, but the word was out, and in the days before online media, there wasn't much to be done to correct it. So, even though construction on the former children's boutique at the corner of 19th and Manning Streets was still very much underway, Born and Barrett filled a rack with crusty loaves and sold them to the line of ardent customers that formed outside on opening day, and continued to come for days, weeks, months and years afterward.

The duo originally met at the White Dog Cafe, Judy Wicks' West Philly spot that was a pioneer of sustainable, organic, farm-to-table cuisine. Born was managing the front of the house, having transitioned from a career as a writer, while Culinary Institute of America-trained Barrett was pastry chef.

In 1992, James decided it was time to leave White Dog and open his own place. He reached out to Wendy, who was looking to return to restaurants after a short stint helping grow hunger relief nonprofit Share Our Strength in Washington, D.C. It was a good match.

Metropolitan grew quickly. Born and Barrett opened storefronts in Washington Square West, Reading Terminal Market, Chestnut Hill, Old City, and University City, and even launched an outpost in a New Jersey supermarket. They became partners in Farmicia restaurant, and also provided wholesale bread and pastries to 100 other cafes and restaurants around Philly.

Then, the pair took a step back. They realized that to stay true to their original vision, they would rather be smaller, not larger. Starting around 2000, Metropolitan Bakery began a retraction, closing several retail outlets and cutting down the number of wholesale accounts. The flagship Rittenhouse location stayed, as did the stall at RTM. Chestnut Hill was downsized from a stand-alone store to a stand at the farmer's market.

Recently, the company started to expand again, but in very different ways. Born and Barrett opened Metropolitan Cafe at 264 S. 19th St., where they have sit-down tables and serve savory hot food as well as pastries. Across the street, they launched Metropolitan Gallery 250, where they showcase local emerging artists. And they became a co-sponsor of H.O.M.E. Page Cafe in the Philadelphia Free Library, which provides employment for formerly homeless teens and adults.

Even after two decades as business partners, Born, 62, and Barrett, 52, are still very good friends. Their camaraderie is evident when they give interviews, as they recently did across a wood slab table at their retail cafe. Between finishing one another's sentences and flashing each other secretive, knowing smiles at things best left unsaid, they conveyed the compelling story of their last 22 years, and offer opinions on the future of Philadelphia.

How did each of you end up at the White Dog Cafe, where you met?

Born: I was a freelance writer, and Judy [Wicks] hired me to work with her on a book called the Philadelphia Resource Guide. She had what was really just a muffin and takeout shop at 3420 Sansom St. One day she decided she needed a place for people to sit down, and came into our office, where we had a big conference table. "Have you ever waitressed?" she asked. I said of course I had, and that was the beginning of the White Dog restaurant. That was in 1983. Eventually I became managing partner.

Barrett: After culinary school, I came to Philadelphia at a friend's behest to work with Aliza Green at a groundbreaking restaurant called Apropos, on Broad Street. Then the friend moved over to become the chef de cuisine at White Dog, and became unhappy with their pastry chef. She asked me if I was interested, and I said sure.

Then you left to open Metropolitan?

Barrett: The White Dog was really a wonderful breeding ground for talent - so many people got their start there. Kevin Klause, who went on to open Farmicia. Risa Vetri, Marc Vetri's sister, who's now a DA. Ellen Yin, of Fork - she was a bartender there. Judy was just very giving and nourishing. She even bought me a whole separate refrigerator just for my breads. We talked about opening a bakery under the White Dog name, but I decided to go out on my own. I approached Wendy and asked if she would be interested in partnering.

Born: I had left White Dog to work for an organization called Share Our Strength - it's national now, but was very small and grass-roots then. After around a year, I really missed the fast pace and day-to-day challenges of the restaurant world. Things in the nonprofit world move very slowly.

Where did the bakery name come from?

It was during a research trip to Paris - it's the name of their subway system, the Métropolitain. We were even going to spell it with the accent and pronounce it the French way, but people discouraged us, which was probably smart. The logo is fashioned after the subway signage. It was designed by Joanne Hoffman, who was a friend of ours but...the relationship didn't end well, we'll put it that way. We can use the logo now, but she did copyright it. You can see the copyright symbol if you look closely.

How did you find the 19th and Manning location?

We both knew we wanted to be in the Rittenhouse Square area, though it was very different at the time. There was no Rouge, very little foot traffic. But we knew there was an educated, affluent, well-traveled clientele - people we believed would understand the bread. It was thick-crusted, dark, flavorful and chewy - very different from most of the bread made in Philly back then. The location was a children's boutique. The shopkeeper said he had several people interested in the space, so we bribed him with pastries. We just kept bringing him raspberry tarts, until he agreed to sublet to us. We now own the building.

It was a boutique, and you wanted to open a bakery - did you have to get variances and such?

Back in the day, you didn't worry about that. You just opened. The health department didn't care whether you, like, stood on your head. Dogs used to come inside, all that. We actually even opened while they were still doing construction, because Elaine Tait had given a specific date in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Did you do the baking at that location?

We set up a separate bakery in Fishtown. At first, we were in a 900-square-foot space at 1080 N. Delaware Ave. - right across from the Jack Frost refinery, where SugarHouse is now. It was so tiny. When we backed up our one dilapidated purple delivery van to the alley door to fill it up, if they weren't careful the packers would get whacked on the head by the baker extracting bread from the oven. We grew out of that space in something like one month.

You've since moved?

Yes, we moved into a 3,000-square-foot warehouse. We still do all the baking at that same location, which has grown. We have a fabulous kitchen, which does pastries in the morning and savory food prep at night. And a wonderful temperature-controlled shaping room, and separate temperature-controlled starter room. Then there's a non-temperature-controlled baking room - it gets very hot this time of year.

Were you busy from the start?

Yes. There were several very kind journalists who were familiar with our work from the White Dog - Jim Quinn, Rick Nichols, Elaine Tait - and they wrote very nice things about us. When you get good press, it creates a buzz, even without the Internet to amplify it. So all these people started approaching us, developers, wanting us to open more locations. We opened on Pine Street, then we opened in Reading Terminal, then we opened in Chestnut Hill, then we opened in Old City. We even opened in a supermarket in New Jersey. Then all of a sudden we had eight locations. One day we walked into one of them and thought, "OK, what have we done. Nothing about this space or anything that's going on here is our vision." So we just pulled back, and gradually started getting smaller and smaller.

But then you expanded again recently, with Metropolitan Cafe?

The bakery business has really thin margins. You're only going to be able to charge so much for a loaf of bread. Look at Cosi and Panera and all these other places that started out as bakeries and are now bakery-cafes. There's a reason for that, economically. We're both really interested in all kinds of food, so we thought this would be a good thing to reinspire us. Another thing is that to-go food is underserved in this area. There are a lot of people who work crazy hours and don't do a lot of cooking. We make entrees to go, soup to go, sandwiches. We just started doing catering last year, too.

And you also opened an art gallery?

We've always worked with so many artists - probably 80 percent of our retail people are artists, and some of the people in production, too. So the idea was to have a space for emerging art in this neighborhood, where the buyers are.

Does it sell?

Not as much as we wish it would, but it does. Depends on the time of year. Towards the holidays we sell quite a bit. What's good is the exposure and the contacts, more than the sales. It's a community connecting thing.

What is an average day like for you?

Barrett: My favorite thing is the morning bake, so I'm usually at the Fishtown bakery around 4 or 5 a.m. I schedule myself for a full shift as baking manager at least twice a week, because I love it, but also because if there's anything askew in the system, I can immediately see it. After the bake, I'll stop at the retail location or the cafe, and then return home to West Philly and maybe work in my garden. Then touch base with Wendy.

Born: We do have an office in the basement of our Rittenhouse location, so I'm there a lot, but I also live almost on top of the shop. So I go up and down. People say, "Oh, it's so great you live close." Well, it is and it isn't. It is when the alarm goes off in the middle of the night, it is if I've left something at work. If someone calls out, I'm always ready to fill in, to come down at 6:30 a.m. and open the shop for the day.

Your advice to someone who wanted to open a bakery-cafe would be...?

Think long and hard. Location is huge; make sure you have a good one. And make sure you have capital. It's very hard to access capital today. Plus labor is more expensive, and so is rent, and health insurance. And cost of goods. Eggs are through the roof. Our main bread flour has doubled in price.

Has the city changed a lot since you first opened?

Quite a bit. In the 1990s there was this mass exodus, but in the past seven or eight years, Philadelphia has been growing like crazy. There are more and more people moving here. It was really [Ed] Rendell who got the ball rolling. He was such a big cheerleader for Philadelphia.

He understood economic development; he understood what people needed. When we opened our production plant in Fishtown, he came to the opening. He had something called the Mayor's Business Action Team. It was an office, and if you had problems opening up your business, you could go to them and they would help you. We would not want to be starting a business in this city today. That's the sad truth.

What's do you see as biggest problem facing Philadelphia right now?

Infrastructure. Will it be able to hold up to all the growth? We have a really aging infrastructure, and nobody's paying attention. Everything's done piecemeal; there's no one with a vision to tackle it all. A good example is that the city's not even computerized. When you try to get information you go down to a musty room in City Hall and look at paper files. We need another Rendell - unfortunately he was one of a kind.

But we have a lot of hope for the future. The next generation has a sense of justice, and a sense of independence. The whole age of the Internet is just so nascent. Many problems will be solved in ways we can't even imagine. There's nanotechnology, drones... It's overwhelming, but also very inspiring.

Metropolitan Bakery

262 S. 19th St., 215-545-6655

7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday