Joanne Chang
Food & Drink — Eat

Joanne Chang

United States

Mood of Living  /  Aug 27, 2015

With acclaims and accolades from Gourmet, Conde Nast Traveler, and more, Chang's Flour Bakery is running on a sugar high.

With a degree in Applied Mathematics and Economics from Harvard, Joanne Chang set out into the professional world as a management consultant. Chang grew up in a Chinese family based in Dallas, and often craved sweets that are not typically associated with Chinese cooking. Now the current owner of Flour Bakery and co-owner of Myers+Chang, Chang turned her childhood obsession and sweet tooth into an unexpected profession.

Originally, Chang used her passion for baking as a side job, selling her baked goods to fellow classmates at Harvard. After venturing into the business world, Chang ultimately re-evaluated her career choices and left to apprentice with several top restaurants in America—landing the spots even without any professional experience in the kitchen. After working in the kitchen for several years, she then became an entrepreneur, opening up Flour Bakery in Boston’s South End. Armed with three cookbooks, Chang still has a passion for the baking side of her successful business and works hands-on with her bakers. Today, Flour has not only expanded to four branches across Boston, but is also considered one of America’s best bakeries. With acclaims and accolades from Gourmet, Food and Wine, The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler and more, Flour is running on a sugar high.

Photo by Kristin Teig
Photo by Kristin Teig
Photo by Michael Harlan Turkell
Photo by Michael Harlan Turkell
Chang first launched Flour Bakery on Boston's South End.

Q&A with Joanne Chang

Joanne Chang

Joanne Chang Founder of Flour Bakery (Photo by Kristin Teig)

Mood of Living: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? How about Flour?

Joanne Chang: In 10 years I hope we have the same wonderful loyal guests at the bakeries and restaurant that we do now. We’d love to have a few more bakery and restaurant locations by then as well as a few more cookbooks. Personally, I hope I’m still in the thick of things – I love being at the bakeries/restaurant talking to staff, tasting pastries and dishes, helping managers troubleshoot issues, and building our culture.

MoL: You started as a management consultant. What made you switch from the finance world to the hospitality business (which most would say is a riskier path)?

JC: I was helping out with our undergraduate student recruiting, interviewing prospective candidates for my consulting firm. Recruits were graduating college seniors, and typically they were pretty nervous. As an ice breaker I would ask the students, “If you won the lottery today, what would you do? Where would you go?” After asking hundreds of students that question I started to ask myself, and I realized I would be in a kitchen. At that point I made a commitment to figure out how to change careers.

Flour bakery offers fresh, handmade pastries and sandwiches.
MoL: How has your background influenced you as a baker?

JC: To be honest, one of the most valuable things I learned at Harvard was how you can be not perfect and still be okay — or even better than okay. I was the top of my class in high school and had never been in a situation in which I hadn’t succeeded. Harvard quickly changed all that when I found myself in over my head time and time again. Despite not being “the best” at anything anymore, I learned that I could still pursue interests and passions and enjoy them and push myself in them. That lifelong lesson has given me the confidence to pursue things without thinking I have to be perfect at them.

MoL: What was the inspiration behind Flour?

JC: I had been working in restaurants and bakeries for a while, and I realized that the type of place I wanted to hang out in didn’t really exist in Boston. I wanted a great place for a cup of coffee, a homemade pastry, a fresh made-to-order sandwich…and I couldn’t find it. So I decided to get my ducks in a row and try to open one myself!

MoL: Did you encounter any challenges when you first opened Flour?

JC: The most difficult challenge then remains the most difficult part now — human resources. Finding the people to trust with your vision and teaching and showing them what you are trying to do. I have the most incredible team. I would do anything for these guys. But it’s really difficult to continually keep a strong team together, and you always have to be ready for people to move on. I’m really fortunate that many of my key managers have been with me for a while, and I sure hope they continue to grow and be happy at Flour and M+C.

A made-to-order chicken avocado and jicama sandwich. (Photo by Michael Harlan Turkell)
A made-to-order chicken avocado and jicama sandwich. (Photo by Michael Harlan Turkell)
MoL: Where did you learn to bake?

JC: I graduated with a degree in Applied Math and Economics from Harvard without a clue as to what I wanted to do as a career. I got a job as a management consultant at The Monitor Group in Cambridge and I spent two years traveling, writing power point presentations, creating massive Excel worksheets, and attending meetings. I liked the work a lot but I didn’t see it becoming a long-term career. I looked at my bosses, some of whom I still keep in touch with today and who I respected a huge amount, and realized that I didn’t want to eventually become them. So while my peers were applying to business school or moving up within Monitor, I decided to take a year off and try my hand at a hobby that I’d always enjoyed immensely: cooking. I had dabbled a bit in baking while in college, selling fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies to the student-run dorm grill; it was mostly just to relieve the constant pressure of impossibly difficult problem sets as well as a way to earn a little spending money. While at Monitor I continued to cook and bake, mostly just hosting dinner parties with friends and sometimes selling my cookies to co-workers who were looking for treats for birthday parties and such. But I’d never really thought it would be a career. I simply loved being in the kitchen, and when I had to figure out what I should do after Monitor, it seemed like spending a year in a professional kitchen would be a great experience. I sent a cover letter and resume (this was before email) to four of the top restaurants in Boston at the time; I explained that I had no professional experience but I had a ton of passion and was a very hard worker. Chef Lydia Shire who owned Biba called me and offered me a low-man-on-the-totem-pole position as bar food cook. I jumped at the chance to work in such a well-regarded kitchen with such a talented chef. Two weeks later I left my cubicle and was julienning scallions and making chicken stocks. After a year I decided to pursue pastry and asked Chef Lydia where I should go. She pointed me in the direction of Rick Katz who was operating a bakery in Newton Center, MA. I spent a year with Rick and he taught me all of his recipes and gave me a solid foundation in scratch baking. That’s a very long answer but that’s where I got my pastry start!

MoL: Where does the inspiration for the recipes come from?

JC: Everywhere, really — sometimes staff, sometimes Instagram, sometimes from a restaurant or bakery, sometimes in a magazine or cookbook.

MoL: Where do you source your ingredients from?

JC: We have a few local farms we partner with, along with our specialty foods purveyor.

MoL: When was the moment you realized that this bakery/cafe could succeed?

JC: It took about 2-3 years before I really felt like I could let out a breath. It was very hard in the beginning!

The Boston cream pie and triple chocolate mousse cake are house specialties. (Photos by Michael Harlan Turkell)
MoL: The ‘Farm to Table’ movement is widely spread across America, and has been picked up by most restaurants. Do you see this happening with bakeries as well?

JC: We do, and we partner with local farms to showcase the amazing products they have!

MoL: What makes your food, bread and pastries different from others?

JC: We have what we call the “mom test” — basically, is every single cookie, pastry, cake, or pie something you would give to your mom and be proud of. If it’s not, don’t sell it. We find that giving all of our staff the responsibility of ensuring that everything that goes out is up to our standards helps us keep our quality high. We have weekly tastings at each location of all of our pastries and sandwiches to make sure everything tastes amazing all the time!

MoL: When a customer walks into one of your bakeries, what do you want them to feel? Which pastry would you recommend?

JC: I want them to immediately feel welcomed and excited to be here. We are a neighborhood bakery and we are passionate about what we do — we hope everyone feels that. I would recommend the sticky bun, banana bread, pain aux raisins, and the butter breton cakes.

MoL: What advice can you give anyone interested in starting his or her own career in the restaurant industry?

JC: Without question, if you want to open a bakery someday, go work in a bakery. If you enjoy baking and think you want to run a business, don’t consider doing so without getting a good amount of hands-on experience seeing what really goes on behind the scenes. I don’t mean a week or a month or even a year. Baking is the easy part, the part that you will do with your eyes closed (literally, since you’ll be going on zero sleep). You need to learn how to deal with payroll, ordering, inventory, human resources, marketing, customer complaints, managing, packaging, accounting and a myriad other business issues that have nothing to do with baking. Sure, you can hire people to do all of these things. But people cost money, and if you’re starting a new business you’re likely not making much if any money. Learn all of these aspects on someone else’s dollar, not your own, then bring them to your own fledgling business.

  • Making fresh bread

    Making fresh bread

  • The bakery counter

    The bakery counter

  • Blueberry muffins

    Blueberry muffins

  • Cinnamon cream brioche

    Cinnamon cream brioche

Photos by Michael Harlan Turkell.
MoL: What are you favorite hobbies?

JC: I love reading. I have days worth of books and magazines that I always want to catch up on and probably never will! It’s my favorite way to relax and unwind. I also love playing piano although I’m awful at it.

MoL: What place do you go to for peace?

JC: If I’m at home with my husband, then I am at peace. I’m really lucky.

MoL: How do you personally achieve peace of mind?

JC: I spend a lot of time meditating- but not in the traditional sense. I usually take about an hour a day to do something for myself and during that time I sort out any issues I might be having. It could be a long walk or yoga or a bike ride – time that I’m not expected to talk to anyone and I can just think. That almost always sets me straight.

MoL: We find that people who make beautiful things are more likely to lead an artistic lifestyle. Do you spend much time creating a beautiful home?

JC: Ha! I don’t. My husband is definitely the inspiration here — he has incredible style and is very artistic.

MoL: Do you have a favorite recipe you would like to share with our readers?

JC: Our famous banana bread — it’s one that we are well known for, it’s delicious, and everyone who makes it loves it.

MoL: Do you have go-to sandwich?

JC: Our chicken avocado and jicama is my favorite!

FIND Flour Bakery ONLINE
Photography courtesy of Kristin Teig and Michael Harlan Turkell

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