Walking into Zack Hall’s Clark Street bakery and cafe is like engaging in a sensory feast. Everything about the open space (located on the cusp between L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood and Historic Filipinotown) is invigorating, from its airy covered patio to the storefront’s bright, industrial interior with its exposed beams and high ceilings, to the minimalist display of folded Clark Street tees, in vibrant shades of bright red and neon pink, upon entry. But it’s the mingling scents of freshly baked croissants and crusty, straight-from-the-oven bread loaves that are especially stimulating. It’s only minutes since I’ve arrived, though my tastebuds are already begging for what’s in store.
Although Clark Street’s back-of-the-house has been buzzing since the early morning hours, at 10 a.m. it’s still in full swing. Employees are hard at work mixing dough, forming loaves, and filling cream buns, which will then be for sale in the front-of-the-house cafe, as well as Clark Street’s other three Los Angeles locations: a cafe in Brentwood, an Echo Park coffee shop, and a kiosk in Downtown L.A.’s landmark Grand Central Market.
In the cafe itself, customers are lining up on floor markers spread six-feet each, while one family pours over a laminated menu that includes items like a kale caesar salad and avocado toast. However, it’s the baked goods that take center stage, and they’re everywhere. There’s a metal shelving unit that’s stocked with bagged loaves of wheat and raisin walnut breads still warm from the oven, and a parchment-lined baker’s cart just wheeled in from the back that’s brimming with fruit-filled danishes and flaky, almond croissants. The cafe’s main display counter is its own feasty exhibit of mouth-watering deliciousness. Small baskets of sesame, plain, and cheese-coated bagels sit between larger baskets stuffed with sourdough rolls and Italian ciabatta bread. There are rows of perfumy cardamom buns, buttery French kouign-amanns, and ambrosial loaves of pull-apart monkey bread sprinkled in cinnamon sugar and cobbly in texture. Even freshly baked brownies and chocolate chip cookies are up for grabs, while bags of Clark Street granola grace the countertop.
One look at it all, and you might easily think that Hall spent years honing his craft at a prestigious baking school like the Culinary Institute of America or the French Pastry School. Instead, he created his own school of learning, and (as I later discover) his route to becoming one of L.A’s top artisan bakers happened much more fortuitously.
Dressed in black jeans and a black hoodie with the words “Clark Street Echo Park” emblazoned across the front, and sporting a mop of thick and wavy black hair, Hall seems incredibly laid-back. A bit odd, because when he’s not meeting with journalists like me mid-week or spending whatever time he can find to be with his wife and kids, Hall’s working hard to make sure all the cogs and gears of his business are fully functioning and running smoothly. This includes the opening of the bakery’s newest endeavors, Clark Street Diner and neighboring Lily’s Bar in Hollywood, both slated to start welcoming customers in August 2021. But it only takes a few minutes of talking with him to see that Hall is not the kind of guy who does things half-way.
Clark Street originated in 2014, with Hall baking dozens of rustic Old World breads in the kitchen in his West Hollywood apartment on Clark Street (the inspiration for the business name). Just seven years later, Clark Street’s Echo Park bakery is churning out thousands of pastries and bread loaves daily, including their best-selling country loaf—an organic sourdough bread made with California grown wheat and rye— and Alpine Brot, an Eastern European-style whole-grain bread that’s both easy-to-slice and enticingly seasoned. With so much experience under his belt, it’s somewhat surprising that Hall didn’t even try baking bread until 2012. At the time he was employed as a food runner at Eveleigh, a West Hollywood restaurant, but had expressed some interest in working in the kitchen. “So, I thought I’d bake a loaf of bread at home for my co-workers to try,” Hall says. “I believe it was an enriched pan loaf from a recipe I either Googled or found in a book.” Using nothing more than flour, water, salt, and yeast (“And maybe a little sugar,” he says), Hall mixed the dough, baked it, and watched it rise. He was hooked instantly.
“That one loaf was such a big deal to me,” says Hall. “I was really proud of it. It was probably no good, but [my co-workers] were nice.”
The L.A. native grew up around a sea of talent, and he never thought about working in a field that he wasn’t passionate about. His original love was music, but after 14 years of playing guitar in a punk-turned-rock band, Hall decided that it was time to try something new. “Music just wasn’t going the way I wanted it to,” he says, “and for me, it was either an all the way or nothing sort of thing. So I stopped.” Instead, Hall sought out a new passion that would both ignite his creativity and pay the bills.
In bread making, he noticed a parallel with music. For instance, in songwriting a musician gets an idea in their head and then they scribble it all down on paper. “From there,” says Hall, “you start strumming the guitar and shaping the melody as you play.” The process with bread baking is similar. “You imagine a loaf, write out the recipe, and start mixing your ingredients,” he says, “sculpting the dough as you go.”
But Hall’s switch to baking wasn’t a straight route. He originally wanted to open up an Italian restaurant. The one caveat? Hall had zero restaurant experience. What he did have was connections. He grew up eating in L.A. restaurants, and was friendly with the people who owned them. “My plan was to use some of these connections to get a job,” he says. “I had no pride or shame, so it didn’t matter what job. I’d go in as a dishwasher or a bus boy…whatever,” he says. “My goal was to learn how a restaurant operates—every single position—and then I could just open one myself. Since I love Italian food and connect to it emotionally, this was the kind of restaurant I had in mind.”
That was before bread baking got it’s hold.
Falling in Love with the Process
There’s a lot of science that goes into bread baking—the exactness of each recipe, making sure that all of your numbers are measured and weighed. But while Hall enjoys the chemistry behind the way bread rises and sets, it’s not the science that drives him.
Like most craftspeople, Hall’s drawn to the part of baking that allows him to utilize whatever skills and ingredients necessary to bring a concept to life. This, and the opportunity to be completely in tune with the process from start to finish. In fact, says Hall, once fermentation starts, bread making is actually quite sensual.
As if on cue, Hall cuts a ball of dough from a larger slab and starts working it on the bakery’s floured table to demonstrate. He folds it gently and then pats it down, kneading it first with his thumbs and then with his fingers. There’s such a fluidity and familiarity to his movements, that I’m pretty sure I’m blushing. “See,” he says, continuously working the dough as he speaks. “You’re engaging all of your senses in the process, asking yourself questions like, ‘Has the dough increased in volume? Does it seem relaxed? Is it emitting noises as it develops?’” He considers the taste. “Does it have a sour flavor?,” he asks. “Is it mild?” He finally forms the dough into a perfectly rounded shape. “How does it feel?” says Hall, holding up the ready-to-bake mixture so that I can get a better look. “Do you notice some gas and tension? Is it going to hold when you shape it? Sensuality feels good,” he says, “and it’s also the part of baking that’s so pleasurable.”
It doesn’t surprise me that once Hall decided on bread making as a profession, he set out to learn everything he could about it. After gaining some experience at L.A.’s local Proof Bakery, Hall traveled up to Portland, Oregon for a month, where he continued honing his skills at bakeries like Little t and the now-closed Roman Candle. He and his wife then journeyed to a tiny fishing village in Sweden where her family lives, and Hall picked up an apprenticeship at a local stone-ground bakery. Here, he perfected the art of Danish rye bread, a seeded and earthy sourdough that’s a Scandinavian speciality (and one of Clark Street’s standard offerings).
After returning to Los Angeles, Hall was ready to set up shop. Luckily, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. “I was fortuitous in two senses,” he says. “While L.A. was home to larger wholesale bakeries like La Brea and similar such places, there wasn’t much in terms of small artisan bakers other than, say, Bread Lounge. It was and still is a great place,” says Hall, “but L.A’s a big city and I thought, there’s obviously room for more than one artisan bakery.” He was right.
Hall’s other bit of luck: he just happened to be in the right industry at the right time, with a product that both looked good and tasted good. In fact, Hall only had to present a sales pitch to his first customer, West Hollywood’s former Lindy & Grundy butcher shop. Since then it’s been completely word of mouth. For Hall, this is a point of pride.
Still, it was Clark Street’s third customer, the now-closed Trois Mec—a small, reservations-only restaurant known for its highly praised tasting menu—that set the dough rolling in a big way. “The first bite of food when you sat down for the tasting menu was my bread,” says Hall. “So when the L.A. Times and other big publications started covering the restaurant, my bread became part of the conversation. This is when people really began reaching out.”
The Ins and Outs of Running a Successful Bakery
But figuring out how to run and maintain such a quickly expanding business had some steep learning curves. For example, Hall purchased his first-ever oven from a Hollywood sandwich shop that had closed. “It was tiny and could only make about 12 loaves of bread at a time,” he says. For him, this was still a big stepping stone, though it never occurred to the newly minted baker to ask questions like whether the oven was safety certified. “So, I had it installed,” he says, “and the inspector came by and said, ‘What is this? You can’t use this.’ After that it just sat in storage for the next six years.”
Many of these early experiences also worked in Hall’s favor, like when he first opened Grand Central Market’s Clark Street kiosk in 2014. “It was such a small space,” he says, “and there was no glass or anything to separate the mixing and baking from the customer. Honestly, you could have one arm in the oven pulling bread and the other at the Square POS (Point of Sale) making a sale. Customers could literally see the smoke rising from the oven, the steam permeating the air, and smell the bread as it baked,” he says. “It really helped draw in people.”
While Clark Street’s Echo Park bakery is not quite as romantic, it’s decidedly more well-equipped. Each freezer, proofer, and shelving unit serves a specific purpose and according to Hall, the fact that everything’s also both high-quality and reliable just makes life that much easier. There’s a rack oven, which Hall uses to provide a nice even bake and good volume for pastries like croissants; and a walk-in cooler, allowing employees to shape loaves, then pop them inside at a controlled temperature. This way, they can go home and eat dinner with their families, rather than leaving the dough to ferment at room temperature, which requires a constant eye. Still, one of the bakery’s handiest pieces of equipment is its large deck oven, which Hall prefers over a wood-fired oven most any day. Why? Because it has an on/off switch. “Unless you’re in the Swiss Alps or somewhere similar and want the full monty experience,” he says, “a deck oven is the way to go. Here in the city, all you have to do is show up for work, get the oven hot, and get baking.”
Hall and his staff are regularly coming up with new ideas for breads and pastries, including a sourdough made with California-grown Sonora wheat, and donuts, including both glazed and cardamom-coated. Their cornmeal blueberry muffins, fluffy and tender and with crispy tops covered in crackled sugar, are especially popular. Still, says Hall, there’s a special place in his heart for bread’s one-and-only: the baguette. “I mean, is there anything better?” He asks, though I know Hall’s not expecting an answer. He loves the way it smells and enjoys how it tastes. Some days, he likes to split one open and slather it with butter. Other days he uses the baguette as a sandwich base, stuffing it with Paris ham and some aged Comté cheese. “It’s truly my favorite bread, ever,” Hall says.
Ultimately, managing a growing business while working-in moments of downtime remains a well-fought balancing act for Hall, but things like cooking up a meal (whipping up pasta dishes at home is one of Hall’s favorite activities), or driving south for a beachfront stay in Hermosa Beach with his family, provide him little moments of reprieve. Nevertheless, it’s at Clark Street where the baker is truly in his element. “Sure, Clark Street’s about the product,” Hall says, handing me a cup of coffee. “But it’s also about the community, and the customers. Asking them how they’re doing, and finding meaningful connections that go beyond baking quality loaves of bread. This is one of the things that makes the business most enjoyable.”