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Joanne Chang ’91: Happy Baking

Joanne Chang ’91 the owner and founder of Flour Bakery, has mastered the craft of baking.
Joanne Chang ’91 the owner and founder of Flour Bakery, has mastered the craft of baking. By Courtesy of Kristin Teig
By Thomas A. Ferro, Crimson Staff Writer

With an area of 82,770 square feet, Harvard Square is a very small place. Home to Harvard College, the Square is a hub of energy for intellectuals and entrepreneurs, artists and scientists. And within this small yet far reaching world, there are numerous institutions that contribute to the intensely calibrated café and bakery culture of the collegiate community. From the chic but busy boutique cafés of Blue Bottle and Tatte to the classics like Peet’s and J.P. Licks, there is one place that seems to evade all other competition: Flour Bakery.

On the backstreets of Harvard Square, the famous Flour Bakery rests silently behind big glass windows that look out onto Mt. Auburn Street. In the early morning, cyclists and joggers pass the bakery on their way to busy Memorial Drive, and, nearby, crew shells drift quietly down the calm Charles River, and the Canadian geese graze by the old River Houses.

From the exterior, Flour Bakery is understated and sleek, composed and collected. Peering inside, passersby wouldn’t be able to fathom the bustling vitality that exists on the other side of the glass — the muffled voices hardly travel through the panels. Yet, by just peering through the windows, customers are lured in by the unmistakable sense of life.

Stepping inside is like entering a world transformed.

Bright tiles dot the floor, radiating light and warmth in the otherwise modern space. Stacks of brown cookies, yellow cakes, and golden sticky buns –– Flour’s signature –– are heaped on the counter in piles that rapidly dwindle after the morning rush. Coffee orders are shouted out over the hum of the customers as the long line shuffles closer to the register.

It’s alive. It’s vibrant. It’s bursting with energy.

Baking can be an art that is very beautiful, very emotional, but also very strict and regimented. It is an art that can create so much joy, so much happiness, though it can also be extreme in its quest for perfection — its need for flawlessness. To succeed, everything must be done perfectly, precisely, cautiously; if done well, the results can be impeccable.

It takes a certain kind of person to be a baker, let alone a good one, and Joanne Chang ’91, the owner and founder of Flour Bakery, has mastered the craft.

When I walked into Flour Bakery for our interview, Chang stood by the take-out counter, casually helping out with orders. Astute and attentive, she sat across from me at the bar counter, positioning herself in a way so she could keep an eye on the bakery in action. “I’m always, like, watching and observing,” she said.

Yet, concealing the mechanical precision that runs the bakery, Flour Bakery’s façade is one of happiness and welcoming friendliness, of comfort and home.

“We wanted to be a neighborhood gathering place where you walk in, and everyone’s excited to see you, and it makes you happy to be in there,” said Chang.

Around Harvard, the name Flour Bakery conjures both fascination and excitement. If an event announces that the catering will be provided by Flour Bakery, it’s guaranteed to be packed. If one walks across the Yard with Flour’s breaking-egg logo shopping bag, heads will turn. Flour Bakery is a name of coveted prestige, and it’s because of the perfect atmosphere that one enters when they step into the bakery. There’s a palpable sense of satisfaction and happiness.

At Harvard, Chang studied Applied Math and Economics, with hopes of going into consulting one day. She only baked for fun –– bringing cookies to her problem set study groups in return for help with the questions.

Beginning in her junior year, Chang started to bake cookies for the Leverett House Grille and, at this point, began to realize that baking could be a business.

“So that was like my first foray into thinking about food as a business,” Chang said, “but it was just a way to, you know, make a little extra money.”

Upon graduating, Chang started to work for a Cambridge-based consulting company. “And I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot. I made a lot of great friends,” she said. During her two years at the firm, Chang spent her free time “baking and cooking and reading cookbooks.”

By the end of her second year at the company, Chang realized that she didn’t know what the future held for her — but consulting wasn’t it. “I wasn’t like waking up every day excited to go to work,” she said.

Yet, Chang always loved to cook, and she loved to bake –– so she wrote a letter to Lydia Shire, who owned the Boston restaurant Biba, that read, “I don’t know how to do anything, but I work really hard, and I’m really passionate, and I’m really driven.”

“And so, the chef called me and said, ‘Come in for an interview.’ And, I got the job,” Chang said.

After a few years of working in a couple different bakeries and restaurants in Boston, Chang eventually moved to New York City and worked at the prestigious Payard Patisserie and Bistro for about a year.

Eventually, Chang returned to Boston to work as the pastry chef for the renowned restaurant Mistral before opening her first Flour Bakery in 2000. Since then, Chang has grown the company and expanded to nine different locations across the Boston area, in addition to starting the restaurant Myers and Chang with her husband and business partner, Christopher Myers.

Flour Bakery is much more than the food it offers: It’s a space of welcoming community, of warmth and refuge. On a mission for perfection, Chang recalled that the first year after opening Flour Bakery was challenging. “We weren’t as perfect as I wanted us to be in every single aspect, so that was very frustrating,” she said.

Running a bakery is difficult, and running nine of them is harder. Yet Joanne Chang has very meticulous standards for the company –– standards that require her to go to different locations each day, examine the bakery in action, sample some food items, take notes, meet with her culinary directors, bakers, and chefs, and host manager meetings every other week.

With a keen mind for business, Chang understands the importance of having store managers who she can trust, who share the same vision that she does

“I think the challenges are trying to imbue the goals and the missions that we have in running Flour with every single team member… and I think that can be hard to do when you have so many people,” she said.

Luckily, Chang has curated a strong team of managers who strive to maintain the high standards of quality and detail that she demands across the company. Perfection, to Chang, is key. Flour Bakery is much more than baking: It’s a highly evolved system that bakes, evaluates, and improves. It’s always getting better; it’s always learning. It’s very much alive.

Above all, the precision, perfection, and calibration are for one purpose: to make Flour Bakery a happy place. This is a difficult feat without outside funding, as Chang has to perfect the three elements that go into making Flour Bakery what she wants it to be: the business, the baking, and the welcoming atmosphere.

Chang prefers it this way –– without outside funding –– as she has full control over the bakeries, and she doesn’t “have to make choices that compromise our goals,” she said.

The best seller at Flour Bakery right now is the egg sandwich. Yet, this is not what they’re famous for –– sticky buns, on the other hand, are.

In 2007, Joanne Chang opened the second Flour Bakery and was contacted by the Food Network, she recalled, which was interested, they said, in possibly starting a new series called “The Science of Sweets,” and they were hoping to film the pilot episode with Chang.

After two days of filming and explaining the science behind pastries, Chang had to make sticky buns in front of the camera, when she was interrupted by Bobby Flay –– who revealed that there was no such thing as the show, “The Science of Sweets.” Rather, he was challenging her to a bake-off for his own series, “Throwdown with Bobby Flay.”

Not fully processing that “The Science of Sweets” didn’t exist, Chang said, “Well, you can challenge me to the throwdown, but I have to finish doing this, and then let’s do that afterwards.”

After the crew stopped the cameras, and Chang realized what was happening, Chang and Flay both made their own version of a sticky bun, and Chang’s won. “It changed the course of the bakery,” she said.

After being nominated for various James Beard awards for eight consecutive years without winning, Chang finally won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Baker in 2016 –– almost ten years after beating Flay in the Food Network’s competition –– confirming her title as one of the best bakers in the country.

Eight additional bakeries and one restaurant later –– and open to the possibility of further expansion outside of the Boston area –– Chang has found her groove: “I feel really lucky that I found a line of work that I’m really passionate about –– that I’m excited to come to work every day.”

“I think that working in the food business looks glamorous,” Chang said, “But it’s actually a lot of hard work, like every single day. But you get such huge rewards, and I think that’s what keeps us going. … We really take a lot of pride and joy in what we do.”

Loud, but not too loud, busy, but not too busy, Flour Bakery is a place where you can go with a friend, have a meeting, or even just bring a book to a corner of the bakery and enjoy the perfumes of chocolate and butter that suffuse the space. Everybody who enters the bakery feels welcome to take a moment out of their day and pause, grab a coffee, maybe try a sticky bun, and enjoy the world that Chang has built.

And, they’re happy.

—In his column “The Vanguard of Global Cuisine,” Thomas A. Ferro ’26 explores the personal philosophies of chefs and bakers from around the world that have made lasting contributions to food culture. He can be reached at thomas.ferro@thecrimson.com.

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