Starting this summer, the baguette you pick up at Whole Foods could have a familiar name attached to it: Marc Vetri.
In partnership with the nascent Bread Lab at Drexel, a grain and baking research center that Vetri helped establish, the chef and his head baker Claire Kopp McWilliams have developed a series of loaves for the high-end supermarket giant. What sets this bread apart? It’ll be made with long-fermented dough created from freshly-milled heirloom wheat from Doylestown’s Castle Valley Mill.
Starting with a boule and a baguette, the new breads — richer and more flavorful than regular white flour versions, but also gentler on the digestive system, plus more nutritious — are expected to be available at the Callowhill Whole Foods bakery counter by mid- to late June. “We are super excited to work with Marc and his team to launch this artisanal bread,” said Tien Ho, Whole Foods global VP of culinary and hospitality.
No, neither Drexel nor Vetri is getting into the bread delivery game. The supermarket loaves will be made on-site. McWilliams has already started training Whole Foods bakers, leading them through the procedures she and Vetri developed in conjunction with Drexel, where he is an adjunct professor.
For Drexel, this is an exciting first step toward having a brand connected with the School of Hospitality Management — as opposed to the other facets of the university.
“We are high in terms of the number of copyrights we hold,” said Drexel communications director Jimmy Willson, “but mostly they’re in scientific fields. We want to extend that to culinary. Ideally this would be the first in a line of products developed through The Bread Lab and The Food Lab.”
For Vetri, the Whole Foods partnership is just the tip of the iceberg in his vision for the potential of an urban version of the famed Bread Lab at Washington State University.
The Washington State facility, run by heirloom grain expert Dr. Stephen Jones, focuses mostly on agrarian applications — as befits its location in the middle of a rural area surrounded by farmland. After Vetri started working with Jones around three years ago, he came up with the idea that Drexel should start something similar but focused on urban applications, and he’s been working toward making it a reality ever since. Earlier this year, Drexel hired Jones as a Lindy Fellow, and the project finally got moving.
“Think of all those vacant lots, like in Mantua or other neighborhoods,” Vetri said. “Using research from the Bread Lab, we could turn them into mini wheat fields.”
Vetri hopes to involve residents who live nearby in all facets of the project, from helping maintain the plots to harvesting to cooking and baking with the grain. “We could develop a whole inner city community around local heirloom wheat.”
A high-profile product like Drexel Bread Lab/Vetri branded bread at Whole Foods doesn’t directly help create that community, but it will help jump start the bigger picture plans, Vetri explained.
For consumers who shop at Whole Foods, the project is good news whether or not they’re aware of its larger socioeconomic goals. Loaves made with long-fermentation and heirloom whole grains are healthier and easier to digest than white flour bread (if you’re just gluten-averse and not fully celiac, pay attention). They’re also much more flavorful. The Bread Lab products shouldn’t be much more expensive than plain ol’ regular loaves, Vetri said.
Once things are going well and loaves are established at the Callowhill location, the plan is to expand the project to other Philly-area Whole Foods — and potentially even port the idea to markets in other regions, so they can develop their own local grain breads.