Josh Allen, owner of Companion bakery and restaurants, graduated from the prestigious Stanford University, where he majored in American studies. “So, I can quote from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” he says with a laugh.
Those quotes, though, won’t put bread on the table, so Josh decided to go into a business that puts bread on other people’s tables. After college, he says, “I was racing triathlons and looking for work in the evenings and I fell into a bakery opportunity. You can go kicking or screaming into baking or fall in love with it.”
In his case, the latter took hold. “My first baking job was with Whole Foods Baking in Palo Alto (California, where Stanford is located),” says Josh. “I was in the basement, working from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m., and I loved everything about it. I was making all kinds of bread, such as traditional American sandwich breads, Danish, croissants.
Eventually Josh came home to St. Louis. His parents had run the family business, Allen Foods, for almost 50 years, the third generation to operate the food distribution company, before selling the operation in 2002.
Josh moved back after the Great Flood of 1993. “I came back home and opened Companion Bakery right before Christmas in 1993,” he says. “I’m still at that location, 4555 Gustine, south of Chippewa between Kingshighway and Grand, not too far from the Bevo Mill.
“My family at the time owned the building,” he recalls. “We bought an oven that would take six months to get from France to St. Louis, so we decided to do a wholesale business only.” Once the stone hearth oven was delivered, Companion Bakery turned up the heat, so to speak. “We started selling to a handful of restaurants, smaller specialty markets, Dierbergs and Schnucks,” he said. “Now, about 80 percent of our business is wholesale baking.”
The Companion café in Clayton opened in 2001 and the one in Ladue started up in 2007, says Josh. “We just try to highlight what we do well, which is baking bread, and really build the menu around that. For the most part, we’re sandwich shops, along with baked eggs, bagels, oatmeal, Kaldi’s coffee and other items.”
That stone hearth oven is pivotal to the success of Companion’s bakery and restaurants. “The majority of what we do,” says Josh, “is baking bread on stone hearths. We have three French stone hearth ovens that all were manufactured in France. The masonry work then was done here by a craftsman who would travel from France with the oven. It would then take him two to three weeks to build cement, individual hearths of stone. All of this gives us certain characteristics for our crust and breads.”
The customer favorite at Companion, by and large, is the French baguette, he says. “As far as sandwiches, though, we have about 27 or 30 different sandwiches, but I don’t know whether we have any clear favorites. As for me, I prefer heartier, rustic, sourdough breads.”
Josh keeps informed of trends in the industry by traveling, reading and social media (“I Twitter more than anything else”). As for the spurt in the growth of breakfast restaurants, “I don’t really know the reason behind that,” he says, “although there is a move underway by people to spend less money when dining out. Our own restaurants are open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.”
With plenty of business delivering to grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, convention centers, schools, country clubs and hospitals from Wentzville to Edwardsville, Companion is likely to be putting bread on satisfied customers’ tables for many more years.