This article originally appeared in The Windy City Times, written by Ross Forman, 06.17.15
Ellen King is a classically trained chef who worked in restaurants on the West Coast until moving to the Chicago area in 2008. While raising her son, she missed the bread she ate in Seattle and started experimenting with baking bread—to the point where she needed to sell the loaves due to the volume she was producing.
It was known as the Underground Bread Club, consisting primarily of families from her son’s school in north suburban Evanston.
Julie Matthei became a customer, “appreciating the product both for its taste and artistry,” she said.
Plus, Matthei is gluten-sensitive and found that she did not experience any symptoms when eating the bread.
Then at a Chicago Cubs game in the spring of 2012, King and Matthei started talking about the bread and the possibility of making it available to more people. Six months later, they signed an LLC agreement—Hewn was born.
“Originally, I thought we would open a small bread store, making 40 to 50 loaves a day and close up when they were all sold,” King said. “This idea soon evolved into making pastries, sandwiches and great espresso. Then it evolved further with providing catering services and securing wholesale accounts at local restaurants.”
Hewn started in June, 2013 with two bakers. “We worked at a breakneck pace in those first few months, soon realizing that we needed more help,” King said.
There are now six bakers, a wholesale delivery driver and six to eight baristas. The first baker comes in around 1 a.m., and the last baker leaves around 4 p.m. each day.
“It has grown quite a bit in two years,” Matthei said. “We are committed to being a neighborhood bakery, a place where you can get great food and see your friends and neighbors. Retail is still our main focus, but our wholesale operations continue to grow. We appreciate and enjoy partnering with local restaurants, creating breads that complement their menu. It’s great to have customers come in and ask for those loaves they’ve had at local restaurants. Evanston has become such a great place for food; the offerings here continue to grow. It’s a wonderful community and everyone supports each other’s efforts.”
Bread is the heart of their business, King said. They use 100 percent organic ingredients, with more than half of their grains coming from local farms—and they make everything by hand, every day. “We do not use a mixer to make our bread; it is all done by hand, consisting of our starter ( levain ), organic flour and good old Lake Michigan water,” King said. “All of our breads are naturally fermented for approximately 20 hours using a starter I created seven years ago.”
The duo boast that Hewn’s bread is “fermented in Evanston,” and that slow fermentation is an important reason why their breads are different from what you might find in a local grocery store. “I have learned that you really have to be patient to produce bread this way and each loaf truly is a labor of love,” King said.
“While bread is a big part of our business, we also take great care with our pastries and coffee. We hand roll all of our croissants and use European style butter, organic milk and flour. What started out as maybe 10 pastry offerings has turned into 30 or so different pastries that we produce on a daily basis. And, our coffee is from Counter Culture, [which has] a training lab [locally] that all of our baristas take part in, which really helps us provide great coffee to our customers. Our baristas are proud of making great coffee and are always trying to improve their skills.”
So how do you bake a loaf of bread?
King said it starts with bakers mixing the dough by hand, turning it every 30 minutes over a four-hour period. The dough is then shaped and placed into bannetons, where it rests overnight to rise naturally. In the morning, the bannetons are removed from the walk-in refrigerator, to determine if they are ready to be baked.
“Depending on the weather and temperature both inside and outside of the bakery, they adjust the time spent on the floor prior to the bake,” Matthei said. “Once our bakers determine that the dough is ready, they fire up the oven and bake the bread. When the bread is removed from the oven, we can hear a soft crackling sound coming from each loaf.”
Every loaf looks slightly different as each one was shaped and made by hand.
Hewn uses flour that was sourced locally from Lonesome Stone Milling in Wisconsin, Hazzard Free Farms in Illinois and a few other local farms. “We source a significant amount of our ingredients from Local Foods in Chicago, the Spice House and Homestead Meats in Evanston; and Spent Grains from three breweries: Temperance, Peckish Pig and Sketchbook Brewing Company,” King said.
King, while in grad school, spent time along the coast of Maine, working on dating a house built in 1803. “While we were peeling back layers of stucco and boards we would find hand hewn lathe and beams. This allowed us to date the build in some cases,” she said. “We found hand hewn beams that would indicate this part of the structure was built before the invention of circular and other industrial saws.
“The name hewn really resonated with me and it always meant someone had worked with their hands to craft something special.
“Bread to me is something that has been a part of every civilization and is familiar no matter where you travel in the world. Historically speaking the cultivation of grains and the making of bread helped create civilization. Bread has always meant comfort and even though I eat bread everyday I never get tired of it.”
Matthei said Hewn’s most popular item is the country loaf, which is their signature loaf. “Our Spent Grain and Beer Bread is also very popular with customers due to the connection with local Evanston breweries,” she said. “A more recent popular loaf is our Turkey Red, a heritage wheat grown and stone ground in Wisconsin.”
King noted that, on Saturdays, “you can really see the popular items go fast. Customers have learned that it’s best to call ahead, particularly on the weekends, for items such as our Monkey Bread, Kouign Amman, chocolate almond croissants and Nutella Brioche.”
Matthei confirmed that Hewn is already in discussions for its future, based on its current near-capacity facility—so that might include another retail location, wholesale or a combination of the two. “Whatever we decide, we want to stay true to our mission and values and provide the best possible product to our customers,” she said.
Matthei, who also carries the director of business operations title, has three children ( ages 7, 10 and 21 ). King has one 8-year-old son.
Matthei was born in Georgia, grew up in New York and attended Fairfield University in Connecticut. She has a Masters of Education from Loyola University Chicago, and formerly was the assistant director of admissions at Fairfield University and director of guidance at Loyola Academy. King was born in Michigan, grew up in Naperville and attended St. Norbert’s College and has a Masters in History from the University of Maine. She attended culinary school in Seattle.
“Starting this business has taken up the vast majority of my time, but now that we have steadied the ship, so to speak, we hope to get more involved in [the local gay community] in the near future,” Matthei said. “We are both moms first and business owners second, so setting a positive example for our kids is of the utmost importance in our lives. Equality for us means a better, more secure life for our children. We appreciate having our business in a town that supports equality for everyone.”
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