Mark Furstenberg is working with five apprentices to help open and run Bread Furst.
Baker, entrepreneur and James Beard award-winning cook Mark Furstenberg is walking proof that it's never too late for a fresh start.
Even though the Baltimore native is 75 years old, he's in the midst of constructing a brand new bakery in Washington's Van Ness neighborhood: Bread Furst.
"75-year-old people don't generally start businesses," he says with a laugh. "75-year-old people generally are in Palm Beach or Palm Springs, or some 'Palm'!"
Bread Furst is expected to offer baked fare to those on Connecticut Ave NW.
A late change of direction
Clearly, Mark Furstenberg is not your average 75-year-old. After all, he didn't even become a professional baker until his 50s. First he worked for President John F. Kennedy. Then he wrote scripts for ABC News. He even headed a company that manufactured copper tubes.
But in 1988, he says, he had a change of heart
"I was working for the Washington Post," he recalls. "And I turned 50, and decided I didn't like what I was doing. I didn't like writing about other people's experiences; I wasn't ready to give up my own."
In hopes of some guidance, he sat down with his dear friend, then-Congressman Barney Frank.
"I can't repeat on the radio exactly what he said, but it was useful advice, even if it was not kindly delivered," Furstenberg says.
And as a result, Furstenberg decided to take his longtime love of food, and make it in to his profession. As for what kind of food he should focus on, he answered that question by enlisting his two teenage sons for a particular mission.
"I was a single parent, and my sons and I carried a questionnaire door to door around the neighborhood asking people what they wanted," he recounts. "Those questionnaires came back and people wrote all over them: 'Why is there no good bread in Washington? I used to live in Brussels; we had wonderful bread. I used to live in California; we had wonderful bread. We want bread!'
"And I, having been a home baker thought, 'Oh, I can do that!'"
He goes on to say that such a thought was "stupid."
"It was not stupid to decide to do bread," he explains. "But it was stupid to think I knew anything relevant to baking it professionally."
So he apprenticed at bakeries around the country, and in 1990 he opened Marvelous Market: credited as the first Washington bakery to turn out European-style, artisan bread. He sold it in 1993, and four years later, he opened Bread Line.
"And when I sold the Bread Line downtown, I expected to be finished as a baker," he says. "I wanted to be a consultant and coach."
But that gig didn't quite pan out.
For one thing, "I wasn't very good at the consultant role," he confesses. And for another, in 2010, his older sister died. Carla Cohen had founded and owned the legendary D.C. bookstore, Politics and Prose.
"[She] had done something so wonderful for the city by leaving a little institution that is valued by the city," Furstenberg says. "And I thought partly in her memory but partly because of my having lived here half a century that I ought to try to leave a bakery in the city."
Construction is underway on Bread Furst, which Mark Furstenberg hopes to have open by April 1.
Photo by James Symons
Making baking work in D.C.
Which brings us to Bread Furst. The airy, split-level space will eventually house a bread oven, a pastry case, a coffee station and a homemade ice-cream counter, along with a fully-exposed food kitchen and pastry kitchen.
"I wanted to create as intimate a connection as I could between people and the baked goods, so that adults and particularly children can watch the process," Furstenberg says.
And that's a big thing with him: educating people, helping them learn. That's why he enlisted five apprentices to help him open Bread Furst. Like Michelle Vaughan, a young attorney who dreams of opening her own neighborhood bakery.
"I'm putting together a website for Bread Furst," she says. "There was a period of time where I was overseeing the apprenticeship program, [and] where I was participating in design and looking up vendors, so it's really been all over the map for me."
The same goes for Violeta Palchik, whose vast retail experience got her promoted from apprentice to Bread Furst's general manager.
"Mark was saying it's strange to have someone as old as he is opening a business, but I think we get two benefits," she says. "One is he has fresh ideas, even though he's an older man. And he also has all that experience. So you get someone who's creative and fresh and innovative, but you also get someone who has a lot of wisdom."
Mark Furstenberg says he plans on contributing his fresh ideas and wisdom full-time once Bread Furst opens — most likely in April. But once the business is on its feet, he says, he'll pull back, until eventually, he'll sell it to his staff.
"I may appear to all of you to be in good physical condition, but obviously I'm not going to be able to be doing this in to my 80s," he says. "My strategy for trying to create something that is of value to the city over the long run is to sell it to the people who make it successful in the first place."
After that, he says, he's not sure what he'll do. He may stick around D.C., or he may not. But one thing is definitely for sure: he's not moving to Palm Beach or Palm Springs.
"No," he exclaims. "I would be bored in Palm Beach!"
[Music: "Pat-A-Cake" by Bill Haley & His Comets from Rockabilly Original Masters]