Brothers Michael and Rober Lillegard of Duluth’s Best Bread
The Unlikeliest of Bakers
According to famed chef James Beard, “Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”
Duluth’s Best Bread decidedly makes daily “feasts” for their legions of enthusiastic customers at both their locations: Lincoln Park at 2632 W 3rd St. and their new Downtown Duluth HART Location at 120 E Superior St.
Robert and Michael Lillegard, owners of Duluth’s Best Bread, never anticipated that their choice of unlikely careers would lead them down a path filled with loaves of crusty bread, crispy baguettes, buttery croissants, and a multitude of delectably sweet treats.
Older brother Robert said jokingly, “We pride ourselves on being overeducated for jobs.” He was a humanities major who went on to be a successful food writer for the New York Times and other publications.
Micheal has a masters degree in mathematics. And while he has ended up using math frequently in the bakery biz, he never planned to spend his days kneading bread, twisting giant pretzels into shape, and running a couple of very successful bakeries with his brother.
Serendipity struck when Robert and Micheal took a trip to New York City with their parents. Falling in love with the city’s wood-fired pizza, they decided they must try to duplicate it at home by building their own backyard pizza oven.
They discovered that after their oven cooled from the 800 degrees required to make the pizza, they had enough heat left to bake bread as well.
Michael used his math skills, cookbooks, and ingenuity, and after test trials of 2,000 loaves, he found the best recipe for his bread, and what eventually turned into the foundational product for Duluth’s Best Bread.
“Michael started making bread and got really good at it. I write about food, and decided this would be a great business for us to do together,” Robert explained.
Duluth Best Bread’s method is to make each loaf by hand, the traditional way with a lengthy recipe and a process that takes five hours. Made with just flour, water, salt and wild yeast, it is then cold fermented three days to develop flavor. Baking it at high heat and high moisture in an imported French bread oven develops their legendary crust and a dense, chewy interior.
Their humble retail beginnings involved a card table and hawking their wares at farmer’s markets. Along the way, they did popups, a stint at the Endion Station in Canal Park and selling one day a week in Lincoln Park. “We kept expanding our hours and numbers of days of the week and would sell out. We kept hearing, ‘Are you the bakery brothers who are never open?’” So, they started on their way to becoming a Lincoln Park favorite. And this August, adding their downtown location has brought an even wider group of fans into their circle of devotees.
Another way they have gotten the word out about their products is through their monthly subscription boxes. According to their website, the subscription boxes are a way to “become a taste tester and get new treats and breads before anyone else . . . allowing patrons to try our very best new products every month and offer their opinions.”
Each month features a different fun theme with subscribers able to order the breads box, the treats box or a combination of both. Some popular themes have included holiday, romance, childhood, Minnesota, Wisconsin, French and German boxes.
Their incredibly popular cheese curd bread, now on their regular menu, came from their subscription box “State Fair” theme. It is described on the Facebook page as “Crusty on the outside with chewy curds on the inside; this evokes the mouthfeel of a fried curd without all the heaviness. It’s already halfway to grilled cheese, so toast it up and try it with butter . . . or slap on some ham and ranch dressing for the ultimate Minnesota sandwich.”
Their sweet treats are becoming legendary as well. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune referred to their pecan caramel rolls as the “best breakfast ever.” Their list of fun new flavors of the breads and treats they keep adding seem endless including Cool Ranch Doritos Sourdough, Cocoa Pebbles Brownies, Kraft Mac and Cheese Sourdough, Funfetti Oreos, and Pizza Roll Danishes.
Recently, their beloved “Uber Big Fat German Pretzels” went from one pound to when Michael, on a lark, made a one-time 17-pound pretzel for Octoberfest. The pretzels and many of their other products are available at wholesale locations, bars, restaurants and grocery stores.
Splitting the duties with both wearing many hats, the brothers have managed to keep a sense of humor and to keep their family lives important too.
Duluth’s Best Bread has become a real family affair with the brothers’ wives and even their kids often pitching in to help. Robert and his wife Alicia have three daughters, a seven-month old baby, a pre-schooler, and a second-grader; Michael and his wife have a one-year-old daughter.
Their children have come been regulars at the shops, starting when they were babies. “The kids love the bakeries,” said Robert. “They love the bread; we have even used small pieces of baguette for teething.”
With their success and a second location, they have grown from eight employees to eighteen, including four full-time night bakers. Michael noted, “I am most proud of the people we have hired. We work hard to be good bosses to our employees, to pay them well and treat them well. It is a happy and positive work environment.”
The brothers say that their mission is “to bake incredible products,” and their reason is because “they delight people.” They also often donate the extra food they have left over to food shelves and homeless shelters.
The Duluth’s Best Bread Facebook page demonstrates Robert’s gift for sarcastic and comic writing and is worth a visit not only for what new products they are featuring, but also for the humor. A few of his one-liners: “There are many good bakeries in Duluth, but we are the loudest and most obnoxious” and “Duluth’s Best Bread: We Keep The Butter Industry In Business.”
Both locations are open Tuesday-Saturday 6 am to 1 pm. For more information, visit their website at duluthsbestbread.com