The smell of fresh bakery bread and pastries floats through the air as the warmth of the wood-fired ovens surrounds those who listen to the owner’s commentary about what makes the bakery unique during a recent open house.
Field & Fire, located in Grand Rapids’ Downtown Market on Ionia, showcased some of their bakery products along with providing bakery tours and a chance to meet the owners during a recent event as part of the Bread Bakers Guild. The Bread Bakers Guild of America describes itself as “the leading American educational resource for artisan bread lovers.”
The hundreds of American members were encouraged to participate in the Guild-Wide Bakery Open House that “brings communities to their bakeries and champions the cause for locally made bread.”
“It gives them a chance to get more intimate with the bakers,” said owner Shelby Kibler. The 15-year Guild member always had an interest in baking.
Building a career at other bakeries, Shelby Kibler continued to explore his options. While working as a chef out of state, he learned about cooking on wood-fired ovens as the restaurant specialized in wood-fired pizzas.
Returning to Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor, Shelby Kibler taught classes and met Julie. The pair married and started a family. After learning how to build wood-fired ovens, they decided to pursue his passion opening the bakery two years ago.
Using as many organic items as possible for the bakery, Shelby Kibler came up with the idea of “field” and “fire” came from the wood-fired ovens.
“I am real passionate about farming so it matters where ingredients come from. The field is really a part of my mindset,” he explained. “There also is something magical about using the wood fire.”
The ovens are fired throughout the day with wood from a local farm to prepare the hot bricks at a base temperature for baking the next day’s products.
The bakery now sells wholesale products to more than 20 restaurants and cafes in the Grand Rapids area including Bistro Bella Vita, The Green Well, Brewery Vivant, Reserve, The Black Heron Kitchen and Bar, Derby Station, Grove, Jonny B’s, Osteria Rossa, Rowster Coffee, The Sparrows, The Winchester, and Le Bon Macaroon. “It is my goal to be in the best restaurants in Grand Rapids,” Shelby Kibler said.
The two-hour open house generated interest in the already busy bakery and people were happily sampling breads and pastries from the company.
“You can’t find better bread with better ingredients,” said customer Gabriel Soares, who has been baking for about 30 years at home. “The overall product is the best in town.”
Mary Anne Michalik said she and her husband, Richard, came from the Chicago area and describe the “wonderful” and “delicious” products using fresh ingredients and lasting for a lengthy time as comparable to bakeries there.
“The ingredients are top notch. They make everything with their heart,” Richard Michalik said.
Julie Kibler said they do not use a lot of salt or sugar to keep the products as natural as possible. “We have an emphasis on the organic,” she said.
The almond croissants were a flavorful, light, and flaky pastry with the buttery richness of the croissant taste mixing with the almond. Other samples included the tasty financiers, which are light and moist, flavorful French cookies; cardamom buns, which are made with oatmeal levain dough and filled with golden raisins and organic cardamom; and the sesame raisin bread, which combines moist raisins and unhulled sesame seeds in the bread.
Shelby Kibler takes a variety of products home because it is hard for him to pick a favorite. “We only sell products that I feel are awesome,” he said. “We’re working hard to do our best.”
The first loaves of bread start going in about 7:30 a.m. and they stop firing the ovens about 5 p.m. He said the ovens are still extremely hot when the bakery closes down for the night and the wood-fired ovens are very thermally efficient.
Shelby Kibler showed off the wood pulp baskets that are used for the bread to keep its shape and hold it for 48 hours to prepare it for baking. Busy days mean baking about 500 loaves.
Most everything is made with sour dough. Shelby Kibler said days start as early as 3 a.m. and go until the market closes at 7 p.m.
Julie Kibler said the bakery has a core menu and adds some things on the weekends or some specialties on certain days.
Julie Kibler does all of the marketing, communications, and graphic design because of her background. Prior to the bakery, she was teaching graphic design at the college level. “This was unexpected but it’s great. It still allows me to do all the things I am passionate about.”
She works three or four days a week and still spends time at home with their three-year-old son.
Shelby Kibler loves to experiment and this writer sampled a moist, richly textured, and flavorful polenta bread that he made with hand-ground corn. All products are handmade in the traditional manner by taking the time and hand folding the dough rather than using machines.
“People who come are buying wholesome, quality bread for their families,” Julie Kibler said. She said a large percentage of their market is women from 25 to 45 who are health conscious.
Bakery manager Jake McDougall, one of 12 employees besides the owners, said, “What we are doing here is incredible.”
He appreciates the wood-fired oven and the organic ingredients that are sourced from Michigan. “That leads itself to incredible products.”
McDougall cited The Snail of Approval from Slow Food West Michigan as a sign of others recognizing quality products. The annual award is given to restaurants, bars, food and beverage artisans, and retailers “in recognition of their contributions to the quality, authenticity, and sustainability of the food supply of the West Michigan region.”
“That just shows we’re doing something unique and special here,” he said.
Fillings, grain mixes, and everything is made in house. McDougall had been baking for four years and he and his wife sold everything to move back from Seattle to work at Field & Fire. Nicholas Crowell, a three-month retail sales associate, enjoys his job because of “the authenticity of the product and the enthusiasm of the people searching for it.”
Crowell said he sees a lot of European immigrants who are looking for a high quality bakery product. “People who come seek real food. They share a passion for it the same as we do.”