Bread & Company
6051 Hwy. 100. 627-4800
6 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
It was 15 minutes before noon on a Sunday, and my party and I had just barely managed to snag one of the coveted booths against the right wall of the new Belle Meade Bread & Company before the wave of post-service church people made their righteous assault on the restaurant. The purple leather seats were still warm from the previous party's posteriors when we slid in and began perusing the extensive tri-folded menu.
That was when I heard the voice over my left shoulder. "Kay," it said, "order the provolone on grilled cranberry-pecan bread." My eyes darted down the list of 23 sandwiches. I saw Pavo Fiesta, San Franciscan, Steeplechase, Iroquois, T.A.B. and a Wauwinet; there was a Gourmet PB&A on cranberry-pecan, but a second reading still didn't turn up the grilled provolone sandwich.
I turned around and was relieved to find that it was not the voice of God, but caterer Goldie Shepard, brunching with two friends. "Goldie," I said, "I don't see a grilled provolone on cranberry-pecan bread."
"That's right," she snapped. "That's because John-O won't put it on the menu. But just tell them at the counter that you want a Goldie. They know. And if they don't, they should. It's the best sandwich not on the menu. I want you to try it, and then write that John-O needs to put it on the menu."
I've grown pretty accustomed over the years to receiving unsolicited opinions on what I should write about and what I should say. Similarly, John Clay, president of Bread & Companybut still John-O to Goldie and countless more who have known him since childhoodhas become pretty accustomed to receiving unsolicited opinions on just about everything: what kind of bread should be baked on what days, store design, furnishings, sandwich suggestions, parking, hours.
Most of his customers, after all, know him on a first-name basis, whether as John-Othe nickname used to distinguish him from his father, Nashville banker John Clay Jr.or simply as John. After playing football under Gene Stallings at the University of Alabama and working briefly at Gaylord Entertainment, Clay got a job at Nashville's first artisan bread bakery, opened in 1992 in a little Belle Meade storefront owned by his beautiful, socially prominent mother Anne, along with partners Kelly Price and Terry Carr-Hall.
"When I first started, it was just part-time," he says. "I wanted to find something I could do that would pay me enough to do what I really wanted to do, which was hunt and fish. But I fell in love with the business, and I just kept getting more and more involved." Carr-Hall and Price have left; though John Clay III is president and approaching equal partnership, his mother is still his boss. But he has hundreds of other people to answer to.
Many of those were clamoring for Bread & Company to return to Belle Meade, tragically bereft of a store since the closing of the original location on Page Road more than five years ago. Three others have opened in the meantime, in Green Hills, in Cool Springs and on West End Avenue.
"Since the day we closed the Page Road store, we have been trying to get back, but couldn't find exactly the right spot," Clay says. "I had told the landlords of this strip center that if anything ever came open, I wanted it." In the midst of negotiations to take possession of the former McClures buildingnow operated by Tammy Sprintz as Spaceshe got the call that Corner Market was closing, and the space was available.
It took six months to gut the property and make it over into the now familiar, strikingly contemporary but casually comfortable Bread & Company model of bakery, deli, coffee shop and café. It took nearly that long to remake that model into a space that would accommodate a more efficient method of serviceone that provides customers with a central location for placing their entire order, rather than the two or more required at the other stores. "We are successful at our Green Hills and West End stores in spite of our system," Clay admits. "As we have grown, we have always wanted to maintain interaction between the customer and the person behind the counter making their sandwich or salad, or slicing the bread. But people complained: there were too many lines, it took too long. So we listened, and now we have a central ordering spot, with the capacity to open four lines at once."
Even on a busy Sunday lunch, when tables and booths were at a premium and getting scarcer by the second, the new system was working smoothly; the three open lines moved quickly, and waiting time for orders to be filled was very reasonable.
Much of the menu will be familiar to anyone who frequents the other B&Cs: designer sandwiches on fresh-baked breads, beautifully composed and balanced salads, create-your-own sandwiches and salads, nearly three dozen side salads and deli case items, homemade soups, and a full breakfast menu of pancakes, waffles, French toast, eggs and their infamous omelets. But Clay is proud of the newest roll-out10 panini, which required extensive R&D to get just right. "Lots of panini are hot on the outside, but the fillings are cold. I guarantee ours will be hot all inside and out." He came through on the fantastic Reuben we sampled; the focaccia bread was grilled and pressed to a crusty exterior, the generously portioned corned beef and sauerkraut were warm, and the tangy Swiss cheese melted to the perfect gooey consistency.
My egg-white omelet was light and fluffy, pumped so full of sautéed mushrooms and onions and fresh tomatoes that I didn't miss the yolks for a second. Of the 23 sandwiches listed, the third caught my eye: balsamic turkey and goat cheese. Whisper goat cheese, and I'll pretty much follow you anywhere, but the anticipation outweighed the catch in this case; the sandwich lacked excitement and a couple of promised ingredients. Understandable, given that that there were probably 300 sandwiches an hour being assembled. I'm sure if we had taken it back to the counter, John-O would have made amends.
Quite frankly, we were so pleased with the Goldie that Ms. Shepard had talked us into trying that we let it pass. Now, I'm not saying that the grilled provolone cheese on cranberry-pecan bread beats the 23 other sandwiches on the menumany of which Clay says were conceived by customers. And I'm not trying to tell John Clay what to do. God knows he gets enough of that already, and he seems to be doing awfully well without my advice.
But I will say that if he decides to add a 24th, the Goldie is one he might consider. Just a thought.