The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once called bread “mankind’s energy,” and wrote of its sacred position in his “Ode to Bread,” published in Odes to Common Things. There’s another line that stands out: "How simple you are, bread, and how profound!"
Chris Matsch wasn’t thinking about Neruda five years ago when he started baking artisanal loaves and selling them at local farmers’ markets with his wife, Kate. Back then, the Matsches’ space and equipment was limited – just a small convection oven and a few cast-iron skillets in a rented studio – and Chris was only baking four loaves at a time. But the budding baker was drawn to the pace of bread production, and he was soon consumed by it.
“I have an obsessive personality, and bread just took over my life,” Chris says. “I would sleep in the bakery on occasion because I wanted to make sure the bread was going to be OK.”
Kate laughs at the memory, confirming its veracity. “If the bread rose and it was ready to bake in the middle of the night, Chris needed to be there to bake it,” she says, chuckling.
In 2013, the Matsches officially opened Ibis Bakery, with a production facility and a retail counter located in the space adjacent to Black Dog Coffeehouse in Lenexa, Kansas. The neighboring coffee shop started selling Ibis' specialty loaves, which were also eventually the inspiration for Black Dog’s best-selling gourmet toasts. (For example, a thick slice of Ibis' country bread is smothered with butter and layered with peach jam and sea salt.)
Delicious as the toasts are, Ibis' bread makes a bold statement on its own. The sprouted quinoa-kamut is a crowd favorite: When it’s split open, the slightly sour, spongy loaf features dark red beads of quinoa that almost look like confetti. The oat-porridge is naturally a little sweeter than the classic multigrain, ciabatta and country loaves. Sweeter still is the cranberry-walnut bread, as well as the coconut-white chocolate and cranberry-almond with orange, both offered during the holiday season. And few snacks are more pleasing than a hearty slice of Ibis’ crusty olive bread dragged through a stream of extra virgin olive oil.
In the years since its debut, Ibis has continued to expand its offerings. In 2014, Chris developed the Viennoiserie – a laminated-dough program including croissants, Danishes and brioche – and has since worked collaboratively with his baking staff to add French-inspired tarts and éclairs to the bakery case at Black Dog. Today, items like hand-sized palmier cookies, toasted-coconut éclairs, almond butter cookies, raspberry kouign-amann and almond croissants are customer favorites. The Matsches have expanded their business, too: In 2015, Fred Spompinato retired and passed his beloved Kansas City bakery, Fervere, in the Westside neighborhood, to the couple. Chris had long considered Spompinato his mentor, and he has faithfully maintained Fervere’s lauded cheese slippers.
Now, the Matsches are amid a new venture in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District. The three-story building at 1624 Grand Blvd. was under construction for the better part of the year, and when the new Messenger Cafe finally opened in October, no one was more relieved than Chris and Kate. “For the past five years, we’ve been wanting to do bread and coffee roasting together, and we feel like this space is the culmination that we've been thinking about for a long time,” Chris says.
Both Ibis and Messenger Coffee Co. share ownership of the space, and the layout is largely communal. Ibis will mill its own flour and bake its products on the first floor, where a coffee counter and bakery case will also be located; guests can sip lattes and devour croissants in the seating area or migrate up the bright white, winding staircase to the second floor, where Messenger will roast its beans and maintain its offices. The third floor opens up to a rooftop gathering area with an expansive view of the bustling Crossroads Arts District and downtown Kansas City.
Part of the space's charm comes from its history, which the Matsches have worked to preserve and restore as much as possible. The building was erected in 1919 as a car dealership and tire factory; the alleyway service lift is large enough to fit an entire car, and was used to transport vehicles between the three floors.
“We got a historical tax credit to do some restoration,” Kate says. “We’ve repaired plaster on all the walls and exposed the original beams. It’s been a long process, partly because of paperwork, but we feel closer to the history now.”
Today, the service lift is used for deliveries, and the original white-and-blue hexagon tiles on the first floor have been uncovered and polished. The centerpiece of the Matsches’ design, though, is the extraordinary flour mill on the ground floor, in full view of guests. Their New American Stone Mills flour mill was custom-made by Andrew Heyn of Elmore Mountain Bread in Wolcott, Vermont, and is designed to mill grain at a slow pace, upholding the integrity of the flavor and the qualities of the grain. (On the second floor, the coffee roaster offers customers a similar view into a different process.)
“We want people to be able to see what we’re doing and engage with it as much as they want,” Chris says. The Matsches aim to source all their grain locally, and they plan to mill more than just wheat, including corn, rye, buckwheat and quinoa.
“We’ll be able to mill all those at different degrees of coarseness and use them for different products,” Chris says. “We've previously focused a lot of our efforts on pushing fermentation to create flavor within the grain, but we’re now shifting our focus toward flavors in the grains themselves.”
Most commercial flour, Chris says, is intentionally aged, bleached or oxidized, and it’s rarely used immediately after it’s milled. After three days, many of the unique characteristics of milled flour are lost. Access to fresh-milled grain is a game-changer.
“The flavor profile will literally change daily post-milling,” Chris says. “We’re going to be making pastries with flour that has been milled the day before or the morning of, and it’s going to change the way things taste. It’s something new that we’re figuring out and that we’re hoping people can experience with us. We want to push the idea that you can try one type of wheat and another type of wheat side-by-side, and they'll taste different.”
Anyone who has tasted Ibis' bread is likely already won over by this next evolution of the business and its philosophy. The proof is in the product – it always has been.
There’s a story Chris likes to tell about the autumn before he and Kate launched the bakery. His brother – who is decidedly not a baker, Chris says wryly – came in one morning to help brainstorm holiday bread recipes. He suggested shredded coconut and white chocolate chips baked into a loaf.
“We cut it hot, and it was the best thing,” Chris says. “It was this moment where my brother and I were baking, and he made this wonderful thing and took it to his soccer game that night and was just passing out pieces to his teammates, wanting to share it. It made me realize how accessible bread is, and that got me motivated to make something different and that people love.”
Simple – and profound.