By HOWARD FINE

Staff Reporter

You might call it falling back on a hallowed family tradition.

Four years ago, during a tough time for illustrator Suzanne Dunaway and her film-industry husband Don, a chance remark from a friend prompted her to return to the passion of her Texas childhood: baking bread from scratch.

"My grandmother, aunts and mother, they cooked nearly everything from scratch," said Dunaway. "That's the way everything was done in Texas."

Dunaway never totally gave up making bread based on family recipes while she pursued her illustrating career. But it remained a hobby, until one of her friends remarked, "You know, you really should start selling these breads. They are absolutely fantastic."

That suggestion hit at just the right time. With work becoming more sporadic and hefty mortgage payments to make on a Beverly Glen home, Dunaway took some of her bread to the corner market and asked the owners if they would be interested in putting it on the shelves. They agreed to give it a try. So Dunaway converted her kitchen into a makeshift bakery one night and made several loaves, bringing them to the store the next morning.

The breads sold out, and the owners of Beverly Glen Market called to ask for more.

"Every night after dinner, my husband Don and I would turn the whole house into a bakery," Dunaway said. "We'd stay up almost all night, only catching an hour or two of sleep once we'd delivered the breads."

In the four years since then, Dunaways' bread-making business called Buona Forchetta Inc. (literally "good fork" in Italian, meaning good food) has thrived. Three years ago, the Dunaways moved the business out of their house and into a former print shop tucked away in an industrial area just south of Olympic Boulevard and west of the San Diego (405) Freeway.

In the last 12 months, Buona Forchetta has grown to a $1.2 million business with 30 employees. Suzanne still runs the bakery while Don Dunaway keeps the books. The company has carved out a niche as an artisan bread wholesaler, with accounts at more than 50 local markets including Gelson's, Bristol Farms and Whole Foods Markets and a handful of restaurants, such as Houston's and Sonora Cafe.

The Dunaways have capitalized on a growing consumer demand for specialty hand-made European-style breads, known as artisan breads. They are typically baked fresh daily from scratch and can cost $5 a loaf or more.

"Artisan breads have exploded, especially on both coasts," said Heather Brown, associate editor of Modern Baking magazine in Des Plaines, Ill. "It has been a big hit with upscale consumers who want something different than plain white bread. Also, many of these people are well traveled and have sampled European breads."

Figures for the total size of the U.S. artisan bread market are hard to come by, Brown said, because so many of the bakeries have started in the last couple of years and are hard to track. She says it is the fastest-growing subset of the $6 billion specialty bread market, which also includes American-style "hearth breads" and other breads made from scratch.

With customer demand growing, the Dunaways are preparing to greatly expand their operation. In doing so, they will be taking on a handful of other artisan breadmakers in Los Angeles, including regional powerhouse La Brea Bakery.

Started in 1989, La Brea Bakery was one of the first of the modern artisan breadmakers in Los Angeles; last year, it posted sales of $15 million and specializes in French-style breads.

Buona Forchetta, which tends more to the Italian style, has already broadened its offerings to include "tozzetti" (biscotti-like dipping cookies) and plans to make more rolls, as well as "bruschettine" (similar to Melba toast).

The next big step is to go after more restaurant accounts, which the Dunaways see as a largely untapped market.

"It's a matter of educating restaurant patrons that they can be very discriminating when it comes to bread," said Don Dunaway. "Usually, since it is not specifically ordered, patrons don't comment on the bread, so the chefs don't get any feedback. First we have to get restaurants to serve the bread. Then we have to convince patrons to tell the waiters or waitresses that they like the bread."

And, in the next year or two, the Dunaways want to open additional bakeries in New York and even Rome.

"I think this business could be replicated very easily with the right people, of course," said Suzanne Dunaway.

But if they do expand outside L.A., the Dunaways will find themselves going head to head with other artisan bread chains, such as Philadelphia-based Baker Street Artisan Breads and Milwaukee-based Breadsmith.

"The real question is, just how big the market is for people willing to pay $4 or $5 a loaf for artisan breads," Modern Baking's Brown said. "It's such a new and rapidly growing area that no one really knows what that limit is."

Also, the other big artisan bread chains have expanded through franchising, something that the Dunaways plan to avoid.

"With franchisees, you have very little control over quality, and that is just not acceptable to us," Suzanne Dunaway said.

Buona Forchetta Inc.

Year Founded: 1994

Core Business: Artisan ("Hand-made") specialty bread maker

Revenues in 1994: $72,000

Revenues in 1997: $750,000

Revenues 7/1/97 - 6/30/98: $1.2 million

Employees in 1994: 3

Employees in 1998: 30

Goal: To provide customers with the best-tasting bread and related products in a cost-effective manner

Driving Force: Growing consumer demand for European-style breads

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