Thanh Lam's New Plan
The man who launched Ba-Le in Hawaii has a new bakery—and a new café coming to a location near you.
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“We can trace every bag back to the individual farmer if we have to,” says Weddle. “We now do the bread for Whole Foods. They’re strict about ingredients.”
“Well, we have our standards,” says Whole Food’s Claire Sullivan. She adds that, just the week before, Whole Foods needed a large emergency order of holiday bread. Ba-Le, which runs 24/7, immediately came to its rescue. “We’re delighted with the partnership.”
There are other major customers as well. Weddle walks me through the room where they make the pizza dough for all 15 Papa John’s on Oahu.
Then there are the supermarkets to consider—in addition to Whole Foods, there’s now Foodland—not to mention the 25 Ba-Le sandwich shops. Instead of the single French-bread oven in the back of Lam’s King Street store, there are now eight double ovens. “Italian, they’re the best,” says Weddle. They turn out 4,000 to 5,000 loaves a day. That doesn’t count the stone-rack oven, as large as a studio apartment, that Weddle uses to do crusty artisanal bread.
In yet another room, workers butter and fold and refold the croissant dough, so that the 5,000 croissants a day are light and airy.
Some of those croissants get turned into sandwiches for the box lunches Ba-Le packs for Hawaiian Airlines coach passengers, about 2,500 on an average day.
Weddle bakes a special bread for Macaroni Grill and only Macaroni Grill. “They do a great job for us,” says Jay Kaneshiro, operations director of Desert Island Restaurants, which also owns the five Ruth’s Chris Steakhouses here. “When we wanted to upgrade the bread basket at Ruth’s Chris, we went to them, too.”
Even if you don’t know you’re eating Ba-Le products, you probably are. “We’re behind the scenes at so many restaurants, caterers, hotels,” says Weddle. “Sheraton, Princess Kaiulani, Royal Hawaiian, more.”
The bakehouse turns out cakes, banquet desserts and a whole barrage of specialty products, including snack puffs and the granola that Lam likes to sprinkle over his oatmeal in the morning.
How many products in all? “I’ve lost track,” says Weddle. “Maybe 300. More every day.”
We’ve circled back to the offices, a long walk. Lam is meeting with his sons, the two little boys I saw in white tuxes, now young men. Trung, 29, has an engineering degree from UC San Diego and an MBA from UH. His younger brother, Brandon, 23, also has a UH MBA.
“I didn’t finish high school in my country,” says Lam. “Now, I say, I have a double MBA.”
Back in 1986, Lam told me that when he made it—having a 60,000-square-foot commercial bakery with 300 products, not to mention a 1,000-square-foot personal office, probably constitutes making it—he wouldn’t have to work so hard.
“He still works seven days a week,” say his sons in unison.
“I don’t bake any more, but I have to do too much thinking. Thinking, thinking, all the time,” says Lam.
So what’s the thinking behind taking an established brand—everyone in Hawaii recognizes Ba-Le—and renaming it La Tour Bakehouse?
“We worry about that,” says Lam. “But decided.” Lam owns rights to the Ba-Le name only in Hawaii; he can’t use it on the Mainland or internationally, as in China, which he has been eyeing for decades.
The name Ba-Le is associated with the sandwich shops, all but one of which are franchises. “They make money, I’m happy,” says Lam. “But they are not consistent, not always the way I like them. Sometimes, I’m embarrassed when people say, I went to your shop here and I couldn’t get this or didn’t like that.”
La Tour’s logo is the Eiffel Tower, an image of which appears on the Ba-Le logo as well. “We didn’t stray far,” says Lam.