By Lucia Viti
Prager Brothers live up to their promise
Louie and Clinton Prager are authentic artisan bakers. Influenced by an old-world tradition of using wholesome grains, a natural leaven, and the handcrafting of every baked good, the Prager brothers remain purists to a craft long ago displaced by mass commercial production.
Sporting a variety of breads and sweet treats, Prager Brothers Artisan goods can be found at Hillcrest Farmers Market every Sunday.
But how does a botanist who studied birds in a Peruvian rain forest and a classically trained guitarist who toured Brazil and Argentina become one of the few artisan bakers in America? The siblings consider it nothing other than a “natural evolution.”
While studying plant biology in Cal State Poly in San Luis Obispo, Louie built an Alan Scott, wood-fire oven in his backyard to accommodate his hobby of baking breads and pizzas for friends and parties. He then met 77-year-old Richard Webb, a baker who owned and operated The 3rd Corner, a tiny bakery in Los Osos. The “mentor, good friend and grandfather figure” taught the budding apprentice the art of bread making along with the essentials of running a business.
Oddly enough, while the elder schooled the younger, Webb urged Louie to choose another career.
“Although Richard shared his comprehensive knowledge from the art of baking artisan breads to the basics of running a business, he encouraged me not to be a baker,” Louie explained. “‘Be a biologist,’ he said. ‘Baking is hard.’ So I did. But when I couldn’t find a job as a botanist after graduation, I built an even bigger backyard stove for baking breads and pizzas.”
With little hesitation, Louie sought to increase his baking volume. Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizzeria of Encinitas allowed him to bake breads in their ovens after hours, which granted Louie permit eligibility for selling at farmers markets while increasing his baking volume from five loaves to 60. Within four months, Louie was selling in six local farmers markets, including the one in Hillcrest. As Louie bore the brunt of the workload, Clinton chipped in to help.
“I helped more and more until I knew I had to choose between bread and music,” the younger sibling said. “The decision was hard but I chose bread knowing that my music would wait for me. I miss music, but I know that we’re doing something really cool.”
A year later, the duo leased retail space in Carlsbad, purchased a German industrial oven and mixer, baskets from France, and everything else from a pizza parlor that was going out of business. Elbowed in cleaning pizza grease, the Prager Brothers settled into selling up to 300 loaves a day through farmers markets, their Carlsbad retail space and several local restaurants.
“Early on people laughed at us, wondering who would by bread from Prager Brothers, a tiny artisan bakery, when they can go to big stores,” Louie said. “Today we have a steady stream of clientele who are willing to pay more for fresh bread and bread products made from organic ingredients.”
Rooted in a traditional art, Prager Brothers breads are fermented with a natural leaven, not a fast-rising commercial yeast. The leaven, also known as a starter or sourdough culture, contains yeast and bacteria that serve as the catalyst for rising dough. Commercial retail production requires extra yeast — nicknamed “no time doughs” — to expedite the process.
“Natural leaven is as crucial to the quality of our breads as the organic grains and hand-shaping of each loaf,” Louie said. “Our focus is on quality, not speed of production.”
Louie described the comparison between artisan and commercial breads as a contradiction.
“An artisan crafts with meaning and passion without taking shortcuts, cutting corners or lowering quality standards,” he said. “The commercial retail process is a machine with someone at the top peeking through corners. There’s no balance in mass production. But how can you focus on flavor when you have to bake 2,000 loaves every single day? We handcraft 300 loaves a day. From start to finish our process takes up to 48 hours while retail chains can take less than three.”
The brothers agreed that while the artisan model of baking may appear easy, attention to detail is crucial to its success.
“The process of baking may sound simple — mix flour, yeast, salt, ferment, shape, bake, cool and sell — but every aspect is different,” they said. “Baking variables include temperature, water and the use of a natural leaven. Care and attention to detail makes our breads artisan products.”
“The pitfalls come with packaging and delivery,” Louie explained. “Most commercial bakeries bake their bread the night before, pack and sort — which takes hours — and deliver between 6 and 8 a.m. By early evening, the bread’s almost a day old. Our bread is baked in the morning, labeled and delivered while it’s still warm. Prager Brothers stand for the ultimate in freshness. If the bread’s not fresh, it’s not worth it.”
The days are long, the nights are short and the weekends are non-existent for the native Californians. The assembly line of two agree that long-term stability — and the hiring of employees — remains key to the success of their growing business. “We’re thrilled that there’s such a demand for our product, but we realize that we can’t keep the 16, sometimes 18 hour-a-day pace by ourselves,” Clinton said.
“We’re overworked,” Louie continued. “We’re not on a sustainable path, but we’re working to change that.”
Despite their arduous workload and polar opposite personalities “Louie’s the entrepreneur — the idea guy,” and Clinton the “work horse,” Clinton described their work environment and relationship as good. “We’re lucky,” he said. “The family works as a unit. Mom helps with the books and Dad helps with the farmers markets.”
The self-professed foodies in search of everything organic also practice sustainable living. “It’s all about the planet and how we impact a world that’s not invincible,” Clinton said.
Hillcrest Farmers Market is a noted favorite. Customers are treated to one-spot shopping with its variety of fresh fruit and produce, pastas, olive oils and more. Community and connection are vital. Nothing pleases the Pragers more than customers milling around the booth, chatting about their French baguettes, country sourdough, walnut whole-grain, olive rosemary, whole grain smelt, rye and flat breads, focaccia, mini-brioche scones, sweet rolls, granola, bagels, cookies and Bavarian pretzels. Loaves are sold whole and the brothers boast of a sizable European clientele. Future plans include a workspace large enough for the brothers to mill their own grains and increase their menu to assorted sandwiches.
“We eat what we love, that’s why we bake artisan breads,” they said. “We’re true bakers who stand for the ultimate in quality and freshness.”
—Contact Lucia Viti at email@example.com.