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On a Saturday morning in mid-February, when temperatures were in the single digits along the Front Range, a socially distanced crowd gathered outside Grateful Bread in Golden. Despite the below-zero windchill, nearly 300 hardy Coloradans showed up for the chance to buy the bakery’s lemon Danishes, sticky buns, maple pecan snickerdoodles, loaves of bread, and other freshly baked goodies—and even that impressive number is less than a typical, warmer-weather Saturday turnout.
Such support from dedicated consumers has allowed Grateful Bread—which typically supplies wholesale baked goods to local restaurants—to stay in business during the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, its direct retail sales have become so popular that the bakery has pivoted its business model, at least for the time-being. “You can’t predict the future,” says Jeff Cleary, who owns Grateful Bread with his wife Kathy Mullen. “In this business, you have to be flexible. We’re trying to do what we can to keep everybody employed.”
For more than 15 years, Grateful Bread has provided carb-loaded goodness to many of Denver’s top restaurants and hotels—places like Mercantile Dining & Provision, North Italia, Table 6, the Four Seasons, and Legends Hospitality at the Pepsi Center. But in March 2020 when restaurants shut down, Grateful Bread lost much of its wholesale business—some 85 percent—overnight. Even as restaurants have reopened to varying degrees since then, Grateful Bread’s business hasn’t rebounded in the face of the unpredictability of wholesale demand, while retail has remained steady.
When restaurants get back onto more solid footing, Grateful Bread will be there. But in the meantime, the bakery is shifting its energy toward the people who flock to its Golden facility to buy its offerings each weekend. To that end, the bakery recently added a pre-order option for Thursday afternoon pick ups. “We’re just really grateful and also kind of shocked to see the level of support,” says Mullen.
Nine years ago, when Grateful Bread first began selling directly to the public, it was more as a courtesy than a money-making endeavor, with retail sales making up just 5 percent of total revenue. During the pandemic, however, retail sales have risen to 52 percent of total revenue—and Cleary and Mullen expect that number to continue climbing. Customers drive from as far away as Longmont, Bailey, and Colorado Springs, no matter how low the thermostat dips.
The bakery has been a labor of love for Cleary and Mullen for almost 20 years. In 2002, the couple opened Intrigue, a restaurant in the Speer neighborhood where Cleary made everything from scratch. In the small bakery at the back of the space, Cleary also began baking bread for other restaurateurs as a way to make extra cash.
They sold Intrigue in 2005, and Cleary shifted his focus to wholesale baking for restaurants and hotels. He worked 110 hours each week in a 400-square-foot cabin in Evergreen with a wooden baking table, a 20-quart mixer, and a small electric oven. He was the bakery’s only employee, handling the baking, selling, delivery-making, and accounting. Mullen worked two or three jobs at a time while they quietly built up the bakery’s reputation among local chefs and restaurateurs. “It was horrible, I never got to see him,” Mullen says.
Word spread and Grateful Bread began taking on more clients. Eventually, Cleary was able to hire a delivery driver. By 2008, the business expanded to a 2,000-square-foot location in south Golden. It has expanded twice more since then, and is currently located in an 8,000-square-foot facility with 28 employees.
The bakery’s name is, of course, a nod to the Grateful Dead, that iconic American jam band with a cult following; Cleary and Mullen describe themselves as big fans, but say they don’t go to quite the same lengths as other Deadheads. Mullen designed the rainbow logo herself after she learned that the bakery had a spot in the Cherry Creek Farmers Market in 2008, which marked one of the couple’s first forays into direct retail sales.
Though Grateful Bread has had to switch up its business in a major way, Cleary and Mullen are happy to be busy and making something that gives people a little bit of solace during an otherwise trying time. “It’s comfort food,” Mullen says.
Grateful Bread’s retail store (425 Violet St., Golden) is open every Saturday from 10 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; the bakery also accepts pre-orders for pickup on Thursdays, from 2–5 p.m.