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Rising to success: The Jensens expand Serious Bread with café offerings

By Ellis Anderson

// Serious Bread’s owners want to craft a better quality of life for its customers.

The fresh-baked loaves of artisan bread that are made without preservatives reflect Al and Vivian Jensen’s desire to offer the community a healthier lifestyle. No chemicals are added to this bread or any of the food offerings.

Al “the Bread Man” Jensen is a retired oceanographer who traveled around the world during his career, sampling breads in every country he visited. Frustrated by the lack of artisan breads on the Coast, this staff-of-life connoisseur later decided to solve the problem by becoming a baker himself. Jensen pursued his new vocation “seriously.” After several workshops with a world-renowned baker in Vermont, he and his wife began selling the loaves in regional farmers markets, finding that their offerings were snapped up by a public hungry for more.

During its 10 years of operation, Serious Bread has evolved and improved on its offerings, most recently expanding the bakery into an intimate café that reflects the owners’ and community’s love of the beach and the quaintness of New Orleans. The five-top café offers light fare such as chicken salad sandwiches, a creamy sundried tomato basil spread on, what else, sunflower seed bread; chickpea salad and the freshest, brightest Kalamata hummus that I have ever tasted. With the everpresent goal of healthy eating, Chef Mary Williams will soon be adding soups to the menu.

“Concern for our customers prompted us to spread into the adjoining suite,” Vivia Jensen, the marketer or self-proclaimed “hopeless extrovert” of the business. “When we simply had the bakery, customers had to walk into the small, hot bakery. If it is summer in South Mississippi, customers were sweltering inside as well as outside. I felt sorry for the customers. We had to expand.”

Customer demand also prompted the expansion. Serious Bread first started selling only in Coast farmers’ markets and renting kitchen spaces, but customers kept asking for a permanent retail location. “Bay St. Louis is going to continue to grow, and we keep growing with it,” Vivian says.

While Vivian is still tweaking the shotgun-style cafe decor along with her artist friend, Bonnie Vallery, Al Jensen, whom his wife calls “the dreamer,” has set his sights on a dough press. Soon, they will add healthy, low-fat breakfast items to the menu, plus cinnamon rolls for which customers have been clamoring. Wholesaling would be another new expansion for the duo.

“We do want to stay small,” Vivian says. “We have a great team here, and our daughter, Renee, has joined us in the business. Our staff is wonderful and truly a team.”

Currently, the bread and café have five full- and part-time employees. Seth Holt, the bread baker whom Al Jensen trained, arrives at 2 or 3 a.m. to get the nine types of bread started. Helping him is Sandi Hoetger. The grains for the various breads are soaked in vats or soakers of water, not chemicals, for 8 to 12 hours before being used in the dough.

Some of the bread selections include roasted sunflower seed, garlic rosemary sourdough (which is done with the right flavor balance, jalapeno and cheese, whole wheat sourdough and oatmeal cinnamon raisin. The garlic flatbread is a must-try. One customer ordered six of the huge round loaves because “my kids love them.” The flatbread and roasted sunflower seed are particularly good with the kalamata hummus.

All the breads and sweets have to be ready to go by cafe opening at 7:30 a.m. Rose Gooding bakes the sweets, such as chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies, scones and muffins, all done with a variety of grains. Williams and her daughter, Jhanavi, make the sandwiches, salads and spreads.

“Our lunch offerings accentuate our bread, showcasing the what we’ve got,” Vivian says. “After all, bread is half the sandwich. If you don’t have good bread, you don’t have a good sandwich.”

And quality is serious business to Serious Bread.