John Ropelski says it's the bread that's in control of him, not the other way around.
His day begins at 1 a.m., when he heads downstairs from his place on North Avenue in Garwood and into his storefront below. At Ropelski's new breakfast, brunch and lunch cafe &Grain, it's time to make the baguettes.
"Baking bread is not like baking a cake," says Ropelski, a perfectionist. "I have to work with what it’s doing, which changes with all sorts of factors – if it’s cold outside, if it’s humid. Today it might take an hour and tomorrow it might take two. I could freeze dough or mix it the night before, but you don’t get the same product."
Ropelski, a Union native, says he always knew he'd someday open his own business and it would be a lunch place. He was working in finance and when the market turned, he decided it was time to take the leap.
"Five years ago, my fiancee and I decided we were going to try to do this," he says. "We thought there were great places nearby to go for dinner, but we wanted a great place for lunch. For me, lunch is a sandwich. And a great sandwich is in the bread."
And so Ropelski enrolled at the French Culinary Institute, all in an effort to learn the art of breadmaking. He got the break of a lifetime when one of his French instructors said she was looking for someone to work with her. Working at renowned NYC eateries Bouchon Bakery and Le Pain Quotidian, Ropelski studied the intricacies of the two parts of all bread, the outer crust and the inner crumb.
"It's all about developing bread and cell structure and there are 12 actual steps," says Ropelski. "And you can't rush it: you start with scaling the ingredients and mixing, but then you divide it and let it rest, and shape it and let it rest, and score it and let it rest. It's all about the flour and the gluten and the development of the bread."
&Grain is Ropelski's step out on his own.
"I originally was going to call it Grain & Company, but my designer said '& Company' is overdone, put the ampersand in front," Ropelski says. "At first I hated it, because I thought it was difficult to understand, but now the explaining is the beauty in it. The name sticks out in customers' heads and the ampersand is our logo."
The cafe offers gourmet sandwiches, plus soups, quiches and salads in a chicly designed space on the busy intersection in the Mews development across from the Garwood ShopRite. Inside, diners can spy Ropelski at work in the glass-enclosed bakery within the restaurant.
"Years ago, there was a bakery on every corner that was part of everybody's routine," says Ropelski. "But nowadays everything is quick, quick, quick. People go to ShopRite to get their bread. I feel like it’s a dying artform. I became a baker because I didn’t want to buy my bread from someone else. I wanted to keep everything local and fresh and quality – and so I wanted complete control over the bread, too."
Ropelski uses King Arthur flour – a high-quality, buttery flavor flour, which he says makes all the difference.
Offerings change day to day, but Ropelski usually bakes baguettes, ciabatta, olive bread, five grain, raisin, cranberry walnut, peanut butter chocolate, chocolate bread, pastries and pain de mie – a French white bread Ropelski calls "what Wonder Bread should be."
Though customers are welcome to come just for the bread, &Grain's got gourmet, made-to-order offerings for breakfast, brunch and lunch, too. Among the customer favorites: grilled cheese made with garlic butter, goat cheese, brie and prosciutto; ham and brie on a baguette with Dijon mustard; the quiche-of-the-day; a breakfast egg sandwich featuring avocado, tomato and bacon-scallion cream cheese on a ciabatta roll; and, for dessert, a banana nutella sandwich on pain de mie.
"I try to keep it French and light and flavorful and something different you can’t get everywhere," says Ropelski. "When you leave, I don’t want you to feel heavy and bloated. Some people associate value with size, but I try to keep things more balanced in terms of portions. For me, I'd rather have a sandwich that's just the right size and be really good than have a big sandwich that's not."
Ropelski lets his customers order off-the-menu items, too.
"We're a scratch kitchen and all my employees are culinary students at Johnson and Wales," says Ropelski. "We'll try to make whatever you're looking for. I have a customer who asked for oatmeal pancakes and we make them for him every time he comes in now. We'll make an egg sandwich any time of the day. We like to treat our customers like family. I would hate when I would go to a diner and couldn't get potatoes before 4 p.m. That's just silly."
&Grain also offers Stumptown Coffee from Red Hook, Brooklyn and is a BYOB. For brunch, offered Saturday and Sunday, some customers bring in champagne, which &Grain's staff is happy to turn into mimosas. At brunch, a $16 prix fixe offers that week's take on a Benedict, French toast and a pancake. Another &Grain favorite is a for-two bread basket with a sampling of breads and spreads.
Ropelski says the feedback he's gotten so far has been great. A friend pointed him to his Yelp page, which Ropelski says he didn't even know existed, where customers were writing rave reviews.
Says one, "A true effort to the art of making bread! The owner is a gentleman who takes pride in his craft and the space/ambiance necessary for a great experience. Truly fortunate to be in the neighborhood and partake in a lost tradition of a great bakery with a vision."
Ropelski says his success so far may be because breadmaking is in his blood. His father's family were bakers, and his father owned his own bakery in Poland.
"I love the idea that I'm revisiting my blood line in this profession," he says.
And so he's doing his part to revive the artform, and he's teaching others, too. In a $95 bread-baking class, Ropelski will instruct you the process from beginning to end and make sure you have plenty of bread to take home when you're through.
Ropelski says his customers are what makes all the 1 a.m. baking a labor of love.
"I don’t mind doing things the harder way," he says, "in order to be proud of what I’m doing."
&Grain, 700 North Avenue, Garwood, 908-232-2233, andgrain.com, facebook.com/andgrain. Closed Mondays.