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Behind Lyon Bakery Owner Alan Hakimi’s Quest to Make the Perfect Bread

If it wasn’t for Lyon Bakery’s hoagie roll, Bub and Pop’s may not even exist.

Chef Jonathan Taub and his mom Arlene Wagner initially didn’t know what they were going to do with their Dupont Circle lease. They were deciding between a sandwich shop and another restaurant concept (which the chef doesn’t want to divulge).

But then Taub approached Lyon Bakery owner Alan Hakimi about hoagie rolls.

“When he brought me that roll, it immediately came to reality that I could open a sandwich shop in D.C. because I’ve got fresh bread,” Taub says. “I don’t have to try to get it from Amoroso’s [in Philadelphia].”

The rolls you’ll find on the menu today ultimately took months to perfect. Hakimi knew that if he could please a true Philadelphian like Taub, the roll would be a hit with others as well. So to research the ideal bread, Hakimi went to Philadelphia and visited sub shops, mom-and-pop spots, and bakeries. “Where didn’t I go?” he says. The baker claims that when he tastes a piece of bread, he can immediately break down its flavors and ingredients in his mind: “I’m not joking, like the Matrix, I see it.”

Hakimi and Taub went back and forth several times about the dimensions, flavor, and density. “Every week, he would bring me a new batch,” Taub says. “Finally, he brought me a bag, and I was like, ‘Dude, this fucking bread is amazing.’” The rolls—crusty on the outside, soft on the inside—brought Taub back to his days at Lee’s Hoagie House and Slack’s Hoagie Shack.

While not every client requires quite this level of custom treatment, Lyon Bakery supplies bread to more than 600 local restaurants, hotels, catering companies, and even British Airways and Lufthansa for their first class passengers. If you’ve ever had a sandwich at Tryst, Jetties, or Duke’s Grocery, you’ve tried their products.

About a year ago, Lyon Bakery relocated from Southwest D.C. to an 85,000-square-foot warehouse in Hyattsville. The commercial mixers they use are each capable of holding more than 500 pounds of dough at a time. The large ovens look like homes in a trailer park. And up to 70,000 pounds of custom-milled flour is stored in silos two stories tall.

Alan Hakimi

Despite the size of the 150-employee operation, Hakimi touts his bread as artisanal. Unlike other mass-production factories where the dough may never touch human hands, Lyon Bakery portions its dough into small batches that bakers fold by hand to develop its strength. Conveyor belt machines specifically made for artisan breads mimic the way a baker would cut and shape the dough and let it rest on cloth. Rather than rushing dough into a proofing oven to rise (as some commercial bakeries do), Lyon Bakery lets some doughs first rest on wood trays in a refrigerated retarder that helps develop the bread’s flavor.

While fancy equipment helps do the work, “the methodology here is the old methodology,” Hakimi says. “Whether I mix 50 pounds or I mix 500 pounds, my method hasn’t changed. I’m still baking in a small batch form and allowing it to rest for three, four, as many hours as it needs.”

Beyond the process, part of the appeal for chefs like Taub is that Lyon Bakery uses only natural ingredients, no preservatives or artificial additives. “My bread molds,” Hakimi says as a point of pride.

Hakimi started baking as a one-man operation in 1995, when he opened a small retail shop on Wisconsin Avenue NW. “I ended up selling it because I lost everything I had,” he says.

In 2000, he and two friends started Lyon Bakery with Taberna del Alabardero as their first account. The bakery had a single oven and mixer at the time, and Hakimi recalls working 16-hour days and steaming up the windows of his car with seats full of bread deliveries.

Over the years, he’s grown the company and familiarized himself with French, American, Italian, and German baking disciplines. Lyon Bakery currently offers more than 250 different products—from cheddar-jalapeño rolls to sourdough baguettes—so chances are there’s already a recipe that will meet a restaurant’s demands.

But like he did for Bub and Pop’s, Hakimi also took a particular interest in customizing bread for Slipstream in Logan Circle. Owners Ryan Fleming and Miranda Mirabella were looking for the perfect loaf for their San Francisco-inspired artisanal toast and met with a bunch of bakers before deciding on Lyon. Fleming had a long list of criteria: The bread had to be dense and substantial enough to be a meal on its own. He wanted a pullman loaf shape. And he didn’t want a totally neutral, bland flavor, but it also had to work with multiple toppings.

The bakery went through three to four iterations with different fermentation times and flavor adjustments before they got to the right product. Fleming describes the final result as a close relative to a pain au levain.

“[Hakimi] just called us and said, ‘I’ve got it. Come down,’” Fleming recalls. When they arrived at the bakery, Hakimi showed them the raw dough and walked them through the whole process. “He sat there and just stared at the oven for whatever it was, 45 minutes, watching it and being like, ‘Alright, look, now it’s starting to turn a little bit more brown,’” Fleming says. “Seeing his excitement was so great.”

Back at the factory, Hakimi spreads out a range of breads for examination, including a slightly smaller version of the Bub and Pop’s hoagie roll.

“Feel that softness,” he says. Almost like memory foam, the bread bounces back when you press on it. “Break it and smell it,” he says cutting a roll in two and then pressing it to his nose and inhaling it as if it were a fine wine. “It has a nice smell to it.”

Hakimi notes that if you leave the bread out, it becomes crunchy on the outside. Because we don’t have two to four hours to test that out, he jogs the loaf across the factory to the oven. After two minutes, he jogs it back. “The whole experience changes. You’re going to end up with a product that’s ultra light and crispy,” he says.

Hakimi says if that crunch is even a little bit off, Taub will call him. “He’s very particular, but I love that because that pushes me, and I never shy away from it.”

But if anyone’s a fanatic about bread, Taub says it’s Hakimi.

“He’s so into bread,” the chef says. “You want to talk about a hardcore bread nerd? That’s him.”

More from the Sandwich Issue: 15 Sandwiches You’ve Gotta Try

Photos by Darrow Montgomery