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Bobby Sweet's back has been aching. So when he hefts a 50-pound sack of Old Warrior flour onto his shoulder, his gait becomes that of a sailor treading the slippery deck of a ship at sea. Stopping at a designated spot in the backroom of the bakery, he bends his knees and twists his torso in one motion, letting the weight slide through his arms to the floor. He then pulls a single thread from the top flap and opens the sack, releasing a small white cloud into the air. Flour settles on everything at the bakery. Sweet is no exception. His white shirt and trousers camouflage it, but his face is smudged with the stuff, his work boots dusted.
At a nearby table, Tim Rakel digs into a batch of chocolate-chip cookie dough with an ice-cream scoop and plops dollops onto a baking sheet. It's a methodical process: 15 cookies on a tray, 12 trays per rack. He keeps at it until the mound of brown dough has disappeared. The sheets are then placed in the oven, on racks that revolve like a Ferris wheel, for eight minutes. While the cookies are being prepared, Sweet adds flour, water and yeast to two steel kettles. Like the oven, the dough mixers are more than 50 years old. When their switches are flipped, they begin to hum and clang as their electric motors turn dough hooks as long as a man's arm. After the kneading, the 80-pound batches of bread dough are heaved up onto the tabletop and allowed to rise.
Sweet and Rakel are part of a renaissance in the age-old art of baking. Whole wheat and organic grains are more popular than ever, with restaurants offering fresh-baked items on their menus and specialty breads taking up more shelf space in supermarkets. Handmade loaves of rye and pumpernickel now fill the shelves once dominated by bland, mass-produced white bread. Factory-packaged products, hermetically sealed in multiple layers of plastic, are being replaced by real food. In this respect, Black Bear Bakery, at 2903 S. Jefferson Ave., is little different from other small bakeries competing for a niche in this burgeoning market. The baking process is much the same and the ingredients are similar -- but there are differences in the way the bread is made here.
Sweet and Rakel don't have a boss, and they don't punch a clock. Instead, management decisions and work schedules are made jointly by all eight employees, most of whom are anarchists. Their bread label may show a smiling bruin astride a bicycle, but the bakery's mission statement defines itself as an "anti-authoritarian, anti-ideological collective" that "challenges division-of-labor and capital-based hierarchical business." Aside from producing healthy, affordable food, one of the bakery's primary objectives is "to organize and embrace anarchic grassroots agitation, information and action."
It's 10:40 a.m. on Tuesday as Mark Bohnert swings the bakery's Ford Astro minivan into an alley off South Grand Avenue and stops at the rear of the Mangia Italiano restaurant. Poking his fist through the security grates, he knocks, and a kitchen helper opens the door. Bohnert carries in a load of bread and begins negotiating an overdue bill of more than $450, raising his voice to be heard over blaring hip-hop music. The cook calls the owner, who lives upstairs, but returns empty-handed. The owner is still asleep, he says -- come back later. There will be no payment today from this account.
Bohnert then drives down Grand to South Side National Bank, where he deposits the receipts he did collect on the morning delivery run. He climbs the marble stairs, stepping beneath an arch into a bank lobby that could pass for the set of a Depression-era heist movie. The place smells of money and possesses the traditional trappings of wealth: a shiny steel vault, an armed guard, high ceilings, ornate lamps, gilded tellers' cages and arched windows with cornices molded in the shape of birds of prey.
From his perspective, Bohnert has just invaded the heart of the predatory beast. Filling out the bank slips, making deposits and collecting unpaid debts are necessary compromises of his beliefs. He grudgingly admits to accepting the realities of the market economy, but he has no compunction about criticizing its failures.
"Things would be so different if we didn't have the profit motive," Bohnert says. "The whole system distorts our ideals. It forces us to make these sickening compromises." Bottom-line considerations have compelled the bakery to defer installation of more energy-efficient equipment and to use fewer organic ingredients because of their expense. For Bohnert, the bakery is a step in the right direction, but it's far from being a panacea. "It's not ideal," he says. "It's about making the best of our lives within the capitalist system."
As he's leaving the bank parking lot, almost as an afterthought, Bohnert mentions that the first bank robbers to employ a getaway car were French anarchists in the early part of the 20th century. The day-to-day running of the bakery may not be as romantic, but it is no less steeped in history.
When Black Bear first opened its doors, two-and-a-half years ago, it operated as the City of Little Bread. The name comes from the original title of Washington University labor historian David Burbank's 1957 book on the St. Louis general strike of 1877. During the strike, immigrants with socialistic and anarchistic leanings took over the city. After police quelled the upheaval, St. Louis businessmen reacted by organizing the Veiled Prophet parade as a means of recapturing the hearts and minds of the rebellious masses.