Fresh locale - Bakery to open branch on Third Street
Baker Aran Buzzas prepares to load a cart of Le Petit Outre's Birdman bread into a new walk-in convection oven at the bakery's Third Street location on Sunday afternoon. Photo by LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian

About 12 years ago, Leif Bjelland, owner of Le Petit Outre bakery in Missoula, had finally winnowed his career choices to cabinet making or bread making.

Both hands-on professions involved science and creativity, which appealed to Bjelland and were important career-choice criteria.

So deciding between the two was difficult until Bjelland came across one little tidbit during his exhaustive research.

"I was reading an article about the baking business and it said the business was essentially recession-proof because everyone has to eat," Bjelland said.

Given today's teetering national economy, Bjelland said he's pleased he paid heed to that nugget of information and chose bread.

Not only did he find his life's calling, but he's excited to expand his already successful operation even in these uncertain economic times.

This week, Le Petit is up and running out of its massive new 8,500-square-foot second location on Third Street near Caras Nursery and Landscaping.

While putting his high-tech new baking ovens through test runs on Sunday, Bjelland talked about his grand vision.

The building, which originally served as a dairy, then later housed Bayern Brewery, will now be used to make the bulk of his delicious hand-crafted french breads and pastries.

At the new site, expect to find among the usual selection of crusty loaves and butter-rich treats new items the bakery will be trying and testing. The facility will also have separate retail space for Big Dipper Ice Cream and be home to Mexatana tortillas, the Corvallis-based tortilla company Bjelland recently negotiated to buy.

Eventually, there will be an outdoor eating area and Bjelland said he's still tinkering with the concept of offering a cafe menu and service.

There's still much renovation work to be done on the building, and for the next several weeks only Le Petit's baking business will be at full operation.

Le Petit's Hip Strip location on Fourth Street will remain open to serve the downtown community - and because most of the baking equipment and baking operations will move to Third Street, the downtown store will expand its retail offerings, Bjelland said.

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"I'm pretty enthusiastic about all of this," he said. "It's an exciting time."

His business, which has maintained a growth of 20 percent to 30 percent annually, now has the room to grow even more robust.

The expansion has meant hiring more employees, and Le Petit currently employs 32 people and has 25 full-time positions.

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If all goes well, there will likely be more jobs and more people to hire.

"This new location really lets us take that next step and grow," Bjelland said. "I think there is a magical component when industry is attached to a neighborhood in this way, and my hope is this industry - baking - will be a family-friendly place to gather and become a distinctive landmark for this neighborhood."

One of the many perks that come with the new facility is the luxury of space.

For the first time, Bjelland won't have to share his office with five people - nearly everyone gets their own office. There's an employee lounge, complete with a locker room and a full-service bathroom, which means employees who choose to bicycle or run to work can shower at the facility.

As the smell of fresh-baked bread wafted from the shiny new walk-in convection ovens filled with loaves of Birdman Bread, Bjelland smiled at the thought of how far his dreams have taken him.

"When I started this, I had two major goals," Bjelland said. "I couldn't wait for the time when I would see someone walking down the street with a bag of my bread and rip the top off a baguette and eat it on their way home or wherever they were going.

"When I saw that, I was with my wife, Susan, and we were driving over the Higgins Avenue Bridge - it was so cool.

"My other goal is for this business to become an institution - to stay beyond my time and be an integral part of this community.

"I'm hoping that will happen."

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