In the kitchen with…
Janis Fleischman and Rachel Saul of fire island rustic bakeshop
Story by Jamey Bradbury • Photography by Photo Arts by Janna
Founder of Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop Janis Fleischman glances up mid-interview and enthusiastically waves a hand. “That’s our friend,” she explains. “He just had a knee replacement.”
The downtown Anchorage bakery enjoys a steady stream of patrons like the one who just walked in – regulars who greet the employees by name and ask after relatives. Owned and operated by Janis, her husband Jerry Lewanksi and their daughter, Rachel Saul, Fire Island has a family atmosphere that arises naturally out of Janis’ interest in the social dynamic that happens around food.
“People want the mythology that we worked and worked until we finally owned a bakery,” she shares. “It just didn’t go that way. Jerry and I have always been very wrapped up in the culture of food – in the family having dinner together, in friends bringing food over when someone’s ill.”
Jerry’s interest led him to enroll at the San Francisco Baking Institute, and Janis tagged along. But there was still no plan for opening a business – until the couple built themselves a wood-fired oven.
“We were baking so much stuff and giving it away,” Janis recalls. “I said, we might as well open a bakery. We thought it would be a sleepy little shop.”
Rachel, seated next to her mom, shakes her head in wonder. “We’ve been growing since the day we opened.”
The shop’s immediate but unexpected success meant Janis and Jerry needed reinforcements. They put out a call for help, and three out of their four children came from Montana, New York and Wasilla to get the shop on its feet. (Their oldest daughter, Marya, was busy raising 18 sled dogs at the time.)
The youngest of the clan, Rachel had a degree in international studies. Once the bakery was running smoothly, she traveled to Africa. But a return to Alaska had her reconsidering her career plans.
“I liked the family bakery so much,” she recalls. Soon, she was enrolling in the same baking program her father had graduated from. “Everybody was super excited and positive, and it’s a beautiful space, with happy people and an incredible product.”
High-quality ingredients are what account for that product – from rustic breads to Parisian macaroons, to croissants and pastries, Fire Island’s bakers use only organic, non-GMO ingredients, and they value authenticity.
“We use about a third less sugar than most recipes call for because we feel like you can taste the other ingredients better that way,” Janis explains.
“We also put a lot of effort into keeping ingredients true to their own flavor,” Rachel adds. “We don’t use dyes or chemicals. We don’t try to fancy stuff up as much as we keep it clean and classic.”
The family also travels extensively, bringing ideas from across the country back to Alaska. “We think Anchorage deserves cutting-edge, avant-garde food,” Janis says. “Alaskans have sophisticated tastes; they should have exposure to great food.”
Recently, a smoked beet salad Janis enjoyed in New York became the inspiration for a new sandwich. Rachel and another baker played with the ingredients and came up with what they thought was a perfect menu item. But a third baker suggested that one change could make the sandwich vegan.
“We were skeptical because the one thing she wanted to change – sour cream – we thought gave the sandwich a nice pop,” Janis recalls. “But she did it. She made a cashew cream we liked even better.”
“It’s super collaborative,” Rachel says of the bustling kitchen, where between 17 and 20 bakers work full time. The owners place a huge amount of trust in their employees. “We give everyone the power to maintain excellence,” says Janis. “If someone on the counter sees a croissant come out and it’s not perfect, then we don’t sell it.”
They do, however, give away baked goods to a number of local schools and shelters – another facet of their business model that endears their customers to them. “We support projects our customers feel passionate about,” explains Rachel, who frequently teaches sustainable foods classes at elementary schools and King Career Center.
Janis and Rachel value their customers’ traditions and cultures, too; patrons see menu items change throughout the year as bakers whip up cookies and breads associated with Greek orthodox holidays, Norwegian Christmas customs or South American tastes.
“We like when food is part of family and history,” Janis says. “Our favorite compliment is when people say, ‘This reminds me of my grandmother.’ ”