(Joelle McKenna & Yuval Haker)
Dec 21, 2020
A new eatery rises from the crumbs of SCRATCHbread
7 Grain Army picks up where the beloved Bed-Stuy bakery left off five years ago.
October 14th, 2015 was a heartbreaking day for many Brooklyn residents: SCRATCHbread, “everyone’s favorite Bed-Stuy bakery,” that paired an anti-establishment attitude with ethereal baked goods, had closed. Mornings spent waiting on line for dense loaves studded with bourbon-soaked currants, grits topped with soft eggs and smoked romesco sauce, and chai sticky buns were over. Grub Street called the bakery “inventive and rightfully acclaimed.”
The founder Matthew Tilden went out with a poem. “I don’t want to take this from you, honestly / but I can’t fix it myself,” he began. His verses were mostly laments for the grueling financial burden of running a small restaurant business in New York City, but he also left us with a hopeful hint that SCRATCHbread would return somehow, “after the flour has settled.”
It seems the time has come: 7 Grain Army will open for business any day now as a take-out window on the corner of Roebling and North 7th in Williamsburg, rising from the crumbs of SCRATCHbread. Their first foray will be to sell pre-orders for pick-up and offer samples to those that swing by. Think of it as an evolution—a wellness bakery with a long game strategy.
F is for muFin
For this new venture, Tilden is partnering with fellow chef Jeffrey Olsen. The duo met in 2012 when Olsen, at the time a burnt out event producer and baking hobbyist, responded to a Facebook post from Tilden who was looking for someone to help wash dishes at SCRATCHbread. “He was like hey, if you don’t have a job, I need someone to come in and wash dishes. I’ll feed you well, I’ll pay you well, and I might even give you a job,” Olsen recalls. “I wound up going in and washing dishes for a day and…”
“And he killed it,” Tilden interrupts. “Eventually he became my right-hand guy at the shop.”
After SCRATCHbread closed, Tilden spent a year on the road followed by an extended trip to Bali while Olsen went on to hone his chef chops at places like High Street on Hudson and Meyers Bageri. They reconnected soon after Tilden’s return to start working on consulting projects together, including the menu at Bed-Stuy’s Maya Congee Café and an array of Vietnamese-inspired snacks and sweets for Bushwick’s High Low Beverage Co.
The vegan banana muffin that they developed for the latter—which is made with a signature gluten-free flour blend and underripe banana in place of butter for its streusel topping, then baked in a banana leaf for added flavor and moisture—is the prototype for what they’re launching with at 7 Grain Army: a line of seven plant-based muFins packed with whole grains. (That’s not a typo; 7 Grain Army spells “muffin” with just one capital F “because F cake for breakfast, that’s basically what muffins are, and honestly our muffins are different,” Tilden explains.)
Plant-based diets are significantly more mainstream now than they were back in the SCRATCHbread days. And yet what most customers didn’t realize is that although SCRATCHbread served eggs and sometimes bacon, the majority of the menu was vegan. The same will be true at 7 Grain Army.
“I hate labels and we hate limitations. We don’t want judgment at all,” Tilden says.
Still, they realize that their expertise in vegan cooking is a strength. “We’re speaking people’s language, what they want to hear now,” he adds.
The driving purpose of 7 Grain Army is not to make vegan food taste good with bad-for-you ingredients nor to force carb lovers to drink smoothies every day, but to provide healthy alternatives to what people crave. That includes kids, too. Tilden is particularly passionate about educating children to have a healthier relationship with food, citing how his own childhood in Southern California was marked by fast food and fattening frozen meals. 7 Grain Army even has a mascot, a black bean superhero equipped with a powerful belt and a brown rice staff, to encompass the brand.
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In addition to the banana, they’ll have a corn muFin made with Anson Mills’ roasted corn flour and studded with jalapeños, a carrot-ginger-turmeric version that incorporates quinoa and pecan flour from Texas, and blueberry-oat flavored with Anita’s coconut yogurt. Customers will be able to buy singles or packs and get them toasted and topped with house-whipped tahini, cultured butter, hot honey, jam, or even a scoop of SCRATCHbread’s beloved smoked romesco sauce.
For Brooklyn, by Brooklyn
Tilden and Olsen are full of ideas, but they’re also focused on being a place that genuinely serves the neighborhood. “We want to find out what they want, and give it to them,” Tilden says. They hope not only to feed people, but also interact, ask questions, and shape their menu based on that feedback. Over time, 7 Grain Army will roll out quick wraps with homemade tortillas, a Caesar grain bowl made with fonio—a nutritious West African grain that chefs like Pierre Thiam and JJ Johnson have been championing in New York—and whole-grain pizzas.
7 Grain Army’s end goal is the freezer aisle.
“We want to be valuable to [our customers] in any context and just make life easier for them,” Olsen says. If Brooklyners can grab their muFins—or build-your-own pizza shells—at the grocery store, “they can have a really nice meal, they don’t even have to leave the house, and it’s ready in five minutes.”
If anything, the last 10 months have made it clear that a forward-thinking vision with multiple revenue streams and a sustainable labor model is a necessity for long-term survival in the restaurant industry. “The pandemic made us really double down our vision of what a business in food should be right now,” Tilden says. “We want to be a really good asset to people, but not be in the food model where you need a ton of labor to make a couple of cents.”
The plan is to start small with the take-out window and grow thoughtfully, bolstered by community support. Locals and fans who are interested in contributing to 7 Grain Army’s success can give anywhere from a hundred to several thousand dollars to their Mainvest campaign and receive a return on their investment in a few years.
“I’ve been sick of restaurants for twelve-plus years,” Tilden says. “And that’s why I started SCRATCH. It was the anti-restaurant, with dope food. You can get it in a paper cup, outside of the window, whatever, that was my freestyle way of doing it.”
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