The Longhorn Behind San Antonio’s Bakery Lorraine’s Unlikely Path to Success

 

Even on a late Monday afternoon in the dog days of summer, Bakery Lorraine, located in San Antonio’s historic Pearl District, is bustling. A gaggle of kids, straight from a nearby splash pad, drag in bright beach towels and press their faces up against a case full of macarons and other sweet treats, while a group of businessmen order off the lunch menu, which features items like crushed herb pistou tabbouleh and egg salad tartine.

“On Saturdays, the line is out the door,” co-owner Charlie Biedenharn, MBA ’15, tells me, with a slight grin and wide eyes, as if he’s a little bit surprised himself. Not because he doesn’t believe in the product he’s selling—“so good, right?” he asks after every bite of macaron (admittedly, yes)—but because his path to success wasn’t a traditional or particularly easy one.

Biedenharn, 35, is tall, tattooed, and affable. He has a detail-focused mind for business and operations, but holds an undergraduate degree in English and a philosophy minor from University of the Incarnate Word, so he likes to ponder the big picture, too. “I could never have imagined the road that life would take me over the [past] eight years,” he says. “If you would have told me that a quarter of it would have happened, I would have told you that you were lying.”

Eight years isn’t an arbitrary number; it’s the duration of Biedenharn’s sobriety after nearly a decade of “misadventures,” as he puts it. At the age of 13, Biedenharn had already tried marijuana when he learned something shocking: Both of his parents (then divorced) were HIV positive. His father, Charles O. Biedenharn, BA ’76, who struggled with addiction, had unknowingly given it to his mother, Deborah, when Biedenharn was four years old.

From an arrest at 16 for drunk driving where police found drugs in his car to a Percocet addiction that developed after wisdom tooth surgery when he was a freshman at Prescott College in Arizona,  Biedenharn’s toxic relationship with drugs lasted through his mid-20s. During that time, he did multiple stints in rehab but struggled to stay sober.

In 2007, his mother died of throat cancer, and in 2009, his father (then sober and a major source of support for Biedenharn) was hospitalized for Legionnaires’ disease. Finally, Biedenharn hit his breaking point, and decided to get clean.

Biedenharn is candid about his struggle. “There’s really not much that’s off limits,” he says. “I’m an open book.” Recently, a friend revealed to Biedenharn that she was going through a rough time when she stumbled upon a profile of him in San Antonio Magazine. “It motivated me to quit drinking and get my life together,” she told him. For Biedenharn, that interaction reaffirmed exactly why he shares his story in the first place. “Whatever stigmas you go through or receive or any hardship you’re experiencing,” he says, “you’re still moving if you’re still breathing.”

 

In 2011, two years into his sobriety, Biedenharn was splitting time between his native San Antonio and New York city, when his then-girlfriend connected him with Jeremy Mandrell and Anne Ng, a couple who had recently moved to San Antonio after meeting at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery in Napa Valley, where they both worked as pastry chefs. The three hit it off at dinner, and Biedenharn headed back to New York with some interest in investing in the two chefs, but nothing concrete. Meanwhile, Mandrell and Ng started selling pastries at San Antonio’s Quarry farmers market. “By the time I got back in town a couple weeks later, they had amassed this cult following,” Biedenharn remembers. “And so I was like ‘OK, yeah, absolutely. I’m in.’”

By 2012, Mandrell, Ng, and Biedenharn had opened up a brick-and-mortar store at a 1,200- square-foot craftsman house not far from where Bakery Lorraine sits today. Despite their success at the farmers market, though, the original Bakery Lorraine was barely taking in $1,000 per day. “We were all overworked, and we weren’t making any money at all,” Biedenharn remembers. Not long after opening, Bakery Lorraine was invited to move into a space at Pearl, and that’s when things turned around.

“We got very lucky to be invited into Pearl,” Ng says. “That changed the game for us.” From Pearl’s perspective, Bakery Lorraine was a great fit for the curated, revitalized historic neighborhood comprised of luxury apartments, restaurants, independent retailers, and a twice-weekly farmers market. “The quality is amazing,” Pearl Chief Marketing Officer Elizabeth Fauerso says. “The team is so creative in combining the classic principles of French baking and culinary techniques with inventive ingredients and culturally relevant creativity—like [San Antonio] Spurs macarons.”

But moving into the new space wasn’t so simple for Biedenharn. He was one year into his Texas Evening MBA Program at McCombs, commuting to Austin every Monday and Tuesday night for classes and then right back to San Antonio once they ended. Biedenharn says his work-life balance at the time was “almost catastrophic,” especially during the last six months of the 2 1/2-year program, when his father was admitted back into intensive care-—he eventually died from respiratory failure in June of 2015. (Although not before a livestream of UT’s graduation ceremony enabled him to watch his son walk across the stage to receive his diploma from his hospital bed.)

“I really wanted to get into the heart of business,” Biedenharn explains of his decision to go back to school. “A lot of it I could learn experientially, but I think some of the more esoteric areas, some of the more technical hard skills … you have to be taught how to do it. And I wanted to know it, so at the very least I could know how to hire the right people or know when I’m not doing something right.”

So far, Biedenharn seems to be doing most things right. Nearly three years into moving to  Pearl, business and operations are humming along smoothly. “Big knock on wood,” Biedenharn laughs. “There’s not as much of a house of cards as it was a year or two ago, when it was like ‘oh man that piece of equipment better not break because if it does we are screwed.’”

Which isn’t to say the Bakery Lorraine team, who opened a second location in San Antonio’s Medical Center last year, isn’t staying busy. In addition to plans for two more locations by 2018, this past July, Ng, Mandrell, and Biedenharn opened a doughnut stall, Maybelle’s Donuts, at the Bottling Department, San Antonio’s first-ever food hall.

The expansion is spearheaded by Biedenharn, who Ng and Mandrell say is skilled at pushing them into uncomfortable positions that lead to growth. “He just tells us how much more pastry we need,” Mandrell laughs. “We have a couple of weeks where we’re uncomfortable and then it becomes normal, and [we’re saying], ‘OK you were right, Charlie.’”

As for Biedenharn, he’s trying not to forget to take a moment to soak it all in. “I certainly don’t feel like I have any laurels to sit back and rest on or anything,” he says. “But sometimes when I do take a breath and look at all the different irons I have in the fire it’s like, ‘Wow, how did I get here?’”

Credits, from top: Kimberly Davis, Misha Hettie (2)

 
 
 

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