Baking Bread With A Mission

in Zurich, Switzerland

Jens Jung did not just realise his dream when he opened the organic bakery John Baker; he created a place where he can follow his calling. His mission: to show people what good food really means.

«Is Jens here yet?» – «No, not yet,» says a man with a black cap perched on his blonde hair. Behind him, four other people are working in a practiced way with bread in its various stages. A woman is making sandwiches; a man puts dough in the oven, while another kneads. It’s 7 o’clock on a Saturday morning. At 7:30, Zurich’s organic bakery John Baker opens its doors. I barely have time to look around before the boss, Jens Jung, appears behind the counter – he’s hard to miss. He is tall and slim, wears a white shirt and jeans with what is apparently the John Baker uniform: white sneakers, a dark blue and white striped apron and a beard. The latter is neatly trimmed, maybe a week old, reaches up to his cheekbones and already contains quite a few grey hairs. But first, coffee is served from the white Dalla Corte Pro, their own special house blend supplied by Stadtrösterei Stoll, local coffee roasters. A sign near the coffee machine says: «Bring your own cup = -50 Rp.»

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The organic supplier drops by like he does every day, because John Baker’s storage space is small, just like the shop itself. The supplier would like to take the empty boxes straight back with him, but one is still full of oranges. «Relax, it’s still early,» sighs Jens, but kindly. And the supplier can’t be too stressed, because he finds a few minutes to spend at the counter near the entrance with an espresso. «Sexy Boy» by Air is on the radio. Jens Jung carries wooden folding chairs out to the square in front of the bakery.

They have had permission to put out chairs since yesterday. «We were fined once, because I thought it wouldn’t bother anybody if I put some chairs out there.» As though he had forgotten he was in Zurich, where even the most harmless transgressions are often fined. Though in John Baker, it is easy to forget where you are: in a passage in one of Zurich’s most heavily frequented train stations. It’s peaceful in here. The customers form orderly queues, wait patiently because their coffee is made with love, say grüezi – polite Swiss German for hello - and «have a nice day» when they leave. Remarkable. Not for Jens Jung: «I try to be friendly to everything and everyone. And I think I see the effort paying off.»

In Zurich, the name Jung has been connected to bread for years. Jens himself found his way into his father’s business in 2001, when he was 30. He had been a businessman, and had spent a lot of his time working and travelling. Naturally, the idea had been that Jens would eventually take over the Bäckerei Jung from his father. He trained as a master baker – though he didn’t receive a leaving certificate because he hadn’t done the apprenticeship beforehand. «But I did well!» Ten years on, however, the succession still wasn’t clear. So Jens Jung made the momentous decision to leave the family business. «I was already 40 and felt like something needed to change.» He quit with no plans, worked as a freelancer to get by. He opened John Baker with three business partners in December 2013. Since then, his relationship with his father has been tenser than ever.

«I was already 40 and felt like something needed to change.»

8:11. A constant stream of people flows through the passage. The first queue forms at the counter, Jens Jung helps when there are too many customers. Stress? No. One employee, Vanessa, says: «You should see it on a Monday, it’s crazy!» John Baker really has no reason to complain. During the work week, around 1500 people buy their bread there daily. At 6:30 in the evening, they’re usually sold out. And if not, whatever’s left goes to a hostel or to Ässbar, which sells yesterday’s breads and pastries for a low price, or gets turned into biogas. To make their best-selling fruit bread, the bakers use 20 kilos of dried fruits a day. «I’ve had to refuse some potential customers; we just don’t have the capacity to produce so many orders.» The orders, by the way, are delivered quite ecologically by electric bicycle. Now a song by MGMT is on. A bakery with cool music, look at that.

The organic movement isn’t the most lucrative of marketing decisions. You have to be very sure of yourself to make it work. But Jens Jung has a conviction, or as he calls it: his mission. When he talks about it, he’s an extremely convincing speaker. The organic movement is very important to him: «I don’t want to cut off the branch I’m sitting on. People don’t understand that it’s not just about better food. Ten years from now, I still want to see ants and bees.» It’s not about maximising profits, but about not harming the planet. He has the reputation of being a bit of an eco-terrorist amongst his friends, which, he says, isn’t always easy. But Jens Jung can’t go back. Once you’ve taken the step towards awareness, especially awareness of the way we consume, it’s difficult to do otherwise. Jens Jung doesn’t want to go back, on the contrary: «The more I learn about this topic, the more I come across people who think like me. Those are the people I want to work with.»

What else makes John Baker different to all the rest? «So much is unnecessary in the baking industry. Everything is optimised. Centralised production, huge machines, long delivery routes. The bread isn’t fresh.« John Baker swears on in-house production. You can buy a bun and watch the next day’s batch being made. The wheat used is, as Jens Jung says, «healthy». He knows how it was grown, he participates in the process. The wheat – wholegrain – is ground on site, in the shop window.

Ben Howard’s on. Looking around, this could be a bar – only instead of dancing, people are baking and selling bread. Is John Baker the bakery with the best music in the country? If yes, then these three radio stations are responsible: Radio Grrif, FM4 and gds.fm.

So let’s see, what is bread made of? Flour, good. Water. Salt? Exactly. And then there’s yeast, right? A lot of people don’t know that yeast itself is made with flour and water. John Baker doesn’t use ready-made yeast, but, as their website so romantically states: «Our yeast is no speed-cultured genetic monster. On the contrary! Our bakers put on some Marvin Gaye, light scented candles and retire discreetly in order to give the fungi some privacy for their sweet, sweet reproduction.»

Speaking of reproduction: The second John Baker opens this November, in Zurich’s 4th District, which hasn’t seen a good bakery for years. No offence, Happy-Beck, but you do tend to attract more of a «alcohol level over 2 per mille», «it’s past 3 o’clock in the morning» type crowd. When he opened the first John Baker, Jens Jung was cautious and chose an oven that worked efficiently over his ideal machine. Now, with the security of his first success: «I already know which one I want, I just have to order it. I’ve never worked with one like it, but I think it will be great!» He says the dough is essential to the quality of the bread. «The person at the dough machine has a lot of responsibility.»

«I’m not a workaholic, actually I’m lazy. But that doesn’t mean I’m afraid of work. Work just doesn’t define me.»

Jens Jung has taken on more responsibility, too, with the second location. «Really, two shops are already too many,» he grins. He wants to have his hands in the dough whenever possible, at best half of the time. He can imagine not doing all the operative work himself, but leaving the management of one of the shops to an employee. «I’m not a workaholic, actually I’m lazy. But that doesn’t mean I’m afraid of work. Work just doesn’t define me.» His basic idea works best in small, manageable locations: «It’s the simple things that always work.»

A customer asks for a bag. Jens Jung turns around wordlessly and produces an old Migros carrier bag: «You can either take this recycled bag, or buy a new one.» The lady looks him in the eye for a moment, as though to see if he really is serious, then she seems to believe him and takes it. A bag is a bag, after all. A man with dark hair and a strong presence comes behind the counter and nonchalantly packs a few croissants: «I have to bring these to my aunt. I’ve been invited.» It’s Yves Spink, well-known Zurich restauranteur and Jens Jung’s business partner. He stays for a quick chat, then departs to his aunt.

Independence has demanded some tributes of Jens Jung. Rowing, for example, and his relationship, have both been on the back burner in the past two years. So he visits the forest and the mountains whenever he can. He enjoys the uncomplicated Swiss pastimes of hiking in summer and skiing in winter. It seems he’s in need of some down time again now, he has dropped two glasses today already. The employees all look and make a writing movement with their hands: Put this in the text!

Jens Jung will soon be visiting San Francisco on a bakery research trip, so to speak. Not for the first time: «John Baker is the best excuse to organize meetings people I would really like to meet.» Michael Pollan is one of them, a professor of journalism at Berkeley and author of several books on food and nutrition. His book «Cooked» heavily influenced Jung. As did the farmers Hans Brennwalder and Martin Ott. He learned the connections between nature and farming from these two men who he considers his mentors, or perhaps even a kind of benevolent father figures.

Jens Jung’s shift finishes in the afternoon. The queue at the counter is as long as ever, so he stays and helps for a while, making one cappuccino after another. He has been invited out to drinks this evening and needs to wash off the stray flour. And the future? He leaves it open: «I want to work another 15 years, maximum.» Then he might move to his house in Piemont. Or a farm, he always liked that idea: «I can imagine just producing the eggs for John Baker one day, and nothing else,» he says, and says goodbye with a hug. That’s also a rare thing these days.

Want to know more about Jens Jung? Read his Profile