Fox & Lion Bread Co. Nourishes the Art of Sourdough

October 1, 2021

Xan Devoss had a sourdough starter well before it was hip, and has been baking bread for as long as she can remember. In 2015, she started Fox & Lion Bread Co. in Bayview-Hunters Point, serving freshly baked whole-grain breads, pizza, and sandwiches, emphasizing the flavor of the grains through a long fermentation process.

A community has grown around the bakery-café, and when the pandemic forced them to close their doors and do takeout-only last year, Fox & Lion joined the Mission Community Market to widen the circle. Through it all, Xan remains deeply committed to making handcrafted, nutrient-dense breads accessible, while supporting local farmers.

We spoke with Xan about Fox & Lion’s pandemic pivot, the reverberations of the home-baking craze, and how sour a whole-grain sourdough ought to be.

CUESA: What led you to start Fox and Lion Bread. Co.?

Xan: The name Fox & Lion comes from my parents’ names, Devoss and Levin. I used to bake bread with my dad, and my mom was a great cook. She never really used recipes, so I think it was instilled in me early on to try to use the best ingredients in the most minimal ways to bring out the flavor.

When my first child was born, I was really into homesteading, fermentation, and making everything from scratch. I had made bread all my life, but I never made sourdough before, so I started playing around with it. Once you end up with a loaf that looks like what you imagined it could look like instead of just a flat brick, it’s pretty addicting. I began baking at home and giving bread away to neighbors and friends, and at some point, somebody said I should do this for a living, and I thought, “I can do that.” At the time, I had been bartending, and I was looking for a way out of that. I started baking at a commercial kitchen and created a CSA-type bread subscription program, then opened the brick-and-mortar.

What values have driven you in shaping your business?

I wanted to be able to show people that that you can make high quality food, but it doesn’t have to be super expensive. I felt that there was a problem with the food system that I buy the same fruit as the store down the street, but they charge five times as much for it. I know they need to pay their employees, but when the consumers have to pay so much, it leaves so many people out. I wanted to make that high quality more accessible for people. I felt I had an opportunity to show people that eating locally is not just for fine dining menus. They actually can have those ingredients on their sandwich.

Can you say more about your grain sourcing and how you work with local farms?

I now get most of my grain from Early Bird Farm, near Placerville. The farmer, Drew Speroni, actually farms and mills the grain. It’s been amazing to work with him. I get all of my rye and grains like purple barley from him. He grows organically and is obsessive about good farming practices. Because they’re milling it right before they bring it to me, the grain is so fresh. If you buy what you think is the best whole-wheat flour at the store, it’s often different grains from different places that have been milled together, then separated and put back together. What I get from Early Bird is the whole grain, so it has all the vitamins. That kind of attention to detail and quality really comes through for people when they try the bread.

What are some challenges you’ve faced as a small business owner, especially since the pandemic?

When I started, I didn’t have a bunch of investors or money, so I just kind of scraped everything together. That was really hard in the beginning, especially when I started bringing on employees, and it was hard to make payroll and still pay all the bills. I didn’t want to just go to the restaurant depot and buy packaged lettuce because that’s easier and cheaper. I just never wanted to cut corners, and I think that’s what makes people really trust you as a business owner.

Last year with COVID, I basically had to create a whole new business within a week. We went from four employees to two, and all of a sudden I was back to working 60-80 hours a week and coming home super late and trying to figure out all the new health directives. I was doing pretty much home schooling my kids the whole time, too. And I was just thinking, “Is this crazy that we’re even open, exposing ourselves and customers?” It was a hard shift, but I think in another way it was actually good for the business because I had to set up an online ordering system.

What has kept me going is the customers, and their need to have a place to go. With people working from home, we had a whole new set of people. The comfort of community was important to them. It kind of became counseling sessions, as people would get out once a day to pick up their coffee and a pastry, and have a few words with us and maybe the people outside. I think it could really change a person’s day around.

Doing the Mission Community Market, as well, has been great for us because it’s just the right size for our production level. To be able to have that extra distribution when it would get a bit slow has been has been helpful for the business.

What would like people at the farmers market to know about your bread and bakery?

We’re a small bakery! I’m actually making the product and baking at 3:00 in the morning. I don’t have the proofing rooms or a big fancy oven, so I’m sort of at the whim of the sourdough. We’re always trying to reach consistency, but because we’re using such fresh flour and fresh ingredients, sometimes they have a mind of their own, so you’re going to get some variation.

A lot of times, people are expecting sourdough to be very sour. But using fresh grains from a local area, you get to think more about the terroir than you do when you buy flour commercially. I’m always striving to bring out the flavor of the grain rather than just to make it very sour. I think that’s where the art of sourdough comes in, when you’re able to control the fermentation so that you can actually taste the different grains. :eople don’t always realize that you can have something that tastes good but doesn’t taste super sour, even though it’s been fermented with a sour starter.

I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to meet people at the farmers market and have a whole new set of regulars who are different people than who I see at the bakery, with some crossover. It’s also been nice for me to be able to have a smaller production for the market, so that I can try out new things, like our Figgy Rye, which uses figs from Arata Farms. I’ve also been getting ingredients from Blue House Farm, Avila Farms, and other farms at the Mission Community Market.

What are your thoughts on the sourdough craze and how it’s evolved over the last year-plus?

I think the baking craze was a way for people to have something to do during the pandemic. People have this nostalgic feeling for baking. It’s much more forgiving than a lot of other hobbies, and you don’t have to leave your house to do it. People are going back to their other hobbies now, but I think some of that interest is going to continue on, especially as we get into winter. If anything, it’s just made people realize how hard bakers work, and they have more of an appreciation of what their local bakery does.

Find Fox & Lion Bread Co. at the Mission Community Market on Thursdays (3-7pm) or 5273 3rd Street, San Francisco.

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