Spotlight on Freelancer Robert Lillegard
FT freelancer Robert Lillegard hams it up for the camera, while Michael, the baker and "taller more handsome brother," tries to ignore him.
Since opening its retail outlet last September, Duluth’s Best Bread appears to be settling into a rhythm.
“Michael hasn’t said ‘I hate my life’ for a month now,” older brother and part owner of the Minnesota bakery Robert Lillegard, 30, quips about the math-whiz-turned baker.
When asked how many hours he works in a day, Michael, 25, “the taller, handsomer brother” answers, “I can tell you when I don't work—5 p.m. to 9 p.m.” Some recalculations in his head and he adds that sometimes he falls asleep in the back room from 3 to 5 a.m. His sleeping accommodations, hidden behind the bakery’s bright turquoise door, include a sleeping bag and a pillow in a pink Disney princess pillowcase, which was most likely left behind when his sister moved out of the family home.
It’s the tradition of the Lillegard boys, Robert points out, to live with their parents long past prime time. “I didn’t leave til I got married,” he adds to prove his point.
The story about the Lillegard brothers’ rise to bakery owners is full of one-liners and verbal sparring, but they’re very serious about their bread. Michael is the majority owner, which according to his brother is why he’s “employee of the month,” every month. “I can’t outvote him,” Robert says.
The responsibilities are divided, with Robert, who is a freelance writer and cookbook author (you can read his "Living Large" column in Franchise Times all year long), heading up the marketing and PR efforts. “The problem with writing,” he says, “is you have to do it to get paid.” With a bakery, he adds, other people do the work.
Right now those “other people” are his brother and a part-time baker.
On the day I visited the bakery in the Lincoln Park area of Duluth, Robert, who had other appointments, was dressed in a suit. Michael was wearing a flour-dusted, black chef’s coat and a tired expression. A steady stream of customers filled the small reception area for the bakery’s limited retail hours: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Thursdays only.
Michael got his start in the bread business when he convinced his father, a sports orthopedic surgeon, to build a brick pizza oven in their backyard. The original intent was to make pizza, but as the bricks cooled down from 800-degrees, “we decided to make copious amounts of bread,” Michael says. It didn’t take long to realize that 30 loaves were more than the family of four could eat.
Robert greeted each customer with an exuberance only eight hours of sleep can buy you. Customers responded in kind, telling him they’d had his bread in a restaurant and were happy to find they could buy it themselves. “Are you going to be open more hours soon?” one customer asked. “We hope not,” Robert replied jovially.
While Michael is proud of the bread, Robert is proud of the name. The logo, a round circle stamped with Duluth’s Best Bread, tends to ambiguous. Is it an award they won, or their name? Only time—and publications that put out “best of” lists—will tell.