Colorful swirls of paint on the side of the building, hand-painted signage, some of the best bread in Brooklyn—they’re gone now from the corner of Bedford Avenue and Lexington in Bedford-Stuyvesant where SCRATCHbread once was. Owner and baker Matthew Tilden had to shut down the bakery and pickup operation where you could get egg-topped grits in a to-go cup and a vegan ginger cookie in October of 2015 after six years in business. He announced the closure with a poem (“I built this with two hands, a dream and a ton of hard work / but that’s not enough”) and took off across the country, documenting the journey on Instagram and hinting at a book.
It’s been six months since the closure and people still tweet near-daily about how much they miss his food. There are few days that go by when I don’t want to bike over from Crown Heights for a veggie flatbread and cup of Stumptown cold brew to eat on the side of the building, so I too have been watching closely, rooting for him. A whole borough is waiting for him to come back and start again, wondering what the dude who once made our daily bread has been up to.
“Been in the mountains and canyons of Arizona and just came off the Grand Canyon to finish my email to you,” he wrote late last week before telling me when he knew he’d have to shut down the beloved bakery. “I couldn’t believe I was looking at six and a half years of the hardest I’ve ever worked, and looking at the decision of work harder or close, so I refused to sign my five-year lease renewal and threw in the towel,” he says. A combination of debt, structural issues that needed fixing, and managing growth without an investor or partner to unburden some of the load did the business in at the end. SCRATCHbread is unfortunately a cautionary tale for anyone who dares to remain independent in the crowded, hyper-competitive New York City food space.
After closing up shop, he took off, eating, baking, and writing his way through the country. “I’ve written and rewritten my book proposal a hundred times,” he says, and is now hoping his view of food culture will provide its backbone. “It still needs plenty of seasoning, but basically I wanna verbally smash our eating habits into millions of bits,” he says of his goals. SCRATCHbread was always a friendly place for vegetarians and other health-minded folks to go eat, and now he wants to help people reconceive of how they can feed themselves. “I’m hoping to build a metaphorical sandwich with the shit you use now, and then have you build one with the tools, recipes and methods I teach,” he says. “I’m confident you would rather another bite of mine. Most likely it won’t have mayo, meat or cheese—think I have a chance?”
Tilden has never done things the normal way, right down to starting his education. “I put myself on a plane to New York when I was 17 to attend the Culinary Institute of America—never saw the campus before,” he tells me. “I remember the first day in a kitchen class, we had an onion test that you had to cut, dice, julienne an onion with the least amount of waste. Not only was I last, but it looked like I threw mine against the wall before handing it to chef.”
He persevered and ended up cooking at Larry Forgione’s last New York restaurant, An American Place, a hotel in Florida, and a few small Brooklyn restaurants, always considering himself more a savory chef than a baker. “Truth be told, I despise sugar and sweet baked goods. I lean more toward Old-World style and rustic breakfast pastries that are complementary to tea, coffee and hold character on their own, without the sugar, frosting or a ton of butter,” he says. “The breads were built like interactive wholesome meals, not fancy with pretty shapes and names, and if only I had the resources when I started, SCRATCHbread would have been a totally different story.”
That wasn’t the story, though, and since shutting down he’s been using the time to hike and reconnect with other people and himself. “I’m trying to get my health back, trying to survive with no income, debt and bills,” he says, “and also trying to connect with good peoples, like an amazing intern from back in the day I got to spend some time with, driving a couple of hours to meet chef Chris Bianco—we had an amazing chat on food culture, while shoving incredible pizza down my throat, of course.”
It’s a weird, admirable course of action, and an expectedly unpredictable one from the guy who announced his business was closing with a poem. He wants to come back to New York, to Brooklyn, and he’s campaigning to do so—but, ever resourceful, he has a backup plan. “I practically willed SCRATCHbread to work, and it almost killed me,” he says. “I’d just like some structure, a team of talented experienced folk I can build something with. I’ve got so many ideas now, but need to try to work smarter, not harder from now on. If that means I never get to work again in this industry, maybe they need tour guides in Sedona, Arizona.”