PORTLAND, Maine — Bread rises in the former firehouse, as it has since the early 1900s. The temperature hits 105 degrees. During scorching summer days, the hottest place in Portland is Botto’s Bakery, at the corner of Washington Avenue and Randall Street.
Inside the maximum-volume Italian factory, bread dough is fed into machines, cut, proofed and stretched. Every few minutes a giant rotary oven spits out trays of hamburger buns. Exiting in steamy gusts of heat, a fast-working crew places them on racks and wheels them away to cool. A few minutes later, out comes a new batch. The cycle repeats.
Overseeing the process that plays out night after night is Stephen Mathews, the second-generation owner of the family-run bakery founded in 1949. Chances are if you’ve had a lobster roll or hamburger, sandwich or sub in southern Maine, you’ve tried Botto’s. It supplies rolls to 20 clam shacks, but delis and sandwich shops are its bread and butter.
Mathews, whose father, Bob Mathews, bought the bakery in 1982, regularly zips around the facility, shaping loaves, hoisting mounds of dough and pulling out toasty brown buns from ovens with unshakeable steadiness. No move is wasted.
To see Stephen Mathews in action, who co-runs the bakery with his brother Bob Mathews, is to see someone earn his living by the sweat of his brow.
“It’s very demanding,” said Stephen Mathews, who works 13-hour days and gets an average of three hours of sleep per night.
How does he do it?
“Coffee,” he said, pointing to an ever-present travel mug.
During the summer, when restaurants from Taste of Maine to DiMillo’s are at their peak, so is Botto’s. Before the night is through, 500 loaves of Italian bread, 500 loaves of deli bread, 800 dozen sub rolls and 300 dozen hamburger rolls are baked.
Come morning, supermarkets and restaurants from Woolwich to Biddeford, about 200 wholesale customers in total, receive a fresh Botto’s bounty.
The brothers “wear about 10 hats, and if you can’t find them shaping and kneading dough, you can find them running the ovens, fixing machines, mixing recipes, or sweeping up after all the other employees have left,” said Jessica Mathews, pastry manager and Bob Mathews’ daughter. “They both work roughly 100 hours a week in the summer.”
To Stephen Mathews, who started working at the bakery when he was 10, bread, like any family business, is baked in his DNA.
“I’m making a product that people enjoy,” he said without breaking his work rhythm.
It keeps him firing away six days per week.
Moving from a white bread focus to more healthful options such as marble rye and multigrain has boosted Botto’s sales. The buy-local Maine economy also helps, enabling the Portland family to employ more than 20 people. But when someone doesn’t show up for work, the brothers jump in. They bake, slice, bag and drive bread to its destination.
“It’s hard to find skilled help that want to work these hours,” said Stephen Mathews, 53. “That’s the challenging part.”
Family helps. Stephen Mathews’ brother handles financials, and his four children work at the bakery. Checking in together about 6 p.m., his 18 year-old triplets, Shannon, Erin and Colleen Mathews, go straight to work.
“I like it, it’s very family connected,” said Shannon Mathews, stretching rows of wheat sandwich rolls.
While other bakeries are closing, Botto’s is rising. Business is brisk, up over last year.
Though not rolling in dough, “it’s a living. I have four kids in college. It pays the bills,” said Stephen Mathews.
Amid the Maine artisan food boom, Botto’s stands out in its indifference to food accolades and James Beard nods. It’s industrial, authentic and real. Feeding the masses.
Though it’s unrelenting, and unglamorous, Stephen Mathews is unfazed.
“I’ve been doing it long enough I kind of ignore it,” he said in a sweat-drenched T-shirt. “The sooner we get done, the sooner we get to go home.”