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Got bread' Get it fresh

-baked here

Montana-based chain puts a bun in Medford oven

Let's get one thing straight right away: Great Harvest Bakery is a chain, a chain based in Dillon, Mont., with more than 150 stores.

Not that you'd know it by walking into its new location at Genessee and Jackson streets in Medford.

The first clue that it's not your typical chain is likely to be the thick slice of honey whole wheat bread you're handed. It's made from grain ground in the basement and kneaded by hand in full view of the customers. Then it's baked daily -- during business hours -- in an oven that takes up a good chunk of the building that used to be Rogue Federal Credit Union's Home Loan Center.

But beyond the bread is an approach to managing chains that is quite un-chain like.

They let you create a bakery around your personality and your community, says Lisa Allen, who owns the Medford location with her husband, Dan.

The Allens' creation is a homey, energetic place with a large mural of a boy eating bread and the company's mission statement hand-painted around the room: Be loose and have fun. Bake phenomenal bread. Run fast to help customers. Give generously to others.

Despite the emblazoning of the company line on the walls, each bakery is largely independent. The chain does have controls in place to ensure such things as the quality of the grain used.

But the idea is that it's there to support rather than dictate to the individual stores. It provides long-term trainers to teach owners and employees the finer points of bread making. Owners are linked electronically to share ideas, struggles and other information -- a feature that made the company the subject of a national advertising campaign put together by Microsoft, the company's software supplier.

Aside from the trademark honey whole wheat, each location owner decides what kind of bread to bake and how the bakery is going to look and run. And the expansion into a new market like Medford is instigated by the would-be owner, not the chain.

They pick the people and the people pick the place, says Lisa, who spent five years as the chain's marketing director.

The Allens, both 34, chose Medford because it was close to Lisa's family (she's from Williams, Calif.) and because they saw a good market for the business.

We felt there was a need, says Dan, a former fly-fishing guide.

They also thought Medford would be a good place to raise their children: 2-year-old Natalie and 15-month-old Bradley.

We like Medford because it's close to family but not a big city, Lisa says. It had all the elements for a place we wanted to live.

And they say they're determined to make the bakery what the community wants. They're planning to try breads customized for a Rogue Valley palate.

Something with pears, Lisa says, because we think that's an important part of this community.

For now, the bakery's varieties -- which rotate throughout the week -- will include the honey whole wheat, Dakota (a seed bread), cheddar garlic, raisin cinnamon walnut, apple crunch, harvest white, nine grain, Oregon herb, cranberry orange, pesto and sundried tomato. All the bread is made daily, with the unsold bread donated to charity at the end of the day. The bakery will also feature fresh muffins, scones, cinnamon rolls and cookies as well as Mellelo coffee.

Great Harvest has developed followings in other Oregon cities, including Portland, Corvallis and Eugene, where the Allens worked briefly before coming to Medford.

Count Medford's Anne Guevara among the fans. She stopped in at the bakery Wednesday -- two days before it opened -- just to express her excitement. Her son Greg, who attends the University of Oregon, introduced her to the Eugene location.

We go there every time we go up for the Ducks' football games, she says, adding that one of Greg's Christmas presents from her last year was Great Harvest gift certificates. She says the quality of the bread and the upbeat atmosphere are what won her over.

It's almost a bakery experience.

Great Harvest employees, from left, Tim Peterson, Stephen Jensen and Ian Kidd knead dough for honey wheat bread. The chain's motto: 'Be loose and have fun. Bake phenomenal bread.' - Photo by Jim Craven