Smittybread pauses for a much-needed week off

A fresh batch of Smittybread Jalapeno-Cheddar Sourdough cools off after a recent bake. Smittybread will be closed Aug. 8-Aug. 18 for summer break.

Smittybread will be taking a weeklong break starting with the close of business this Saturday, Aug. 8. The bakery will reopen Wednesday, Aug. 19.

The break comes just before local schools and Purdue University resume in the Lafayette area. Since the coronavirus pandemic began last Spring, Smittybread Bakery has been busier than ever. Despite the general economic slowdown, demand for fresh bread and pastries has remained strong throughout the pandemic. At the same time, finding enough willing and able bodies to produce all these goodies has at times been a challenge.

As the economy picks up steam, we have seen more demand for take-out sandwiches and pre-ordered pastries and breads. We have also resumed and in some cases expanded wholesale delivery of pretzels, sourdough breads, croissants and a couple of specialty items.

This coming week will mark the third anniversary of the bakery’s opening as a commercial bakery, and we are feeling some growing pains.

Since opening three years ago we have learned more sourdough and pastry baking than we ever imagined. As sales have grown, we have pushed the current space to its limits. In order to continue to meet growing demand, we need additional work space, oven space, dry and cold storage space and dining area.

Since our small dining room has remained closed during the pandemic, we have been using it for storage, additional work area, and a break space for employees. Sometime in the hopefully not-to-distant future — when rules regarding social distancing ease and concerns about the coronavirus recede — our dining room will reopen and we’ll have to scramble to find a place for all this stuff. (Just looking around I see two E-Z Up tents, two coolers, a meat slicer, beverage refrigerator, a toaster, printer and gallon of hand sanitizer, a folded tarp and so on.)

During the pandemic our small dining area has been closed to customers, doing service as a storage space, work area and employee break room.

A week off will give us time to recharge the mental batteries. While we enjoy the break, we’ll also miss our customers and regret that they will not be able to find us at the bakery or in attendance at either the West Lafayette or Lafayette farmers markets next week. But we’ll be back before you know it, so cheers to all, and remember: Support local businesses, play it safe, and be kind to yourself and others.

April showers to bring May sourdoughs, pastries

It looks as though the end of April may be a little wet, but with luck the skies will clear in time for our fourth weekly “bake sale” this coming Saturday (May 2) from noon-3 p.m.

There will be an ample supply of sourdough breads, baguettes, Italian loaves and pastries to go around. We changed some of the selections, so look at the menu posted below. As before, purchases will be limited to a maximum of breads and pastries per customer so that our staff can keep up with demand.

Lafayette Sourdough pan loaves(top) and Amber Wave pan loaves are among the items for sale at the May 2 Smittybread Bakery bake sale.

Purchases will be limited to 6 pastries, 3 bread loaves and 6 pretzels per customer. These can be ordered and paid for in advance or purchased at the time of sale. We ask that customers who attend or pick up orders observe social distancing. (So far social distancing has been the norm. It’s a gratifying sight compared with some lines we’ve seen at department and grocery stores.)

The following items are for sale:

  • Pretzel, $2
  • Plain croissant, $3
  • Cherry Danish, $3
  • Cinnamon Roll, $3
  • Blueberry Scone, $4
  • Brownie, $4
  • Chocolate or almond croissant, $4
  • Morning bun, $4
  • Baguette, $4
  • Italian hearth bread, $6
  • Lafayette Sourdough (pan loaf, $8; boule $7)
  • Amber Wave Sourdough (pan loaf, $8; boule $7)
  • Multigrain Sourdough (pan loaf $8; boule $7)
  • Seeded sourdough, $7
  • Rye sourdough with caraway, $7

To order prior to the sale, send an email with phone number to smittybread1@gmail.com or call 765-250-8214 between 10 am. and 4 p.m. Pre-sale orders must be received by 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 29. Keep your preferred credit or debit info handy. Cash or cards are acceptable at the time of sale.

In case you are wondering why a bakery would bother having a bake sale, for the past several weeks our community, state and nation have been struggling to come to grips with a deadly new viral infection dubbed Covid-19. I decided as a business owner that it would be best to let employees who want to socially distance themselves to do so.

It takes about a third of our usual staffing to put on these bake sales, which so far have generated the equivalent of two to three average business days in gross sales per event. So far it’s allowed us to keep the bills paid and our customers to have access to the baked goods they prefer.

Smittybread likely will be operating on this ad hoc basis until the governor says it’s time to start opening up businesses, parks, schools and other gathering places. While I have applied for assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program, I’m not counting on seeing a dime of the money that Congress so hastily dedicated to bolstering the economy.

On a related note, the Tippecanoe County Health Department has decided that bakeries will not be allowed to set up shop at local farmers’ markets through the month of May. Same goes for a whole list of vendors who normally would be at the markets next month, such as food trucks. I guess ready-to-eat foods (except for fresh produce) is considered too risky.

We, like many other stressed businesses these days, are looking forward to getting back to business on a more normal basis, hopefully by June 1. Until then (and even after then!) support your local businesses, stay safe and keep calm.

Bake sale a success; encore in the works

Last week’s Wednesday bake sale at Smittybread Bakery, conducted amid coronavirus concerns and nearly perfect weather, was a sellout. We had such a good sale we decided to do it again, but this time on Saturday instead of Wednesday due to weather conditions. (For event details, see below.)

We knew there was pent-up demand for Smittybread, but we had no way of knowing the extent until about 45 minutes into the April 8 sale when it became apparent our bread would run out well before the scheduled 5 p.m. end.

At the peak the line of customers stretched about half a block, owing in part to customers spacing themselves several feet apart. Still, we soon had to start letting customers know their wait might be in vain.

By 3 p.m. the line was shortening and customers were graciously accepting whatever we had left rather than what they had come to buy. When fresh-baked goods ran out we began selling previously unsold bread from our freezer until that too was gone.

Shortly after 4 p.m. we taped a “sold out” sign on the window, having squeezed the equivalent of a decent Saturday into one short afternoon.

Thanks to all of our wonderful customers for turning out! Many wore masks, in keeping with coronavirus safety recommendations.

The bake sale was a good way to keep staff involved and positive about the bakery’s future. Sadly most of the Smittybread staff was unable to participate in the sale because without daily commerce it isn’t economical to bring in more than a skeleton crew.

Out of deference to the safety of staff and in keeping with the spirit of social distancing, we will continue to maintain irregular hours until further notice. Hopefully restrictions will soon lift and we’ll be back to more normal hours in a few weeks. Meantime here are the plans for our next bake sale:

  • The sale will be 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, April 18. (With luck the current windy, cold and rainy weather will have improved by then!)
  • Advance orders must be placed no later than noon Wednesday. The reason for this is to have enough bread and pastries in the works for pre-orders and for walk-up customers, given that sourdoughs and croissants take 48 hours advance planning.
  • You may buy up to 12 pastries (total). You can also buy up to four breads, limit of 2 loaves of any one kind. Pretzels, limit of 6 per customer. If after the sale ends Saturday there are any products left they may be purchased on a first-come, first-serve basis up to 3 p.m. Feel free to call to see what we have left.
  • To place an order call 765-250-8214 between 10 am. and 4 p.m. or send an email to Smittybread1@gmail.com If you leave a message or send an email, please include a name and telephone number where you can be reached. We will be in touch to take payment over the phone for all advance orders. Have a credit card handy.

Products available for advance ordering are the following:

  • Pretzels, $2 each
  • Plain croissants, $3 each
  • Chocolate or almond croissant, $4 each
  • Granola cookies, $2
  • Blueberry scones, $4
  • Whole wheat fig/anise scones, $3
  • Cinnamon Rolls, $3 each
  • Morning buns, $4 each
  • Lafayette Sourdough (pan loaf, $8; boule $7)
  • Marquis Sourdough (pan loaf, $8; boule $7)
  • Multigrain Sourdough (pan loaf $8; boule $7)
  • Seeded sourdough, $7
  • Rye sourdough with caraway, $7
  • Italian hearth bread, $6
  • Baguette, $4
  • Granola, $7

Selection on the day of the sale may vary. If time permits we may add a bread or pastry variety, but as these are uncharted waters it’s impossible to say how much time we’ll have to extemporize. We hope everyone gets a chance to stock their pantry without unnecessary risk of exposure to the virus. As always, stay well!

Inching Back into Business

After taking a week off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Smittybread Bakery will conduct an afternoon bake sale from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 8, under the pop-up tent in the bakery parking lot at 415 S. 4th St., Lafayette, Ind.

Our products will be similar to those we usually take to local farmers’ markets such as sourdough boules and pan loaves, baguettes, pretzels, Italian bread, and croissants.

Our sourdough lineup consists of Lafayette Sourdough, Amber Wave, Rye with Caraway, Multigrain, Seeded Sourdough, and Pain Au Levain. Sorry, no olive or Marquis sourdough at this time.

Non-sourdough breads will include Italian hearth bread and baguettes. Croissants will consist of plain, pain au chocolate and almond. We will not have Danish but we should have a few Cinnamon Rolls for sale and perhaps other goodies as time permits.

We will be limiting purchases to no more than six pastries per person and three loaves of any one type per person. We don’t have enough employees or dough on hand to sell croissants by the dozen at this time. (If you would like a dozen pastries for a future date, let us know. We welcome advance special orders.)

For breads, the limit is three loaves of any one type. If you would like or need additional breads, check back at 5 p.m. or shortly after. If there are any breads or pastries left, they will be fair game.

Why a bake sale at this time you might ask? Well, baking is what we do. Like anyone else, we’re getting a little stir crazy. And we know, from the calls we’ve received in person and on the answering machine, that customers are getting anxious about their diminishing bread supplies.

As of today it appears from Indiana Department of Health Data that the coronavirus is spreading relatively slowly in Tippecanoe County compared with other parts of the state, and we hope that continues. We encourage customers to observe social distancing, hand washing, face masks in public and other precautions in accordance with government COVID-19 recommendations.

Smittybread ovens cool amid coronavirus spread

Ever since concerns about the coronavirus began building a few weeks ago, it’s been a trying time to be in business. While sales have been strong, concerns about the virus have led a number of employees to stay home rather than risk being around the public and each other.

Producing a sustainable volume of baked goods with declining staff placed extra load on those who wished to stay. To cope with that, and to comply with state orders to halt dine-in service, Smittybread two weeks ago began focusing on bread production and stopped offering breakfast and lunch sandwiches as well as our best-selling croissants and Danish. That decision cost us about half of our gross sales.

IMG_0441Last week week we went a step further; we closed the front door and switched to a walk-up service window. Because bread is a production item with relatively low raw ingredient costs, and because we operated with a reduced staff, we could have sustained the business on a walk-up, bread-only basis for the foreseeable future.

Instead, I decided after close of business Saturday to shutter the bakery for at least a week to give all employees a chance to hunker down, spend time with families and get some much-needed mental and physical rest.

The number of coronavirus cases has continued to grow both nationwide and locally, resulting in my community’s first fatality this past weekend.

Without adequate testing, and because of the nature of this remarkable virus, no one can be absolutely sure who might or might not be infected. This climate of anxiety has had a predictable and regrettable effect on the bakery as well as society at large.

One employee went home with a cold, worried that it might be something worse. Another employee offered to keep working, but only after hours and alone. Another stayed home to reduce the chance of inadvertently spreading the virus to senior citizens with whom her mother worked. Legitimate concerns, all.

Meanwhile, every cough, sniffle or extra trip to the bathroom by a staff member sent a ripple of suspicion through the rest. This climate of mistrust and fear is not so much a side-effect of the virus itself as it is a direct result of poor leadership by public officials who failed to act early or decisively.

IMG_0443Nationally we have a shortage of face masks and gloves but a gasoline stockpile. A shortage of hand sanitizer but a surplus of ethanol. A shortage of respirators but an excess of factory capacity to make them. A shortage of testing equipment in the richest country in the world. All of which puts lives needlessly at risks and makes simple tasks more difficult.

Until the decision to offer only bread, I spent increasing time in stores looking for items in short supply. Try running a food business without access to basic commodities like eggs, milk, gloves, hand soap and toilet paper.

With each outing I noticed the emotionless stares or irritated glares among total strangers. The looks of resignation, the slumped shoulders, the flares of temper over seemingly minor things. All the while, the disease toll continues to mount.

I couldn’t help but wonder: What if our public officials had taken steps earlier to foresee the potential threat of this pandemic rather than wait until public outcries about toilet paper shortages reached a fever pitch.

We’ll get through this, but not unscathed.  During a crisis in my life a friend once told me what didn’t kill me would make me stronger. Such macabre advice seems a bit out of place when talking about a potentially fatal disease. The same friend also told me that amid times of turmoil and darkness, people with strength and courage rise to the occasion.

I’ve witnessed that much in recent days, from the fellow who volunteered at the bakery to deliver leftover bread to the homeless, to the governor of New York who’s been a beacon of strength amid his state’s growing turmoil. Hope is contagious, too.

I plan on taking this time to rest up, catch up on paperwork, investigate some new recipes and bake a small batch of bread for a potential customer. I’m spending more time with family than I have in weeks. If there’s one thing this crisis should show us it’s to hold close those you love and not take them for granted.

When will the bakery reopen? I’d like to say a week from now, but we’ll see. I’m looking for signs of progress in the fight against this virus and for some assurances that getting back to work is safe for our customers and employees.

Goodbye to a fellow baker and dear friend

John trespassing
John Kuckartz was a key figure in getting Smittybread Bakery up and running in 2017. A fixture at the Lafayette bakery its first year of operation, John died unexpectedly Thanksgiving 2019.

This past year was one of growth and progress for Smittybread Bakery. Our sales grew as we expanded our offerings, built up the deli business, welcomed many new customers, and enjoyed the continued support of regulars.

But overshadowing all the positives of 2019 was the passing of a dear friend and former baking partner, John Kuckartz, who died on Thanksgiving Day.

John was battling cancer and had just started chemotherapy in mid-November. All seemed to be going well until severe abdominal pains forced him into the hospital. He had only been there a few days when his condition plummeted.

Sadly, I had been unable to visit him in the hospital because of all the Thanksgiving pre-orders the bakery had received. I determined to pay him a visit once the holiday rush was past.

On Thanksgiving morning I slept in before heading into the bakery to make rolls for our family’s dinner. I took with me a baking magazine I intended to take to John that afternoon.

At the bakery I got a text from John’s daughter, Karlie, telling me her dad had taken a turn for the worse. She bid me hurry in case it was my last chance to say goodbye.

By the time I arrived John was no longer conscious and was being prepped for exploratory surgery. I held his arm briefly, said a few words of encouragement, then went back to the bakery. Before the afternoon was over, news came that John had died.

I was left numbed by shock and sorrow, as well as regret that I did not visit earlier in the week. It was, and is, hard to believe that someone I’ve known for nearly all my life, who shared my dreams and sorrows, who laughed and argued with me for countless hours, would no longer be a part of my life.

You see, I’d known John since fourth grade, after my family moved across town and I switched elementary schools. He was a popular, athletic fixture in Klondike Elementary School, and I was a bookish, somewhat anxious new kid on the block.

At some point we hit it off, and I began spending nights and weekends at his house and he at mine. In Fifth Grade, cancer claimed my father. The times I spent with John and his family helped filled the void left by my father’s death, and we remained close throughout high school and afterward.

Our friendship lasted through marriages, divorces, career changes and periods during which we lost contact for months or even years. But we always managed to get back together. For a spell we both ended up working in an all-night truck stop in California. Years later we started a tradition of winter weekend campouts with out mutual good friend Gordo Long.

John’s profession for most of his adult life was heavy highway construction, where he supervised work crews. My profession was in newspaper journalism. Neither of our jobs left us much time for socializing.

Then a few years ago I left the newspaper business, and he took a break from construction. We reconnected, and as I was deciding how to turn an interest in bread making into a new career, he offered the use of his spacious garage.

I moved a Hobart mixer, work table, couple of small ovens and a two-door cooler into his garage and began baking sourdough breads, baguettes and croissants for sale at a local farmer’s market.

When I decided to go into baking full time, John was by my side, spending countless hours helping remodel, move equipment, cajole contractors, and offer words of advice and encouragement.

In 2017 and most of 2018 John was a fixture at the bakery. His specialty was making pretzels, but he also had a knack for mixing and shaping sourdoughs. He once told me he wanted nothing more than to make better bread than me, evidence of a competitive spirit that would surprise no one who knew him well.

After the bakery was up and running successfully, John decided to go back to construction, a job he both hated and loved. He retired for good from construction in 2019 and was looking forward to spending more time with family, buying a camper and doing some traveling.

After he was diagnosed with cancer last fall, I asked him if he intended to put those plans on hold, and he said definitely not. He was a fighter, and even though he worried about the risks of cancer and treatment, he didn’t let it show.

I could go on, recounting details of our times together that included fishing, skinny dipping, camping, hot-rodding, double-dating, all night partying, and so on. He had a theory for just about everything that could go wrong, in the bakery or otherwise, and we had constructive arguments as well as bitter disagreements at times.

In the end what I will miss the most is his helpfulness. When things went wrong, you could always count on John to drop whatever he was doing and lend a hand, offer sound advice, or give moral support.

His heart was as big as they come. While I miss John dearly, I’ll always remember the countless ways he made his presence felt in a positive way in my life and the lives of those around him. He did his best to make the world a better place, and I strive to follow his lead. God rest, Big John.

Rubbing elbows with the best

After hiking miles though the Las Vegas Convention Center, we spent the third day of the International Artisan Bakery Expo meeting some amazing bakers and stuffing ourselves on samples.

First order of business was having a recipe book signed. Before leaving Indiana for Las Vegas I’d promised one of our bakers, Anne Huber, that I’d have her copy of The Bread Baker’s Apprentice signed by Peter Reinhart. I’d looked forward to meeting with him anyway, and this was a perfect excuse.

Years earlier it was Reinhart Reinhartwho set me on the path toward serious bread making with his book Crust and Crumb. On Thursday he was scheduled to give a presentation titled “The Future of Bread” and was also promoting his latest work, Perfect Pan Pizza. I introduced myself shortly before his presentation began, and after a pleasant chat about bread, pizza and the bakery business he whipped out a Sharpie and signed Anne’s book with the inscription (spoiler alert!) “May your crust always be crisp and your bread always rise.”

Before Reinhart completed his presentation I slipped out of the conference room to attend a baking demonstration by Richard Miscovich, a baker who also played a pivotal role in my second career. A few years ago, while I was still learning the ins and outs of sourdough baking I signed up for an online baking course Miscovich taught through the web platform Craftsy (now Bluprint.)

miscovich
Richard Miscovich talks about sprouted grains at the 2019 International Artisan Bakery Expo.

His down-to-earth yet scholarly approach to sourdough bread helped me crack open the twin veils of mystery and misinformation that often surrounds the subject. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to hang around and meet him, but it was a pleasure watching him in action.

I left his demo early in order to talk with Craig Ponsford, one of leader’s in this country’s artisan bread movement and a gold medal winner in the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, often dubbed the Olympics of baking. My daughter, Kaytie, had told me the day before she watched him pre-shape baguettes and that she found his technique simpler and faster than mine.

After I introduced myself, he asked me how I currently pre-shape baguettes. I explained that I fold my dough in four directions. He said my method not only takes longer, it defeats the purpose of aligning the gluten strands in one direction. The conversation went something like this:

Smitty (slightly hurt): “Well, my baguettes are pretty good. I sell a lot of them.”

Ponsford: “My baguettes were judged best in the world. Can you beat that?”

Smitty: “Not yet. Maybe someday.”

After that we chatted about our backgrounds. Turns out we both attended state college in California in the early 80s, (he in fisheries, I in journalism) He opened his first bakery at the age of 24 while I worked as a newspaper reporter and editor most of my working life until opening Smittybread in 2017.

He now owns a bakery in San Rafael, Calif., called Ponsford Place that in some ways reminds me of Smittybread.  Both are small, on-site production shops that connect the customer to the baker and focus on quality of product and experience.

Now that the bakery expo is over, my wife, Kathleen, and daughter, Kaytie, have a few extra days in Vegas to ponder what was learned, see the sites and enjoy sleeping in. Meanwhile, my stepson Brent has flown on to Austin, Texas, to visit a friend.

For those of you Smittybread customers and staff who missed us and your favorite breads and pastries this past week, be assured we’ll be back at it this coming week, and we look forward to getting our hands back in the dough. See you soon!

 

Recipes for baking success

The first International Artisan Bakery Expo got off to a solid start with several sessions devoted to helping community bakery owners improve their product lines, plan for success and think outside the box.

My wife and I were particularly interested in a session on attracting and retaining quality workers led by business partners Leslie Mackie and Scott France of Macrina Bakery & Café in Seattle.

Starting from a small community bakery with one facility (similar to Smittybread, with production, packaging and sales under one roof), Macrina now has four retail locations plus a 50,000-square-foot production facility and 280 employees.

All along, a key challenge has been to attract and retain quality employees. They start by posting job openings whenever and wherever they can. I found it interesting that they have found great success with Indeed, an online job listing service that Smittybread has tried without much luck.

They have not sought growth for the sake of growth but rather to enhance the communities they serve and help them create an environment in which their workers can grow and thrive. It starts with employee orientation followed by a bread class in  which Mackie explains the various products they sell and how they’re made. They also make sure each employee understands the company’s mission and core values.

“Our mission is enriching communities through the joy of artisan baking,”  Mackie said. I sat there thinking, that mission fits Smittybread to a T.

While Smittybread will likely never achieve the scale of Macrina, its easy to foresee the day when we have more than one retail location and additional production space so that we can serve a wider audience and provide more opportunities for existing and future employees.

Peter Yuen in Las Vegas
Pastry Chef Peter Yuen meets with bakers after his demonstration on woodgrain-colored croissants at the 2019 International Artisan Bakery Expo in Las Vegas.

During a morning demonstration session, pastry chef Peter Yuen baked some excellent buttery croissants and then showed how to step it up a notch by using cocoa-colored dough to create a wood-grain pattern. I’m not sure how the beautifully colored croissants taste since they weren’t baked on the spot, but his plain butter croissants were not far removed from Smittybread’s croissants, a testament to our bakers’ skills.

In between workshops and demonstrations, my wife and I and two Smittybread employees perused the vendor aisles, tasted numerous samples, and met new industry contacts. We ended the day with a sushi dinner at Takashi, a small restaurant far removed from the Las Vegas strip and one I highly recommend.

Loving Las Vegas

Four of us from Smittybread are attending this week’s International Artisan Bakery Expo in Las Vegas NV. We’ve come to learn, renew, and relax after a very busy 18 months baking artisan breads and pastries on a full-time basis at 415 S. Fourth St. in Lafayette.

Kathleen and Dave at Red Rock
Dave and Kathleen at Red Rock Canyon just outside Las Vegas. Smittybread Bakery is just to the right of the picture about 1,800 miles.

First off, that means the bakery will be closed this week. A scratch bakery is very labor intensive, and with approximately one quarter of the staff missing in action it would be impractical for us to try to remain open.

My wife Kathleen and I arrived Sunday morning and had a great brunch at Arizona Charlie’s with my brother Michael, my sister Victoria and her companion, Jane. They’ve called Las Vegas home for many years, and Jane sprang for lunch with her casino credits. Thanks, Jane!

Today we will be joined by my daughter Kaytie and Kathleen’s son, Brent. Kaytie is a former Starbucks barista who now is one of our most talented and productive pastry workers. Brent is my right-hand man when it comes to mixing and shaping sourdough breads, a job that is mentally and physically demanding.

Sadly I couldn’t afford to bring along the entire staff. But at least they’ll get a much-needed post-holiday rest. Besides which, somebody’s got to feed the starters!

Our goal in Vegas, besides making a killing,  is to learn as much as we can from talented bakers who will share insights on baking phenomenal breads and pastries, hiring and retaining good employees, choosing the right equipment for the job, fine-tuning the product mix, and much more. We also plan to scope out bakery equipment on display at scores of vendor booths.

New Oven
The bakery’s Italian-made Polin bread oven shortly after it was installed spring of 2017.

Baking on even a small artisan scale is an expensive proposition, and finding the right equipment for one’s products, space and budget is challenging. Commercial ovens and dough handling equipment are not the kind of things you just buy on Amazon and send back if they don’t work out.

While away, I intend to update this sadly neglected blog with what we learn at the expo as well as content I’ve been meaning to share for some time, including a behind-the-scenes look at bakery missteps and what happens when things don’t turn out exactly as planned.

Smittybread’s doors will be locked until Wednesday, March 13. Mark your calendars because we intend to bring back new ideas and product formulas that will be sure to please the palate, improve the business and enable us to continue serving our growing customer base and community for a long time.

A Year to Celebrate, and Remember

Smittybread Bakery’s first year in business came and went with little fanfare but a heckuva lot more activity than we saw a year ago.

Sue at Market
Susan Moses Heasty handles set up and sales for Smittybread at the West Lafayette Farmers Market most Wednesdays.

This past few weeks saw the bakery churning out more products, reaching more customers, bringing in more revenue, and continuing to build on its reputation as a must-try community asset for anyone who appreciates craft bread and pastries.

Last year at this time the bakery was open two days a week — Friday and Saturday — and participated in farmers markets on Wednesdays and Thursdays. It seemed impossible at that time to staff and supply the bakery and markets at the same time.

This year we are open four days a week and participate in three farmers markets most every week. It’s a stretch at times, but having a presence at the farmer markets in Lafayette, West Lafayette and at Purdue University is well worth it because it introduces our product to new customers in addition to boosting sales.

I have three groups of people to thank for our success: My family, which has been super supportive, both as customers and workers; our customers, who are some of the most interesting and appreciative people I’ve ever met; and the Smittybread staff.

Tyler unloading bread
Tyler Brown takes Kalamata Olive Sourdough from the oven to cool. Tyler has been with Smittybread Bakery a year and is the most senior of 12 bakery employees.

A while back one of my in-laws asked what the most challenging part of running the business has been, and without hesitation I told him that finding and retaining qualified help was by far the number one challenge.

Although I have advertised for new employees with some success, most of Smittybread’s workers found their way to the bakery on their own initiative, were introduced by mutual acquaintances, or are members of the family. This is positive, as they are highly motivated people who are here because they want to be.

On the other hand, I am perpetually short-staffed. Good workers, God bless ’em, don’t just walk up and introduce themselves when they are most needed. And experienced sourdough bakers and pastry chefs aren’t so numerous as to be included in my immediate circle of friends, family and customers.

Pretzel girl
Social media posts like this from Instagram go a long way toward spreading the word about Smittybread.

Two other major challenges are marketing and paperwork. I’m hesitant to mount any sustained marketing campaign, due to lack of time and resources. And although I get numerous offers to spend more money on advertising, I continue to have faith in word of mouth and what traction we can get through social media and support of local non-profit organizations.

Even so, it amazes me how many people have never heard of Smittybread or who have heard of it but never tried it. (I often think of this on slow days when I’m out and about and happen to see a line of cars wrapped around a national chain restaurant waiting for burgers and fries.)

The paperwork is another issue. The number and variety of government and financial regulations and deadlines continues to baffle me as new ones come to my attention nearly every month. Years from now when I’m retired I’ll probably wake up in a cold sweat thinking of some critical piece of paperwork or fee I’ve missed.

That said, the long nights of prepping, the early hours of getting ready to open, and the frustration of figuring out who’s going to be available to work which shifts has been worth it.

When I see the smiles on our customers faces, feel the camaraderie of my small but hardworking staff, and watch a decent batch of sourdough spring to life in the oven knowing it will all be sold within a few hours, I thank my lucky stars I stumbled across this profession not too late in life.