Smittybread Bakery is gearing up for the busy holiday season. Starting this week we will be open Tuesday through Saturday instead of Wed-Sat. Also this week, we will be taking advance orders for Thanksgiving breads and rolls. (details below).
The farmers market season drew to a close Oct. 29. It’s hard to believe that Thanksgiving is already less than 2 weeks away. From May through October the bakery staff was in full swing producing as much bread and pastries as we possibly could, and still we had difficulty keeping up with demand, frequently selling out of bread and pastry two and three days a week.
Lafayette is a growing city, and the number of people drawn to farmers’ markets in West Lafayette, Purdue and Lafayette grows annually. The droves of customers, money in hand, looking for the unique, the delicious and the locally grown provide an almost insatiable demand on local bakers, growers, chefs, soap makers and assorted other craftspeople.
Our bakery could add an extra deck or two of oven space and still not keep up with market demand May through October. But that demand changes rapidly once we put away our market tents for the season. (There will be a limited winter market this year, but that’s a different story.)
To help offset that drop in demand, the bakery is shifting back to a five-day schedule for the first time since COVID hit. This will hopefully enable us to keep production levels steady, current staff busy, and customers content who have in the past stopped by on a Tuesday and been disappointed to find us closed.
Aside from the obvious difference, the change to five days also requires us to shift when to offer certain of our specialty sourdoughs. (See the tentative new schedule elsewhere on this website under “Our Daily Breads.”)
The longer week will also position us to better meet holiday demand since customers will have another day in the week to stock up on supplies. That said, this week we will be taking advance orders for various rolls and breads prior to Thanksgiving, which falls on Nov. 24 this year.
See all the details under “Holiday Roll and Bread Orders” elsewhere on this website. Or swing by Tuesday through Saturday. (After 2 p.m Saturday, we will no longer take Thanksgiving orders in advance). Happy holidays, and thanks as always for supporting Smittybread Bakery.
Most every week, by mid-Saturday afternoon after the bakery closes I collapse on the couch and slip into dreamland after a marathon week of working 12 to 14 hours a day with four or five hours of sleep a night.
Last week was a bit different. Instead of working my butt off I spent most of my time on my butt or in bed, fighting off Covid. That meant that by Saturday, five days after first testing positive for Covid, I was pretty well caught up on sleep for the first time in a long time.
And I could do some of the things normal people do, like watch TV for more than 15 minutes without falling asleep, sip a drink without my throat burning, and face routine tasks with a sense of accomplishment rather than listlessness.
Thanks to rest, access to medical care, some great employees and an attentive and patient wife, I was able to overcome the infection and return to work this week. (I delayed posting this blog 24 hours just to make sure I didn’t jinx myself!)
What I went through, while not exactly hell, could have ended much worse.
It began a few days after my wife returned from a business meeting in Nashville. First a friend of hers who had made the trip with her took ill and tested positive for the virus, and then my wife followed suit a couple of days later.
My wife’s symptoms consisted mostly of fatigue and mild sneezing and coughing, like a summer cold. As soon as we found out she was positive, I knew there was a good chance I would get it since we spend most of our non-working hours in close proximity.
That weekend while my wife suffered through her symptoms, I felt fairly normal, except for anxiety wondering if I was next and whether my case would be “mild.” Sunday I tried going about business as usual while pondering how the bakery would proceed in my absence.
I’m a hands-on owner involved in every aspect of operations, from mixing dough to payroll. When someone calls in sick or goes on vacation, I make sure we are covered and if not, do the work myself.
With me out of the picture, it seemed unlikely we’d be able to open for business as normal but rather be limited to one or two days instead of our usual four-day week.
All this was contingent on my condition. Sunday I felt fine but took a rapid Covid test anyway. It came out negative, proving nothing because it had been only four days since my first exposure to the virus. But at least I knew it was too early to throw in the towel.
Monday was different. I began the morning with some chores around the house, specifically, cleaning and rehabbing some 100-year-old sash windows. The job involved a lot of climbing up and down a ladder, and by noon I was exhausted.
I got ready to take my second Covid test. Immediately after swabbing my nose I sensed something wrong. My nose was a lot drippier than it had been the previous day. Sure enough, within minutes a faint stripe appeared indicating I was infected.
I informed my two most senior employees, Naomi and and Kaytie, my daughter, that I wouldn’t be able to work in the bakery for a few days. I also told them I didn’t think we would be able to open for business unless they could manage without me.
As it turned out, they were more than capable. We did scale back production, closing two hours early during the week and opting out of farmers markets on Wednesday and Saturday. But for the most part we were able to keep shelves filled with product and fulfill most wholesale accounts in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, I was feeling worse by the hour. My head and body ached and I was unable to move very far from the couch or bed without feeling spent. On Tuesday, rather than wait it out and hope for the best, I decided to get an antiviral medication that might keep my symptoms from worsening.
It took some doing but by going to an urgent care center and pleading my case — that I was old enough to be considered “at risk” — I was able to get a prescription for Paxlovid. The new drug, while not fully approved by the FDA, is designed to prevent mild Covid infections from turning severe.
I’d have to say it worked in my case, because after five days of taking the drug I was feeling back to normal again with no discernible side effects.
The real test was on Covid Day 3 when Duke Energy cut the power to the downtown area, an outage that would have had serious consequences had I not been able to respond because of the amount of dough we keep retarded.
The outage occurred Wednesday after the bakery closed. I sprang off the couch, loaded up a portable generator I keep on hand for such occasions, and rushed down to the bakery in time to save a refrigerator full of the next day’s unbaked croissants and sourdoughs. Thankfully my daughter was on hand to help, both of us wearing masks, but the scrambling took every ounce of energy in me.
The following morning I woke before dawn with a burning sensation in my throat. I gargled warm salt water, took ibuprofen, sipped ice water and managed to get back to sleep. But that sore throat was my constant companion for the rest of the week.
Long story short, my symptoms gradually dissipated, and by Saturday afternoon I had enough energy to complete the window repairs that had exhausted me the previous Monday. Moreover the bakery’s net sales by the end of the week were not bad. The extra effort to remain open definitely paid off.
I know some customers were disappointed to find some of their favorite items in short supply or missing entirely, and I hope this doesn’t repeat itself in the near future. For now, all the breads we usually bake will be back this week.
I wish to thank all of our loyal customers and hardworking employees for responding with positive energy and kindness. Without all of your help, Smittybread Bakery would not be able to survive. See you at the bakery!
Starting this week (Jan. 5 to be exact) Smittybread Bakery will no longer offer sandwiches, soups or sides. We will instead focus on our core business of breads and pastries, which have been the mainstay of Smittybread Bakery from the beginning.
This change, in addition to helping us provide the best breads and pastries possible, will have several other positive effects. For one, it reduce wait times and congestion in our lobby, a key consideration as COVID continues to spread rapidly through our community.
It will also free up time for me, as owner and sole manager of the business, to make sure I’m doing everything I can to make sure the bakery succeeds. And I believe success lies in turning our full attention to satisfying the majority of our customers who rely on Smittybread for sourdough bread, baguettes, croissants, pretzels, morning buns, Italian bread, granola and more.
Additionally, the change will free up space in the bakery for more efficient production of those core products, allowing us to possibly expand our reach to other areas of the community.
This is a major change for Smittybread, and it comes as we continue to struggle, as have so many other businesses, to cope with the the challenges triggered by the COVID pandemic. But COVID isn’t the only reason for the change. Two other considerations are financial and personal.
Financially, the sandwich side of the bakery has always been a concern due to the relatively high cost of inputs, such as really good deli meats and cheeses. In fact, after reviewing the numbers closely over the holiday break I came to the not-so-startling conclusion that sandwiches and soups have been at best a break-even proposition for some time. This was a disappointing fact considering how much energy, time, space and money it takes to provide prepared food.
Yet I was reluctant to let the sandwich line go, in part because it has been part of my business plan since Day 1. (The night before our first day of business five years ago I stayed up all night shopping for last-minute items such as peanut butter and pickles to make sure we would be ready for our first deli customers. It was the first and, gladly, only all-nighter I’ve pulled since opening the bakery).
Another reason I hesitated to make this change is the number of loyal customers who regularly come to us for breakfast or lunch. Deli customers are always a welcome sight on days when bread and pastry sales are slow. And, as one who eats out regularly, I understand how difficult it is to find quality prepared food on the local scene.
Fortunately for us over the past two years bread and pastry sales have grown enough to more than keep us busy. Perhaps the stress and change in buying patterns brought about by the pandemic steered customers in our direction as they sought out healthier food options, smaller crowds, and familiar faces.
I can only hope that bread and pastry sales will remain strong and that the additional space we have for production will make for more efficient production and less stress for employees and myself. I also hope that, with the management burden of running the deli off my shoulders, I will have more time to spend on product development, marketing, customer service and, most importantly, family.
By the way, we are not laying off any employees to make this change. We are reassigning current staff to other jobs, and natural attrition will take care of the rest in the short term. Over the next few months, if this decision is the right one, we will likely employ even more people to keep up with bread and pastry demand. Wish us luck!
This past week Smittybread Bakery opened its doors to customers for the first time since last Spring, when we began utilizing a walk-up window in response to the Covid 19 pandemic. So far the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Many customers have told us how happy they are to come inside, smell the fresh bread and view the arrays of delectable pastries. And employees have embraced the fresh new look and customer-friendly atmosphere with enthusiasm.
Of course, not everyone is thrilled. A few customers have said they preferred the walk-up window, mainly out of concern with being too close to anyone who might be carrying the virus.
That’s understandable. With the national casualty rate approaching 300,000 deaths and local infections continuing to rise, we are far from out of the woods, even as a vaccine begins to circulate.
But to be frank the walk-up window was not without risk, and the approach of winter was making it untenable. With each blast of cold autumn wind, I pictured the discomfort once temperatures really started to drop.
The change to walk-in service meant eliminating indoor dining, a decision not easily made. Even though our bakery only seats about 15 people, I’d grown accustomed to seeing the room full of customers enjoying their lunch or conversing over pastries and coffee, and I long for those days to return.
But maintaining required social distancing in such a confined space meant we could only seat five or six customers at a time at most. In addition, as breakfast and lunch sales declined over the past few months, we’d taken over the dining area for work space as we ramped up bread and pastry production.
As a seasoned procrastinator, I’d put off the change as long as I could. What tipped the balance was a book I happened to be reading — “Out of Africa” — in which the writer bemoaned the failure of her coffee plantation. She blamed the failure on poor location, ill timing, investor impatience, bad luck, weather, grasshoppers, and so on. In short, she’d thrown in the towel.
I felt that with with winter approaching and farmers markets closed for the season, we were going to see a January-April sales decline like never before unless changes were made. Indoor service was the answer.
First we needed to move the dining tables and chairs and other unnecessary items into storage. Next, I built a sturdy wooden base for an an 8-foot-long butcher block work tabletop that had been in storage and which I thought would make a perfect sales counter.
A week ago we moved all the production equipment out of the dining area and maneuvered the butcher block counter into place. I suspended clear acrylic panels over the counter to provide a sneeze barrier between staff and patrons. We also moved our farmers market display crates from storage into the bakery to create an attractive showcase for our handcrafted breads.
Lastly, we posted a sign to let people know that masks are required before entry, that entry is limited to two customers at a time, and that social distancing must be observed.
One idea that didn’t make the cut was a traffic signal of red and green LED lights to let customers know when it was safe to enter. The remote control was not 100% reliable, and in practice most customers figured out when it’s OK to enter.
It’s only been one week since the change, but already I feel better about our prospects of surviving the long, cold winter and emerging out of Covid isolation into a less anxious, more prosperous new year. Time will tell. If you get a chance, check out the new look of Smittybread Bakery, and support your local businesses so they can support you.
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.)
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.
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.
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:
Plain croissant, $3
Cherry Danish, $3
Cinnamon Roll, $3
Blueberry Scone, $4
Chocolate or almond croissant, $4
Morning bun, $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 email@example.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.
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
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!
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.
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.
Last 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.
Nationally 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.
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.