It’s difficult to believe, but my dream of opening a sourdough bakery that sells crusty breads and scrumptious pastries turned into reality last Friday (Aug. 18).
As might be expected at a soft opening, Smittybread Bakery’s first customers were family. Usually the sound of chairs scooting across the floor gets on my nerves, but this time the noise was music as my step daughter-in-law Naomi and her children sat down for a breakfast of almond croissants and milk.
There followed a steady flow of customers, among them good friends, familiar customers and first-timers who stopped by to check out the new digs, buy a pastry or sandwich, and leave with a sourdough boule or baguette tucked under their arms.
I opted for a soft opening in order to give me and my co-workers enough breathing room to find out what works well and what we need to work on.
Like any artisan bakery worthy of the name, we make all our breads and pastries from scratch. As simple as that may sound, it’s anything but. Sourdough breads and laminated pastries take two to three days lead time before they come out of the oven, and that’s after you procure enough flour, butter and other ingredients to meet expected demand.
Up to now my production has been geared to the West Lafayette Farmers Market on Wednesday afternoons, for which I begin preparing on Monday. (As I write this on my baker’s bench I can see the wheat and rye levain before me, growing in volume and getting bubblier in preparation for tonight’s dough mixing.)
Usually on Thursdays after a typical farmers’ market, my pace would be leisurely. I would sleep until 8, count proceeds from the previous day, take a quick trip to the bank, and then go into the bakery to continue getting the business ready to open as a licensed retail food establishment — a considerable step up from being a home-based vendor.
On Monday, Aug. 7, I got the seal of approval (an actual gold-colored seal!) from the Tippecanoe County Health Department. It was the last legal hurdle before we could open the doors, and it was a good feeling knowing we had done things right.
Then the question was: So, when are you going to open? The query had come more and more often as neighbors and friends and other business people stopped by to see our progress.
Once we had the health department’s “all clear” I picked an opening date of Aug. 18. That would give us two weeks to get flour and other supplies and make final preparations. Those two weeks, which included getting ready for two farmers markets, went by in a blur. For whatever reason, our farmers market sales exceeded previous records.
As it so happens, Aug. 18 is my wife’s birthday. Kathleen’s business schedule called for her to be out of town the week leading up to that date, and I was supposed to pick her up at the Indianapolis airport Aug. 18. We had made plans to spend the evening in a hotel to celebrate her birthday.
By the time she reminded me of our plans, it was too late. I had already announced the opening date to one and all. I apologized the best I could but forged ahead.
Heading into opening I knew that shifting to multiple production days a week and going from an afternoon to a morning deadline would be a challenge, but it took a “soft” opening to hammer this home.
I showed up for work Thursday expecting a full day. I just didn’t know how full. My first clue was when I realized I had not made enough starter on Wednesday to make all the breads I planned to bake for Friday. This, by the way, is the professional sourdough baker’s second worst nightmare, the first being forgetting to save any starter at all for the next production cycle.
I made some adjustments, such as putting the freshly fed starters into the proofer to speed their progress, dropping some breads off the schedule and setting back the mix schedule a few hours.
My croissant schedule was also slightly behind, but since they are a yeasted product I was able to speed their progress.
As the day turned into evening, I had some breads coming out of the oven that looked really splendid, especially the pan loaves that would be made into sandwiches. But when I looked at the clock, I realized I would not be done prepping until at least 1:30 a.m. and I had yet another trip to make to an all-night grocery for avocados, pickles and other odds and ends.
I got home Friday around 4 a.m., by which time it was too late to catch even a cat nap. I did some dishes, ate for the first time in about 12 hours, and took a quick shower. Then it was back to the bakery.
I am fortunate to have a good friend who has been by my side through this entire endeavor and who managed to catch about an hour’s rest that morning. John and I were able to provide each other encouragement throughout the day, during which I nearly nodded off at the baker’s bench and he nearly did the same sitting on a stool.
The first day was a success. Proceeds exceeded our busiest-ever farmer’s market sale, and comments were positive even though product was slow getting to the front at times.
On Saturday we were a bit better prepared. I had by that time a few hours of needed rest, and my wife showed up bright and early to work the counter, schmooze customers and make sandwiches.
All in all it was a great way to get started. The months of planning, purchasing and prodding contractors paid off, and the lesson about the need to plan more carefully or pay the price won’t soon be forgot.
We will be open on Fridays and Saturdays for the next few weeks and continue to participate in the West Lafayette Farmers Market on Wednesdays. We also plan to participate in the Thursday noon market at Purdue University, selling sandwiches and pastries.
As we gain experience in daily production and the farmers market season winds to a close this fall, Smittybread Bakery will be open more days of the week and perhaps even some evenings. In all the future looks bright, especially after a few hours of much needed rest.