Monthly Archives: March 2019

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.