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.
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.
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 who 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.)
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As the July 4th holiday approaches, it dawns on me that the bakery is nearing its one-year anniversary. How time flies when you are busier than a mosquito at a nudist colony.
Last week, I put a note on our front door to let customers know that the bakery will be closed July 4th and 5th and will reopen Friday the 6th.
We are taking two days off instead of just the 4th chiefly because of the time it takes to get sourdough bread ready for baking. Making sourdough bread is a multi-day process, and taking time off Wednesday means there won’t be any bread to bake until late Thursday or early Friday.
We could, I suppose, just skip the holiday. After all it’s not a church holiday, and there probably won’t be a lot of reflection or public solemnizing. Thanks in part to the fireworks industry, July 4th has become what you might call a “party’ holiday, an extra Saturday plopped down midweek where anything goes.
I imagine with extra time off some people may venture down to the bakery on July 4th for the first time, while regulars who have not seen our holiday notice may also give a tug at the door only to find it locked. I apologize in advance for the inconvenience the holiday closure may cause. I know how precious time is, especially since starting my own business.
The other reason for taking the time off this week is that I and others at the bakery could use the break. We have been busier than usual this summer because we are participating in two farmers markets, one in West Lafayette on Wednesdays and the other in downtown Lafayette on Saturdays.
Having a presence at a farmers market means being in two locations at one time, and that means more prep and bake time, finding and retaining additional workers, buying and storing additional raw material, getting up earlier and staying later.
Before I started a business, I worked for a large corporation that gave most employees the holiday off and paid those who did work extra for their effort. Some of my co-workers routinely volunteered for holiday work knowing they would be well compensated for doing what they normally would be doing anyway.
Now that I own a business, I decide what days to work and what days to take off. The decision involves weighing the loss of sales and potential future customers against the benefits of giving myself and employees rest and relaxation.
Being an independent business owner, I look forward to celebrating the July 4th holiday with my friends and family and enjoying the freedom to sleep in for a couple of days and maybe even take an afternoon nap.
When I was a newspaper journalist, one of the holiday rituals was to write and edit the year-in-review, a collection of stories and photos highlighting the most memorable news stories of the year. Old habits die hard, so here’s a look back at 2017 through the eyes of a baker and new business owner.
January: I started my commercial bank account, marking the shift from home-based baker to Mo’ Dough Rising LLC. The first draw on the new account was a wire transfer of $7,685 for half the cost of an Italian-made Polin Stratos bread oven.
February: As I put together my floor plan and list of necessary equipment, it became more apparent than ever that financing the venture from personal savings alone would be foolish. I needed to be able to convince others my business plan was worth backing in order to convince myself. After rejecting an SBA loan offer from an out-of-state bank all too willing to lend money sight unseen, I met with a commercial loan specialist at my credit union on Feb. 10.
March: On March 3 I signed the lease for the rental of 415 S. Fourth St. for a period of two years with the option to renew for two successive years. I provided additional paperwork to Purdue Federal Credit Union related to my application for a commercial loan, including the lease and a landlord waiver giving the credit union access to the building and equipment in the event of a loan default.
April: For months I’d been telling people I would open a bakery perhaps in early April. Well, April arrived but the oven hadn’t. I was still waiting for my equipment loan, for electric and plumbing work to be completed, for interior doors to be hung, and for miscellaneous other tasks to be checked off the “to do” list. Finally on April 28 I received word rom ProBake that my oven had shipped out of Ohio and would arrive in Indiana in a day or two.
May: The oven arrived on May 2 (coincident with my equipment loan). I held my breath as the truck driver wheeled the crated oven onto the lift gate, which sagged under the weight. As the load and driver slowly descended, a friend and I pushed against the side of the crate just to make sure it didn’t slip. I told my wife that of the many thousands of miles the oven traveled from Italy to Lafayette, the last four feet were the most nerve-racking. We spent the next few days installing and testing the oven and christened it that weekend by hosting a pizza party for family and friends.
June: The exterior of the building took a giant leap forward with installation of a new roof and fresh paint. I found a couple of pieces of gently used refrigeration equipment, including a sandwich prep station that we nearly lost when it slipped its tie-downs and rolled off the flatbed trailer onto the interstate. The prep table suffered some dents and a severed power cord but worked fine when we plugged it in the next day.
July: My July 3 bakery “punch list” included the following items: caulk and paint cracks and bare spots; finish back stairway and paint; adjust door sweep; install coat rack; install towel and soap dispensers; buy and install toilet paper holder; design and build a sign; make back splash for work bench; install supply cabinet for chemicals; get fire extinguisher checked out. On July 13, I wrote the county health department to say we were ready for inspection. The inspection on July 28 went well.
August: On Aug. 7 Mo’ Dough Rising LLC (dba Smittybread Bakery) received its Retail Food Establishment Permit from the Tippecanoe County Health Department. First order of business was to sign up for the Purdue University Farmers Market, which extended our reach to many new customers. On Aug. 18, Smittybread Bakery at 415 S. Fourth St. opened its doors to the public, and we went from a two-day production schedule to four-day.
September: On Sept. 3 the Smittybread sign went up, prompting a write-up in the local newspaper: “Son of ‘Smilin’ Smitty puts the familiar look of a late, great family grocery store back into circulation outside his new Lafayette bread shop.” Here’s a link to the Journal & Courier story.
October: With the increase in business we were starting to get stretched pretty thin. I had already lost a good worker in early October when police walked into the bakery unannounced and took away my dishwasher on a warrant from a two-years old drug investigation. In mid-October I posted an ad for bakery employees on Craigslist. At the end of October Smittybread had a payroll of six employees and was gearing to open two additional days a week.
November: The bakery hours expanded from two days a week to four days a week starting on Wednesday, Nov. 8. Each week brought us increases in sales culminating with the best-ever Wednesday sale the day before Thanksgiving. We turned out dozens of mini croissants, sour dough rolls and whole wheat rolls in addition to the usual sourdoughs and pastries.
December: Sales in December, while a bit spotty at times, were quite strong. On the plus side, customers were looking for breads and pastries to share with visiting family and friends. On the negative side, the university went on holiday, the weather was at times frightful, and people were busy shopping and spending their money elsewhere. We added brioche and Danish to our arsenal of pastries, which helped boost interest and sales. Smittybread will be open Wednesday Jan. 3 for the start of what I hope will be a productive, profitable and enjoyable 2018. Happy New Year, everyone!
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.