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.
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!
In bread baking circles, the dough’s initial proof is called bulk fermentation. It’s the stage after all the ingredients have been mixed and kneaded but before the dough is divided and shaped into loaves.
To the untrained eye, not much goes on during the initial stages of bulk fermentation. Only the baker knows the potential within the bulky mass of unshaped dough.
Just down the street from my house, a group of workers is turning a small commercial building into the future home of Smittybread. A lot of work remains to be done, but with perseverance and a little luck my long-fermenting business plan soon will be producing loaves of crusty sourdough bread and buttery pastries.
As with most naturally yeasted doughs, my dream of starting an artisan bakery got off to a slow, almost imperceptible start. It began Jan. 14, 2009, when I received a letter from the president of what used to be my employer, Gannett U.S. Community Publishing.
The letter said nearly every employee would be required to take a week off without pay in order to reduce company costs during an industry-wide downturn. I’d spent 26 years with the company, and it hurt to realize the future would never be the same.
Two weeks after receiving the furlough letter I purchased two books by baker and author Peter Reinhart, one titled “Bread Upon Waters,” the other “Sacramental Magic in a Small-Town Café.”
Although my memory of why I purchased those books remains dim, I can only surmise I was looking for something, anything, to take my mind off work. Some time later I purchased Reinhart’s “Crust and Crumb” and began dabbling in sourdough.
Between 2009 and 2014, the Lafayette, Ind., Journal & Courier along with many other newspapers underwent a steady decline in revenues and personnel. Dismayed by my own newspaper’s cutbacks and unable to see eye-to-eye with my boss on a variety of editorial issues, I left in June 2014 at the age of 58.
I applied for some writing and editing jobs at Purdue University. I found myself waking up nights wondering what I would do with the rest of my life that would give me the same sense of accomplishment as journalism. I had a feeling writing press releases wasn’t it.
One constant that kept turning over in my head was a love for cooking I’d inherited from my Italian-heritage mom. I investigated the possibility of getting a culinary degree but decided the cost of tuition was too high. Plus, my problems with authority figures might prove lethal around so many sharp objects.
Another factor was the legacy left by my dad, known in these parts as “Smilin’ Smitty.” In the relatively short span between his service as a P-38 pilot in World War II and his untimely death in 1967, his business, Smitty’s Foodliner, gained a reputation as the area’s premier independent grocery store.
It occurred to me that with a little capital (not much more than the cost of a culinary degree, I crudely estimated) and some additional hands-on training I might parlay my penchant for making bread into a business. Not a business on the scale of Smitty’s Foodliner, but one with the same focus on quality and personal service.
In October 2014 I told my wife I was signing up for a course at King Arthur Flour titled “Setting up a Successful Bakery.” The course was taught by Jeffrey Hamelman, a baker and author whose impact on the artisan bread movement has been immeasurable. His 2004 book, “Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes,” has taught and inspired many an aspiring craft baker, myself included.
He sprinkled the daylong courses with anecdotes, many humorous, but he was dead serious when he said some of us would leave the course knowing that starting a bakery might not be for them.
I wondered, was I in that category? Nevertheless, before leaving Vermont for the trip back to Lafayette, Ind., I signed up for another weeklong course the following month on advanced bread making.
That summer and next I set up a “home” bakery in a friend’s garage with equipment I’d purchased second-hand from a fraternity. I signed up as a vendor at the West Lafayette Farmers Market in 2015 and 2016, selling as much bread, croissants, brioche pastries and pretzels as I could make, sometimes with my friend’s assistance.
Indiana home-based bakers can sell bread directly to consumers at farmers markets or roadside stands but not elsewhere. Customers often would ask where they could buy my bread outside the farmers market, and I would shake my head and tell them options were limited until I could open my own commercial bakery.
If I had a donut for every time someone asked me, “So Smitty, when are you going to open your bakery?” I’d have a donut business by now.
After checking out several locations and looking into buying an existing business, I realized that opening a bakery, even a small one (or especially a small one), was harder than I had anticipated. Either the location was too inaccessible, too small, too large, ill-equipped for food service, or too pricey. And the capital costs are considerable.
Somewhere along the way I had a talk with Paul Baldwin, owner of two local food and drink establishments, The Black Sparrow, and Spot Tavern. Being a fan of good, hearty bread, and eager to promote the food and art culture locally, he suggested renting part of a building he’d recently purchased next to the Spot on South Fourth Street.
The former tattoo parlor, nee laundry, was half vacant except for the occasional visiting musicians staying overnight before or after gigs at the tavern.
In May of 2016 we hired Arkor, a local architectural and engineering firm, to draw up some preliminary plans. Paul and I split the cost.
By fall the plan had the approval of the state fire marshal, but progress slowed as the holidays approached. Meanwhile, I had a one-day bake sale that turned into my most successful day of the year, thanks in part to a recipe for chocolate and walnut cinnamon rolls my mom used to make.
As this year started, the long-fermenting project began to show visible signs of life. Paul hired a contractor to install an underground grease trap per the city’s specifications. Workers installed new dry wall on the ceilings and walls. Plumbers installed floor drains for the oven, restroom, sinks and for general cleaning purposes.
Meanwhile I lined up some equipment and working capital financing and wired funds to Pro Bake Inc. in Twinsburg, Ohio, for the purchase of a Polin bread oven made in Verona, Italy.
This past week electricians upgraded the electrical service from 100 to 400 amps and installed conduits for myriad pieces of equipment besides the oven, such as a dough retarder/proofer and a sheeter for rolls and croissants. I’ve also been scooping up used equipment such as a three-bay sink large enough to soak sheet pans, a bread slicer and a dough divider.
While there are many more details to share, time is short and the to-do list is long. Suffice to say that bulk fermentation is nearing completion. If all goes well, we should be dividing, shaping and proofing bread at the new bakery sometime this spring. I’ll keep you posted.
With spring about to return, so is Smittybread’s sourdough baking schedule. Last night I baked some pain au levain in anticipation of a photo shoot for an upcoming publication. And on Monday, after months of anticipation, we got an offer on our house that was too good to pass up. The house sale will simplify our lives and free up time and capital to help realize my goal of opening a microbakery hopefully in the not-too-distant future.
As a home-based or “cottage” baker in Indiana, my sales are limited to farmers’ markets and roadside stands, which during winter are as rare as robins. The nearest winter market is an hour away and already well-stocked with bakers.
Meanwhile, with the start of the West Lafayette Farmers Market just two months away, I’ve registered Smittybread as a vendor in time to secure a more-or-less permanent spot once the market opens May 4.
Last year I joined the market late, missing the entire first month. As a latecomer, I had to change my booth location on a weekly basis, making it more difficult for customers to find me. Many would ask “Where were you last week?” not realizing I was there the whole time. (One week I was the only vendor in my row, but it worked to my advantage because I was easier to find! See “Outstanding in My Field”)
I’ve kept busy during the winter break, baking three or four loaves, or a dozen rolls, at a time. Some of these loaves found their way to market customers, but most were gobbled up by family and friends. I also spent many hours learning and working with new formulas, digging deeper into the science and art of sourdough baking, and working on a business plan that would enable me to sell bread to a wider audience and still have time to pursue other interests.
I’m leaning toward something known as a “community-supported bakery” which would supply bread on a subscription or as-needed basis through an online or text-based ordering system. This would eliminate some of the guesswork inherent in running a bakery that relies solely on walk-in trade, which in turn would conserve precious resources and time. But I still need a baking space outside my home with the room, equipment, and regulatory sanction to service customers of all types.
But no matter what happens on the bakery front, I look forward to again be selling Smittybread and connecting with former and new customers at the West Lafayette Market on May 4. See you there!
As I pen this reminder of this coming Wednesday’s pre-Thanksgiving Farmers Market in West Lafayette, a light snow is steadily flocking the trees and blanketing the grass outside my kitchen window. It’s a lovely sight, and a reminder that there’s little time to waste as we get ready for what traditionally is the biggest feast of the year.
As you stock up for Thanksgiving, please note there will be vendors gathered at the West Lafayette Farmers Market off North Salisbury Street for one last fling of the year from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 25. It will be an ideal time to pick up some locally made or grown items to share with your Thanksgiving guests.
Smittybread will be there rain, snow or (hopefully) shine. I will have on hand the following baked goods:
Sourdough rolls: 6 to a bag for $5
Brown-and-serve honey wheat rolls, 8 to a bag for $5.
Pan Au Levain, 1-pound loaves for $5.
Large sourdough boule (25 % whole wheat) for $6.
Seeded sourdough oval loaves, $7.
Rye sourdough with caraway, $7.
The brown-and-serve rolls will be sold frozen and can be thawed overnight or kept in the freezer until you are ready to use them. Once thawed, they brown up in just a few minutes. If baked frozen, they take just a little longer.
All of the sourdough breads have a shelf life of a few days, or they can be frozen in an appropriate freezer bag until ready for use.
Hope to see you at the West Lafayette Farmers Market, if not this coming Wednesday then Spring 2016. Until then I’ll be working on a business plan, honing my baking skills, shoveling snow and working on a few new formulas such as 100% whole wheat sourdough, gluten-free sourdough bread, ciabatta and possibly whole wheat croissants.
If and when I can find a suitable winter kitchen (the garage is a bit cold this time of year) I will take bread orders. If you are interested in buying bread over the winter, send an email to me at email@example.com and let me know what you are interested in.
Preparing for the weekly afternoon farmers market in West Lafayette is anything but routine for me. That’s because I like to come up with new baked items to sell while continuing to provide those products that have proven successful.
With limited production capacity, I have to start baking early (about 32 hours ahead of the market opening) and make good use of time. This usually means working on two or three and sometimes four breads at a time, all in various stages of development, and coordinating them so they don’t all reach oven-readiness at the same time. As I gain experience this becomes a little easier, but it also means I’m capable of doing more in the same amount of time. So instead of baking becoming more routine, it just becomes more action-packed.
Yesterday was a prime example. I have a list of products that I like to prepare on market day so they are as fresh as possible. That list includes pain au levain, sourdough rolls and usually some type of pastry, such as a brioche or laminated dough. Last week I added into the mix French baguettes. As I was not sure how well they would fit into a morning schedule, I omitted making pastries last week.
This week, however, I threw caution to the wind and decided to make all four products on market day. The following is drawn from a list of times I noted in my baking journal, providing a kind of outline of my morning “routine” that pretty much kept me on my feet and moving from 5 a.m. until the market started at 3:30 p.m.
5:52 — Start mixing dough for pain au levain, a type of sourdough bread, 100% naturally leavened. Adjust for humidity and temperature (reduce water, and ice it to 65 F). Finish initial mix at 6:09 and let it sit or “autolyze” until 6:30.
6:30 — Finish mixing and adjusting pain au levain. Place in container to proof.
6:40 — Take first batch of baguette dough out of fridge, divide, weigh and preshape. Set aside on floured board for a 1-hour rest. (This is repeated at approx 15-min intervals for three other batches of baguette dough.
7:24 — Finish dividing, weighing and shaping sourdough rolls, the dough for which was prepared the previous evening and refrigerated; fold pain au levain dough (it’s a very wet dough, so folding it helps it come together.)
7:40 — Shape first three baguettes. Start range oven and convection oven
8:00 — Preshape fourth batch of baguettes. Start second range oven, which is in a separate building.
8:30 — Divide, weight and shape brioche dough (made Monday, frozen, then thawed in refrigerator overnight. Still a little stiff in the middle but workable). Expect a two-hour proof.
9:00 — Transfer baguettes to convection oven to finish, then put first of two pans of sourdough rolls into second range oven.
9:15 — Fold pain au levain dough again; 9:20. Remove baguettes from convection oven and put sourdough rolls in it to finish browning; put second set of sourdough rolls into range oven.
9:27 — 2nd batch of baguettes shaped and into oven. Pull first pan of sourdough rolls out to cool. Send picture of rolls to my sweetie (first of two times I will sit this morning). So far so good.
9:40 — 2nd set of SD rolls out of second oven. Reduce temp from 450 F to 390 F (for brioche). Divide, weigh and preshape 12 pain au levain loaves; transfer 2nd set of baguettes to convection oven.
10:00 — Shape pain au levain loaves and place onto three boards, one of which is refrigerated; another is placed in cool part of house; 3rd will proof in warm bakery and be baked first.
10:15 — Last three (of 12) baguettes into oven. Fill 20 brioch pastries with blackberry preserve and pastry creme. Place in 390 F range oven. (damn, forgot the egg wash. But didn’t really have time anyway. Oh well, next week..)
10:50 — Brioch baked and looking delicious.
11:00 — First pain au levain into oven. Continue washing containers and utensils.
12:20 — Last pain au levain into convection oven. Finish cleaning off work bench and starting loading car with cooled rolls, brioch and baguettes.
All the rolls, loaves and pastries came out fine, and when the market was done all but five loaves of bread (out of 57 loaves) plus five bags of rolls and 16 pastries were gone. I was pooped, but it was a worthwhile and remunerative market week.
We were blessed with great weather at this past week’s farmers market in West Lafayette, Ind., and I was happy to see many returning customers and a few new ones. I also had the opportunity to chat with several acquaintances who came by say hello, which is always fun even if they don’t always buy a loaf of bread. (Hey, I don’t buy bread unless I really need a loaf so why should they?)
My daughter Kaytie helped set up, and as has happened before I had to send her home to get an item I’d forgotten to pack (this time it was a digital scale.) While running that errand she received a call from my youngest son, Adam, who had tried without success to reach me all morning. He broke the news that he and his wife, Laura, had welcomed into the world that morning their first child, a baby son they christened Henry Nicholas. It was exciting news, particularly because it is my first grandchild. (I have a ways to go to catch up with my wife, Kathleen, who has seven and is expecting her eighth!)
This week I reintroduced Seeded Sourdough in place of the rye with walnut and raisins I’d been selling with mixed success the previous two weeks. Although I received several compliments on the rye, they didn’t sell out like the other breads. The Seeded Sourdough loaves sold out, as did most everything else I took to market, so I went home with a good wad of cash and a nice feeling that all those hours in the home bakery were worth it.
This week I debuted a French baguette. Although in a way they are more trouble than they are worth for my size oven, I wanted to give it a try in honor of Bastille Day and because someone last week suggested I bake a few. I also wanted to see how well I could pull it off because in the past my experiences with baguettes have been hit and miss.
To streamline the production process, I chose a baguette recipe that calls for the dough to be refrigerated overnight. I divided the dough into 3-loaf batches the previous evening. That way I could take them out of refrigeration every 30 minutes so as one batch finished baking the next would be ready to go. The technique worked but it was like a three-ring circus with four different batches of baguettes in various stages of production.
There’s something about making a good baguette that is truly satisfying, and judging by the comments we got, customers are equally happy to see real French baguettes instead of those puffy imitations they find in the supermarkets around here. I think I’ll try them again next week.
After selling out my first two weeks at the West Lafayette Farmers Market, I have upped production to the point that I now have a few loaves left at the end of each market day. This is a good thing as I hate to shortchange customers who can’t get to market early or who happen to see us for the first time late in the day. And those loaves left unsold I’ve been able to sell or find uses for afterwards.
Even though market traffic seems to have slowed the past couple of weeks, I’ve been impressed with the number of returning and new customers who make it to the market and plunk down their cash for something as basic as sourdough bread. And the conversations I’ve had with customers who either want to know more about sourdough or who have sourdough experiences to share have been just as gratifying as the sales.
Being a university town (Purdue), West Lafayette sees a steep drop in residents during the summer break between spring and fall semesters, and I have noticed the drop in traffic the past three weeks. In addition, road construction has had a negative impact on market attendance, I think. The nearest major cross street (Cumberland) has been closed to traffic since spring, and construction on two highways outside town has detoured “through” traffic along Salisbury Street where the market is located. Consequently, getting to and from the West Lafayette Farmers Market has been more of a hassle the past few weeks, particularly for older drivers.
This past week, as an added incentive, I introduced a couple of new products. One was a sourdough rye made with walnuts and raisins, a recipe I got from Jeffrey Hamelman’s excellent book “Bread: A Baker’s Books of Techniques and Recipes.” I also made a couple of brioche pastries, one of which was brioche au sucre (brioche with sugar) and the other a brioche filled with strawberry and pastry cream. I had only two brioche left at the end of the day and just one rye loaf, so they were a hit.
I also had my first visit by health department inspectors. As a home-based baker, I’m not required to work out of a certified or inspected facility, but I still have to observe the health codes as they apply to retail sales. After they observed my booth and asked a few questions, the inspectors gave me a form that said “No violations at this time.” But I was advised to keep my plastic containers of bread from sitting directly on the ground and to make sure my bread labels include content weights.
One interesting side note: I had promised myself that I would make several batches of hot dog buns to sell for July 4, but it wasn’t until I was in the middle of this week’s market that I realized the 4th was already upon us. Oh well, there’s always Labor Day.
Another aspect of being in a university town is the number of residents who have traveled widely and tasted and experienced “old world” breads. I have talked to half a dozen people who after trying my sourdough ask if I’ve ever been to the Cheese Board Cooperative in Berkeley or tell me I should go there (I’ve been). One customer promised to bring me back some Cheese Board starter next time she goes.
I also have several regulars who are of German extraction (or who are from Germany) who feel as though they’ve found a home away from home at Smittybread. I have gotten the same reaction from an Italian who moved to nearby Montgomery County, where he raises vegetables for sale in West Lafayette and at other farmers’ markets. His wife, who makes and sells an excellent lasagne (with bechamel sauce) came by for three brioche pastries.
Finally, I recently received an email from a local charity who heard about Smittybread and wants me to make bread for a fundraiser later this year. I look forward to being a part of that worthy cause after the West Lafayette Farmers Markets closes for the season in October!
OK, maybe selling out my first week wasn’t a fluke. This week at the West Lafayette Farmers Market I came prepared with 45 loaves of four different sourdough breads, plus five bags of rolls (1 lb. per 6 rolls) and a couple dozen “pocketbreads,” which are sourdough rolls with goodies inside. That compares with 32 loaves and no rolls last week. In other words, I boosted my production more than 50 percent. Still, all the bread and all but a few pocket rolls were gone within two hours of the 3:30 p.m. opening. Whew!
I didn’t expect a super high turnout because it was hotter than hades Wednesday afternoon (in the low 90s in the shade, if you could find any!). And with 15 additional loaves, I thought surely I’d have a few to sell after 5:30 p.m. But the rush began even before the 3:30 p.m. opening. One of the early customers included someone associated with the market who saw what happened the previous week and wanted to make sure to get hers before they were all gone!
Luckily I received able assistance from my good friend and artist LaDonna Vohar. She helped set up the booth and sell bread during the great rush. By the time my wife, Kathleen, arrived from work the bread was gone and we just stood there in our new Smittybread T-shirts watching the dwindling number of marketgoers and wondering when to pack up and leave.
Not that I’m complaining, but it makes for a long afternoon when no one stops to buy bread or talk about bread for the final hour and a half. Half the fun is explaining the differences between the various breads, answering any questions customers might have about the product, and talking shop with customers who are into baking or who are familiar with sourdough.
Several friends have asked how difficult it will be to increase production. I tell them that if I had a bread oven, cranking up production would be no problem. Even a small hearth oven (with or without steam injection) could handle a minimum of 16 loaves per bake. But cranking them out five or six loaves per hour using a kitchen range oven and a small commercial convection oven is time consuming, difficult work.
The baking is definitely the bottleneck, but on the plus side I am getting very familiar with the slight differences in volume, shape, and texture that occur when loaves are baked too soon, too late or just at the right time. I am also learning how to schedule production so that when the ovens are warming up to 475 F I’m being productive; when the loaves are baking, I’m measuring and mixing or shaping, etc. In fact, my goal in selling at the farmers market is working toward the bigger goal of learning what customers want and how to produce it consistently so that someday I can open my own bakery.
This past week I was able to increase production with slight adjustments in timing and oven usage. I also received some good advice from Jeffrey Hamelman at King Arthur Flour regarding alternative approaches to retarding levain so I can build it once and use it at different times of the day. It’s no big secret — refrigeration — but I was trying to keep my levain fresh by feeding it, which requires more guesswork (not to mention more flour!)
This week I plan on adding an external temperature-controlled relay to a two-door refrigerator so that it consistently stays at 50 degrees, which is an optimum temperature for overnight retardation of sourdoughs. Assuming that task succeeds, I’ll be able to boost production without increasing my lead time before sale. I think another 12 or 15 loaves should do the trick. We’ll see next week!
My first day at the West Lafayette Farmers Market was busy, rewarding and exhausting. The short version of the story is, we sold out of bread in about two hours. Luckily we still had some samples and business cards to share with customers who showed up after the hearty loaves were gone. And I walked away with renewed confidence in my baking skills and knowledge of what to do differently next time to become more efficient and make more customers happy.
Selling out is a gratifying but slightly embarrassing thing. I’m sure there were some who wondered why we would show up with not enough product to sell. Truth is, I wasn’t sure we would find as many customers for hearth-style sourdough breads as we did. I’ve been sharing and sometimes selling breads to enthusiastic family and friends for the past several months, but the general public? I had a notion we would sell some bread but hardly expected the enthusiastic response we received. The 32 loaves and 24 “pocketbreads” I brought to market were gone before I had a chance to take a decent picture!
First, I have to thank all my family and friends who helped me the past few weeks get everything ready to go, especially my wife, Kathleen, who has been my constant companion and moral and financial support as I pursue this passion. Also thanks to her son, Josh, for helping set up my first booth and for being a super salesman. To LaDonna, for making graphics, sewing bread basket liners and procuring business cards at the last moment. To Johnny, for logistical support (a Hobart mixer ain’t light!). And to Fergus, Bev, Gretel, Tom, Mary, Dave, TJ, Jennifer, Chris, Brent, Chuck, Richard, Kurt and many others whose appreciation for hearth breads (mine in particular) has kept me going.