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.
When this week began I looked at the weather forecast and saw that it would be hotter than the dickens on market Wednesday. Normally that wouldn’t bode well for bread sales, but I expected Smittybread might get a boost from a nice feature article about our soon-to-open bakery in the local newspaper, so I made a little extra of everything.
Unfortunately a dangerous thunderstorm dashed our hopes for a banner market day. Before the opening bell at 3:30 p.m., a horn sounded warning us of an approaching storm. We covered the bread with a tarp and were preparing to ride out the storm when the market master ran past telling us the West Lafayette fire chief had assessed the situation and was ordering everyone to abandon their tents due to the possibility of lightning strikes. My assistants and I lowered the EZUp shelter to its lowest setting and made for our vehicles.
It was raining buckets as I sat in my SUV and stared at the weather radar on my smart phone. I craned my neck to see how my tent was holding up when suddenly I heard the sound of rain through an open window and felt cold drops on my neck. I looked up and saw the moonroof slowly opening. My head had hit the opener! I quickly hit the
“close” button but not until after the storm had left a damp impression inside the cabin. I was already soaking wet so it was no big deal. Luckily my computer was safely inside its carrying case.
While waiting out the storm I received an email informing me the market was officially closed. I knew from past experience an official closure didn’t mean we had to call it quits. It simply meant we were on our own with no official sanction from the market organizers.
After an hour or so, the rain let up and I returned to check out the tent and salvage what was left of our baked goods. Luckily, several large pockets of water on the roof of the EZUp helped hold it down in the driving wind. After emptying the water pockets I raised the shelter roof to see what had survived the storm.
The baguettes, poking up from a basket on top of the display table, were safe and dry under one end of the tarp. However, the other end of the tarp had blown up and over the table, exposing many of the loaves to rain spatters. Still, most of the bread was sellable.
Because many vendors had packed it in, I was able to park my SUV next to the stall and move the dry bread inside in case the storm returned. Despite social media announcements that the market was closed, customers started showing up in twos and threes. Realizing it was now or never, my buddy John and I marked down the bread, croissants and pretzels to “second-day” prices, and pretty soon we had a steady stream of customers.
By the end of the day, counting after-market sales, we had sold nearly $400 worth of bread. That was better than some days when the weather was cooperative. The next day I had a few loaves left, some of which I sold and several of which I donated to the local soup kitchen. All in all it was a memorable market experience. Peace and bread!
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.
Earlier this summer I was convinced that weather had as much to do with the vagaries of farmers’ market attendance as any other factor, but the past couple of sales have deflated that theory (thankfully.)
We’ve had just blistering weather lately. Even the farmers at the market, who should be used to it, appeared bummed. The heat index yesterday was around 100 degrees, and for the first couple of hours there wasn’t a breeze to be had. The West Lafayette Farmers’ Market, although technically in a city park, is actually in the middle of an asphalt parking lot. The vendors at this market set up between 1 and 3, which yesterday coincided with the peak temperature of 90.
On Wednesday morning, after 7 hours of baking, I had a few minutes of respite in the air-conditioned vehicle before it was time to unload my equipment onto the hot asphalt and do a little baking myself. Despite wearing a loose T-shirt, shorts and sandals, I was coated with sweat by the time my “EZ Up” (anything but!) was set up, the tables were loaded with fresh breads and the first customer had arrived — 30 minutes before the market opened!
I thanked the first-time bread buyer for braving the heat but said the market frowned on early sales. She was a little irritated, but when I promised her I’d save her a baguette while she went to the grocery store nearby, she was fine. The last few minutes before the 3:30 opening I freshened up in the restroom, changed T-shirts, set up my portable electric fan and poured myself a cup of cold water.
My first sales of the day were two baguettes, which the Purdue University Extension booth purchased for a food demonstration. I think they made bruschetta, but I was too busy to try any of them. Despite the heat, I had a steady stream of customers for the first hour and a half, at the end of which I’d sold out of baguettes, croissants and pain au levain. Although the pace slackened after that, it remained steady and it wasn’t long before I ran out rye sourdough, seeded sourdough, Lafayette Sourdough and multi-grain.
At 7 p.m., or 30 minutes until closing, I had one loaf left, a 23-ounce 100% whole wheat sourdough made with organic flour, natural leavening, a little salt and a pinch of yeast for insurance. Just for the heck of it I posted a picture of the lonely loaf on my Smittybread Facebook page. Less than 5 minutes later a customer came up and snatched it up. He did not, however, see it on social media. It was pure coincidence.
I set a personal sales record on what was likely the hottest day of the summer. It’s real nice at the end of a hot afternoon to have only equipment left to pack up, although my wife complains when I don’t bring home unsold bread.
It was, moreover, a testament to the hardiness of Smittybread customers, who are true bread lovers. They won’t let a little triple-digit heat stand in the way of sinking their teeth into a loaf of real bread. If any of you are reading this, thanks again and see you next week.
I sold more loaves and set a personal sales record at the West Lafayette Farmers Market this past week, in part due to the perfect weather but also because of a new product I came up with almost by accident: miniature loaves.
The idea for Mini Smittybreads came about as a result not of thinking about new ways to market bread but more efficient ways to produce it.
As a small volume baker churning out three large loaves for every 30 minutes of oven time, I’ve struggled with sacrificing an entire loaf of bread to cut into sample pieces. Some days I haven’t offered samples even though they are a great way to engage customers and sell more bread.
The solution to my sample dilemma came to me a week ago: produce enough dough for the requisite number of loaves plus a little extra for a sampler loaf. The first time I tried it, it worked out well, giving me just enough samples for market without cutting into a large loaf.
Then I got to thinking: These little loaves are darned cute. Not only that, they are just the right size for a small dinner, a snack or an appetizer tray. They are also easier to cut and, for market-goers wanting to conserve cash, easier on the wallet.
In the past I’ve frequently had customers tell me they couldn’t possible use an entire 23-ounce loaf of bread. My only response, until now, has been to tell them they can always freeze half for later. In my experience that argument seldom worked.
With miniature loaves, however, I can offer a solution to the too-much-bread dilemma while at the same time appeal to that part of human nature that thinks miniatures are cute (Shetland ponies, tiny houses, toy poodles. Well, maybe not poodles …) A customer unwilling to spring for a large loaf of rye might well buy one small one and a couple more besides.
Incidentally, while I was at the market Wednesday afternoon pushing mini-loaves, a child of neighboring vendor, Holy Cow Farm Fresh, was playing behind the booth with a set of miniature farm implements. The parallel between his fascination with 1/64th scale combines and sprayers and my fascination with 1/3rd scale loaves of seeded sourdough didn’t dawn on me until days later.
To be honest, I worried that the sale of mini-loaves might cut into sales of the larger loaves, but I don’t think it did. I quickly sold out of mini-loaves of rye, multi-grain, seeded and pain au levain, each weighing 7 ounces. Several customers bought more than one. To my satisfaction, most of the small loaves went to new customers while my regulars continued buying the larger loaves. I went home with seven large loaves but was able to sell them all by the next day.
The large loaves sell for $7 each. The mini’s, weighing a third of their larger cousins, sold briskly at $3 apiece, or 3 for $8. I don’t know if I’ll make mini-loaves for each and every market, given that they require a little extra labor to produce and package. But they appear to be a novel and effective way to sell more bread and bring a smile to the faces of me and Smittybread customers.
It’s been extra busy around the Smittybread home-based bakery this spring. In addition to baking artisan breads for the West Lafayette Farmers Market, I’ve moved from one side of town to the other and have been making plans to start a storefront bakery.
While the move was just a few miles geographically, it was an arduous task sorting, packing and moving years of accumulated stuff. Luckily most of my baking ingredients and gear didn’t get lost in the shuffle. Of the first five West Lafayette Farmers Market sessions so far this year, I’ve only missed one and have sold pretty much everything I’ve been able to bake.
Unfortunately, the week I had to skip baking due to the house closing was ill-timed. It was the week Smittybread was featured in an article in Lafayette Magazine focusing on how diverse vendors use farmers’ markets as springboards to launch new products and businesses.
Anticipating the added interest the article might create, I took a few minutes before market opened May 18 to let my neighboring vendors know why I would not be joining them and that I would return the following week. One of them later said he was swamped with inquiries from people looking for Smittybread. Luckily they didn’t give up looking because I’ve since met many new customers who said they heard about Smittybread through that article. Thanks to writer Kathy Mayer, photographer Tom Baugues, and Lafayette Magazine for the positive press!
In addition to spending time moving the household and baking many baskets of sourdough bread this spring, I’ve been making plans to open a bakery. Were it not for the success I’ve had marketing sourdough bread, baguettes and pastries at the farmers market, it’s unlikely I would have the confidence to attempt something so bold, or as some might say, foolhardy. More about this in a future post.
This past week at the market I also was interviewed by a local TV news reporter for a story about a new farmers market website. As a former newspaper reporter for the Journal & Courier, I would often spot myself on the WLFI-TV 18 news, usually in the background of video shot at elections, council meetings, groundbreakings or other events. I’ve also occasionally appeared in news clips as the keyboardist in the local country band Moonshine Mason and the Rotgut Gang. I believe this was the first time, however, that I’ve been interviewed for a news story. It was a great experience.
WLFI-TV 18 Multi-platform Journalist Brittany Tyner wanted to know what I thought of a new website, FarmersMarket.com, where customers can buy from farmers’ market vendors without actually going to the market. Items purchased online are picked up at a given location once a week. It so happens that the Lafayette pickup location for items purchased through the website is Great Harvest Bakery. I told the reporter that while the idea has merit, I would not want Smittybread customers picking up their bread at someone else’s bakery.
That said, I also told her that community bakeries are not so much competing with each other as with large corporations that produce bread-like product in mass quantities for pennies per loaf and ship it, often frozen, great distances to outlets where it may sit days or weeks before being purchased.
There is no shortage of potential bread customers since nearly everyone eats bread in one form or another every day. When you think of how much bread is consumed per capita, capturing even a tiny portion of that market should be enough to keep a local bakery in business. The biggest challenge we face as community bakers is connecting with consumers and earning their business with a consistently good product that is priced competitively and delivered with a smile.
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!
My town’s final farmers market of 2015 was short but sweet. During the special two-hour event held the day before Thanksgiving in West Lafayette, I managed to sell all of my sourdough hearth breads and quite a few straight-yeasted “brown and serve” rolls. I also renewed acquaintance with some of my regular customers I hadn’t seen for weeks.
Overall it was a great experience, with the exception of a stiff breeze that made it seem chillier than it was, and notwithstanding the fact I could have been better prepared for the sale and the weather.
The day got off to a rocky start when I got ready to mix my first dough, a sourdough rye, and discovered I was out of caraway seed and nearly out of salt. This necessitated a trip to the nearest grocery, which was selling small plastic vials of caraway for $5.39 per 0.9 oz. At that rate it would take $11 of caraway to bake six loaves of rye. There’s a limit to the price I will pay for my own stupidity. I drove to the next “big box” store down the road and found caraway at half that price.
One issue: I was out of synch. The last regular West Lafayette Farmers Market had been Oct. 28 so I had a four-week hiatus from baking in volume. Moreover I wasn’t sure what to bake for the sale. Would there be a mad rush of market-starved customers, or just a trickle? My guess was we’d have a lot of regulars show up but not much in the way of additional traffic, and I didn’t want to have a lot of unsold bread at the end of the day.
I decided not to make baguettes, which are good sellers but a lot of trouble to make with my equipment. I also decided not to make a 10-grain rye sourdough, my least popular bread. I cut back on the volume of loaves but increased my quantity of rolls. I made about 60 sourdough rolls and about 100 brown-and-serve honey wheat rolls, packaging them six to a bag and 10 to a bag, respectively. They sold for $5 a bag.
The process of deciding what to make, how many, and what to charge is one the most challenging and, if done right, rewarding aspects of my “job.” It involves risk assessment, knowledge of past sales, an eye on the weather and a willingness to try new things. If done well, good planning for market is rewarded with good sales and few leftovers. It gives you a warm feeling inside knowing that your customers value your product and your efforts, and it keeps the job interesting.
About an hour before the 3 p.m. opening bell, I started packing the car for the five-minute trip to the market. Normally I would start earlier, but for this abbreviated market I was not planning on setting up a tent, hand-washing station or sign. I did, however, need to have a folding table, and when I went to the garage to retrieve the folding table it was missing (The table, that is). I’d failed to remember we’d taken the table across town to use at a halloween party and never brought it back.
Also, I hadn’t yet retrieved cash to make change. This trip to the bank and to retrieve the table took an additional 30 minutes on top of packing, so by the time I got to market around three minutes to 3 p.m. all the other vendors were set up and customers were waiting. Fortunately the market manager placed me in a vacant stall right at the entrance, a location easy to get to and highly visible.
A stiff breeze greeted me as I set up my table, and as soon as I began placing bread on it a handful of pre-labeled plastic bags went flying down the center aisle. I got some help chasing them down and soon was too busy with sales to worry about how foolish I must have looked.
About an hour into the sale I was running low of sourdough but had plenty of brown-and-serve rolls left. With 30 minutes to go I had nothing left but brown-and-serve rolls. Compared to their heartier sourdough cousins, these dinner rolls paled in comparison, and I think a couple customers bought them either out of pity or because I had nothing else left.
As 5 o’clock neared, I was hopping on my toes attempting to keep warm. Because I’d left the house in a hurry, I’d forgotten to wear a coat or hat. My sleeveless sweater and flannel shirt would have been sufficient were it not for the breeze and the fact that this time of year the sun is dipping rather low around 5 o’clock.
A couple of things mitigated my discomfort. One was a pocketful of money to take home instead of half-full bread bins. And the warm reception I got from both returning customers and new ones made me realize just how much I’d missed selling bread the past few weeks. One of my regular customers, after going to his car with his purchase, actually walked back to my booth just to say that he and his wife really like my bread and wanted me to know they appreciated me being at the market.
What could I say except thanks from the bottom of my heart. And thanks to the folks at the West Lafayette Farmers Market for giving me the opportunity to sell my breads to an appreciative group of customers.