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 preparing to open my own sourdough bakery, I spent a day recently taking a whirlwind, calorie-packed tour of several San Francisco bakeries.
My “work” was amply rewarded, not in pounds gained but in a perspective and palate broadened by exposure to a variety of bakery designs, concepts, menus and tastes.
The tour also brought me unexpectedly face to face with one of San Francisco’s baking luminaries, Michel Suas, a delightful soul and pied piper of a whole generation of baking entrepreneurs.
I selected my targets by Googling “best San Francisco pastry shops.” There were numerous lists and more shops than I could visit in a day. I then created a Google map with pins marking the addresses of each bakery location so I could hit as many possible with the least amount of driving.
First stop was Tartine Bakery, a mecca for sourdough and pastry fans. As I walked expectantly into the Mission district building on a cool, sunny morning, I encountered a compact dining room filled with customers hunkered over cups of coffee, pastries and breakfast treats. The place was abuzz with conversation and food prep. The decor was understated. Painted wooden chairs and tables showed signs of wear from the thousands of hands, purses, butts and elbows that pass over them daily.
I ordered a Tartine country loaf, a morning bun and coffee for breakfast, and an almond croissant for my wife, who could not join me as she was elsewhere in the city on business.
The place seats about 25-30, depending on how tightly you squeeze, and has a counter where about eight people can comfortably stand. I stood at the counter and enjoyed every bite of my sugar-glazed cinnamon roll.
Takeaway: Busy is good, and flavor is everything. Nothing whets the appetite so much as seeing a lot of people enjoying themselves, and if you have a great product why bother with fancy seating, expensive light fixtures and neon signs?
Next stop, Craftsmen and Wolves, was located within easy walking distance in a brick commercial building.
The cabinets and display counter were modern and sleek looking, yet an exposed brick wall and spartan wooden tables and benches softened the look, creating an eclectic, funky feel.
I didn’t have room for the bakery’s signature pastry, the “Rebel Within,” consisting of a whole egg baked inside a muffin. I ordered a kouign amann and a jasmine tea. Having just bolted a morning bun, I couldn’t wolf it down as readily but it was enjoyable.
I read that the unusual name (abbreviated CAW) refers to craftsmen bakers and wolf-like creditors. Having experienced the startup costs of a small bakery, I can relate. I also admired the chutzpah of someone daring to set up shop in Tartine’s back yard.
I next drove northwest to Marla Bakery Restaurant for lunch. The bakery is located in a small commercial district surrounded by residences in an area called Outer Richmond. The neighborhood is more village-like compared to the denser, urban Mission district I’d just left.
I entered Marla, took a seat and ordered a half of a grilled cheese and soup and hibiscus tea. The meal arrived promptly and was rich and satisfying. The atmosphere was a homey, Midwestern sort of arrangement of painted chairs and stained wood tables, macrame wall decorations, and flowers.
A large wood-fired bread oven divided the dining room and kitchen. It’s not the kind of showpiece fire-fed oven you’d see at a pizza place but a workhorse. Heat from the wood fire circulates up and around the bake chambers.
A worker was stuffing olive wood into the fire chamber in preparation for the overnight bake. I had a very enjoyable chat with a young bread baker who explained some of the details of the bread schedule and oven.
Their bread was displayed on the bottom shelf of a glass-front sales/display cabinet. I left thinking the place could do a better job highlighting their bread by bringing it up to eye level as well as telling the story of the remarkable oven.
Driving due east I stopped at Heartbaker, a combination bistro/bakery with a small bar, beer on tap and locally produced artwork on the walls. I ordered a chocolate brioche pretzel. By now I was pretty well stuffed, and my notes don’t indicate what I thought of the pretzel. It was not well-shaped but had a decent flavor.
The bakery/bistro had an interesting sidewalk cafe created by two portable half walls bookending a couple of tables with chairs. The half walls roll inside at night. This was mid-afternoon, not a particularly busy time for any bistro, but several couples were enjoying their meals as sunlight poured through the cafe’s open doors.
Time was fleeting so I skipped the next bakery on my map and went straight to b. Patisserie. I had read about the partnership between Michel Suas, founder of the San Francisco Baking Institute, and Belinda Leong, another pastry chef who had briefly studied under him. I expected their bakery to be a highlight of the trip, and I was not disappointed.
B. Patisserie is located in Pacific Heights, a busier commercial district than either of the previous two stops on my tour. The place was packed with customers spoiling their dinners on amazing croissants, tarts, madeleines, scones, cookies and other goodies.
I made my way along the counter, admiring but not buying. I simply couldn’t stuff another pastry in my mouth, or so I thought. I chatted with a counter worker who tried without success to get me to try a pastry. Instead I purchased a bottle of water and went outside to sit and digest the day’s activity.
While outside I noticed through the bakery’s picture window a tall, blond gentlemen talking with a worker behind the pastry counter. Although I had never met Michel Suas, I thought I recognized him from pictures I’d seen on the Bread Bakers Guild of America website. I went back inside and asked the woman who’d waited on me if it was indeed Michel (I think I referred to him as Michael.)
“Oh, you know Michel?” she asked.
“I know of him,” I replied. While I waited she got his attention and brought him over. I introduced myself as aspiring baker from Lafayette, Ind., with plans to open my own shop in the near future. I explained his bakery was the fourth or fifth I’d sampled that day.
He asked me which shops I’d seen, and we compared notes. Here was a man, I thought to myself, at ease with himself, proud of his profession, and full of life. A good role model.
He asked if I had tried one of their pastries, and I explained I couldn’t possibly fit another in my belly. Before leaving, however, I purchased a kouign amann the size of a softball. I told him I would eat it later, but he said it would be better eaten fresh, adding, “You’ll be in pain.”
I shook his hand and went back outside. I opened the sack, peeked in, and took a bite. Then another, and another until there was nothing left but crumbs all over my shirt. I looked through the window and saw Michel looking out at me giving me the thumbs up. I returned the gesture and then continued on my merry but bloated way.