Category Archives: sourdough bread

A ‘soft’ opening and some hard knocks

Bakery Day 2
John Kuckartz makes pretzels while Kathleen Farrell-Smith waits on a customer. Note: The yellow-painted counter is made of recycled Purdue lab benches with soapstone tops. The blackboard is from Purdue salvage, too.

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.

Smittysign
A draft version of the Smittybread bakery sign that will hang over the sidewalk at 415 S. Fourth St.

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.

Tom and Gretel
Good friends Tom Herr and Gretel Kalupka enjoy a sandwich and chips for lunch on Day One. It was Tom’s second visit that day.

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.

Baguette forwardAs 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.

Stormy Wednesday

Storm mapWhen 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.

Bakery Interior July 12
A look inside the new Smittybread Bakery as the final pieces fit into place, including an observation window. We hope to open in a week or two.

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!

Mini loaves a big hit

mini loaves
Mini Smittybreads: (clockwise from l.r.) Multi-grain, rye, seeded, pain au levan.

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.

multigrain miniloaves
The larger of these multi-grains is for sampling purposes.

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.

 

Outstanding in My Field

I’ll admit the past few farmers markets have been a bit of a struggle. It’s been hot. Hot and wet. Hot and humid. Did I mention hot? This made baking more of a challenge and kept crowds at bay.

Thus I breathed a sigh of relief this past when a cold front moved through, bringing temperatures back down to the upper 70s. Moreover, the ugly patch of rain clouds that had been moving steadily toward West Lafayette on the radar all morning steered far south, leaving the West Lafayette Farmers Market pleasantly warm, breezy and dry.

I think some vendors stayed at home fearing a rain-out, but I baked the same number of loaves I’d been bringing all along, amounting to a little more than 73 pounds of baked bread. Between the bags of rolls, baguettes and full-size loaves, it’s a sizable amount to bake three or four loaves at a time!

Anticipating a surge in hearth bread fans with the resumption of Purdue University classes, I baked several loaves of rye sourdough that disappeared quickly.
Anticipating a surge in bread fans with the start of Purdue University’s fall semester, I baked several loaves of rye sourdough. They went fast.

Preparing for market, I anticipated a bump in market attendance with the return of Purdue University students and faculty after summer break, and I wasn’t disappointed. I saw many new faces, including several Europeans who stopped to check out hearty breads they’d been unable to find elsewhere locally.

For the occasion, I baked half a dozen loaves of 40 percent whole rye sourdough, the recipe for which I found in Jeffrey Hamelman’s excellent book Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes. I sold two loaves before I even got to market, and the remaining four didn’t take long to disappear.

My booth location was a bit of a challenge. Because I’m a relative newcomer, I don’t get to pick and choose where my booth will be located, and this past week I drew a spot practically by myself. Even so, loyal customers sought me out, and those unfamiliar with Smittybread could hardly miss the booth. I sold out, down to the half loaf of Lafayette sourdough I’d cut into for free samples (half price of course!) It’s a nice feeling loading empty bread boxes into the car when it’s time to go home.

Seeds of Success

Seeded sourdough, featuring a coating of white and dark sesame seeds outside and toasted sunflower, toasted sesame and flax seed inside.
Seeded sourdough, featuring a coating of white and dark sesame seeds outside and toasted sunflower, toasted sesame and flax seed inside.

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.

IMG_4734This 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.