After hiking miles though the Las Vegas Convention Center, we spent the third day of the International Artisan Bakery Expo meeting some amazing bakers and stuffing ourselves on samples.
First order of business was having a recipe book signed. Before leaving Indiana for Las Vegas I’d promised one of our bakers, Anne Huber, that I’d have her copy of The Bread Baker’s Apprentice signed by Peter Reinhart. I’d looked forward to meeting with him anyway, and this was a perfect excuse.
Years earlier it was Reinhart who set me on the path toward serious bread making with his book Crust and Crumb. On Thursday he was scheduled to give a presentation titled “The Future of Bread” and was also promoting his latest work, Perfect Pan Pizza. I introduced myself shortly before his presentation began, and after a pleasant chat about bread, pizza and the bakery business he whipped out a Sharpie and signed Anne’s book with the inscription (spoiler alert!) “May your crust always be crisp and your bread always rise.”
Before Reinhart completed his presentation I slipped out of the conference room to attend a baking demonstration by Richard Miscovich, a baker who also played a pivotal role in my second career. A few years ago, while I was still learning the ins and outs of sourdough baking I signed up for an online baking course Miscovich taught through the web platform Craftsy (now Bluprint.)
His down-to-earth yet scholarly approach to sourdough bread helped me crack open the twin veils of mystery and misinformation that often surrounds the subject. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to hang around and meet him, but it was a pleasure watching him in action.
I left his demo early in order to talk with Craig Ponsford, one of leader’s in this country’s artisan bread movement and a gold medal winner in the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, often dubbed the Olympics of baking. My daughter, Kaytie, had told me the day before she watched him pre-shape baguettes and that she found his technique simpler and faster than mine.
After I introduced myself, he asked me how I currently pre-shape baguettes. I explained that I fold my dough in four directions. He said my method not only takes longer, it defeats the purpose of aligning the gluten strands in one direction. The conversation went something like this:
Smitty (slightly hurt): “Well, my baguettes are pretty good. I sell a lot of them.”
Ponsford: “My baguettes were judged best in the world. Can you beat that?”
Smitty: “Not yet. Maybe someday.”
After that we chatted about our backgrounds. Turns out we both attended state college in California in the early 80s, (he in fisheries, I in journalism) He opened his first bakery at the age of 24 while I worked as a newspaper reporter and editor most of my working life until opening Smittybread in 2017.
He now owns a bakery in San Rafael, Calif., called Ponsford Place that in some ways reminds me of Smittybread. Both are small, on-site production shops that connect the customer to the baker and focus on quality of product and experience.
Now that the bakery expo is over, my wife, Kathleen, and daughter, Kaytie, have a few extra days in Vegas to ponder what was learned, see the sites and enjoy sleeping in. Meanwhile, my stepson Brent has flown on to Austin, Texas, to visit a friend.
For those of you Smittybread customers and staff who missed us and your favorite breads and pastries this past week, be assured we’ll be back at it this coming week, and we look forward to getting our hands back in the dough. See you soon!
Four of us from Smittybread are attending this week’s International Artisan Bakery Expo in Las Vegas NV. We’ve come to learn, renew, and relax after a very busy 18 months baking artisan breads and pastries on a full-time basis at 415 S. Fourth St. in Lafayette.
First off, that means the bakery will be closed this week. A scratch bakery is very labor intensive, and with approximately one quarter of the staff missing in action it would be impractical for us to try to remain open.
My wife Kathleen and I arrived Sunday morning and had a great brunch at Arizona Charlie’s with my brother Michael, my sister Victoria and her companion, Jane. They’ve called Las Vegas home for many years, and Jane sprang for lunch with her casino credits. Thanks, Jane!
Today we will be joined by my daughter Kaytie and Kathleen’s son, Brent. Kaytie is a former Starbucks barista who now is one of our most talented and productive pastry workers. Brent is my right-hand man when it comes to mixing and shaping sourdough breads, a job that is mentally and physically demanding.
Sadly I couldn’t afford to bring along the entire staff. But at least they’ll get a much-needed post-holiday rest. Besides which, somebody’s got to feed the starters!
Our goal in Vegas, besides making a killing, is to learn as much as we can from talented bakers who will share insights on baking phenomenal breads and pastries, hiring and retaining good employees, choosing the right equipment for the job, fine-tuning the product mix, and much more. We also plan to scope out bakery equipment on display at scores of vendor booths.
Baking on even a small artisan scale is an expensive proposition, and finding the right equipment for one’s products, space and budget is challenging. Commercial ovens and dough handling equipment are not the kind of things you just buy on Amazon and send back if they don’t work out.
While away, I intend to update this sadly neglected blog with what we learn at the expo as well as content I’ve been meaning to share for some time, including a behind-the-scenes look at bakery missteps and what happens when things don’t turn out exactly as planned.
Smittybread’s doors will be locked until Wednesday, March 13. Mark your calendars because we intend to bring back new ideas and product formulas that will be sure to please the palate, improve the business and enable us to continue serving our growing customer base and community for a long time.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what you are interested in.