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!
The first International Artisan Bakery Expo got off to a solid start with several sessions devoted to helping community bakery owners improve their product lines, plan for success and think outside the box.
My wife and I were particularly interested in a session on attracting and retaining quality workers led by business partners Leslie Mackie and Scott France of Macrina Bakery & Café in Seattle.
Starting from a small community bakery with one facility (similar to Smittybread, with production, packaging and sales under one roof), Macrina now has four retail locations plus a 50,000-square-foot production facility and 280 employees.
All along, a key challenge has been to attract and retain quality employees. They start by posting job openings whenever and wherever they can. I found it interesting that they have found great success with Indeed, an online job listing service that Smittybread has tried without much luck.
They have not sought growth for the sake of growth but rather to enhance the communities they serve and help them create an environment in which their workers can grow and thrive. It starts with employee orientation followed by a bread class in which Mackie explains the various products they sell and how they’re made. They also make sure each employee understands the company’s mission and core values.
“Our mission is enriching communities through the joy of artisan baking,” Mackie said. I sat there thinking, that mission fits Smittybread to a T.
While Smittybread will likely never achieve the scale of Macrina, its easy to foresee the day when we have more than one retail location and additional production space so that we can serve a wider audience and provide more opportunities for existing and future employees.
During a morning demonstration session, pastry chef Peter Yuen baked some excellent buttery croissants and then showed how to step it up a notch by using cocoa-colored dough to create a wood-grain pattern. I’m not sure how the beautifully colored croissants taste since they weren’t baked on the spot, but his plain butter croissants were not far removed from Smittybread’s croissants, a testament to our bakers’ skills.
In between workshops and demonstrations, my wife and I and two Smittybread employees perused the vendor aisles, tasted numerous samples, and met new industry contacts. We ended the day with a sushi dinner at Takashi, a small restaurant far removed from the Las Vegas strip and one I highly recommend.
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!
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.
Preparing for the weekly afternoon farmers market in West Lafayette is anything but routine for me. That’s because I like to come up with new baked items to sell while continuing to provide those products that have proven successful.
With limited production capacity, I have to start baking early (about 32 hours ahead of the market opening) and make good use of time. This usually means working on two or three and sometimes four breads at a time, all in various stages of development, and coordinating them so they don’t all reach oven-readiness at the same time. As I gain experience this becomes a little easier, but it also means I’m capable of doing more in the same amount of time. So instead of baking becoming more routine, it just becomes more action-packed.
Yesterday was a prime example. I have a list of products that I like to prepare on market day so they are as fresh as possible. That list includes pain au levain, sourdough rolls and usually some type of pastry, such as a brioche or laminated dough. Last week I added into the mix French baguettes. As I was not sure how well they would fit into a morning schedule, I omitted making pastries last week.
This week, however, I threw caution to the wind and decided to make all four products on market day. The following is drawn from a list of times I noted in my baking journal, providing a kind of outline of my morning “routine” that pretty much kept me on my feet and moving from 5 a.m. until the market started at 3:30 p.m.
5:52 — Start mixing dough for pain au levain, a type of sourdough bread, 100% naturally leavened. Adjust for humidity and temperature (reduce water, and ice it to 65 F). Finish initial mix at 6:09 and let it sit or “autolyze” until 6:30.
6:30 — Finish mixing and adjusting pain au levain. Place in container to proof.
6:40 — Take first batch of baguette dough out of fridge, divide, weigh and preshape. Set aside on floured board for a 1-hour rest. (This is repeated at approx 15-min intervals for three other batches of baguette dough.
7:24 — Finish dividing, weighing and shaping sourdough rolls, the dough for which was prepared the previous evening and refrigerated; fold pain au levain dough (it’s a very wet dough, so folding it helps it come together.)
7:40 — Shape first three baguettes. Start range oven and convection oven
8:00 — Preshape fourth batch of baguettes. Start second range oven, which is in a separate building.
8:30 — Divide, weight and shape brioche dough (made Monday, frozen, then thawed in refrigerator overnight. Still a little stiff in the middle but workable). Expect a two-hour proof.
9:00 — Transfer baguettes to convection oven to finish, then put first of two pans of sourdough rolls into second range oven.
9:15 — Fold pain au levain dough again; 9:20. Remove baguettes from convection oven and put sourdough rolls in it to finish browning; put second set of sourdough rolls into range oven.
9:27 — 2nd batch of baguettes shaped and into oven. Pull first pan of sourdough rolls out to cool. Send picture of rolls to my sweetie (first of two times I will sit this morning). So far so good.
9:40 — 2nd set of SD rolls out of second oven. Reduce temp from 450 F to 390 F (for brioche). Divide, weigh and preshape 12 pain au levain loaves; transfer 2nd set of baguettes to convection oven.
10:00 — Shape pain au levain loaves and place onto three boards, one of which is refrigerated; another is placed in cool part of house; 3rd will proof in warm bakery and be baked first.
10:15 — Last three (of 12) baguettes into oven. Fill 20 brioch pastries with blackberry preserve and pastry creme. Place in 390 F range oven. (damn, forgot the egg wash. But didn’t really have time anyway. Oh well, next week..)
10:50 — Brioch baked and looking delicious.
11:00 — First pain au levain into oven. Continue washing containers and utensils.
12:20 — Last pain au levain into convection oven. Finish cleaning off work bench and starting loading car with cooled rolls, brioch and baguettes.
All the rolls, loaves and pastries came out fine, and when the market was done all but five loaves of bread (out of 57 loaves) plus five bags of rolls and 16 pastries were gone. I was pooped, but it was a worthwhile and remunerative market week.
We were blessed with great weather at this past week’s farmers market in West Lafayette, Ind., and I was happy to see many returning customers and a few new ones. I also had the opportunity to chat with several acquaintances who came by say hello, which is always fun even if they don’t always buy a loaf of bread. (Hey, I don’t buy bread unless I really need a loaf so why should they?)
My daughter Kaytie helped set up, and as has happened before I had to send her home to get an item I’d forgotten to pack (this time it was a digital scale.) While running that errand she received a call from my youngest son, Adam, who had tried without success to reach me all morning. He broke the news that he and his wife, Laura, had welcomed into the world that morning their first child, a baby son they christened Henry Nicholas. It was exciting news, particularly because it is my first grandchild. (I have a ways to go to catch up with my wife, Kathleen, who has seven and is expecting her eighth!)
This week I reintroduced Seeded Sourdough in place of the rye with walnut and raisins I’d been selling with mixed success the previous two weeks. Although I received several compliments on the rye, they didn’t sell out like the other breads. The Seeded Sourdough loaves sold out, as did most everything else I took to market, so I went home with a good wad of cash and a nice feeling that all those hours in the home bakery were worth it.
This week I debuted a French baguette. Although in a way they are more trouble than they are worth for my size oven, I wanted to give it a try in honor of Bastille Day and because someone last week suggested I bake a few. I also wanted to see how well I could pull it off because in the past my experiences with baguettes have been hit and miss.
To streamline the production process, I chose a baguette recipe that calls for the dough to be refrigerated overnight. I divided the dough into 3-loaf batches the previous evening. That way I could take them out of refrigeration every 30 minutes so as one batch finished baking the next would be ready to go. The technique worked but it was like a three-ring circus with four different batches of baguettes in various stages of production.
There’s something about making a good baguette that is truly satisfying, and judging by the comments we got, customers are equally happy to see real French baguettes instead of those puffy imitations they find in the supermarkets around here. I think I’ll try them again next week.
After selling out my first two weeks at the West Lafayette Farmers Market, I have upped production to the point that I now have a few loaves left at the end of each market day. This is a good thing as I hate to shortchange customers who can’t get to market early or who happen to see us for the first time late in the day. And those loaves left unsold I’ve been able to sell or find uses for afterwards.
Even though market traffic seems to have slowed the past couple of weeks, I’ve been impressed with the number of returning and new customers who make it to the market and plunk down their cash for something as basic as sourdough bread. And the conversations I’ve had with customers who either want to know more about sourdough or who have sourdough experiences to share have been just as gratifying as the sales.
Being a university town (Purdue), West Lafayette sees a steep drop in residents during the summer break between spring and fall semesters, and I have noticed the drop in traffic the past three weeks. In addition, road construction has had a negative impact on market attendance, I think. The nearest major cross street (Cumberland) has been closed to traffic since spring, and construction on two highways outside town has detoured “through” traffic along Salisbury Street where the market is located. Consequently, getting to and from the West Lafayette Farmers Market has been more of a hassle the past few weeks, particularly for older drivers.
This past week, as an added incentive, I introduced a couple of new products. One was a sourdough rye made with walnuts and raisins, a recipe I got from Jeffrey Hamelman’s excellent book “Bread: A Baker’s Books of Techniques and Recipes.” I also made a couple of brioche pastries, one of which was brioche au sucre (brioche with sugar) and the other a brioche filled with strawberry and pastry cream. I had only two brioche left at the end of the day and just one rye loaf, so they were a hit.
I also had my first visit by health department inspectors. As a home-based baker, I’m not required to work out of a certified or inspected facility, but I still have to observe the health codes as they apply to retail sales. After they observed my booth and asked a few questions, the inspectors gave me a form that said “No violations at this time.” But I was advised to keep my plastic containers of bread from sitting directly on the ground and to make sure my bread labels include content weights.
One interesting side note: I had promised myself that I would make several batches of hot dog buns to sell for July 4, but it wasn’t until I was in the middle of this week’s market that I realized the 4th was already upon us. Oh well, there’s always Labor Day.
Another aspect of being in a university town is the number of residents who have traveled widely and tasted and experienced “old world” breads. I have talked to half a dozen people who after trying my sourdough ask if I’ve ever been to the Cheese Board Cooperative in Berkeley or tell me I should go there (I’ve been). One customer promised to bring me back some Cheese Board starter next time she goes.
I also have several regulars who are of German extraction (or who are from Germany) who feel as though they’ve found a home away from home at Smittybread. I have gotten the same reaction from an Italian who moved to nearby Montgomery County, where he raises vegetables for sale in West Lafayette and at other farmers’ markets. His wife, who makes and sells an excellent lasagne (with bechamel sauce) came by for three brioche pastries.
Finally, I recently received an email from a local charity who heard about Smittybread and wants me to make bread for a fundraiser later this year. I look forward to being a part of that worthy cause after the West Lafayette Farmers Markets closes for the season in October!
Determined not to get caught short of bread at this week’s West Lafayette Farmers Market, I upped production 20 percent compared with the previous week. As I’d feared, the weather took a turn for the worse, leaving me with gloomy visions of returning home with armloads of unsold bread. Although the forecast had called for scattered thundershowers, it was raining steadily when I got up before dawn, and it rained on and off into the afternoon as great armies of heavy clouds slowly marched overhead looking for farmers markets to pillage.
When I arrived at the market site just before 2 p.m., the normally bustling site was mostly empty. Several vendors had cancelled; others must have been watching the skies because they rolled in later than usual. Still, when the opening bell sounded at 3:30 p.m., many of the stalls were empty. Soon after that, the smattering of rain turned into a downpour. This lasted a few minutes, or long enough to fill the popup ceiling with pockets of water before tapering off.
Despite the rain, turnout was slow but steady and we were able to keep the bread dry and satisfy several returning customers and a few new ones. During the dry spells we were able to chat with fellow vendors who’d obviously been through such storms and who likewise were grateful that the day was not a washout.
While the rain fell several market-goers took shelter under our tent, giving us a chance to captivate them with the wonders of our products. A few bought bread while waiting to move on. Moreover, I learned just how hardy sourdough lovers are. Returning customers came equipped with hats, rain jackets or umbrellas, and shopping bags.
The rain let up about the time my wife, Kathleen, got off work and arrived to help with sales. When the closing bell sounded, we were left with about 15 loaves out of 55. Some of the products were sellouts, giving me a taste of what I could use more of in the future (and what perhaps to cut back.) A surprise best seller were the Kouign-Amann, hand-sized laminated pastries, some of which I filled with a jam made out of farmers’ market strawberries.
After unloading our tent and other supplies at home, Kathleen and I went downtown for a bite, taking the leftover bread with us. While downtown we ran into some folks we knew and sold a few more loaves. We also sent out messages on social media to anyone interested in buying. By the following afternoon most of the unsold bread was gone, although at discounted prices. All in all it was a good market and a learning experience for Smittybread.
OK, maybe selling out my first week wasn’t a fluke. This week at the West Lafayette Farmers Market I came prepared with 45 loaves of four different sourdough breads, plus five bags of rolls (1 lb. per 6 rolls) and a couple dozen “pocketbreads,” which are sourdough rolls with goodies inside. That compares with 32 loaves and no rolls last week. In other words, I boosted my production more than 50 percent. Still, all the bread and all but a few pocket rolls were gone within two hours of the 3:30 p.m. opening. Whew!
I didn’t expect a super high turnout because it was hotter than hades Wednesday afternoon (in the low 90s in the shade, if you could find any!). And with 15 additional loaves, I thought surely I’d have a few to sell after 5:30 p.m. But the rush began even before the 3:30 p.m. opening. One of the early customers included someone associated with the market who saw what happened the previous week and wanted to make sure to get hers before they were all gone!
Luckily I received able assistance from my good friend and artist LaDonna Vohar. She helped set up the booth and sell bread during the great rush. By the time my wife, Kathleen, arrived from work the bread was gone and we just stood there in our new Smittybread T-shirts watching the dwindling number of marketgoers and wondering when to pack up and leave.
Not that I’m complaining, but it makes for a long afternoon when no one stops to buy bread or talk about bread for the final hour and a half. Half the fun is explaining the differences between the various breads, answering any questions customers might have about the product, and talking shop with customers who are into baking or who are familiar with sourdough.
Several friends have asked how difficult it will be to increase production. I tell them that if I had a bread oven, cranking up production would be no problem. Even a small hearth oven (with or without steam injection) could handle a minimum of 16 loaves per bake. But cranking them out five or six loaves per hour using a kitchen range oven and a small commercial convection oven is time consuming, difficult work.
The baking is definitely the bottleneck, but on the plus side I am getting very familiar with the slight differences in volume, shape, and texture that occur when loaves are baked too soon, too late or just at the right time. I am also learning how to schedule production so that when the ovens are warming up to 475 F I’m being productive; when the loaves are baking, I’m measuring and mixing or shaping, etc. In fact, my goal in selling at the farmers market is working toward the bigger goal of learning what customers want and how to produce it consistently so that someday I can open my own bakery.
This past week I was able to increase production with slight adjustments in timing and oven usage. I also received some good advice from Jeffrey Hamelman at King Arthur Flour regarding alternative approaches to retarding levain so I can build it once and use it at different times of the day. It’s no big secret — refrigeration — but I was trying to keep my levain fresh by feeding it, which requires more guesswork (not to mention more flour!)
This week I plan on adding an external temperature-controlled relay to a two-door refrigerator so that it consistently stays at 50 degrees, which is an optimum temperature for overnight retardation of sourdoughs. Assuming that task succeeds, I’ll be able to boost production without increasing my lead time before sale. I think another 12 or 15 loaves should do the trick. We’ll see next week!