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.
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.
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.
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.