Tag Archives: King Arthur Flour

Smittybread bakery rises a bit slowly, but surely

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.

Bakery exterior before
The future home of Smittybread (where that truck is parked) at 415 S. Fourth St. looks a little rough now but will soon get some TLC.

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 UniversityI 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.

Smilin' Smitty
Smilin’ Smitty greets a customer in his West Lafayette supermarket.

One constant that kept turning over in my head was a love for cooking I’d inherited from my Italian-heritage mom. 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.

Jeff and me
David Smith watches Jeffrey Hamelman slice a Bee Sting cake in the King Arthur Baking Education Center in January 2015.

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.

Choc cinammon rolls
Chocolate and nut cinnamon rolls like mom used to make on Christmas day were a big hit at the holiday bake sale.

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.

I’m going to park a dough sheeter right about here, hence the extra outlet.

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.

My 15 minutes (seconds?) of fame

The last box. Now, if I could just remember where I put it …

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.

Smittybread feature
An article about Smittybread appears in the Summer 2016 issue of Lafayette Magazine.

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!

Smittybread pain au levain ready for market.

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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 1.16.22 PM
Screen grab courtesy of my computer and WLFI.com

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.

Seeds of Success

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

We were blessed with great weather at this past week’s farmers market in West Lafayette, Ind., and I was happy to see many returning customers and a few new ones. I also had the opportunity to chat with several acquaintances who came by say hello, which is always fun even if they don’t always buy a loaf of bread. (Hey, I don’t buy bread unless I really need a loaf so why should they?)

My daughter Kaytie helped set up, and as has happened before I had to send her home to get an item I’d forgotten to pack (this time it was a digital scale.) While running that errand she received a call from my youngest son, Adam, who had tried without success to reach me all morning. He broke the news that he and his wife, Laura, had welcomed into the world that morning their first child, a baby son they christened Henry Nicholas. It was exciting news, particularly because it is my first grandchild. (I have a ways to go to catch up with my wife, Kathleen, who has seven and is expecting her eighth!)

This week I reintroduced Seeded Sourdough in place of the rye with walnut and raisins I’d been selling with mixed success the previous two weeks. Although I received several compliments on the rye, they didn’t sell out like the other breads. The Seeded Sourdough loaves sold out, as did most everything else I took to market, so I went home with a good wad of cash and a nice feeling that all those hours in the home bakery were worth it.

IMG_4734This week I debuted a French baguette. Although in a way they are more trouble than they are worth for my size oven, I wanted to give it a try in honor of Bastille Day and because someone last week suggested I bake a few. I also wanted to see how well I could pull it off because in the past my experiences with baguettes have been hit and miss.

To streamline the production process, I chose a baguette recipe that calls for the dough to be refrigerated overnight. I divided the dough into 3-loaf batches the previous evening. That way I could take them out of refrigeration every 30 minutes so as one batch finished baking the next would be ready to go. The technique worked but it was like a three-ring circus with four different batches of baguettes in various stages of production.

There’s something about making a good baguette that is truly satisfying, and judging by the comments we got, customers are equally happy to see real French baguettes instead of those puffy imitations they find in the supermarkets around here. I think I’ll try them again next week.

Man of the world

Brioche with strawberry and pastry filling.
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.

pain au levaine
Pain au levain just out of the oven, loaded in the car and headed to market.
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!

Sold out … again!

Dave “Smitty” Smith at the June 10, 2015, West Lafayette Farmers Market

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.

A loaf of sourdough Smittybread
A loaf of sourdough Smittybread

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!