Last year the Mississippi legislature passed the Cottage Food Law allowing home bakers such as myself to produce baked-goods and other non-hazardous foods in the kitchen of a private home for sale at farmers markets. This provided a great opportunity to test the waters and see if there is interest for my bread here in Starkville, and if long hours baking large quantities of bread would be as much fun as I kept telling my wife it would be.
I transformed my kitchen into a bakeshop, purchased ingredients in bulk, and got to work. I planned for a batch of sourdough boules, baguettes, and croissants. Each night of the week there would be something going leading up to the Saturday morning market. My biggest fear was that something would go terribly wrong at some stage and I would be sitting at the market with a handful of miserable crusts telling everyone to just wait until next week, but on opening day everything came together. We had a great spread. The crowd was bustling. We handed out samples, made a lot of new fans, and sold out in a blur of activity.
In fact, the momentum carried us through the entire summer. We made some adjustments along the way. I dropped the croissants from the menu, as the time and effort was simply too great. We faced many disappointed customer, most of whom cheered up when we introduced them to a Portuguese biscuit.
Bread baking is all about timing. The summer market season was exactly the kind of learning experience I was hoping for. During the week I worked full-time in order to bring home bread (the money kind.) That only leaves so many hours for bread making (the edible kind.) I have no intention of becoming a predawn or all-night baker, so careful planning was vital. There is a great amount of room to adjust the timing of any bread formula, but it requires a deep understanding of how time, temperature, hydration, and the activity of yeast affect the final product. Theory can be learned from books, but true understanding only comes from experience.
Starkville, MS does not have a neighborhood bread bakery. I suppose that is the main reason why I became a baker instead of a customer. I have lived in San Francisco and Portland, OR where I was a regular customer and I miss having access to real bread. Grand Central Baking Company was my neighbor bakery in Portland and remains one of the inspirations for my own dream of a bakery. Another great lesson from the market was learning just how many others here in town share my dream.
At the end of the market season, I made a trip to Las Vegas, not to gamble my profits away, but to attend the International Baking Industry Expo (IBE2013.) This event takes place every three years and brings together every aspect of the industry from factory machinery, to organic hand-ground flours. The highlights included informative seminars about opening a small bakery and a gathering of the Bread Bakers Guild members. I returned home armed with enough knowledge to understand just what a large gap stands between my home-based operation and the neighborhood bakery I am driving toward.
A baker featuring hand-made slowly fermented all-natural hearth-baked bread faces several hurdles unique to this business plan. First is time and effort. There are few shortcuts that do not result in a reduction in quality. A certain number of hours required to produce the product. For a one-man operation this leaves little time for the retail side of the business, and for each added employee production must be increased.
Secondly, bread is a product that has a very short shelf-life. Production must meet demand. Unlike a restaurant, bread cannot be made on demand, and unlike groceries, products cannot sit endlessly on the shelf to wait for a buyer. This is where the biggest risk is involved. Understanding my customer-base will take time and experimentation. The challenge is to work this into the business plan and stay alive long enough to begin to get it right more often than not!
So what is next? For now, we are gearing up for another season at the Starkville Community Market. We will try out some new products, and do our best to spread the word and gauge interest. If you share my dream of a neighborhood bakery, you can help by letting us know. Come and see us on Saturday mornings this summer, check us out on Facebook and sign up for our newsletter so you can be the first to know what comes next!