is a bakery close to my heart. Rob & Monica have been a compass in the storm at many points as Smoke Signals
teetered and shuttered into existence. Our exchanges concerning the joys and sorrows of baking brought me a sense of community and alleviated feeling so alone in my remote, mountain bakery. These folks are real. These bakers have salt. They are no nonsense about bread, family, love and quality of life. I tip my hat to you Chicken Bridge
. Learn more about them right here, right now.
1. What brought you to the practice of baking and is there a particular aspect you enjoy most?
There’s nothing all that romantic about how we both came to baking, it was economic necessity. Monica started baking at a little cafe and then a small bakery in northern Wisconsin while in college to help pay for rent and food. At one point the bakery needed a bread delivery driver and me being fresh out of work after a failed union organizing campaign at a group home for youth-at-risk boys picked up the job. Not long after that I started weighing out preferments, then mixing, then pulling regular shifts. We were only there for a short time but it was long enough to plant the seed.
After some Central American adventures we found ourselves in North Carolina where we easily fell back into baking. After years of working in other bakeries (and a few soul robbing non baking gigs) we started talking about how we’d like to try baking for ourselves. So in 2007, while renting an old farm house, we built our first earthen oven and started a weekly CSB (Community Supported Bread) program. We would bake once a week for friends and folks willing pay a bit for our creations.
I think it was then that we discovered the most enjoyable and rewarding aspect of baking: creating. With just our hands, a few very basic raw ingredients and fire in a mud oven we saw how something could be made and shared. Still, that is the part of baking that sustains us—the feeding of our community with our own creations.
2. What are some of the most exciting changed you’ve recently made? What prompted them?
One of the biggest changes we’ve made recently was to switch over to Carolina Ground’s
stone milled flours. After some baking trials and taste testing at the 2013 Asheville Bread Festival
we were convinced that this was just the thing that was missing from our bakery. We had been able to get local wheat and rye grains from friendly nearby farmers but with only a small, inefficient mill we weren’t able to produce any quantity of flour. Having Carolina Ground, and to a lesser extent Lindley Mills
(our local mill), contract wheat and rye purchases with North Carolina farmers and produce quality flour from those grains has been amazing. We feel that you can taste the difference in our breads. At first our customers would ask, “What’s different about your sourdough loaves, they taste so fresh.” I think what they meant is that they actually taste like wheat. The flavors and aromas of the flours are truly unique and have changed the way our breads taste.
This switch in flour also had an effect on the way we bake. Each year the harvest is a bit different. The protein levels change, the flour acts differently. To the large production bakery I can see how this would be unacceptable. For us though it was, and remains, an exciting challenge. I think it makes us better bakers, not because our products always turn out better (far from that) but that it means that we have to pay more attention to and master the various parts of the baking process. Sometimes we get it right but usually we find that the dough has a lot more to teach us.
3. How do you sell your goods // can you tell us a bit about your business model and how it’s evolved?
We have really evolved as a bakery and continue to change each year to meet new demands. When we started we used the CSB model where folks would pay up front for 8 weeks of bread. Each week we would bake a different bread and deliver it. The cost was $5/loaf/week. In the beginning this was great because we’d get about 20 subscriptions, which translated into $800. When we were still buying equipment and then later on when we were building a new oven that big chunk of money up front was nice.
After we became more established at the local farmers’ markets we noticed that our CSB subscriptions started dwindling. After some figuring it was clear that many of our CSB customers had made the switch to coming to the markets where there was more selection and convenience. So now we focus about 80% of our production for the farmers’ markets and feel really satisfied with those venues.
We have also kept up some great collaborations with two local restaurants and a soup, salad and bread CSA. Though our markets run year around there’s no denying that the winter months can get a little slow. Having these steady accounts has really helped.
4. We get to see a lot of interaction between your family and the bakery. How do you find balance between home life and baking?
Finding a balance feels like a constant and ever changing challenge. We have a 9 year old and 1 year old who have entirely different needs at times and they rarely coincide with what needs to happen in the bakery. It’s not uncommon to find one of the boys in the bakery with us, either in a play pen, toddling about or in the case of the older one helping at the shaping table or filling the wheel barrow with wood. Although there are challenges there are a lot of positives about our situation. With us both at home we rarely have to worry about child care and can easily jump back and forth between the baking tasks and domestic duties.
On another level though there is an unknown value in having children see the labor of their parents and even partake in aspects of that labor. Our oldest boy regularly comes with me to the mill to get flour, stacks fire wood, watches the flames heat the oven, divide and pre shape dough and comes to market to sell our products. I think he has a real connection with what making bread means and how much work it takes to make money. I think there are loads of lessons in growing up with a trade like baking, farming, mechanics, etc. It’s something that historically happened just as a way of life but in many ways has been lost. All that said, I think it’s simply that children in a bakery make for happier kids and a sweeter atmosphere to work in.
6. What drew you to wood fired ovens? Can you tell us about your oven? What have been some of the rewards and challenges of wood fired baking?
When we first started talking about what our own bakery would look like it became clear that we wanted it to be different from some of the commercial bakeries we had worked in. One thing that would come up was an authenticity to how breads were historically made. It was an abstract idea, at best. But after seeing a few wood fired ovens and tasting the bread that came out of them I was convinced that we should try building a simple earthen oven. I don’t think wood fired ovens are better than any other oven for baking but the process of baking in them is absolutely romantic to me. I think it makes for more work but there are rewards. Watching the transformation of a piece of wood into heat then to bread is humbling. That tree stood out in the world for decades, soaking up the heat of the sun. All that heat, all those years, all that energy gets released in a matter of minutes. When the oven hearth transfers that energy to the bread and you see the oven spring it brings it all home to me. I don’t get that from other types of ovens.
The oven we’re currently using was built four years ago and has served us well. It is an earthen oven with six inch thermal mass cob walls, six inch insulated cob walls then lined with a fire blanket and stucco. The hearth floor diameter is 5’6” capable of holding about 30 1.5 lb (.675 kg) loaves. Materials like cinder blocks, fill gravel, empty wine bottles (hearth floor insulation), sand, clay, and saw dust were all scavenged for free. We did buy fire brick for the hearth floor and the fire blankets for insulation, which were the major expenses. All tolled I doubt we spent much more than $1,000 on the oven itself, which is amazing when I think that it more than pays for itself each week of baking.
It’s not without it’s challenges though. One continual struggle I have is with steam. The addition of steam at the beginning of any bake is important to producing nice loaves. However, steam really deteriorates the interior dome. At first I thought it was just the effect on earthen materials but in discussions with other wood fired bakers I realize that even masonry cements have their limits and over time will be compromised. I still don’t have a good solution. I guess everything needs to be repaired at some point, even shiny steam injected ovens!
5. What advice would you give home bakers who are looking to make the leap to commercial baking?
We are bakers, not business folks. Taxes, marketing and the like have been a bit of a challenge for us. I think if you know you love baking and you feel confident in your formulas and the process of baking then your half way there. The other half is financing the business side of it. Having a business plan (though this sounds totally boring to me!) is helpful. Having a clear idea of where to sell your products and how much it costs to produce them will take you a long way.
I also feel like I should say something about sleep deprivation. There’s nothing like baking to teach you how much you can do on such little sleep. But filling a whole rolling rack of bread by the end of the nigh is certainly worth the weary eyes.