I Opened a Bakery
I opened Montclair Bread Company in May 2012. Malachi was five months old, Keegan was two and Josie was three. The first week was tough. One customer walked in the door, saw me standing behind the counter and burst into tears because I was the new guy and she missed the old guy. The bakery which occupied 113 Walnut Street before mine, ceased to exist when the owners retired and moved to Australia.
Slowly, I forged ahead and welcomed new customers. I never wanted the bakery to look empty so when times were slow, I invited my friends to come by for coffee and croissants on the house. I asked them to sit outside to enjoy them so people walking by would notice. I did whatever I could to encourage people to gather at the bakery. I read stories about doughnuts to children on the patio, I gave away prize boxes of doughnuts each week, I organized a community street fair and I started a running club.
When the going gets tough, it’s easy to forget there was a time when no one came to visit. There was a time when thirty customers made for a busy day. There was a time I couldn’t afford an espresso machine, a real dough mixer or a steam injected bread oven. There were workarounds, lots of them. Customers emailed me their orders. Some of them I remembered to write down. Some were lost forever. I forgot about a cake order for Christmas Eve one year, a Boston Cream Cake for someone’s husband who had the unfortunate luck of being born on one of the busiest bakery days of the year. I couldn’t produce the cake. I apologized a lot.
I got better at hiring great people as the bakery grew. I hired people who were really good at the things I am really terrible at…like organizing customers’ orders so they don’t get lost or hiring great people.
I keep opening the door each day because I don’t know what else I would do in life.
I love having the ability to bake whatever I want, whenever I want. Sometimes I bake a batch of bread I haven’t made in a while on a sleepy Monday afternoon. Occasionally, I sneak to the bakery well after hours, and whip up a batch of chocolate pudding with fresh whipped cream on top. Once I spent all day (after the morning baking was complete) making a huge batch of tamales for the staff. Owning a bakery is like having giant foodie playground you can visit anytime.
I love seeing my children absorb the world around them, the only world they know. “How old is your daughter? When did she learn how to braid challah?” She’s ten and I’m not sure of her first time, she’s been doing it for as long as I can remember. I never taught her how to button her shirt but she figured that out too. Both Josie and Keegan have their ups and downs in math. Josie had to be pulled out of class for extra assistance but when she got to the unit about money and making change, she tested above average for her grade level. Keegan struggled through long division but is flying high through fractions and percentages because he knows his way around a recipe.
I’ve had a lot of failures. The banana split doughnuts were a huge flop and a giant waste of time. As much as I adored the spicy semolina bread sticks, no one else did. All it takes is one big win and I forget about all of those things that didn’t stick. I know I’m doing something right when I get emails and notes pining over the cinnamon buns or asking for more carrot cake.
Every single time I pull a perfect baguette out of the oven, I feel validated. Flour, water, yeast & salt mixed in just the right way, perfectly shaped, perfectly proofed, perfectly scored…deep brown crust pulling up and away from the center of the loaf with crisp, slightly charred edges. There is truly nothing that makes me happier than a baguette that tells me I did everything right.
More than the baking, I love the people. The reason I devoted my life to baking bread, rather than making fancy wedding cakes, was to be a part of the community for breakfast, lunch & dinner, everyday, not just one special occasion. I remember the woman who came in every morning for coffee the first year I was open. Then, she was joined by a man. They served my doughnuts at their wedding reception. Today, they continue to come in with their two kiddos. I can’t believe I’ve been doing this long enough to see families grow and change but it is truly a special thing to witness.
Would life be less stressful without the bakery or would I find another project to take up the same mental space? In some ways, I live for the stress of it. Nothing is more gratifying than finding a solution to a really tough problem. All of those disasters, the stresses, the reasons why I would tell anyone who asks NEVER to open a bakery…I live for them. I moved the bakery to a new space in less than 24 hours on the coldest day of the year so we could be open for business on New Year’s Eve. I stalked the Mayor at a local ribbon cutting for another business to enlist his help convincing the town that the Baker’s Dozen Half Marathon was worth doing….after it was already sold out….after I got a cease and desist order from the town…after they had given provisional approval. I came up with a plan to make doughnuts on the busiest doughnut day of the year without a functioning mixer. If I didn’t have to overcome these daily challenges, life would be boring and dull. If I didn’t know what it was like to pivot on a dime and come up with plans b, c and d, maybe I would still be using a cane to walk down the stairs instead of racing 5ks and piling on miles through the streets of Montclair. Maybe.
Creating memories through food and community is the most rewarding part of my business and the number one reason I keep giving up a good night’s sleep to unlock the door in the morning. There’s nothing more satisfying than teaching a baking class and a couple weeks later, getting a picture of a loaf of sourdough one of the students made at home. Or hearing the 10 year old in my summer camp tell me if his science class was this cool, he would totally pay attention….after listening to my detailed description of how yeast makes bread rise.
When I opened the bakery, I sought to right all the wrongs (or what I thought was wrong) of my previous employers and recreate what they did well. The company I worked for just prior to opening the bakery, and for the first three years of business, eliminated their entire marketing department because ‘we’re a sales driven organization, not a marketing based organization.’ This was during the time I was wrapping up my MBA in marketing. I made sure to allocated Montclair Bread Co. dollars to create a brand that people recognize. I designed the logo to mimic the punk rock band logos that used to be stenciled across every side walk and street sign in Gainesville, FL.
I can’t count the number of awful experiences I’ve had. In college my boss screamed in my face showering me with droplets of spit after I gave it my all to make it through Easter brunch service because I didn’t move a stack of plates fast enough. The world renowned pastry chef I worked for at the Ritz told his sous chef the accurate instructions to make a recipe work, in French, and only gave me part of the method knowing I would fail. He didn’t know I spoke French…until the day he cursed at me in his mother tongue and I dropped an egg on the ground in horror. I rarely had creative control over anyone else’s menu. Above all, I never felt like I was doing enough to prove I could work to my potential while raising my children.
I try to be a better boss and take from the positive experiences I had along the way or the ones I wish I had. Instead of being banished to a mop closet to express breast milk like I was when I worked for a notable grocery store chain, the MBCo office turned into a pumping studio. At one point there were four different women pumping breast milk for their babies at the same time. Every day schools and daycares are closed, the office turns into a nursery full of art projects and half eaten bananas.
As far as creative control over the menu, I encourage the team to make it their own. Kyra’s pear, brie and arugula sandwich is still a top seller, eight years after it first appeared at the bakery. Bananas Foster doughnut, MBCo tarts, Buffalo chicken doughnuts and chocolate chip cookies all started with a suggestion from the staff.
My staff is the heart and soul of the bakery. Without them, none of this would be possible. It’s great to have a team of high school students come in to their own while working at the bakery. I get to hear about college applications, acceptances and then they pack up and leave for their next big adventure in life. When they come back to work at the bakery during their winter and summer breaks, I know I’m doing something right. I’ve gotten notes through the years from previous employees who have moved on to work for other bakeries, coffee shops or take jobs in completely different settings…they say, it’s not the same…there’s no soul. On those crazy days, those crazy weeks, those crazy years, we have each other. No one knows what it’s like but the people standing by my side through all of it. I appreciate them. I am grateful for them. I am grateful for this life, this path I have been given.