Monday, October 31, 2011

The little bakery that thought it could...

Well, it's been four delivery runs now, and our little experiment in alternative retail seems to be gaining a bit of traction. We have between thirty and fifty deliveries of fresh sourdough bread heading out to the suburbs of Newcastle every Saturday morning - and by all accounts from our customers, we seem to have hit the nail on the head. People tell us they are enjoying receiving their bread at home on Saturdays, and don't mind the idea of a subscription system to make it all happen. Each week we pick up about ten new customers - our goal of 100 subscribers seems very achievable.

The really interesting thing, though, is the connections we are making in the process. People tell us, without our asking, what they think. They refer us directly to friends, and ask us which particular breads might suit them for particular occasions or menus. They are incredibly accommodating as we develop our business, and it's obvious that they want it to keep going.

There is no particular demographic using the service - we have all ages, all stratas of society, all types of customers. I can say, though, that the majority of the ordering is done by women. I guess this reflects the nature of household management more than anything - women still run households. Having said that, there are plenty of men accessing our service - possibly because they might have been delegated to do the pickup run for breakfast on Saturday morning, or maybe because they just like good bread. Still, it seems the language is quality, and our customers have common ground in wanting access to it. I guess that's why people came from all over to visit our shop in Hunter street too.

I'm curious as to whether people choose our product due to our business structure though. My feeling is they don't - or if they do, it's secondary in their thinking. I'm guessing there is a 'feelgood factor' at work here,  a kind of human thing that wants the local baker to do well. Whether this feelgood factor extends to the ideas I've been putting out through this blog remains to be seen. The conventional wisdom is convenience and taste are the real selling points - but I'd be interested to hear whether the idea of a community based enterprise comes into your head when you're buying a loaf of SourdoughBaker bread, ahead of a loaf from the local bakery.

When I started this thing, it was all about community enterprise - the idea that a 'community of need' exists (scuse the pun) which wasn't (and couldn't be) satisfied by the corporate business model. I guess I really wanted to find out if one actually existed, and if it did, would it put its money where its needs were, so to speak, and thereby allow it to happen? The answer came back over the past year and a half. It does, and it will.

People have put their labour and their money into the SourdoughBaker enterprise, not to make a profit on their investment, but to help it to come into being. In some cases, the motivation was less than entirely altruistic, but even then there was a fair dollop of goodwill attached. And we did the best we could with what we got - which was less than required, but enough to get a groundswell going. In the end, we didn't have enough time to realise the dream in Hunter Street, as commercial reality dictates a commercial return. Shortsightedness is the bane of the capitalist idea, but this I already knew. What I didn't know was the strength of this 'community of need' - strength that pushes me on to refine and improve the business model itself.

Which lead me to social enterprise. Wikipedia defines social enterprise as 'an enterprise that applies business strategies to achieve philanthropic goals'. I see it as something which works upon those who come into contact with it in order to open their hearts and minds to the greater good. A social enterprise needs to generate a surplus only to improve its operation, so that it can do more of the good work it already does. People who work in such an enterprise need to be paid on the same basis as anyone else, of course, and people who invest in such an enterprise do not do so to make a profit, but to give something to their community. These factors set our business apart, and those who have experienced our Hunter Street cafe would have felt the difference, even if they didn't know why it felt different.

But why would I be heading this way? Surely I could make plenty of money making this amazing bread and retire from the proceeds next week! Okay, I answer. Have a look here. There are a few stories there about the early days of my obsession with sourdough bread, and they will hopefully illuminate you as to my own personal path in wanting to do things differently. 

But what if I wanted to go further than that? 

What if I wanted to see if there were more environmentally friendly ways to run a bakery? 

What if I wanted to see if the process of making sourdough could actually heal others in some way?

What if I just wanted to make sourdough bread as good as it could be, without having to worry about the limitations put upon us bakers through commercial  necessity? 

And what if I actually believed that the bakery industry had gone the wrong way and I wanted to do something about it? 

In short, it's incredibly difficult to make bread that takes three days to make - that's how long it takes to make our bread. The quality we achieve can't be done any faster - try putting that out to market at a price people can actually afford. 

It's also expensive to train people to the high standard we require, and difficult to retain them once they are trained. The TAFE system exists to train bakers to work in franchised operations. Even when we employ a TAFE qualified baker, we still have to retrain them. Artisan bakeries are a different kettle of fish, and there is little to support us in the wider industry beyond passionate suppliers and fellow craft bakers. Surely, the industry would benefit by a broader and more comprehensive training regime than simply teaching people which bread improver to put in the dough?

There is no room to innovate in the bakery business, unless you have plenty of capital to begin with. 

All of these things have influenced my gradual conversion to running my bakery as a social enterprise. A bakery that can innovate, make great healthy bread, and teach people the proper skills needed to make it. One that can galvanise a whole community, and be human centered at the same time. One that can try new things, and fail occasionally without becoming a statistic. One that can actually make a difference. 

Having looked into the different business structures I could use to do this, I found that it was almost impossible to run a cooperative as small as ours and still have time to write and to bake. So to band together with an existing philanthropic organisation such as a charity seemed like a good idea. 

I found one - or it found me anyway. What is about to occur is a community partnership that can do all of the things I've mentioned here, sustainably and for all the right reasons.

Have I got your attention yet? Stay tuned...the story continues.

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