Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How do we do this?

It's been a very interesting few days. People are telling me they like the idea of a Virtual Village Bakery - but how will it be done?

I see it as an exercise in resource management. In order to optimise our resources, Bertha needs to pump out a hundred loaves a day for three days a week. This capacity allows scope for two full time bakers and a part time retail and delivery assistant - and these people we have, already trained and ready to go. When we can establish and satisfy that demand, we can extend to four days operation - provided we have more people trained.

This means that we need to find homes for three hundred delicious loaves of woodfired sourdough bread each week. We found homes for almost twice that many from SourdoughBaker Cafe, so I believe this is a realistic number.

If we also leverage the community to assist by way of distribution, in other words, provide free bread subscriptions to customers who perhaps look after a certain delivery area (your suburb and surrounds, perhaps), then we can truly offer a fresh bread delivery service three days a week.

Now, the subscription itself is based on one kilo plain loaves as the basic unit - there will be a white sourdough, a wholewheat, a light rye and a 100% rye. There are also some fancy breads in the range - fruit sourdough, friendship fruit cake and kamut loaf. Everything individually priced between $10 to $15 per kilo. So a $50 subscription would buy five of one kind of plain loaf, or one of each, or a mixture of fancy and plain. It doesn't matter what you select - you get $50 worth of bread, delivered, one at a time if necessary, or all at once. Some people will buy bulk and freeze, others will just want one each week. We keep track via emailed order slips initially. We also have $100 subscriptions, or ten loaves worth, and I'm working on a commercial one for traders too. But for now, just 300 homes for 300 loaves each week.

So, peeps, what do you think? Have I covered it? There are lots of other details which will have to be worked through for this to succeed. However, by subscribing to this community enterprise now, you'll be helping me to put all this together in a timely fashion (I'm aiming for the weekend after next) and you can have your bread back asap.

Just wanna say that I've had a lot of conversations with customers, coop workers and investors, mentors and interested members of the wider community - and the overwhelming thing I'm hearing is just how much what we are doing has affected them in some way. They all know there is more to this than bread, and they want it to do its thing. They want to see some of these ideas (many of which are contained in earlier posts of this blog) get off the ground. Thanks one and all for the support. You know where my heart is. If we can carry it off, it will mean a lot to so many people.

If you want to subscribe, here's where:
Subscription No. 5
Subscription No.10

Monday, September 26, 2011

Lets have a go at this idea then!

Based on your responses to yesterday's blog post, I decided to put some subscription options on sourdoughbaker.com.au. Just to dip a toe in the water, so to speak.

I thought we could base our subscription price on the weight of bread being supplied. For example, a Fifty dollar subscription (Subscription No. 5) would buy about five kilos of plain sourdough, or five one kilo plain loaves of different types (wholemeal, white, rye etc). Or, you can have a subscription for ten kilos (Subscription No. 10) for a hundred bucks. Thus, the plain breads work out at ten dollars a kilo. Pretty simple pricing structure.

(The fancy breads, where there are more ingredients, will be $12.50 a kilo, while cakes would be $15. These can also be purchased in the same way, only by dollar value, rather than weight.)

The idea is to gather 100 subscribers. Then we don't have to bake on guesswork - we just bake to order directly for our subscribers.

There are lots of good reasons to run a bakery in this manner. Servicing retail hours is expensive for bakeries - over supplying or under supplying are constant issues, leading to either waste or lost sales. Staff costs are a bigger issue, particularly when there are unpredictable customer patterns (as was the case in Hunter Street). Customer expectations are high in terms of opening hours too - the larger malls start early and finish late, so smaller operators must compete or lose customers.

Baking directly for customers should, then, enable us to keep our prices moderate. Of course, retail costs are replaced with distribution costs, but these are, once again, predictable, being based on orders rather than guesswork.
Part of the reason for a limited number of subscriptions is to ensure optimal capacity through the bakery. When a bakery oven is filled, it is more efficient. Maintaining a high standard of product is much easier to do when critical resources like the oven and the refrigeration equipment are running 'in sync'.

In short, limiting output to fit the available resources means better quality bread, lower costs, less waste and happier bakers. And hopefully, we'll still have happy customers, because as subscribers you'll be able to access the bread without necessarily having to come into Newcastle.

Incidentally, who wants to barter a bread subscription in return for delivery duties? Email me!

There will be glitches and things to sort out - but I'm confident that this less insular way of doing business will lead to greater community engagement with your Virtual Village Bakery.

So check out the arrangement and get your sourdough bread supply organised now! Deliveries will begin on or about Oct 15. There will be only 100 subscriptions initially, as capacity is limited in our new bakehouse.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Village Bakery - or mad idea?

One of my favourite bakery books is called 'The Village Baker' by Joe Ortiz. His wife, Ruth, was actually the village baker where they lived in Canada. So Joe, being the baker's husband, set off to meet and write about some of the great village bakers and bakeries in Europe - inspired as he was by the whole idea of a village baker in these modern times.

And he found them, worked with them in the wee small hours of the morning, comparing their methods to the ones of other bakers in different villages he had also worked alongside. He took into account the various regional differences, and at the same time, observed the similarities between them - their methods, pieces of equipment, the flours they used, how old their starter was and so on.

He saw how these little bakehouses were part of the fabric of life for the locals, not just because of the bread and pastries and cakes they produced, but because of the pride and respect these same locals had for their local bakery. And how the baker, in turn, understood his customers - their favourite things, and the new things he wanted them to try. Many bakers make special loaves for special customers. I know I have. I want to please them - and in doing so, I get the same amount of pleasure.

SourdoughBaker Cafe was your village bakehouse. We kept a tab for any customer who needed it. We saved your loaf for you if it wasn't ready when you dropped in. We knew your bread, and your coffee. We loved it when you loved it. If we got it wrong, which we sometimes did, we'd give you another one, to ensure closure. We weren't about great bread, we were about happy customers. The great bread was a bi product of happiness.

So this led me to an idea.

While supplying happiness via great bread, there has been a monetary transaction. An agreed price, which is implied by the act of purchasing the bread. But what if that transaction was broadened to include a SUPPLY of great bread, as opposed to a LOAF of great bread? What if your bread supply was purchased, rather than loaf by loaf?

The thing is, the bread I've been making all these years isn't ordinary. If it was ordinary, why do people travel great distances to buy it? And why do I put myself through the trials and tribulations that I do in order to make it? There are easier ways to make a living, and I for one have discovered some of them. But still I return to do THIS thing.  It's big, and it's not just about bread. It's about finding better ways to do things better.

So my question is:
What does it take to keep making something special? Is it money?

I'll ask another question:
What is a loaf of bread worth?

So I have my 21 year old starter called Papa. I have a bakery worth of equipment, including an oven called Bertha which weighs over a tonne. I have some dedicated and very special people who will help me make more great bread. And I have all of you people who want this community enterprise-come- bakery thing to happen. Oh, and I have a kitchen space to set up in. And a knowledge base as big as is required to sustain change - that being you, who reads this.

So here's another Mad Idea. Could a bakery be sustained if its customers signed up for bread supply, and paid for it in regular instalments? In the age of online retail, could these customers come to expect some sort of convenience for this outlay - say delivery to their local area, if not to their door? And, should these customers be expected to engage in some way with their bakehouse - say, by helping with deliveries, or by simply attending a baking workshop?

What say I (as defined by the above list of resources, including other people) put my hand up to become the Village Sourdough Baker for Newcastle village? Would you support this enterprise by paying for this resource bank by the month, quarter or year? Or, would you be interested to help in making it happen, no matter what skill set you possess? Could we not leverage your particular skill to make this thing work sustainably? And how could you benefit from applying your money and/or skillset to this enterprise?

These are serious questions for me, yet I'm reasonably sure they will be quite trivial to most of you. But if they are a tad above trivial to you, then I'd love to hear what you think about my new Mad Idea.

Until next time..

What next?

So I'm between bakeries again. This is, I guess, my opportunity to lead a normal life for a while. Now I go to bed at a civilised time (that means AFTER 9.30 for a baker) and get up AFTER the sun. I can feel my body starting to recover from this past 18 months of craziness. I've discovered a whole bunch of new physical ailments, hidden beneath the surface layer of wear and tear. Why do I do this to myself?
After a week of no decent bread, I know why.
I've been chasing down all the local sourdough breads, as well as some supermarket 'artisan' breads like pane de casa etc. I haven't had to do this for a while now - and now that I have, I'm feeling a bit depressed. All these supermarket artisan breads have no substance, no character, no presence. They are just an illusion, an appearance of goodness that isn't met by the reality when eaten.
I can't get no satisfaction!
I can't get no nourishment!
(Sorry Keith and Mick...but I do know how you feel..)
The sourdoughs, though, were better - just not mine!
I cooked risotto the other night. The next night, pasta. Then noodles. The result? Boredom. I just want a diabolical crust, a bit of  flavour, some character and excitement for my evening meal. These carbs just don't do anything for me at the moment.
Bread, when it's made properly, transcends the mundane, and lifts the soul to another level.
It's taken me two decades to get it right.
The secret? It's contained in the previous sentence. But to unpack it a little, there are a number of important things - like Bertha, the 2 tonne woodfired oven. There's the 21 years of sourdough culture, known affectionately as Papa, that I've been lugging around from bakehouse to bakehouse for that whole time. There's at least 36 hours more time in the dough that's made from Papa. When we have all these things in place, it comes down to technique - and those who have done my classes or who I've trained over the years will tell you there is a bit more to it than meets the eye. 'Nuff said.
So I am still on a mission, I guess. I don't want to be the only person who can make decent bread, and I don't want people to forget what decent bread is.
I've got to find a way to do this cost effectively, so that you can have great bread, and I can have a life. And I have an idea as to how to do this. It's the 'What's next' bit of the title...but I'm gonna keep you in suspense until next post.
There will be a 'next', and I'm hoping you will support it. Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

So what went wrong? Or was it right?

Only a week has passed, so I thought it would be a good time to take stock and offer some thoughts on what went wrong at the SourdoughBaker Cafe.  And some thoughts on what went right.

What went wrong:
1/. We embarked on a very labour intensive enterprise, without a clear idea of how labour intensive it would be. Thus, with our initial turnover, we could not afford to pay market rates for labour. Thus, we had trouble attracting and retaining staff.
2/. We had no capital to begin with - and in 18 months of operation, we only managed to attract $20K in little bits here and there. The equipment we were able to purchase was minimal with this budget - for the first year, we made all the doughs by hand! (One wonders how much that cost in labour!)
3/. Because I had to be so focussed on the operation of the cafe, attracting people to help with the not inconsiderable task of looking after the business side was essential. However, it is really hard to find people who have the skills to tackle this role. If they can be found, it's even harder to ask them to work for nothing! We needed someone fully functioning in this role who is NOT operational, and we got me, occasionally. In the end, the back side of the business became a heavy load I simply couldn't carry alone. This part of the business can really bite you when you neglect it, and it did.

But we also managed to get a lot right too.
1/. Our team grew highly skilled, and good at operating the business.
2/. We made some world class bread, coffee and food...most of the time.
3/. We communicated some of the concepts behind our enterprise to the general public effectively, and in turn, the general public embraced us.
4/. We established a professional, human and intelligent place where all people felt welcomed and warmly accommodated. We had some great conversations, some great moments...
5/. We developed a series of technologies that effectively meant that our cafe had virtually no waste. If you have been in the bakery or cafe business, you will be aware of how much waste there is. While growing soil out of food waste is often done, our methods meant that our waste became fuel. This is probably the most significant thing to emerge from this experiment in social enterprise.
6/. We also refined our woodfired technology to the point where it cost less to run than equivalent equipment powered by gas OR electricity.  There are significant advancements available to us in the future here, with Bertha 2 currently on the drawing board.
7/. We got our sourdough classes up and running and fully booked. We got some decent bakers trained too.
8/. We got lots of media attention, and built a solid customer base from all around the country, as well as Newcastle.

The list of things we got right isn't finished. As I reflect on these, there are a lot more rights than wrongs, and they are bigger rights than wrongs too. But the SourdoughBaker Cafe is gone anyway. For now.

But you can't hold this baker down for long, and in an upcoming post, I'll be able to tell you what's happening in the very near future...so, as usual, keep an eye on this space!

Friday, September 9, 2011

A perfect storm blows the cafe out of the water

There are times when things compound upon one another, like a perfect storm.
SourdoughBaker Cafe has just been becalmed by one.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it...
We're gonna have to move, though we don't know where just yet.
How could this happen? It feels to us like we've just hit our straps, after a year and a bit of getting our bread, coffee and food into people's mouths. Newcastle is telling us how much it loves us, we're getting great media coverage. Yet we have to close our doors next week. What gives?

Pretty much everything, all at once. Here's a blow by blow breakdown of the perfect storm, as it happened to us:

Blow number one: Four weeks ago, the rooftop exhaust system stopped working. In June last year we replaced the old unit. Now the new one stopped too. The cafe filled with smoke, and it took us three days to repair. During that time, we could bake tiny amounts of bread in Bertha, very slowly. Otherwise, the shop would fill with smoke. The bread was VERY crusty, as a result. Tally up a thousand dollars in costs and lost sales, give or take.

Blow number two: Three weeks ago, the chimney leading to the rooftop exhaust system released a large clump of creosote into the rear chimney of Bertha, unbeknownst to us. This caused Bertha to overheat, as flue gases turned back into the firebox, thereby dramatically enlarging a small pre existing hole in five millimeter steel. 
The effect of this was to render Bertha almost unuseable, as the crusts on our bread simply charcoaled instantly, due to direct exposure to the flames in the firebox. 
It took me another day to figure out what had happened, and another few hundred dollars in lost bread sales. And the cafe was still filling up with smoke as well. We managed to do a makeshift repair to Bertha, and clear the chimney. 
Back in business. Kinda. Bertha was still leaking, and baking bread with a cloudy crust. The oven doors had fatigued due to previous blast of heat, and had burnt off their seals. We would have to pull Bertha right down ASAP and install steel sleeves. This job had to be done with a cool oven, so we began to plan for a day's closure to properly repair Bertha.

Blow number three: Two weeks ago, the hot water system started to put pools of water on the floor. There had been a small leak, and we had purchased a second hand dishwasher some months earlier. Thus, on the day we closed to fix Bertha, we could fix the leak and install the dishwasher. A logical plan. 
However, upon closer inspection, we noticed that the old fashioned particle board laminate had actually rotted below the surface. Then we noticed the extent of the rot - a whole new side bench would be needed. And new plumbing.

Blow number four:  A week ago, a council visit highlighted the presence of cockroaches, which we had been fighting on a daily basis. Guess where they like to live? In moist particle board.  
The need to do this work urgently trumped the fact that the bank account was floating not far above zero at the time due to the previous repair issue. 
We allocated a Tuesday, and about eight people, to this working bee. 
Tally up another thousand dollars in lost sales. 
Might as well add another thousand in materials, including second hand hardwood, bricks, steel, paint, filler, fasteners, brackets and the like. 
Then add another seven hundred for plumbing work. 
Then, three days later, we were still not ready to reopen. 
K'ching...add another few thousand dollars worth of lost sales to the tally. (During this whole time, all our people and helpers volunteered their time - some of us worked for three days averaging twenty hours a day. I have to especially thank Serge and Tom, as well as our whole team - I have to say, we were magnificent). 

The job blew out, as these types of jobs often do, and by the time we could partially reopen, we were all totally exhausted. Me especially.

Blow number five (the killer punch): Then, on the Friday we limped to reopen, our landlord appeared with an order for back rent, totalling some seven grand. This had been a problem for us for some time, but we had been managing to keep it under control by paying our rent each week, plus a little extra when we could. As far as our long suffering landlord was concerned, this wasn't enough - and the recent repairs had not helped our case with the him either. He apparently required notice, so that he could grant us 'permission.'

So if it IS broke, and so are you, what do you do?
Which brings us up to the present. With some seven thousand dollars over the past four weeks in added expenses and lost sales, a rent bill (much of it disputed, but that was for a later occasion in court) due at the end of next week, an exhausted team (did I mention we just lost two more staff in this period?) and still more renovation and repair work to do, we've decided to hit the pause button until we can find somewhere better to live. 
This landlord does not love us, even though Newcastle seems to. 
I worry about our neighbouring shops too, who rely on the daytime traffic we attract for some extra business. Who knows? Maybe the next tenant will be an even better cafe! 
Anyway, stay tuned - I'm working out a way to make bread for everyone again as soon as I can. The rest of our team are going to take a break for a month or two. Then we'll hopefully regroup, with some fresh energy and a better location and maybe a bit more capital behind us. In the meantime, thanks Newcastle for all the amazing support you have given us. All the equipment will be relocated and rolling again as soon as I can get it set up, including Bertha.

All those who have invested time and or money, our investment is safe - kinda - just awaiting redeployment in more favourable circumstances.

And down the track - well, let's just say that, God (and you people) willing, Newcastle will have its SourdoughBaker back.