if its not yummy, then we better make it funny.
Saturday, June 12, 2010
Reflection Essay: The Bread Route
Creating a local bread service in Karekare, New Zealand has certainly been a colossal experience. With basic objectives being to trade locally and experiment with barter, the bread route has fulfilled it's aim. I made many decisions to get it set up, as well as business projections which varied, somewhat, from reality. There were unique physical challenges to operating a wood fired bakery. I learned a lot about structuring successful trades. I experienced benefits of enhanced community connection and personal health from the project. Finally, I have a few ideas to improve the bread route.
To establish the route I first had to put together a baking facility in an unused greenhouse on our residential property. I articulated a mission statement, promoted the bread and ideas about bartering, I had to expand and modify home baking recipes and techniques, balance supply demands with production capacity, source firewood and other raw materials, negotiate trades for the product, and keep track of the transactions.
In the planning stage I estimated I could produce between eighty and one hundred loaves a week with at least 75% of the transactions being barter deals. This estimate proved optimistic and was based on baking done in a conventional gas oven. In actuality, the wood fired oven takes about two hours to get up to bread baking temperature (and that's if the darn fire stays lit when you leave to do other tasks like mixing and shaping dough, chopping wood, feeding starters and rinsing sprouting grains.) The very first barter was a week of guest lodging and meals in exchange for a custom steam system for the new Fontana wood burning oven. It took some cash for the brass fittings but the vacationing plumber was a heck of a lot better than I am at dickering at the hardware store ( I took notes as Dmitri talked the bill down from nearly 200 dollars to just under 140) With the steam vent converted into a steam injection, it was time to get baking. I had one week to figure out the best way to use the new set up before my first bread class. There's nothing like a deadline to get things done. I set up the greenhouse by replacing missing glass panels, putting crushed gravel on the earth floor, installing two tall racks, trays, wood bins, a large wooden slab table,lots of proofing boards and a few kerosene lanterns. We couldn't get permission to wire the space with electricity, So I decided to name it Greenhouse Daylight Bakery.
When looking for bread route customers, I initially spent a lot of breath talking about bartering. The idea baffled many people (not knowing what they could trade). I eventually decided to work on getting the 'account' first and the bartering aspect later; let the bread do the talking, My bartering pitch was becoming increasingly apologetic (which was not very fun or effective). Eventually with a few trading customers locked in I decided to take more cash customers, since insisting on barter seemed to be limiting my new venture. Some people are naturals at barter and they actually light up at the mention of it. My neighbor Diane, for example, immediately offered to trade honey from the bees next door (coincidentally, obtained through a barter like collaboration with Olivia, the local beekeeper) and her partner offered wood cutting. With a wood fired baking operation, we were going to need help cutting all the wood. As I slowly found more locals to trade with my sense of hope for a barter based bread route returned. By the fourth week I had a growing list of cash customers and the baking route had momentum. People started calling for bread and when I promoted the bread to new customers, to my surprise, some of then had already heard of it. The situation of having bread with no place to go was no longer a problem. I started to add variety to the bread selection, expanding beyond sourdough to yeasted breads, mainly ciabatta and baguettes. Planning was essential considering the need for daylight, the temperament of sourdoughs and the three day germination of grains. In the beginning I had a couple of batches of bread done at bed time, not so good for distributing the fresh bread (although it was still fresher than the store bought alternative thirty minutes away.)
The whole operation proves to be good exercise. I find myself moving the wood a few times to split it and stock the wood bins. The best variety of firewood is Manuka or Puhutakawa which are sometimes called ironwood because they are so dense and burn like coal. There is no need for a visit to the gym if you lug a 20 quart mixer bowl full of dough all around the show, either. Some doughs are mixed and kneaded by hand, depending on size and viscosity. Then I load the loaves into baskets, change my dough encrusted clothes and zoom off to the school to distribute the bread. Sometimes, though, neighbors come to pick up the bread and oogle at the oven or the new pup.
About 75 percent of the new customers are paying cash with new trades being struck occasionally. I have to remember that there were two objectives to this sustainability study, bartering and local food production. Most trades have a self equalizing tendency. One local painter is very liberal with his valuable paintings while another neighbor decided he wanted to trade his sanding labor for plywood instead of bread after getting bread delivery for over a month, frustrating, but handled eventually by (uncomfortable) communication. In the worst case, one can simply stop trading if it doesn't 'flow' with a particular trader and communication doesn't solve the problem. Issues arise when people have different values in their minds for goods and services being traded. A thorough pre trade interview on the front end of things can bridge a value gap. In the case of the sanding trade, I should have discussed the market value of the bread with him initially, he didn't seem to value the bread at the same level as customers willing to pay between five and seven dollars a loaf. I expected there would be some trades that would 'get my goat' and I am surprised how few snags there have been. It is, after all, an experiment. I don't get to up in arms about things. Barter seems to have held in a more tolerant vein than straight cash purchases (something I have read in my research of bartering as well).
The social/community building aspect of the project has been a real bonus for me. I have a role here in Karekare that I didn't have before. Peoples hearts are warmed when they get a call from me when I think they might appreciate a particular bread or I check to see if they want a delivery. Bread has historical significance as something shared or broken together and people still do have a fondness for a handcrafted loaf of bread. When the loaves come out nicely, all lofty and full of luster, I feel just great.
Improvements I might make to the ongoing operation is to modify the steam system so the the water is channeled down the sides and not in the middle, thus increasing the capacity of the oven by making the center space available, now it has to be left empty. In a perfect world I'd get the bigger oven from Fontana and really ramp up the production. I could source the organic wheat berries directly from the growers and buy them in larger quantities. It would be good to get a wet grinder to mash the sprouted grains, since my food processor doesn't do the job that well and doing it in the mortar and pestle is... although meditative, very slow. I would confidently charge more per loaf. There must be a pre printed carbon copy receipt book out there that I could section off so I could give trade bread clients a running tab and keep all the details in one place for my accounting. New Zealand has such a smaller selection of office products, maybe I'll find one in the States that will suit the unique system, I suppose I could use the computer for this. In the future, I would make sure there were no brittle eucalyptus trees near the GLASS house where the lovely Italian oven is located! All in all, I'm very pleased with the project and now I even have a fine little cash/barter business, as well as a lot of practical learning under my belt.