by Peter Soscia
BreadHive Worker Cooperative Bakery has a recipe for sucess
When thinking of ways to describe BreadHive Worker Cooperative Bakery, terms like “typical” or “standard” can be left in the thesaurus. From the baking methods to the business model, and the fact that four young, ambitious women own the business—not even the oven is conventional inside the BreadHive.
After baking together for close to a year, Allison Ewing (29), Emily Stewart (28) and Victoria Kuper (30) opened the doors on their west side bakery in November of 2014. BreadHive specializes in baking long-ferment bread, bagels, pretzels, and granola. The long-ferment process used at BreadHive dates back in the history of bread making before the advent of instant yeast. While modern bread production transforms raw flour into bread within three hours, the long ferment process starts days ahead of baking. “We do long ferment to everything we bake, which means its all sourdough based. If we are baking something on Friday, we’ll build a starter on Wednesday with a specific bunch of flour, water and culture and on Thursday we’ll incorporate that with a larger bunch of dough. We then mix it, shape it, and place it in our walk-in freezer for about 20 hours, and the next morning it’s ready to bake,” said co-owner Ewing. “What’s cool about the long-ferment process is over that amount of time the gluten breaks down into a structure that people can digest way easier. If someone is Celiac there’s nothing we can do, but with the growing concern over gluten, if someone is gluten intolerant once they hear we’re long ferment they seek us out because they can eat everything we bake here. The long ferment process also breaks down the nutrients in the bread so they can be better absorbed by the human body. This means you’re getting more nutrition out of something that’s made long-ferment with white flour instead of the standard way with whole-wheat.”
To become skilled at this alternative baking style and to understand the science behind the process, you may expect the founders to have an extensive background in culinary education, but once again this in not the case with BreadHive.
“We all have some sort of art degree,” joked co-owner Stewart. BreadHive’s origin story is of the “new in town, looking to meet people” variety.
An Atlanta native, Ewing had moved to Buffalo with her now husband for his career. Looking for a hobby, she had been baking at home and found a bread baking workshop. “It was held by Victoria [Kuper] and another woman. We got along great and they asked me if I wanted to bake bread with them for the summer and I was all about it,” said Ewing.
Stewart has a similar story of moving to the Queen City via Nashville for a job working at a non-profit organization. “I was looking to meet cool people and for something to do on the weekends,” she says. “I met Victoria and Allison and I was like: ‘Yup, this what I’m going to do on my weekends because I get to hang out with these people and learn new skills.’”
The three soon realized that they wanted bread making to be more than just a hobby. “We ran a bread-share out of different locations. We were becoming friends, and doing it all on top of our jobs. It was sort of a hobby. We intended it to make money but we always just broke even,” said Ewing. “We lost a lot of time, but gained a lot of intangible rewards. We just said to each other ‘this is crazy,’ we could be making better bread and we didn’t hate our jobs, but we hated that we didn’t own our work at the end of the day.” They decided they would quit their day jobs and turn BreadHive from a hobby to a career.
In the first draft of the business they planned on running the bakery out of Ewing’s home. “My husband and I bought this 3,000-square-foot house off the City’s demolition list. I knew of a co-op bakery in Rochester that operated out of a much smaller house than that, so we thought it would be easy because we already owned the property,” she says. The group quickly realized that an in-home business would be more than they could handle. “Allison and I were on a road trip home from a conference in Maine, and we decided two things: Let’s not put it in a house, and let’s make bagels,” said Stewart.
The group found their place at 123 Baynes Street, Buffalo, where they bake a variety bagels and bread, pretzels and granola. They sell their products at the Lexington Co-op, Guercio & Sons, Farmers & Artisans, the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers Market, and to several local restaurants. “So far things have surpassed our wildest expectations. When we were putting together our projected sales for our first year I was being so overly confident in everything. Within our first quarter we had met all of our numbers, we were doing amazing,” said Stewart. “We’ve gotten an overwhelmingly positive response from our customers and the people that buy from us. We really feel like we are meeting a demand in the marketplace where people are searching for artisan bread or sourdough bread, something with a slightly different taste and that’s better for people.”
The strong numbers that the business was seeing from the wholesale market led to the decision for a retail storefront as well. In September, 2014 the bakery opened a pick up window for customers. Like the window at your favorite ice cream shop, six days a week you may walk up to the window and get the baked goods you desire. The pick up window also offered another revenue stream deemed the “Crustbelt.” Similar to what local farmers offer to provide customers with fresh fruit and vegetables, the BreadHive provides shares of their products. “[The Crustbelt] is a system for people who want to come and pick up bread, granola, or bagels each week. They can buy one month, six month, or yearly shares, and come by every Tuesday and pick up their bread,” said the fourth and newest co-owner Valerie Rettverg-Smith, 28.
Yet another way BreadHive’s operation is unique is in the way its cooperative model works. While the typical business models for co-ops has owners purchasing shares and distributing the profits. The worker cooperative model in use at BreadHive makes the workers the owners. “Everyone who works here full-time is an owner or would be on track to be an owner,” said Stewart. Like a basic co-op structure, the community is still involved with the business as 40 investors hold 65 non-ownership shares in BreadHive. “The faith in our investors was amazing to me. We were making bread before we had a brick and mortar, we went out looking for investors, I was 27 at the time and said ‘I need $10,000’ and people were all for it,” said Stewart. “There was a lot of energy and excitement from people because they see this as a really different business model and they saw young people with ideals, putting them into practice in a new way.”
On top of the long ferment baking process, their background, and the business model, “Young people with ideals,” is perhaps the biggest and most important way BreadHive differs from the typical American small business. However, it’s not just that they are young people, but young women. BreadHive does have a part-time male employee, but all owner-workers are women, ages 30 or younger. According to Emily though, being only owned by females is not a goal for the business. “Our goal is worker-ownership, it’s just a circumstantial thing that it happens to be all women. Anyone we hire in the future will be on track to becoming an owner one day and we are looking for anyone that fits that bill, regardless of gender,” said Stewart.
Being a female business owner is still something that inspires all four women. “There’s always a bit of pride I can draw from doing a good job in a very male dominated industry. I think the more that we can kick ass as women the better I feel that we’re sort of proving something.” said Ewing. “It’s been a great experience for me to connect with other female business owners that really paved the way for women to be taking seriously in this arena. I’ve learned a lot from them and I heard a lot about their struggles,” said Stewart. “It’s a great field to be in and I feel very proud to be stepping in the footsteps of other amazing women entrepreneurs.”
Starting a business at a young age is also something atypical about the women of BreadHive, but they feel youth was something that enabled them to follow their passion. “Emily said something to me the other week that’s totally true. This is a good time of life to take these type of risks and steps because none of us have kids, [Although Victoria is 8-and-half months pregnant with her first child] we have a lot less responsibility. We have a little bit more energy and are little less afraid to go for it right now, and this is going to be the best time in life to do this,” said Ewing. Youth is something that Rettverg-Smith believes breaks a lot of people’s assumptions about owning a business. “I once had a little boy who was with his mother picking up bread ask me ‘who’s your boss?’ I told him that I was one of the owners, and was just like ‘of this whole place? No you’re not.’ It’s just something that people don’t assume, that people our age could be business owners,” said Rettverg-Smith.
Even with business being strong, the ambitious women of BreadHive will not become complacent anytime soon. “We hope to eventually expand from just bakery to a café where we can be served not just our bread, but sandwiches and other things. It would allow people to come inside and be a part of our process, which is really appealing to a lot of people,” said Ewing.
Stewart sees an expansion in the retail and whole business as well. “Right now our production is only at about 50-percent capacity, so I really want to be in 25 restaurants by the end of the year, I want to be in two more stores but the end of the year, and I want our window to be doing dramatically more sales,” said Stewart. “I want us to be the spot where people come to get their begets or pretzels, or coming after work when they’re getting bread for their dinner table. I want BreadHive to be the institution people turn to for bread.”
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