Friday, October 16, 2009

Guest Post: Making Dough: The Growth of a Local Bakery

Sasha is a high school student from Eugene, OR, and incidentally my younger sister. She attends her high school classes in the morning, takes university-level math and anthropology in the afternoon, and one evening a week attends the local school board meetings as her high school's student representative. Sasha is a talented writer, dancer, musician, and painter (most of the paintings in the background of the pictures on this blog are by her). This essay was for her economics class; I have given it only a light editing.

Making Dough: The Growth of a Local Bakery

As I walked into Eugene City Bakery at nine on Saturday morning, I was first hit by the sweet smell of baking bread. Walking into the bakery feels like putting on an old, warm sweater — comforting and cozy. The small room was already full with people starting their weekend morning with a pastry or bowl of soup, and there were even people outside braving the 50-degree overcast sky, sitting at the tables as if they were on a cobblestone street in Europe. Later, the owner pointed out some of her regulars and told me that "this is many people's first stop of the day."

After buying a cup of tea, I was sent back into the kitchen for my appointment with DeeAnn Hall, a neighbor of mine and the new owner of Eugene City Bakery. The kitchen was relatively small, but filled with satisfyingly large wood-block countertops and oversized pots hanging from the ceiling. DeeAnn was standing over two large circular pans that had pie dough and cheese in them. Every surface, utensil, or machine was covered with a layer of flour. I almost slipped on the floor while I was walking in.

"Hello, DeeAnn," I called to her from behind a metal mixer. She had her short, frizzy hair pulled back with a bandana, and was wearing a large white apron.

"Hello." She smiled, then ushered me to a spot where I wouldn't be in the way. She explained she was making quiches, and would be able to sit down and talk after she finished them.

When DeeAnn Hall first moved to Eugene in the early 1990s from the San Francisco Bay Area, she was very disappointed with the bread. For the first couple of years she lived here she could find no good bakery in Eugene, and so would order bread from San Francisco. In 1997, however, Eugene City Bakery opened up. Just five blocks away from her house and with high quality bread, DeeAnn fell in love. Back then Eugene City was just a bakery, with a small, poorly designed reception area, selling mostly bread and a few pastries. Eventually, though, the owner of Eugene City became too old to manage the bakery, and was looking for somebody to to take over. DeeAnn bought the Eugene City Bakery in 2006, after being an executive chef at the Kings State Winery for four years.

"What I really wanted was a restaurant," DeeAnn said as she pulled out a tray of eggs and started cracking them into a foot-high tupperware container. "But I loved this bakery, and it needed help."

DeeAnn decided that a natural progression for the bakery would be to expand from bread and pastries to include desserts, soups, and sandwiches. She remodeled the reception area, and added tables both inside and out to increase the presence on the street. The result was a European-style cafe specializing in artisan breads. "The bakery was in a pretty good condition when I got it; it had good accounts, a good location, and loyal neighborhood customers. I loved bread, and it had a cafe, which was a plus for me."

DeeAnn measured out what looked like about a gallon of whole milk and poured it into the container with the eggs. She carefully chose a short whisk with a thick metal handle from a jar by the stove and started mixing the concoction, making even scraping noises as the whisk hit the bottom of the tupperware.

When the previous owner left, some of the employees quit, but DeeAnn hired a fair number of the former staff to work for her. She now has 20 employees, with somebody on site 24 hours a day making pastries and loaves of bread at night and lunch foods in the morning. She said she hired people by their character and love/interest for baking, rather than by cooking credentials. She starts new hires behind the counter, where they can then learn about how to make bread and pastries, then eventually move them back into the kitchen. That way she can know all of her employees, and train them herself.

The bakery sells products both in their own store and wholesale to local restaurants, such as Bepe and Giani's (across the street from Eugene City) and Excelsior (on 13th near campus), and to other local stores such as Sundance, the Kiva, Capella Market, and PC Market of Choice. She also sells pastries and bread to the EMU on campus, which are then sold to students. "I definitely sell more retail than wholesale," she said. This surprised me; I would have thought wholesale would be at least as profitable as retail given the range of places to whom DeeAnn sells her bread.

DeeAnn brought over a pan of cooked zucchini, onion, and bell pepper from the stove to the counter where she was working. She spooned them out to make a layer over the cheese in the pie dough, then filled the pans to the brim with the milk and eggs. I followed her as she carried the tray into the other room, where their fancy new German oven is located, and where most of the bread is made. She said that the oven was really the only new piece of technology they had, because bread making is such an ancient practice in itself. After sticking the quiches in the oven, she wiped her hands on her apron and brought me outside to talk.

DeeAnn is clearly proud of her bread, and for good reason: it's all handmade artisan bread made from organic flours with loving hands. Bread is still her most popular product, although she said her lunch business is continually going up.

The main other local bakery that DeeAnn considers competition is Hideaway Bakery behind Mazi's at 33nd and East Amazon. Although places like Provisions and Metropol also sell similar products, it's clear she thinks Hideaway is the only other bakery in town that really competes with Eugene City. Hideaway uses a wood oven, which is one of the oldest bread-baking technologies. Hideaway is growing too, specifically in the cafe market, and as DeeAnn put it, is going with the "foodie thing." Although DeeAnn said there is room for everybody in the market, she expressed how hard it is to make money on bread anywhere.

The year DeeAnn took over Eugene City, wheat prices were incredibly high, and skyrocketed in the next year. She attributes the price increase to the government subsidies for corn in the United States, which meant many wheat farmers were switching to corn. A drought in Australia also decreased the wheat yield. Although the prices are finally starting to go down, organic flour, the kind Eugene City buys, is still pretty expensive. "My biggest expenses are definitely the cost of goods and labor," she explains. Although she doesn't have an explicit formula for calculating prices, it is approximately the cost of expenses times a multiple factor. "It's really what the consumers will pay," she says. "For example, they'll pay $4.95 for a loaf of bread, but not $5."

My last question for DeeAnn was what her favorite part about owning the bakery was.

She thought for a moment before answering. "Well, I've always loved to cook, but I like the culture here the best. I love being in the neighborhood, the smell of bread, and my customers."

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