Bethesdabakers

Article Published in “True Loaf” April 2011

In 2007 I set up Bethesdabakers, a two day a week sourdough microbakery, in our small terraced house in Snowdonia. I started by simply announcing to friends there would be bread available Friday 6.00 p.m., baked 8 small loaves, sold 6 and grossed £7.20. Two months later I sold the equivalent of 84 small loaves, had to introduce a second bake day to cope with demand and had switched to a bake-to-order only system. On day one I mixed about 4K of dough; a year later I mixed nearly 60K – and there was no waste because it was all pre-ordered.

I started with just my home baking gear and only bought equipment as it was needed – first a fridge for overnight dough fermentation, then a small spiral mixer.  I got by with our domestic oven for four months before buying a bottom-of-the-range commercial convection oven. These three major items, bought new, only came to around £1,600, and the total spent on equipment since I started is around £3000.

Photo by Annie Williams

The quantity of bread I produce might be miniscule even in terms of a small High Street baker’s output but I think what I have achieved is important for three main reasons.

Firstly it provides an alternative model for people who want to start a career in baking. It shows that it is possible to set up a bakery in your own home for a comparatively small outlay. It’s a low risk way of establishing a business – perfect for the person who has maybe only a day or two a week spare to start small and see if the market is there.

Secondly, it may be pretty lo-tech in baking terms but it is hi-tech in its use of computerised systems. The website (www.bethesdabakers.com) acts as a showcase cutting out the need for flyers and other forms of advertising. It lets me show our 60+ customers what I’m baking in the coming week and it emails their orders to me. After the first few weeks of pre-bake sleepless, panic-filled nights I started to develop a system of spreadsheet calculators. These now store my bread formulas, work out the order and calculate customer bills, produce my daily bake schedule complete with bread type, sizes, numbers, ingredient quantities, dough and starter weights, act as a recording system, produce invoices and detail bread supplied to commercial customers. I use a spreadsheet to help in converting yeasted recipes to sourdough, calculate bakers percentage and starter builds. I use email to remind customers to check the website at the start of the week, and text messages to signal “last orders” and “bread ready”.

Thirdly, because I only bake naturally leavened bread, it has allowed me to present sourdough as the norm and to develop a wide repertoire covering the full spectrum of what can be made from leavened dough. Customers have long ceased to think in terms of sourdough, they just think of it as good bread.

Every week I bake six regular breads; Campagne, Mick’s Special, Wholemeal, Multigrain, 5 Seed with Spelt, Baguette. To keep customers (and myself) interested, I have introduced a range of three specials – a main special, a rye special and a flatbread/brioche special – that change each week. Well into my fourth year, this has meant the repertoire has grown to over 70 breads. Yes, I do make big French mîches and serious German ryes but I also make a diverse range of breads not usually associated with sourdough, more delicate brioches, breads from enriched doughs, naans, focacce, fougasses and many others.

What I have developed is now a tried and tested package – methods, administration, bread formulas – transferable skills that could easily be passed on to anyone wanting to get started in bakery this way.

What next? Well, last year I took three months out to write my big bread book intending to find a publisher. The way it’s panned out so far I have published “Bethesdabasics” my introduction to sourdough myself. Later in the year I will publish a second book about Bethesdabakers and how to set up your own microbakery. After that, the full baking repertoire …

Mick Hartley

25 Responses to Bethesdabakers

  1. Maggie says:

    Thank you Mick – a very interesting article. I am working my way through your very useful book – some I repeat every week – but I am trying one or two different ones …. see if I like thm, but Ialways return to the classic!!! Cant wait for the next book and good luck with the baking course – wish i could hve come!

  2. bethesdabakers says:

    Hi Maggie

    Glad you are still finding the book useful.

    So far we’ve had three students spending two days with us doing the microbakery course. It’s turning out to be a very constructive two-way process, they are such interesting people. And hopefully there will be microbakeries popping up all over the country (plus, in one case, Belgium).

  3. Marcus says:

    Excellent and inspiring, Mick, thank you very much for posting the article! I look forward to the micro-bakery book when it comes out!

  4. bethesdabakers says:

    Thanks for suggesting I post it here.

  5. drfugawe says:

    Hey Amigo,
    Enjoyed this article – were I a bit younger, it might even motivate me to join you for one of your training sessions, and follow your bold lead into production – as it is now, I have trouble baking to order for our one family!

    I read in your article how you use a spreadsheet for converting a yeast bread to sourdough. Would you mind giving a few key pointers re the process you use for that? (not the spreadsheet part) I kinda wing it each time anew when I convert a recipe – so I have no consistency – but I like to know what others do.
    Thanks Mick

  6. bethesdabakers says:

    Comrade Doctor

    You’re letting the side down! You do not “kinda wing it”, you use your professional judgement honed by years of experience. Anyway I’ve posted the formula I worked out years ago on the “Ask Yer Uncle” page.

    One of my Greek customers once gave me a family christmas bread recipe which not only gave the measurements in coffe cups and wine glasses, the only liquid in it was olive oil! I’m not telling you how I converted that one.

    Best wishes

    Mick

  7. Jeremy says:

    Bloody Jealous and very proud….wish I could!

    Up your leg!

  8. Steve says:

    Inspirational. All I get is doubts when I float similar ideas with friends – “There’s no market.” or negativity “People only want the cheapest, so they’ll go to T*s*o” – but you have shown that if you if you take it slowly and produce quality, there is a market. Bethesda has about half of the population of the town in which I live (Blandford, Dorset), so if you can make it work, then I’m sure it can here too.

  9. bethesdabakers says:

    Well, I hope it does inspire you. Your friends are right – 98% of people will buy bread substitute from a supermarket. But you only need the other 2% because you are only trying to be a small scale producer. And, not only is Blandford twice the size of Bethesda, it’s in a much richer part of the UK with a more sophisticated food culture.

    You’d better come on a course with me ……

    • Steve says:

      Already on a course with Paul Merry later this month, but there is much to learn, so who knows…
      I feel that sourdough is the way to go, but I’m still learning about yeast, flours, fermentation and all of the other things.

  10. bethesdabakers says:

    Well, he’s only just up the road from you.

  11. Ashley says:

    I just stumbled on this site today. I live in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia Canada. The economy here is in ‘depression mode’ with continuous population decline. The nearest village to me 5 miles down the road has population of 75, used to be 3000 a century ago. The nearest ‘city’ has population of 25,000 also down from its highs thirty years ago, albeit not nearly as drastically. For you Gaelic types, all the community signs on the roads (not the road/street signs) have the gaelic name (in English letters) underneath because most people around here used to speak it (alas, such is the case no longer).

    ANYWAY: last year I had a choice to make: leave the island or figure out what to do here that didn’t involve getting a horrible job with a crappy corporate employer (the only ones hiring mostly). I grew up in London UK and lived for several years each in France, Germany and Italy (not to mention a longer stint in the US unfortunately) so I have kicked around but also been exposed to European food, both city slicker and my preferred ‘hearty peasant’ types. Good food. Hard to find over here food. Good bread. Almost impossible to find over here bread. So I decided to learn how to bake it and do that for a living.

    I was not as low budget as our host, but basically I spent $3000 or so (half that for pounds) on building a small commercial wood-fired brick oven. It sits athwart one of the two steel longitudinal beams underneath the trailer I live which I purchased for even less seven years go. I build simple wooden shelves and cooling racks with hardware store lumber and chickenwire. I used baskets they sell for $1.00 for bread on dining tables and line them with flour and bran, and in some cases I actually sewed up some canvas liners (much cheaper than linen and work fine). In any case, I was up and running in several months for a few thousand, that’s the point. And during the construction and planning phase I taught myself how to bake sourdoughs. (www.frenchroadbakery.tk). My breads are delicious. I take no credit. Mother Nature makes the breads, I just mix the ingredients and act as facilitator (helping them into the oven since they don’t have legs and arms) and so forth. It is very rewarding, honest work. Yes, gauging time, temperature and recipes can be tricky. but ultimately it’s about care, common sense and passion.

    And recently, after barely a year in operation, and having at first been blocked out of the local farmer’s market due to petty politics and having to survive the Canadian winter on only several hundred a month by selling in the very unfavourable downtown flea market (not a foodie type of venue to say the least), in past few weeks have been approached by several of the best restaurants in Sydney along with the most prestigious hotel-based restaurant on the island which used to have a five star rating. I can’t supply these types of demand (yet), but it is highly gratifying that those with a real passion and dedication for quality food have shown such appreciation.

    So I can echo the host’s mission here from personal experience. I went from not really knowing how to bake (certainly never more than a loaf or two at a time and that rarely, put it that way) to owning and operating a small business in only a few months. And it’s the best thing I ever did work-wise in all my 56 years on this glorious Earth. So those who are thinking of it, take the course and get going. The more of us do this, the less people need to work in those ghastly call centres and banks and suchlike. So you will not only be helping yourself, but your community and societies as well.

    All best.

    • ashley, you are totally amazing. I am a baker (semi retired) but your enthusiasm, skill, and dedication are inspiring. The breads you make are truly special, what i call sacred bread. I too have mixed by hand and baked in a wood fired oven i built myself. My only advice would be, avoid taking on too many customers, hotels etc etc. If you feel thta ethically you can raise your prices to steady demand then do it! Do not burn yourself out.
      check out my story at http://www.fromthehearth.co.uk/

      honey in the hearth

      michaelthebaker

  12. bethesdabakers says:

    Not really sure why I approved this comment given that it might have been more appropriately sent to Ash’s site. But I don’t like censoring posts and I remember battling with MichaeltheBaker’s ciabatta several years ago on another site.

    Greetings MichaeltheBaker and Ash

  13. thanks mick. perhaps should have written directly to ashley but felt i would continue the thread here. hope you got the hang of the ciabatta. It was some time ago on dan’s site.More people are now working with very high hydration doughs. I remember adding 80% water in a spiral mixer, but the results were great. Great work you are doing. Happy baking

  14. bethesdabakers says:

    If I remember rightly everything was at 80% hydration, the dough and the starter, so any scraps of dough went back in the starter. To be honest I’m not sure I did any good with it. But when I retire in February and become a baker of leisure I might well give it another go.

    Good to see you’re still ploughing on.

  15. you retiring? I am thinking of doing some baking again. It seems “artisan” is all the rage now.
    Yes starter was at 80% for ease of handling and calculating. 100% starters are okay but getting into and out of container is tricky and then you have to be a mathematician to calculate the water for final hydration.
    best of luck in your retirement

  16. where can i find details of your courses?

    • bethesdabakers says:

      Go to the Home Page and click on Courses where you will find details about the two day individual course for people thinking of setting up a home microbakery. This has worked extremely well. I’ve had seven bakers in the past few months and, because it is done on an individual basis, there has been plenty of time on the first day to look at my systems and relate their relevance to the student’s plans.

      I haven’t put up information for baking courses yet but these are also going to be designed for the participating bakers rather than the usual formulaic list of courses and dates.

      I’m running a course this weekend for five people at the home of two of the participants and this is a route I fancy going down – running courses in people’s own kitchens to make the experience relevant to their circumstances. Much more soon.

  17. Nigel Merchant says:

    Just found your website after looking for courses in Shropshire. great info and i shall be looking at doing a course in the not to distant future, that is if you still run them as this seems to be an old post.
    Thanks
    Nigel

  18. Hi Nigel
    Click on “Courses” on the top menu and all shall be revealed. Alternatively give me a ring – 01248 600387.

    Mick

  19. Don Cuevas says:

    Inspiring website! Great looking breads.

    Many thanks.

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas
    (retired baker and intermittent home baker)

  20. Greetings to you Don Cuevas. As a lover of Mexican food I am looking forward to spending time on your blog.

  21. jpoconnor48 says:

    We are interested in opening a micro bakery in Dublin

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