Rebecca Siegel, a freelance technical writer and editor, decided that the next step in her career would be…drumroll please…or maybe a Kaiser roll…or maybe a salted pretzel roll………………
The Oven Bird, Rebecca’s micro-bakery that sells to subscribers through the Sweetland Farm CSA and farm stand, is a business experiment of sorts. It’s her way of testing the waters of bread production and delivery while asking herself the same questions all business people – the smart ones anyway – ask before investing fully in a venture.
What would it take to be profitable? What products are easiest and hardest, most and least expensive to produce? How would she scale up? Does she even want to scale up? How much bread can one woman bake?
So many questions. Let’s ask her some more.
Why did it even occur to you to test a bread baking business idea?
I’ve been thinking about bread baking for a long time. A few years ago I joined this nationwide, maybe it was worldwide, bread baking project. We baked one recipe each week. It really clinched it that I like baking bread. I started taking photos and blogging about baking and that really changed my writing.
At the same time I kept thinking about the things that I love to do and the things that I hate doing. What am I good at?
Then my husband and I started talking about an idea for a small business – a toast truck with all different kinds of great breads and spreads. It’s kind of a joke but, then again, maybe it would be a fun thing to do. A friend and I also talked about opening a tea café but realized it was kind of crazy. Neither of us has any restaurant experience. How do you stick a toe into that? Maybe open a pop-up kind of space?
All those ideas were percolating in my head. Then I lost a major technical writing client and had to figure out what to do. I decided to start The Oven Bird and do what I’d been thinking about.
You sell your bread through Sweetland Farm. How did that partnership come about?
We joined their CSA last year and have bought hay for our goats there. I’ve gotten to know Nora Lake who co-owns Sweetland Farm and have sold some goat milk products through her farm stand. I had the idea of selling bread through the CSA and Nora liked it.
By selling bread through the CSA I don’t need my own market stand and can limit my business test to the CSA season. When the CSA period ends I can stop baking or keep going.
The summer is flying by. How’s it going?
It’s going well. I introduced my bread and the idea of a weekly bread subscription at Open Farm Day in the spring. There was a lot of interest and I got about 12 subscribers. A full share subscription is 14 weeks and a half share is 7. Most weeks I have enough time and ingredients to make extra bread for sale through the farm stand.
Have you been surprised by any aspect of this experience?
I was surprised that people were interested. I came out of nowhere and didn’t do any marketing or advertising. Getting subscribers was really gratifying.
And I’ve had to learn about scale. Making 10 to 14 loaves of bread at a time is different than making one or two. I kind of knew it would be a problem – I have AN oven – but I didn’t think about the pitfalls of timing. Bread isn’t static, it keeps developing, so you have to manage it when things back up.
You said you often asked yourself what you love and hate to do. What do you particularly love and hate about baking bread?
I love it that I can go from start to finish in 12 to 48 hours.
I can see what I’ve made and evaluate how good it is. It’s great to stand back,
look at the bread and think, “There. It’s done. I made that.” That’s very
different than a writing project that goes on for months or maybe years.
I also love working with my hands. I know that’s cliché but
it’s nice to be away from my computer and walking around with flour in my hair.
I hate the worry of letting people down. People have paid
for my bread. It’s not like a potluck where you bring something and people can
eat or ignore it. I suppose that’s a common worry with all my work. I always
want to do my best.
Have you suspended
your writing business?
I’m still technical writing and editing. Sometimes I think
I’m done with technical writing but it keeps coming back. There’s something
about it I like – clearly explaining things, keeping the reader on track. But
I’m always looking for editing and writing projects in other genres. I love
writing and I think it will always be my primary career.
I’ve also started another small business with a friend. We
soft launched Literary North, a literary happenings website for Vermont and New
Hampshire. Right now it’s mostly an event listing but we’ll eventually add
blogs and author interviews. We’re working toward the site paying for itself.
So what’s the
verdict? Will you keep baking after the CSA season ends?
I ask myself that question every week! I’m still evaluating
if I can keep going at this scale. Right now I’m baking four days a week which
only leaves one day for other projects. That’s really not enough time. But I do
love it. So…who knows? The summer isn’t over yet.
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