Artisan Baking is Not for Sissies

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"Artisan baking” conjures up memories of strolling down quaint little sidewalks visiting street-corner shops for specialty items such as rich Danish pastries, decorator cakes, decadent cookies and brownies, and sweet loaves of bread with thick, dark crusts.

Unfortunately, due to rapidly advancing technology, as well as increasing demands for convenience foods, artisan bakeries have been gradually replaced by large supermarkets where baked goods are mass produced. However, consumers are coming around full circle and are once again asking for homemade, baked items that are free from chemicals and additives, and are made to suit their personal tastes and dietary restrictions.

Just as the term implies, artisan baking is the hand preparation of small, specialty batches of edible delights. Special attention is given not only to the process, but also to the high-quality ingredients and how they complement one another, unlike their commercial counterparts which are loaded with preservatives for a longer shelf life.

Culinary baking specialists are often compared to master sculptors, although one works with water and flour and the other with marble and clay. An artisan baker’s work is also similar to that of a jewelry crafter, wood carver, or quilt-maker. They all use reliable, preferred materials that are used in combination to create a product designed to delight the senses.

The question that begs to be asked is artisan baking an art or a craft? The answer is: both. Crafting is the process of using a skilled technique to create something that is often considered an expression of art. Whereas, an artist must have the ability to create or "craft” something that is pleasing to the senses.

The following artisan bakers have started successful careers in the industry doing what they love best: baking. Not only do they want to introduce their respective businesses, but they also have invaluable insights to share:

Julia’s Kitchen

Julia Swensen, Owner and Executive Chef of Julia's Kitchen (http://www.juliaskitchenonline.com/), an artisan catering service, feels strongly about handcrafting every dish she makes for her clients so they can taste the care and attention in each bite. This personalization also gives her a better degree of control over the ingredients used, as well as an acute awareness of the nutritional makeup of each dish.

"We make everything from scratch and handcraft every dish: every sauce, every bun, even the jam and maple butter we serve with our buttermilk biscuits,” Swensen says. "Making everything from scratch ensures that our dishes have an authentic, natural flavor.”

Although word-of-mouth and a strong web presence have been beneficial to her business, Swensen also recommends fellow artisans always keep business cards handy because you never know who you’re going to meet or where you may find the opportunity to leave a few where others can pick them up.

She relates a story about visiting a local cheese store to order a charcuterie plate for a client’s party. Another woman, who overheard what Swensen had ordered, was so impressed that she ordered a duplicate charcuterie plate for herself. As it turns out, the woman was in the market for a new caterer and they exchanged business cards. "Something as simple as going to the cheese store can turn into a potential opportunity for new business,” says Swensen. "Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and talk to people about what you do.”

B.T. Baking

Formerly a financial analyst, Todd Kelley defines himself as an "accidental” artisan baker because most of his brownie recipes – including the famous "Cookie Brownie” – turned out phenomenally well by accident. "I meant to do one thing yet ended up with something very different; much like my career path,” says Kelley.

Kelley started his business, B.T. Baking (http://www.btbaking.com/), in 2009 after his wife encouraged him to quit his day job and pursue his passion for baking. (Incidentally, the "B.T.” stands for "Better Together,” inspired by Kelley’s endearing relationship with his wife, Kestra.) The business initially started out as a home-based business but grew so quickly they now rent commercial space from a baker.

One of the things that sets Kelley apart from mainstream or commercial bakers are the premium ingredients he uses such as organic eggs, sugar, flour, and chocolate. "Our butter is hormone-free and we source our eggs from local farmers,” says Kelley. "What I'm most proud of is we use Fair Trade chocolate, ensuring small cocoa farmers receive fair prices for their efforts.”

This socially-responsible artisan baker donates one percent of the company’s sales to 1% For the Planet (http://www.onepercentfortheplanet.org/), which is an organization founded by Patagonia that distributes money to causes that support the environment. As committed as he is to selling more of his great brownies, Kelley is incredibly passionate about making people aware of what is in the food they eat and where it comes from. "Too much of what we eat today is not even real food,” he says. "It is over-processed, preservative-laced junk. I want to change that in any way I can.”

Raising the Candy Bar

David Levine, a dot com escapee, and his wife, Melissa, also consider themselves to be socially conscious as the "bar” tenders (as well as the owners and operators) of Raising the Candy Bar (http://www.raisingthecandybar.com/). They are very active in their local. community by hosting LifeSource blood drives, answering the call of an 8000 gumball donation for Make A Wish, donating treats to children who read library books over the summer, and hosting business-after-hours for the different Chambers of Commerce they are involved with. In addition to their numerous contributions, the business’s visibility has been considerably raised in the local and national press.

Raising the Candy Bar – winner of the 2009 Kosherfest New Product Competition – uses only the finest ingredients in their candy and confections. They set themselves apart from the competition by catering to the various niches for chocolate lovers including sugar free, lactose free, kosher, gluten free, organic, and more. "We listen to our clients and then give them what they want,” says Levine. "We don’t try to hard sell them — chocolate should not be a high pressure situation!”

When starting a new business, Levine cautions fellow artisans to implement inventory control: "The biggest mistake we made as a business was during our first year buying too much product from giftware to perishables,” he says. "Once we got this under control we were much more successful.”

New York Bakers

Stan Ginsberg, a Wall Street corporate executive with a background in finance and journalism, launched his business, The New York Bakers (http://www.nybakers.com/) last year. His part-time company specializes in professional and specialty flours for artisan bakers that are not typically available at retail, as well as high-quality home baking equipment and supplies at reasonable prices.

Ginsberg, who considers himself a pretty serious, hobbyist bread baker, started The New York Bakers out of frustration in his ability to get specialized flour and other essentials either (a) at retail or (b) at less-than-exorbitant (i.e., King Arthur) prices.

His business is entirely web-based, so naturally a strong web presence is essential to its success. "To me, the most critical element is identifying the market and the need one intends to serve,” says Ginsberg. "The more specifically one can define both, the easier it is to target that market.”

Ginsberg markets his website primarily by running online ads at other sites such as The Fresh Loaf (http://www.thefreshloaf.com/), a hobbyist bread-baking website. "In addition, I try to contact current customers and identified prospects via email at least monthly,” he says. "I also offer free sourdough starters (no purchase necessary) as a way of generating traffic and building my mailing list.”

Not For Sissies

Over the past ten years, small businesses – including artisans – have accounted for more than 70 percent of jobs across the nation. It’s not easy starting a new business or maintaining an existing one in today’s economy so it’s important to feel passionate about what you’re doing. David Levine says that working in the candy business is a sweet job, but it’s a job nonetheless that requires many hours of hard work, as well as a dedication to excellence. Julia Swensen sums it up by saying, "When you love what you’re doing, you can still wake up on those really hard days and do great work. It makes the bad days okay, and the good days fantastic!”

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CHARLENE DAVIS (http://www.thewriteessentials.com/) is an internationally published writer specializing in business, retail, e-commerce, and food. She has written Design and Start an Online Travel Business in a Week, Start Your Own Photography Business, Start Your Own Clothing Store, and How to Sell Clothing, Shoes, & Accessories on eBay, as well as two additional books co-authored with Jacquelyn Lynn, Make BIG Profits on eBay and Start Your Own Senior Services Business (all published by Entrepreneur Press). Charlene wrote this feature article exclusively for the Association of Artisan Businesses (http://www.artisanbusinesses.org/), an organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the artisan industry.

Artisan Baking is Not for Sissies

By: Charlene Davis