SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Amy Tyson and her husband, Zachary, had been summering in Kennebunk for years when they realized that amid the clam shacks and ice cream stores, something was lacking.
“The one thing that is missing from our town is a proper bakery. So we decided to do it ourselves. We went to our local small-business development center and started working on a business plan,” she said.
The Tysons plan to open Boulangerie in a barn in downtown Kennebunk next spring. They were among a swath of leaven lovers who attended the Kneading Conference, run by the Maine Grain Alliance, at the state fairgrounds here last week.
“We learned how local wheat grows and is harvested. We learned how much work and dedication those farmers have to work their fields in Maine. And supporting those men and women is incredibly important,” said Tyson, who is no newcomer to the bread scene.
She managed the bread department for Wolfgang Puck’s Las Vegas properties and studied bread and pastry at Le Cordon Bleu London before baking on a yacht.
From the business of raising dough to the history of ancient Acadian flatbreads, the conference covered all the bases including how to build your own brick oven over the course of two days.
“The conference and other Maine Grain Alliance programs encourage people to start ‘village bakeries’ and incorporate local grains,” said Amber Lambke, who tapped rock star bakers from places such as Bread Alone in New York to lead workshops and answer questions from bakery startups.
“This conference was incredibly educational,” said Tyson, who plans to offer a bread that is made with 100 percent Maine flour.
The baking industry seems poised for more small-scale operations like the one the Tysons are opening, experts say. Artisanal bakeries were “in a different place 10 years ago,” said Peter Sonenstein, vice president of retail sales for Traditional Breads Inc. in Lynn, Massachusetts. “There are fewer barriers to success and the consumer base is a lot higher” today.
And with more and more people eating outside the home, he implored would-be-bakery owners to “look at the whole marketplace and make an informed decision.”
Because “the food business is tough,” clarity is key, he said. “You have to know what kind of business you are running and do it.”
Some of the attendees took part in a production baking workshop that gave them a taste of the business by simulating a high-volume bakery. It was a class fast-paced enough to warrant a hidden reality show camera.
Men and women wearing baseball hats, bandanas and clogs, caked in flour, kneaded, punched, pulled and shaped loaves of plenty. By midday Friday the fruits of their labor — baguettes and Maine potato focaccia with green beans, eggplant and roasted potatoes — were slowly drawn from the wood-fired ovens.
Sara Williams was learning to shape expert boules.
“This is very timely actually because I’m opening a bakery on Monday,” said the miller.
Perhaps no one embodies the burgeoning land-to-loaf slow food movement as strongly as Williams. The partner of Aurora Mills and Farm in Linneus returned home last year to take over her family business. This week the 32-year-old started to sell spelt bagels, scones and focaccia at the new County Co-op and Farm Store in Houlton.
“I’m passionate about bringing local food to Aroostook County,” said Williams, who added a wood-fired oven to her farm last year.
She wants to make bread — not just sell the ingredients.
“Since people don’t eat flour we wanted to be able to bake to help market and educate the public on local and whole grains,” including heritage wheat, spelt and oats.
Nearby in the wood-fired oven production workshop was Alison Pray of Standard Baking Co. in Portland. As founder of one of Maine’s most successful bakeries, which turns 20 next year, what could the she possibly need to know?
How to create again.
“Our ovens are full seven days a week, I can’t just decide to make something because I feel like it,” said Pray, who was assisting a workshop with bakers Michael Rhoads and Sharon Burns-Leader from Bread Alone. “I’m getting my hands in the dough and getting some new ideas,” she said. “The learning is endless.”
What Pray has learned since she opened on Commercial Street in the mid-’90s is that bread can strengthen Maine’s economy.
“The economic impact of all of this is huge. It’s a major investment for a farmer to plant locally grown grains. But now we have farmers that know bakers,” said Pray, who bakes with wheat grown from Aroostook, rye from Benedicta and mixed grains from Bridgewater.
That was Lambke’s intention when she started the conference in 2007 — and also to give home bakers such as Anna Jansen of Alna the kick in the pants she needs to go big.
“It’s time for me to get out of my basement,” said the 47-year-old, who runs a cottage bakery, Head Tide Oven, in her house.
Her artisan loaves are sold at Treats in Wiscasset and to locals who knock on her door for walnut raisin levain and picholine herb bread. The conference gave her the confidence to take her business to the next level. She plans to open a retail shop next summer.
“I believe I can do it,” said Jansen, who traveled to Skowhegan because she needed “someone to put the fire underneath me. This is the time in my life to move forward.”
After sitting through Sonenstein’s talk on starting an artisan bakery, she was ready to go home and apply what she learned, declaring the $300 she spent on attending the conference “well worth it.”
And with consumers eating healthier, white loaves sold in plastic bags are no longer the best thing since sliced bread.
The new wave of bakers like Jansen and Tyson have their sleeves rolled and ready.
“We are more excited than ever to get started,” said Tyson. “And now we have some great resources to utilize.”