Every Thursday at 6 p.m., Gautier Coiffard pushes the solid wooden table against the wall of his living room and sets up a stainless-steel work surface. Wearing a white baker’s T-shirt and performing precise, efficient movements, he divides a ball of floury dough into four equal parts before putting them in wicker bread proving baskets, or bannetons. The future farmhouse loaves, known as bâtards, will prove for thirty minutes. They are then placed in the fridge for eight to ten hours before finally being put in the oven. In the kitchen, his wife Ashley keeps an eye on an oven full of croissants and is already brushing the next batch with egg yolk.
The French-American couple – Gautier is from Grenoble, Ashley from Long Island – converted their apartment in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, into a home bakery more than a year ago. They now make up to eight farmhouse loaves and twenty baguettes a day, and sell them on their website and Instagram page (@Lappartement4F) from Thursday through Sunday. “It was a lot of trial and error before I was able to make a bread I really liked,” says the Frenchman, a software engineer by day. “We posted the menu online in May 2020 and everything happened so quickly!” [The couple recently signed the lease for a storefront at 115 Montague Street, in Brooklyn, and expect to open their boulangerie at the end of the summer.]
Earning a Crust
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States, many people turned to cooking for something to do, to take their minds off the epidemic, or to make ends meet. But this trend has set off a baking boom, with supermarket shelves stripped of eggs, butter, and yeast. American distributor King Arthur’s stocks of flour ran out in less than ten days, and sales of KitchenAid mixers shot up by 25%. Many home cooks then took advantage of their state’s cottage food laws, which permit the sale of certain homemade foodstuffs, to launch their own micro-bakeries.
This experience is shared by Arnaud Hubert and his wife in California. “We were both unemployed, without any income, and had a lot of free time. I decided to start selling madeleines and bagels. After all, I was making them anyway!” This is how the French-American couple, who live in the midst of the vineyards north of Napa County, launched Playflight Farm & Bakery (@PlayflightFarmBakery) in June 2020. “The money we make means we can pay for our electricity, cell phones, and one or two other bills, but it’s not yet enough to pay the mortgage on our house. We can only make a certain amount with our small oven!”
This is a recurring problem among home bakers. Working out of his apartment in the West Village in Manhattan, Richaud Valls (@Richaud.NYC) was limited to three baguettes per batch. The unemployed actor would deliver them by bike before rushing home to put another three in the oven. The story of this tireless baker was published in Forbes and won over the management at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant Benoit, who allowed him to use their ovens in exchange for his bread. “I’m now their official supplier! Not bad for a guy who had never baked before,” says the Frenchman, 48, whose clientele includes three other Manhattan restaurants and more than 300 New Yorkers. “I’m currently looking to rent a store.”
The Expansion Dilemma
In Los Angeles, Marie Delepière is also thinking about increasing her production. The electric dough sheeter she has just bought enables her to make up to 300 croissants per day, but her oven is too small to keep up. “This investment calls for a more suitable kitchen,” says the French woman, who was an event planner in New York City when the pandemic began. She has since founded Home Sweet Nest Bakery (@MarieDelepiere) to make up for her loss in income. “Renting a professional kitchen would mean I could reduce my production costs by buying butter and flour in bulk. I don’t have room to store forty bags of flour at home!”
However, for now she has to drum up new business in California, having lost her client base in the move from New York. When she isn’t preparing croissants, madeleines, tartes tropéziennes, or apple turnovers, Marie Delepière is glued to her phone. She posts photos and videos on Instagram, answers questions from her 850 followers, and chats with other professionals such as Jean-Marie Lanio, author of Le Grand livre de la boulangerie and Le Grand livre de la viennoiserie, who was quick to offer his help. “I almost spend more time creating content for Instagram than baking,” she says. “Social media is really a full-time job!”
Mastering Social Media
On this scale, knowing how to promote a business is just as important – if not more so – as being able to make a chocolate fondant. This is where Amanda Jonsay’s seminars come in. The Californian entrepreneur and founder of Just Bakecause has been helping home bakers develop since 2018. Alice Brisset took her five-week course entitled “How to Start Your Home Bakery on Instagram,” before launching Goûté Bakery (@Goute. SF) in January. “She advised us on how to define our ideal clientele, write photo captions, and use hashtags to our advantage,” says the Lyon-born young woman, who moved to San Francisco six years ago. “It gave me the confidence to get started.”
The baker’s specialties are financiers and strawberry cream cakes (“I want to perfect my skills before selling the chocolate eclairs everyone has been asking me for!”), and receives some thirty orders every week. She is starting to turn a profit, but there is still a long way to go. “I work full-time during the day and sometimes I have to bake until midnight to finish orders. It’s stressful, but the feedback from my customers makes it worth it. I feel like I’m making more of a difference than at my job in marketing.”
Flour in Their Veins
Laurent Flechoux, who founded Maison Flèche (@Fleche) in New York City in April 2020, is driven by the same desire. As a baker’s son and grandson, the thirtysomething has embraced his family heritage after an “abstract career” in advertising and tech. He identifies with the growing number of graduates from prestigious schools who are now turning to more manual jobs – what journalist Jean-Laurent Cassely refers to in his book as the “revolt of the top students.” According to Laurent Flechoux, baking is a way to “reconnect with [his] roots,” and “enjoy a simpler life.”
It may be simpler, but it comes with its own obstacles and learning curves. “I broke my knees delivering my products by bike between Brooklyn and Harlem after spending twelve hours kneading dough by hand.” He has now made enough money to invest in a professional mixer and recently hired a part-time delivery cyclist. “I work from 4 a.m. to 2 p.m., then the courier takes over. I’m also more productive, which gives me more time to look after my children, and I’ve just started paying myself a salary.”
The Importance of the Market
Another city, another story. In Austin, where living costs are lower and French pastries rarer than in New York, Hyacinthe Romain enjoys a relative monopoly over the French community in the northwest of the city. After working as a nurse in Paris and Manhattan, she founded her company, Meringue & Co. (@MeringueAndCo_ATX), shortly after she arrived in Texas in April 2020. After six months working from home, she now rents a commercial kitchen and has hired a partner and an employee, both of whom are French. “I pay myself a salary,” she says, “and I invest the rest of the profits back into baking.”
Before opening a store, she would like to “increase production, develop the menu, and start deliveries and shipments. A store is a huge investment.” It is also difficult to expand a business without impacting family life, according to Morgane Bonnin, who cofounded Bonnin’s Bakery (@BonninsBakery) in Woodstock, northwest of Atlanta, with her husband. The young mom takes care of deliveries, shipments, and the Instagram account, while her husband, a professional pastry chef during the week, heads up the family’s home bakery during his two days off.
“We sell brioche, burger buns, and cookies inspired by Breton palet biscuits. They’re relatively easy and quick to make in the community kitchen we rent,” she says. “I receive two or three orders per week and our business is growing slowly but surely. Covid sped up our projects; without the pandemic, we would have opened our store in two or three years. This experience is a way to test our idea.” Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Marie Delepière is exhausted but delighted: “This whole time has been such a gift; I’ve dared to make my dream come true!”
Article published in the May 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.