(And some baking information too!)
We get lots and lots of questions about sourdough baking here at sourdoughhome.com. And we're OK with that. Anyone who puts themselves in the public eye espousing any level of expertise and claiming to help people should, well, help people. Still, we see many of the same questions again and again. We've used those questions to improve sourdoughhome. When we started the "starting a starter" page was a little more than one screen. Answering questions made it grow. And now we hear it's too long. LOL!
Anyway, almost all the sourdough starter questions we get can be resolved by feeding your starter more, and more often. We prefer to feed a starter at room temperature twice a day, and to feed equal amounts of flour and water and enough to double its size, by weight. So, to 100 grams of starter we'd add 50 grams each of flour and water. This makes a starter that is pretty stable and is easy for beginners to handle.
What about discarding? Well, if you don't discard and you don't bake, you'll have a swimming pool of starter in short order. And 12 hours later, you'll have two swimming pools of starter. Discarding starter when you're not baking is one way of reducing waste. Once your starter is stable, you can store the discard and/or use the discard to make other things such as pancakes, waffles, muffins, cupcakes, cakes (the sourdough chocolate cake is just great!), and pizza crusts. Several of those links are at the rec.food.sourdough faq site and you'll need to search for the recipes using the find function in your browser. Rec.food.sourdough is a great sourdough resource!
When you are going to bake, stop discarding starter until you have enough for your recipes and just a wee bit more.
I said that feeding a starter is almost always the answer to starter problems. You might ask when is it not? When starting a starter, the concentration of microorganisms has to reach a viable level for the starter to take off. If you keep discarding half the starter and diluting what is left, it may not get there. That is similar to when you revive a refrigerated starter. If, after a few feedings, the starter is still dormant, let it sit in a warm place for a day and see what happens. When it starts bubbling again, then resume feeding.
So, you want to have a home bakery, Part 2" - This section is about Farmers Markets and this will be a long section. Sorry. Remember not all states allow cottage food producers to sell at farmers markets. If you're allowed to do so, farmers markets are great places to sell your bread, get exposure and build other aspects of your business.
Before we get any further into things, there are a number of pointers to Amazon.com in the text that follows. That is not an endorsement, and we won't get a commission. We point there because they have everything you can imagine and are a convenient place to look for things. You may be able to find better prices at food service companies, so look around!
With that out of the way, let’s start out with the good news. People go to farmers markets to buy things. And they do so. A friend has a successful bakery in Austin, Texas and tells me they make more money Saturday morning at a farmers market than they do all week long in their store front. The money is there. Also, it is great to see and talk to your customers. You can see what they like, they’ll tell you what they want. The dynamics can be wonderful!
However, picking THE farmers market, or markets, to sell at can be difficult. Just like most people don’t marry the first person they date, signing up for the first farmers market you see might not be a good idea. Start by looking around your area for farmers markets. “Your area” means close enough that you can drive there after your bake and be there and set up by the time the market opens. Market managers do not like people who show up late – it interferes with the shopping – and selling – experience for everyone.
The US Department of Agriculture has a web page that helps you find farmers markets in your area. It seems to be reasonably up to date. The web page is quite nice - you can enter your zip code and how many miles away you’re interested in, and it will show you the markets it knows of.
localfarmmarkets.org also has a guide to finding farmers markets near you, though a few markets I know if are not listed.
Another excellent resource is a book entitled, “The New Farmers Market”. It was our bible when we were starting, managing, and selling at markets. You can find it through isbn.nu, a book finding service. Much of the content in the book is “evergreen”, meaning it will not go out of date. However, any guides to specific markets could change so a newer edition is probably a good thing. You might also check with your local library to see if they have a copy or could borrow one on inter-library loan.
As suggested above, you would probably prefer a market close to your home. Once you find a likely candidate, visit the market during their business hours and start by walking around and pick up on the feeling of the market. Buy some produce. Talk to the vendors. Some markets are friendlier than others. Some markets are only open to grown products - fruits, veggies, meat, preserves made with fruits the farmer raised. Make sure the market is open to having a(nother) baker.
Look around and see if there are already bakers at the market, and if they are producing goods similar to your own. Some markets prefer that there be no direct competition between vendors. If you're doing bread and they are doing pastries, that might work. Other markets prefer “to let the market decide”, so they'll let 20 bakers show up realizing that there isn't enough business to keep all the bakers happy and some will stop showing up. This makes the market managers life easier when vendors just drop out instead of the market manager having to tell a vendor to go away.
Hannah, a baker friend, got into a market and was worried - there was a farmer's wife there selling bread for $2.00 a loaf, and Hannah knew she had to charge $6.00 a loaf for her bread - could she compete against two dollar bread?. However, Hannah didn't like the farm wife's bread and thought there might be a market for her better bread. Before the market season was over, Hannah had most of the bread sales and in the end the farm wife stopped selling bread and concentrated on her excellent preserves. The farm wife was happy as she didn't really like baking bread and had wanted to concentrate on her preserves! It can be hard to predict how things will shake out, so just shake them!
A friend who is a mayor in a small Arkansas town tells me that the smaller the group, the nastier the politics. And farmers markets are a case in point. Your best bet is to read and live the title of one of Alton Brown's books, "I'm just here for the food". Don't get into arguments. You have no idea whose toes you're stepping on. Until you know the lay of the land, just go along to get along. You may want to look at other farmers markets, both so you can escape if things get ugly (YES, things CAN get that ugly!) and so you can expand.
Expansion may be desirable for you, but whether it’s legal depends on the state laws and market rules you are operating under. Some markets want all vendors to be within a certain distance of the market to insure the products are truly local. Some states prohibit cottage food producers from having employees sell their products. This rules out markets that are happening at the same time. (If you know a way to be in two places at once, please share it with me.)
Many markets require that you have a table and an awning. We've had good luck with Ez-Up brand popups. We've seen other vendors buy other brands and have them fall apart on their first market day. Our Ez-Up is a bit battered, but we've had it over a decade and it still works well. We found one on sale for well under $200. You can spend LOTS more, but I'd suggest starting with a more modest one like their Vista and upgrading when you're sure you're going to stay in the game and your cheap-o is showing more wear and tear than you want to show to your customers.
We also like tables that fold in half so they take up less room in your car or truck. Cosco makes one we like which is sold at Amazon (of course), but you can buy it elsewhere, and the table is available in white.
Before you go to your first market, practice setting up your pop-up and table(s). You don't want to look like someone who doesn't have a clue in front of an audience (although all the markets I've been at are filled with helpful people). We had to wrap our bread for sale, so the packed loaves went into the bus tubs we used to mix the dough (more about that later).
Pricing is one of the stranger inconsistencies between markets. Some markets charge a flat fee per market day, with some offering a discount for paying for the season. Some charge a commission that is a percentage of your sales. Some charge a registration fee and a commission.
In the end, you won't be paying the market fees, your customers will. You're just passing money from your customers to the market. In exchange for the fees, the market is providing you a space, advertising the market to get people to your booth and providing other services. Our market had cooking demonstrations using market ingredients. The market fees are money well spent, but you need to understand how the market charges so you’ll know how much you need to charge. Again, if the fees are high, you’ll have to charge more for your baked goods. In general, we covered all our expenses and had a profit on the first market day even after paying for our popup and tables. People go to farmers markets to buy things. Really!
If you’re just getting started, you might not want to pay for a season’s pass all at once. You might ask the manager if you can pay for a month and have that count towards a season’s pass if you decide to hang in all season. Why wouldn’t you want to stay all season? Lots of reasons, here are just a few:
- You had NO idea how hard it would be to sell at the market and it just isn’t worth it to you (we’ll cover this in detail later),
- The market’s customers aren’t interested, for whatever reason, in what you’re producing,
- You found that another market is a better fit for you and you want to move to the other market
A number of studies, mentioned in "The New Farmers Market", have shown that having a baker at the market draws more customers to the market and improves everyone’s sales, so if the market manager is reluctant to add a baker, you might dangle that carrot in front of their eyes and ask that they mention you in their advertisements.
Sales taxes are another little hassle. Some states tax foods sold for on premises consumption, others don’t tax food at all, and others tax all foods. You need to live withing your state’s laws. In some cases, if you sell something wrapped it is assumed that it is not for on-premises (i.e. at the market) consumption so it isn’t taxed. Unwrapped, it assumed it will be consumed there, so it is taxed. Wrapping your brownies can change the tax situation in some states. Ya gotta know the territory!
Some farmers markets collect and handle sales taxes for you, others don't. If your market handles sales taxes for you, that means you might be able to avoid getting a sales tax license and dealing with your state sales tax agency. In the end, it’s not a big deal either way, but it is something you need to know.
We've heard that some markets make customers pay the market, which then pays the farmer/baker. That seems unwieldy and unlikely to last more than a few market seasons. This approach can be handled with chits or coupons which are redeemed at the end of the market day.
Make sure you understand how money works in the market! Some markets will throw you out if they catch you taking cash instead of a chit or coupon. If the market uses its own money, when will they pay you in real coin of the realm? Since some people could pay the market with checks or credit cards it could be a while before the market receives the funds to pay you. Again, ya gotta know the territory!
If you will be handling money, it helps to have a cash box, one with a lock. We also suggest a counterfeit detection pen and using it on larger bills. We never had a counterfeit money issue, but having the pen made us feel better about taking larger bills.
Handling cash adds another wrinkle. Money is gross stuff. It is grimy and crawling with germs. From a food safety standpoint, you can not handle food and money safely and you need to plan for this. In our markets in Colorado, that was easy – all our bread had to be packaged so we only handled packaged food at the market. We pre-cut our samples and poured them from a bag into a bowl as needed and provided tongs for people to take samples - we didn't touch samples at the market! We also had cute little mesh covers over our sample bowls to keep bugs off the samples.
Gloves and hand sanitizer are another, inconvenient, way to go, if that is allowed in your area. A third way is to have one person act as the cashier and NEVER handle food and another NEVER handle money but handle food.
Speaking of hand sanitizer, in Texas each food vendor that handles food must have a wash station with running water and hand sanitizer is explicitly banned. Yeah, you heard me say it before, you’ll hear me say it again, you gotta know the territory! And the health department can change their rules at any time so what was true last year may be totally contradicted this year.
As a matter of convenience, we priced all our items in whole dollars and included the sales tax in the price. That way, we didn't have to mess with change. We delayed raising our prices from $5 to $6 because we didn't want to handle all the ones. Calculating sales tax and making change isn't difficult for the first few hours of the day, but as the day wears on, you'll be happy to avoid handling coins and sales tax tables.
Speaking of change, make sure you have about a hundred dollars in ones and fives when the market starts so you can make change. Too many bozos come to the market straight from the ATM machine and only have what we called "yuppie food stamps" ($20 bills). If your market is on a weekend, see if you can find a nearby bank that could give you some smaller bills in an emergency. Some farmers markets do that as a service for their vendors, but they'd rather not have to.
Also worth considering is accepting credit and debit cards. PayPal and many other services will let very small merchants take credit cards. Of course, that means someone else taking a part of your hard earned money but it’s better to have 93% of something than 100% of nothing! Shop around for the best service rates. The guy in the booth next to ours at one market was a vintner. His wine bottles were in the $20 to $30 range, which was a lot of cash and some people just don't carry cash!. He was selling bottles in ones and twos. Then he got an early cell phone driven credit card system and suddenly people were buying cases. He was very happy! That market was in Crested Butte, which is a very affluent, but not cash carrying, community.
Some marketing tips.
- If you run out of bread before the end of the market, you lost sales!
- Every market is different - what sells like gangbusters in one market, you can't give away in another so start with a variety of breads and track what sells, do more of what works
- Every market has a threshold price where something goes from being an impulse buy to something they have to think about.
- At one market, people were reluctant to spend $5 a loaf.
- At another market they bought 4 loaves at that price at a time, not to mention cases of wines from the booth next to ours.
- Having items at different prices lets you find where your market's points of pain are.
- It's easy to reduce prices, but you will face headwinds if you try to raise them.
- A painless way to try different prices is to issue coupons as people understand they are a short term offer.
- Make sure you put an expiration date on any coupons or you’ll see them for years!
- We raised prices at the start of a new market season when we started selling all organic breads to justify the price hike and it was well accepted
- What people want changes with the seasons, so offer specialty items and seasonal items
- You can turn leftover bread into something you can sell at the next market - bread pudding, croutons, bread crumbs
- Most sales happen in the first, and last, hour of the market.
- Give samples if you are allowed to do so - people who try are people who buy (why do you think Sam's, Costco and BJ's give out samples?)
- There are no problems, only opportunities!
- We didn't have a bread slicer when we started selling at the farmers market. People wanted sliced bread. So, we started selling Rada bread knives for about $11 each. This was a decade ago, prices may have changed, but we only paid half that for the knives. Rada also has great bagel and tomato knives and both sell well at the market.... Rada also has a lifetime warranty.
- If you have leftovers, at many farmers markets you can trade them with other vendors for their leftovers - peaches, apples, asparagus, beans, steaks, whatever is available - most markets have lots of last minute trading. Would you rather take home 20 loaves of bread or two steaks, several ears of corn, a pound of beans, and some peaches?
That covers the highlights of selling through a farmers market. We really loved selling through our farmers markets and we think you will too!
Next time, we'll talk about Bread of the Week Clubs, and then we'll (finally) talk about actually baking!
Until next time, may your dough always rise, no matter what you've been doing to your starter lately!