Bigger wasn’t better for this
Housatonic, Mass. specialty wholesale
bakery. Owner Richard
Bourdon reorganized his staff and
revised his production schedule;
today, with more than $1 million
in sales, the bakery is profitable.
Richard Bourdon had only $300 in his pocket when he and his three children emigrated from the Netherlands to the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts in 1985. Today, he owns Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Housatonic with more than $1 million in sales.
At least 90 percent of sales come from the bakery's naturally leavened bread, made using European techniques. Wholesale customers include about 60 gourmet and health food stores, co-ops and restaurants.
Breads are made from three types of starters — wheat, rye and spelt. The dough ferments for four to seven hours, depending on the bread variety. Ciabatta, rye, spelt and whole wheat need five hours and white sourdough ferments for six hours.
After moving to the United States, Bourdon's biggest challenge was the U.S.'s low enzymatic, high protein flour. “It didn't rise correctly, so I had to adjust my formulas accordingly,” he says.
Bourdon uses only winter wheat for consistency, and he slow mills (at 160 rpms) the whole grain on premises to maintain nutritional value. He uses organic grains and other ingredients whenever possible.
He mills 50 lbs. of flour at a time and uses eight to 10 20- to 30-lb. bags per week. To save money, he buys the wheat berries by the truckload. He is able to do this because wheat berries have a longer shelf life than milled grains.
Dough mixing and dividing processes are automated. The dough, which is soft and sticky due to a high water content, is divided right out of the mixer and pre-shaped by hand after a one-hour rest.
Most breads are produced on Monday and Thursday, ciabattas and pizza crusts (another significant source of revenue) on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Mixing and baking begin at 4 a.m. on Monday and Thursday and the last loaves come out of the oven at about 9 p.m. On Tuesday and Wednesday, mixing begins at 6 a.m. and baking ends around 7 p.m.
One of Berkshire Mountain Bakery's best-selling breads is Sunny Flax, made with organic flax and sunflower seeds, which is available in both a 16-oz. oval and packaged 24-oz. pan loaf. Other top selling loaves are the rustic Peasant French, made with unbleached organic white flour and stone ground organic whole wheat flour, and 16-oz. and 4-oz. ciabattas.
The mini-ciabattas (4 ozs.) have soared in sales since Bourdon first introduced them in five flavors — traditional, cheese and herb, chocolate, jalapeno and cheese, and olive — in 2004. Another well-received newcomer is Hearty Wheat, made with organic wheat and blackstrap molasses. It is available in 16-oz. boules and 30-oz. pan loaves.
Berkshire Mountain Bakery also is known for its packaged spelt pan loaves made with stone ground organic whole spelt flour and natural spelt sourdough. In addition to plain, the bakery also produces a raisin variety flavored with cinnamon and a whole meal loaf with whole spelt berries and organic sunflower seeds.
Path to baking
The journey into baking for the Quebec-born Bourdon was a fluke of fate. As a 22-year-old music student at The Hague Conservatory of Music, he decided to forego his French horn and focus on his fascination with food. Not certain what kind of culinary career he should pursue, Bourdon placed an ad in the newspaper seeking work with either a farmer or a baker. The baker replied first.
He worked in bakeries across Europe, learning the business from bench to management. For six years prior to coming to the United States, he ran a bakery in Amsterdam. Once in the U.S., Bourdon baked bread at night in the kitchen at a macrobiotic institute, selling about 200 loaves per week.
A $20,000 loan from one of the institute's clients allowed Bourdon to establish his own bakery in Housatonic in 1987. The 900-sq.-ft. facility was equipped with a four-deck oven bought at an auction, a rebuilt mixer and a single burner. In addition to bread, Bourdon's Berkshire Mountain Bakery offered cakes, pies and other sweets.
To keep up with the growing demand, Bourdon took out a second loan to pay off his original debt, and he moved into a 7,000-sq.-ft. brick warehouse. By 1988, Bourdon was baking 8,000 loaves per week and averaging $1 million in revenues.
However, an increase in production actually led to a decrease in profits. By 1992, Berkshire Mountain Bakery was producing 12,000 loaves per week, but was losing money due to debt payments, rent and payroll. A combination of a national recession and more competition in the marketplace also caught up with the bakery, contributing to its financial woes.
Downsizing for growth
Bourdon pared down his staff from 22 to three and revised his production schedule. He deliberately kept his operation small (averaging $500,000 to $600,000 in annual revenues) through 2001 to allow him to keep overhead costs at bay and pay off his loan. He also purchased the bakery building.
To control costs, Bourdon stopped guaranteeing sales. “Because we no longer took back stales, our wholesale customers ordered less, but more carefully,” he notes. The moves paid off with the bakery reaching $1 million in sales and more importantly, remaining profitable. His staff size is up to 13 full-time employees, including seven bakers, and two part-time employees.
While Bourdon wants to expand, he is carefully controlling growth to avoid turning the bakery into a factory. He also is slowly growing his retail business. Because the Berkshire Mountain area is a summer vacation destination, retail sales are mostly seasonal and can triple during peak times, Bourdon says.
He is banking on a new line of cookies to help boost his bakery's retail sales. Introduced last February, the cookies are made from sprouted whole grain spelt flour, sucanat (dehydrated sugar cane juice) and trans fat-free palm fruit shortening.
“Sprouting grain changes its composition from a starch to a vegetable, converting it into living food, so that more of its vital nutrients can be absorbed by the body,” Bourdon explains.
He points out that sucanat is “an excellent source of iron, calcium, potassium, B vitamins and chromium, which helps balance blood sugar.” Unlike palm kernel oil, a highly saturated or “bad” fat derived from the palm seed, the shortening used in Berkshire Mountain's cookies comes from the palm fruit and contains a balance of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated fatty acid as well as essential substances that act as natural anti-oxidants.
The 2.8-oz. cookies are available in four flavors — Sweet Seed (with dry-roasted sunflower and sesame seeds and pine nuts), ginger molasses, White Chocolate Decadence (with macadamia nuts and cardamom) and Chocolate Café. Instead of regular coffee, the Chocolate Café cookies are subtly flavored with a blend of soluble extracts of roasted dandelion root, barley, rye, chicory root and beetroot.
Individually wrapped for greater shelf stability, the sprouted grain cookies also can be ordered through the bakery's newly revamped Web site.
“Like our breads, we think these cookies are unique in their flavors and use of the most wholesome, healthful ingredients available,” he notes. “We expect them to grow into a significant source of revenue for the bakery.”
To accommodate the increased retail presence, he plans to enlarge the bakery by 1,500 sq. ft. to incorporate a larger display area and a riverside café with indoor seating for 30, plus more outside.
“I want to turn the bakery into a destination,” he says.
Bakery….a sampling of prices
|Baguette, 8 ozs.||$1.66|
|Cherry Pecan, 16 ozs.||$4.08|
|Ciabatta, 16 ozs.||$2.13|
|Hearty Wheat, 16 ozs.||$2.13|
|Multigrain, 16 ozs.||$2.88|
|Peasant French, 16 ozs.||$2.13|
|Sunny Flax, 24 ozs.||$3.16|
|Rye, 22 ozs.||$2.93|
|Rolls, 2 ozs. 36-count||$11.88|
|Sweet Seed cookie, 2.5 ozs.||$1.05|
|Chocolate Café cookie, 2.5 ozs.||$1.15|
|Ginger Molasses cookie, 2.5 ozs.||$1.00|
|White Chocolate Decadence cookie, 2.5 ozs.||$1.20|
|Baguette, 8 ozs.||$2.00|
|Hearty Wheat, 16 ozs.||$3.50|
|Multigrain, 16 ozs.||$3.50|
|Rolls, 2 ozs., 36 count||$18.00|
|Rye, 22 ozs.||$4.00|
|Sunny Flax, 24 ozs.||$4.50|
|Cookies (all flavors), 2.5 ozs.||$1.75|
Bakery… at a glance
Location: Berkshire Mountain Bakery
Key personnel titles: Richard Bourdon, owner
Primary business: specialty wholesale
Market served: Housatonic, Mass.
Web site: www.berkshiremountainbakery.com
Number of locations: 1
Product line: artisan breads, cookies
Bakery size: 7,000 sq. ft.
Number of employees: 13 full-time, 2 part-time
Production methods: scratch
Major equipment: spiral mixers, bread divider, manual bun divider/rounder, reversible sheeter, sheeter/moulder, baguette moulder, rotary rack oven, deck/hearth oven, refrigerator, freezer, bread slicer