INTERVIEW: Allison Ewing, Victoria Kuper & Emily Stewart, worker/owners at Breadhive

Originally posted on Buffalo Vibe

Don’t feel too bad if you’ve never heard of Breadhive Worker Cooperative Bakery as they’ve only been around since April of this year. It does mean you’ve missed their cover story in Buffalo Spree magazine, their profiles in The Buffalo News and Block Club, as well as blog entries on Buffalo Rising and Buffalo Eats, though. So maybe you should feel bad—I know I did after only discovering the collective last month. Thankfully BuffaloVibe is here to ensure you’re given a second chance to get to know the entrepreneurial women behind the bakery and the delicious bread they create.

I can officially say first hand that it is fantastic too because worker/owner Victoria Kuper was gracious enough to bring a loaf of their signature West Side Sourdough for our interview—a perfect introduction to their ever-expanding catalog of offerings available wholesale via subscription and retail at numerous venues around Western New York. The selection spans rye, multigrain, a scrumptious looking cinnamon raisin swirl, assorted bagels, and even granola with an expanded menu in the works as new flavors and products are tested behind the scenes.

Kuper joined me with Emily Stewart and Allison Ewing (who you’ll read below popped in later on) at Sweet_ness 7 Cafe for an in-depth talk about Breadhive’s origins, its phenomenal start, and dreams for the future. All three are infectiously excited about the work they’re doing and extremely knowledgeable about the craft and business itself. It was a delight to see their dedication and how much fun they’re having considering each dove headfirst into the enterprise by quitting jobs and raising funds. They took an educated gamble and have deservedly found exponential success.

So, please take a few minutes to read what it takes to build a business from the ground up straight from the mouths of this trio of hardworking bakers with no plans to slow down. And with a new granola flavor about to roll out (details below); an in-demand take-out window located at their 123 Baynes Avenue home (opening September 1st from 10am-2pm); partnerships with local tastemakers; and menu inclusions at the likes of newly opened Buffalo Proper (located where Laughlins used to reside), Breadhive is primed to become a household Buffalo name if not already.


BuffaloVibe: Where did the three of you meet? Was it a direct result of this project [Breadhive] or had you known each other previously?

Victoria Kuper: Allison [Ewing] and I met first. I was initially involved in a community baking project that was very DIY [running] community baking workshops and she attended one. We met and she was an awesome baker. We became friends and she became a part of the project which evolved for another year. And then Emily …

Emily Stewart: I moved to Buffalo and I knew one person through a friend of a friend and it was Tori [Victoria]. I moved up here for a job and I wanted friends so I met Tori and Allison through the collective where I attended a workshop. But they were always very busy so I was like, “Well if I’m going to want friends, I should just learn how to bake.”

[laughter]

Emily: And then eventually—yeah. We started a business together.

Victoria: A couple years later and it was a match made in heaven. Let’s quit our jobs and go the whole way. [laughter]

What was the impetus for the decision to start Breadhive?

Victoria: We had been baking bread at this point for a couple years and really loved the process of baking, sharing the skills with other people, and bringing customers into the fold. We had all at that point more or less been living at Nickel City Housing Co-op, so we all had experience living in a community and operating in a cooperative structure. We decided that we were all interested in—we all had very different careers—really focusing on opening a bakery and [doing it] as a worker cooperative.

Emily: It was sort of this one night—in my mind. We were all living at the co-op house at that point, we all had full-time jobs, and we’re all baking on the weekends.

Victoria: It was a really intense hobby.

Emily: We were sharing this great loaf of bread that we knew we could make a better product of if we had the equipment. And we were all sort of dissatisfied with our jobs because A. we didn’t own them and B. they didn’t challenge us to the point where we wanted to be challenged.

We were sharing this loaf of bread, sitting in this cooperative basement on a cool day in the kitchen and said, “Let’s just do this”. And from then on we were just very clear, very focused, and quit our jobs to [start Breadhive].

And were there investors? It’s a worker co-op, but how did everything get off the ground?

Victoria: We’re the three worker/owners so we initially put in the seed capital for the project. Each of us holds a membership and we each invested the same amount. It turned out that wasn’t enough.

[laughter]

Emily: So we talked to our lawyer who incorporated us as a 5-A in New York State, which is a different incorporation clause than a standard LLC or standard DBA. Essentially what that meant was that the worker/owners would always retain control of the business but we—our lawyer told us—could sell something called Class B shares (we own Class A shares) as investment shares into the business in order to provide us the capital we started with.

We put together a budget, a business plan, and all that. We also applied to the State to do a public offering and during that application process we could do a private offering to individuals—

Victoria: Friends and family.

Emily: We essentially got a majority of that capital pretty early on. We sold 35 shares: some work/trade. So some people who helped us work on the space got a share into the business. We know a lot of trades people: our accountants, so on and so forth. And then we started doing our public offering after we got approval from the state and sold 40 shares at a thousand dollars a piece. So we have a public and a private pool of Class B shares that allowed us the equity to start our business without any debt.

Victoria: So we retain full decision-making power over our business. We were able to start with zero debt and we have this really diverse group of investors that we call our Founding Member Group. They’ve been very supportive.

Emily: For us it was a really cool model. It was a great process to go through because it wasn’t something any other worker co-op had gone through—legally—in New York State. So our lawyer did a lot of the work pro bono because he was really interested in it and he wanted to figure out how to do it.

So it’s a really accessible model for a lot of start-up businesses to replicate, which is something we were really interested in. That’s part of our value system: working towards a cooperative economy. We wanted to have a pathway for other people to be able to start these work cooperatives because we see that as the sort of fundamental tool to building the economy that we want to see.

What about Buffalo made you hone in on the West Side? Did you look elsewhere for locations or was it always going to be downtown?

Emily: For us—we all live on the West Side. So it was always going to be a wholesale bakery on the West Side. We wanted to start small and start where we could manage it and go from there.

We got really lucky with our space. [To Victoria] If you want to talk about that?

Victoria: Yeah. We were searching for a space that was well suited to our needs—not too big, not too small. [Something] we could design and outfit as we liked. And we met J-M Reed and Claire Schneider. J-M does a lot of real estate work and also owns several buildings with his wife. They showed us a space that had been vacant for twenty years. Before that it was an illegal counterfeiting operations.

So it has some history. [laughter]

Victoria: I guess it was squatted in for a number of years—a sketchy, sketchy history.

So they bought it and they rehabbed it. They put in beautiful radiant floor heating … and we partnered with them and rented the space and designed it pretty much exactly to our liking as a bakery. We moved in there in November and we opened our doors April 1st.

Emily: It’s really cool because we have people who come in that used to live in the neighborhood back in the 50s and they say it used to be a double storefront property with a beauty parlor and a law office. And it’s really neat because people come and are like, “Wow, this was vacant for so long. It’s so nice that there’s a business—a thriving business.”

We love our neighbors: an automotive shop and a corner store. Frank from the corner store comes in and we trade him granola for drinks all the time. And the automotive shop, his wife brings us water and we give them bread.

Victoria: They did a great job on my brakes. [laughter]

Emily: So it really feels like this wonderful community that we’ve moved into. I think for that reason we always looked in Buffalo.

Now how does the worker co-op work—how does it play with expansion and the like? I know you said you wanted to start here. What plans do you see happening?

Victoria: We are all equal owners in the business so as we grow and add more staff, the plan is to eventually bring on more owners. There will be a pathway to ownership as an option for employees that are really committed and successful. So we look to grow our worker/owner base and as that base grows we also want to grow the business physically. We have a lot of dreams for the future.

Emily: I think there are a lot of dreams for the future and the first step we’re taking is building a take-out window at our actual facility. So in the Fall and Winter months people—instead of going to Bidwell [Elmwood-Bidwell] or Williamsville [farmers markets]—can now come to us. They can get their dozen bagels of their choosing or see our special bread of the day—today it was roasted garlic. So we’ll be offering these sort of unique things that people can only get at the storefront.

Eventually we want to be able to expand our retail operation and I think that’s a dream of ours, but we know it’s going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of thoughtful planning as we sort of build our worker/owner pool.

Now do you have to be a member of the Crust Belt to use the take-out window? Or will that be open to the public?

Victoria: It will be a full retail window.

Emily: Yeah, so people can—same as the farmers markets—come up—

Victoria: Get a bagel with cream cheese. Get a loaf of bread for dinner.

Emily: We’re partnering with First Light who will be providing chèvre and yogurt to go with our granola and our bagels. We’ll be partnering with public espresso, providing their coffee out of our window as well. So we’re keeping the menu very simple, but it is going to be a very exciting thing.

For us—we’re right next to School 45, Lafayette High School, and surrounded by a residential area and the community has been asking us for a couple months now, “When can I just stop by?” We want to be able to open our doors, but we’re a wholesale manufacturing business. So, having a take-out window is really going to allow us to connect with our community.

And with being wholesale—could you explain your Crust Belt subscription program?

Victoria: Yeah, the Crust Belt is a CSA-style subscription program where people can purchase—in advance—a share of bread, bagels, granola, or a mix of all three. It rotates every week and they can come by the bakery every Tuesday between 12:00-6:00pm to pick up their product.

It’s all pre-paid and it’s a discount off of our retail rate and it also allows them a kind of sneak peek at any new recipe development we’re doing. So if we’re coming up with new bread, we’ll test it on the Crust Belt before we bring it to the farmers markets or put it in stores. It’s been really nice to build a relationship with these different community members who come every week and spend time with us. We get really direct feedback—so that’s been one of the ways to maintain a retail relationship with our customer base, which is great.

Emily: Subscription programs are great just because of the ability to connect with the customers and to pre-pay for bread is what supports community agriculture.

Victoria: And it reduces waste. We know exactly how much to make so we’re not left over with a whole bunch of bread at the end of the day.

Emily: Someone was telling me that it’s similar to back in the day when the milkman would come into your house and see how much milk you needed. There used to be a bread person that did the same thing. So for us the subscription program—since our bread is a reversal back to the way bread used to be made—is that as well. The bread is made the way it used to be made and a staple part of the diet of so many individuals, so to be able to plan for that—it’s a cool thing to be able to do that.

Could you talk about that process? You use a fermentation process that helps break down the gluten. Gluten intolerance is a huge thing now, but you state how your passion is making gluten bread. How does the process help bridge that divide?

Victoria: We’re a wild yeast bakery. [Meaning] all of our breads are leavened off of our sourdough culture, which is just a combination of flour and water that’s fermented to grow really healthy yeast bacteria to process our bread.

We develop all of our breads over a three-day build—three stages. What that does is ferment the bread, breaking down the gluten and a lot of the complex carbohydrates, allowing the bread to be more nutritious, more digestible, and honestly more delicious. It’s flour water and salt and you can taste so much more complexity with a much more interesting flavor profile the longer you let it ferment.

Emily: It’s easier on the digestive tract because it’s not like instant yeast in your bread where you’re going to have a build-up of phytic acid that prevents you from actually absorbing the nutrients when you digest the bread. Because we go through the three-day fermentation, the phytic acid dissipates out of the bread so nutrients are more bioavailable to you. So people regularly come up to us and are like, “This is great on my digestive tract.”

Victoria: There are folks who haven’t been able to eat wheat in a really long time and they’ll come one week to try a sample—like a tiny bite—and then the next week will try two samples and a bagel. And [by the end] they want half a dozen saying, “I haven’t been able to eat bread like this in years.”

That’s great.

Emily: Yeah, a woman actually told me—I don’t know if it’s true as I haven’t been able to research it—but back in the 50s they apparently doubled the amount of yeast that was supposed to go into bread to quicken the process. [This] is why a lot of people have the intolerance because we’ve adapted to that model. It’s prevented us from absorbing the gluten for so long. So this reversal back to fermented bread or whatnot—it’s how our body’s designed to digest it.

Victoria: That’s how we’ve been eating bread for ten thousand years.

Emily: So, we love gluten because we know gluten’s not bad. It’s just the way that bread is made that can prevent people from feeling the positive effects bread gives.

Why bagels, bread, and granola?

Victoria: Because it’s the trifecta of awesome. [laughter]

Good answer.

Emily: We can talk about our marketing surveys [laughter]

It was always bread—right? We were part of the collective and we were really honing our skills and our knowledge around bread. Then Allison and I attended a kneading conference in Maine and she got a chance to essentially intern with Jeffrey Hamelman who, if you know anything about bread, is the Bread God of our time. He’s the head baker at King Arthur Flour Bakery; he wrote a book called Bread

Victoria: The seminal book on bread. [laughter]

Emily: Edition One and Edition Two. [laughter]

Jeffrey was actually teaching a workshop while we were there, so Allison sort of learned—

Victoria: She was his assistant—

Emily: So she was with him through this whole process and got to pick his brain during the entire conference. We were in the car driving back from Maine and we were like, “You want to make bagels? Let’s make bagels.” And then we told Tori and she was, “Great! I lived in New York and I’m ready to make bagels.” From then on it was sort of excitement about bagels.

Victoria: Bagels are part of the equation.

Granola I think was the natural add-on. We wanted something that was a complementary product that was different than bread and bagels, but fit into that flavor profile. We started experimenting—we wanted some wild and crazy granolas and we got really creative in the kitchen. We started the line-up with our three basics, which are Cranberry Almond, Apricot Walnut, and Tahini Fig. We’re looking to grow from there and I’ve been really excited to see how—

Emily: Do you want to tease your new granola?

Victoria: We have a new granola in our kitchen right now. It’s—can I tell him? It’s Blueberry Ginger. It’s going to be awesome.

[Allison arrives]

So granola has been pretty popular. We’ve gotten them into some retail locations including Lexington Co-op. We’ve also collaborated with Lake Effect Ice Cream to serve granola as a topping.

Emily: Allison, how is Lake Effect using our granola? Sorry to just jump in there.

Allison Ewing: They are doing it in a sundae. It’s an Adirondack Trail Mix concept. They’re either going to have a scoop of ice cream sitting on a plate of the granola or they’re going to roll the scoop. They’re testing those things—probably as we speak.

Emily: [To Allison] He asked a question earlier and I always like your response to it. It’s about gluten so I don’t know if you wanted to expand on why we love gluten.

Allison: Modern process bread—with the invention of instant yeast meant that you could take something from a bag of flour to cooled and in a bag in three hours, which means you’ve lost the fermentation. The gluten protein is then still in a really challenging form to digest and also it’s not broken down to the point where you can absorb the vitamins and minerals successfully.

We ferment ours for twelve hours—if you do it that long it means the protein chains break down into something that you can digest way easier. The vitamins and minerals in the flour become more bioavailable or easily absorbed. If you’re eating a fermented loaf of white bread—a sourdough loaf of white bread—you’re getting more nutrition from it than a non-fermented loaf of whole wheat. Which is crazy.

People don’t know. They’re like, “Do you make whole wheat?”

“Yeah, but our white bread is also better for you than most of the stuff you’re probably already eating.”

We’ve had gluten-intolerant people come to us who have done some research asking, “Do you long ferment your bread?” We’re like, “Yeah.” And they say, “Great. I know that works for me. I can eat it.” They might still get the headache, but they won’t get most of the really troubling symptoms.

The other thing fermentation does is make the flavor way better because the sugars can break into something more complex. There’s a sour; there’s a sweetness. It makes the texture better. So, as well as being more accessible to people who have problems with gluten, we find it gives a lot of benefits in general.

It’s been almost six months since you’ve opened your doors. Has Breadhive’s evolution aligned with your goals? Any challenges or happy surprises that have turned you in a different direction?

Emily: Well, just from a sales perspective—it’s really unique for us because we put together this pro forma with a lot of input from different people when we weren’t sure what our sales were going to look like. In our first quarter we were off by like $600, which was crazy that we were that close. I showed it to the co-op and they’d never seen predictions like this. But honestly, we were hitting high marks when we were talking about our sales the first couple of months, so the fact that we’re hitting those is amazing. In that way I think it’s a lot of what we expected by hitting the marks we wanted.

Allison: I think that there were details that were different. Our wholesale to stores has been way, way, way better—way more of a mainstay than we had assumed because we had a lot of advice from other bakeries [that said], “Wholesale sucks. You’ll never make it.” We were like maybe we shouldn’t focus on that part. But that’s been a super, super sustaining part of our business.

We have found some things that sort of challenged the conventional system and things we can capitalize on. Some are as we predicted. Like we thought that if we got into Elmwood-Bidwell farmers market it would be awesome. We were lucky enough to get that this year and it was awesome.

And it will be awesome until the end of October. [laughter]

Victoria: I’ve been really excited by the number of businesses that want to collaborate with us. I think Buffalo is part of this revitalization where there’s so many food businesses opening up. We’ve been able to build relationships with breweries—we’ve partnered with Resurgence Brewery and they’ve given us their spent grains and we turn them into a spent grain bread; a brewer’s bread. We built the partnership with public espresso and we’re now supplying a couple of restaurants that have opened up.

It’s been really exciting to be a part of this young, exciting food scene growing in Buffalo. I’m glad restaurants are doing innovative work that we get to be a part of.

Emily: I definitely didn’t expect that, but it’s been really fun. And we get to eat a lot of really great food.

Allison: Yeah, I didn’t expect the volume of trades we’d be able to do.

Victoria: Yeah, trading is great. [laughter]

Emily: We’ve even traded for acupuncture.

Allison: And the amount of insider info we’ve come to know—the amount of dirt we know. It’s great. It’s awesome. We’ve entered this whole new world of Buffalo connections.

It’s really funny and mostly really positive. “Oh, you know this person and you’ve collaborated with them? Maybe that’s an avenue we should talk about.” You know people who know people you didn’t think they would.

Buffalo is a small city in the best way.

Allison: Yeah, we’ve been able to use that smallness and really enjoy it. Like I sold a woman a loaf of multigrain this morning and she only had four dollars on her. I was like, “Take it for four dollars.” She said, “Actually, I think I heard about you from my friend Perry who I do Tai Chi with.” I was like, “That’s one of our investors.” [laughter]

I thought it was interesting to see on your website “about” section that you each talked about your “roll” models rather than yourselves. I feel like that’s a great way to give insight into your motivations while still ensuring everything is more about your product and the company as opposed to “this is what we’re doing”. What sparked that decision?

Allison: [To Emily] You brought Paige into our lives.

Victoria: I can say a little while Emily is collecting her thoughts.

I think something that I always wanted—especially with our bios—was to not have it very resume-based. I didn’t want to come off as having to prove I was an expert or set myself apart based on some foundation or some history that I had. I felt that was irrelevant. People come to different projects from different businesses—there are so many different avenues with different dreams and goals that I thought it would be more meaningful to talk about what inspires us. Because that’s really what brought us all to this project, that we could really inspire—spark some sort of passion and vision. And that’s what I wanted to capture in that section.

And then we met this woman, Paige, who was kind of a narrative-based story marketing consultant and she really encouraged us to talk about role models and leadership, who influenced us and communicate that in our bios.

Emily: Yeah, so we did this brainstorm session with her that she’s been trained in doing as a marketing specialist in San Francisco and the concept of role models came up. It sort of melded a lot of our concepts: the people that had inspired us and our [desire] to tell the story of Breadhive, which is not really about us but what we’re doing.

Some people say that Buffalo is separated into two different people: people who talk and people who do. And we wanted to be a part of the people that do the things and are on the ground and are working and making things. I think our role models represent that and are inspired by that.

Allison: And I think the idea that our story—we’re only three of any number of potential owners of this business. We don’t want it to just be our background and what we bring to the table because Breadhive is not going to just be our story. As we add more worker/owners—it’s an equally owned company so it’s not just the story of Emily, Victoria, and Allison. It’s the story of this thing we’re building. There’s why we’re doing it, but it’s also going to become a lot more complex as we move forward.

Speaking of that, as you close in on your one-year anniversary, are you happy with the state of things to keep riding on this foundation for now or are you always looking forward?

Emily: It’s always moving forward. [laughter]

Allison: I like to think—if a shark doesn’t swim and get the water moving through its gills it drowns. So you can’t stay in one place. You have to be consciously moving forward either with or against the current. We’re always thinking of ways that we can be expanding our vision or collaborating. We’re always thinking about our next move.

We want to be ready to maximize the opportunities that we can’t predict because a lot of this business has been a surprise and we’ve been nimble enough to be able to capitalize on a lot of fortunate stuff and we want to be able to stay that way. So we’ve done some brainstorming about possibilities.

A couple of hints for the future: we don’t want to be the only worker/owners—there’s a hint as to what we might do. Another is that retail market is way better than wholesale market and we know that and are keeping that in mind, so you can extrapolate from there.

Emily: Do you want to talk about any of the potential product developments?

Allison: Yeah, we’re going to be working on—the first exciting thing when we have it perfect is that we’re going to launch a baguette because Buffalo needs our baguette …

[laughter]

And crackers are something that we’re excited to introduce as well. Bialys: which are like bagels but from a different Eastern European tradition so they don’t have a hole. They have a depression filled with onion, which is awesome. [There are] a lot of products we’re excited about. There’s a couple that are secrets while we discover whether they are going to work or not.

Emily: Yeah, but I think right now we’re all very focused on the take-out window and I think our next steps are really going to come out of our partnerships and the connections that we’re making now and seeing where this business takes us. The new worker/owners that will come on will also inform the next steps that we’ll be taking.

Allison: And I think we all pretty much agree that any steps to be taken are going to be taken in the city. We’ve had offers outside of the city, but this is where we live, where we work. We’re going to stick with Buffalo.

And what can BuffaloVibe readers do to help besides becoming Crust Belt members and stopping by the take-out window? Anything else to get the word out?

Allison: The places you can buy our bread week-to-week and have been supporting us since Day One are Lexington Co-op, Guercio & Sons, and Farmers & Artisans. [Visiting them] is an easy way.

Emily: If there’s a place that you want to see our bread don’t only talk to us, but also talk to them because it’s going to come from customer demand to be able to expand into other markets. Sourdough is a very specific bread and we know we do it really well, so to see it expand—it’s going to be driven by the customer.

Allison: The idea that if you go out to dinner and you don’t like the breadbasket, you tell them, “You know that bakery that just opened? They wholesale bread.”

[laughter]

We’d be thrilled.


For more information on Breadhive, please visit their website at breadhive.com.

To meet Allison, Victoria, and Emily as well as have the opportunity to try their bread, Breadhive encourages you to come out, enjoy some great food and coffee, and celebrate Labor Day from 10am-2pm during their carryout window’s Grand Opening at 123 Baynes. They will be selling their classic breads and bagels paired with First Light chevre as well as granola paired with First Light yogurt while Public Espresso sets up outside to offer pour overs as a complement to all the delicious food.


photography:
courtesy of Breadhive

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