Last year Josey Baker, an affable Vermonter, was working as a science educator and bartender at Amnesia when a friend brought over sourdough starter he'd gotten from Arizmendi. Baker was puzzled why anyone would bother with something so complicated, and so the friend left Baker with a blob of starter and some written instructions. "I tried it and was amazed at how delicious the first loaf was," Baker says.
He got so into baking that he ended up with a packed freezer. Some of the friends he was giving loaves away to offered to pay for the bread. That gave Baker the idea to ask Gravel and Gold, which is a pickup spot for Eatwell Farms' CSA, if he could try to sell a few loaves at the gallery several times a week. But sales were so up and down he decided to ask people to sign up. "Community-supported bread," he calls it.
Baker started a funny little blog, where he'd post photos of breads he was trying out, chronicle visits to artisanal bakeries, and sometimes put up pure randomness. His girlfriend showed him how to use Google Forms to take orders, and Baker began asking people to buy four loaves at a time, picking them up at either Gravel and Gold or Amnesia on Tuesdays or Thursdays. Now, when you sign up for a loaf or four, you get the following message: "Holy cow you did it you really did it! thank you so so so much i can't wait for you to get that yummy bread." You can't spend 30 seconds on the blog without getting the sense that you're not buying a loaf from a professional bakery, you're buying it from Josey Baker, this dude you know who loves to bake.
All the while, Baker was baking at home. He figured out how to fit 12 loaves into his oven. Then he was doing two to three batches a morning, getting up at 4 a.m. to deliver them before work. Baker's been relentlessly experimenting as he goes, changing up the flavors every week. I've tried two loaves over the past six weeks, one multiseed and the second rosemary-ginger. Some of the flavors seem to work better than others ― was the ginger a little strong? perhaps ― but the bread itself has improved. A lot.
"I got way into baking," Baker says, "reading everything I could, talking to people. There are tons of great bread people who are generous with their knowledge." He's shadowed Dave Muller at Outerlands and lurked around Tartine. Eventually, he ended up chatting with Pizzaiolo's Charlie Hallowell at a party. A few weeks ago, Hallowell offered to let Baker use his wood-fired pizza oven in the mornings to bake bread for the restaurant.
On Monday nights, Baker now hauls tubs of dough over to Oakland, shapes the loaves, stays at Hallowell's house overnight, and wakes up early to bake them. A bunch of the loaves stay with Pizzaiolo, and Baker brings the rest to his regular pickup spots. The wood-fired loaf I tasted two weeks ago had a spectacular crust, with a firm crack and a little smoke to it. The crumb: quietly sour, with a lattice of more fragile-walled, wider-gauge bubbles. Amateur bread had evolved into professional bread.
Last month, Baker quit his educator job to bake, and he worked out a deal with Mission Pie to use its four-deck, steam-injected bread oven every Wednesday afternoon. On Wednesdays he's now selling the bread there to non-subscribers.
Tomorrow, to celebrate the new phase in his bread business, Baker is throwing a party: He's baking 100 loaves of bread at Mission Pie and giving them away for free, starting around 5 p.m. "I want to say thank-you to people for getting my bread this far," he says. "I'm also asking that they share the loaf with somebody, and that's because I think it's a sweet thing to do and to have more people taste the bread." Here's the invitation he created:
Baker has considered selling in farmers' markets, but for now he's going to keep selling by subscription, Tuesdays through Thursdays. "What I want to do is keep the current schedule I have," he says. "I have in my head I'm planning on traveling this summer, and push what I've got going up until then. When I come back from my travels, I'll say, let's take the next step."