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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Ten Things I’ve Learned Opening a Bakery

August 2, 2023

I am opening a bakery today.

Opening any style of restaurant is one of the most stressful activities one will ever experience. I’ve done it two dozen times. Opening any business is stressful, complicated, and grueling. But there are so many moving parts to a restaurant, no matter how many foodservice establishments one has worked in— or opened— the concept is still new to everyone, it’s still complicated, and it’s still hectic.

This column is being written at 4:00 AM on the opening day of a bakery I’ve been working on for the last 18 months. It’s a business I’ve been dreaming of opening for over a decade. For the past six years I have been trying to coax pastry chef Martha Foose, and her husband, master baker Donald Bender, to my hometown of Hattiesburg to join me in opening— what we plan to be— the best restaurant bakery in the state of Mississippi as soon as we open the doors.

It’s been a long journey. We started developing pastry recipes and researching bakery items 18 months ago. I signed the lease on the building exactly one year ago. The two key players, Foose and Bender, have been on board for almost a year. I’ve never spent this long opening a business.

Last fall we opened an Italian restaurant in Ridgeland, MS in what ended up being a two-week turnaround. That is the shortest time I’ve ever spent opening a new concept. It turned out to be a huge mistake, though we had no choice as we had to work under the parameters of the lease/takeover deal we signed. Never again. It took months to recover from the rocky start.

This new bakery that is opening in a few minutes is the exact opposite of that situation. It has been a year and a half in the making. Once I finally convinced Foose and Bender to move from the Mississippi Delta down to the Pine Belt of South Mississippi we began looking for a space. A small bakery had just closed almost across the street from some of other restaurants. After a couple of months of negotiations, the landlord stated he wanted me to pay the back rent of the previous tenant and I walked. That ended up being a blessing. We found the building we are currently in and it’s perfect.

In the mid 1970s a long-time Hattiesburg jeweler moved from downtown to West Hattiesburg, one block from the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi. They built a unique building and did business there for several years. Eventually the jeweler closed, and a bank opened on this spot. Once the bank sold to a larger bank the building became a successive string of credit unions. When we took it over it had been empty for a year or more.

I liked the building for several reasons. The visibility is great and the traffic count is good. It’s also close to the campus of the university. But most importantly it’s in Midtown Hattiesburg. I grew up in Midtown. My childhood home was about six blocks from where our restaurants are located. My current home is eight blocks from our restaurants. As a business owner I planted my flag in Midtown Hattiesburg in 1987 and we have been doing business in this area ever since.

In my opinion, it makes a lot of sense for business owners— who are going to own multiple businesses— to stake their claim in a specific area. That way you can truly “buy into” the neighborhood. We are deeply invested in Midtown Hattiesburg. We formed the Midtown Merchants Association to take care of the business needs and the neighborhood needs of this area and are making great strides. We are building a park which will include Hattiesburg ‘s only all-inclusive playground. There’s a dog park in the preliminary planning stages and several other projects such as murals and beautification of the gateways on the drawing board.

Things I have learned opening a bakery:

1.) There’s absolutely no way to open a bakery without gaining weight— I have put on 20 pounds taste-testing breads and pastries over the past three months.

2.) When everything in a bakery is made from scratch, it’s a game changer— that’s one thing we always agreed on. So many bakeries are using icings out of a tub, and so many cake makers are using boxed mixes. We start from scratch on everything. It matters.

3.) There’s nothing plain about vanilla— In the words of Martha Foose, “On one sweet day in Madagascar a Melpomene bee or a hummingbird wakes up and finds a particular orchid that blooms just one day a year. They pollinate on that exact day and then hope nothing disturbs the blossoms until a vanilla-bean seedpod forms. That seedpod is picked, dried, fermented and then shipped to America where— after a series of stops across the country— it eventually makes its way to Hardy Street in Hattiesburg, Mississippi to be enjoyed at Loblolly Bakery.” Again, there’s nothing plain about vanilla

4.) The better the butter the richer the croissant— some people use a combination of margarine and butter for croissants. We use French butter with a high butterfat content and it’s a gamechanger.

5.) There’s no way to be truly gluten free in most bakery environments (certainly this one)— There is so much flour floating around on an hourly basis, it’s impossible— at least in our building’s configuration— to offer true gluten free options that would be made in our building. I hate it, but it’s the reality of the situation.

6.) Sometimes bakery by-products are better than the original— I like bagels fine. We bake a lot of them. I like bagel chips even more. We take day-old bagels, slice them razor thin, brush them with olive oil, sprinkle them with salt, and slow-toast them in the oven. Perfection.

7.) Cookies don’t need a lot of extras to be good— The giant, over-decorated cookie craze has taken over lately. I get it. Cookies with all sorts of exotic toppings look great for social media posts. But give me a simple great-tasting cookie with real butter and pure ingredients and I am a happy man.

8.) Coffee is important but, when done right, it can be complicated—The head of our bakery coffee program, Wes Walton, is a certified Q Grader (basically a sommelier for coffee). There are only 500 of them in the United States. He’s the only one in Mississippi. Wes, and our company COO, Jarred Patterson, have developed an excellent coffee program with locally roasted beans and made-from-scratch syrups and accompaniments to go with our pastries.

9.) Baked goods make people happy— My friend, Wyatt Waters once said, “Donuts are the happiest food.” I agree, but I’d throw in bakery pastries, too. Have you ever seen anyone make a sad face while eating a warm croissant with homemade strawberry preserves?

10.) It smells better than any restaurant I’ve ever opened— The aromas change depending on what time of day one arrives, but all the fragrances are magnificent.

In conclusion, one is never too old to learn lessons in the restaurant business.

Onward.

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