Community from Scratch: Wide Awake Bakery

By Kristie Snyder,

GreenLeaf Editor

wideawake koskiTry this sometime: Come into the West-End store on a Tuesday or Friday afternoon, when Wide Awake Bakery has just made a delivery. There will be four freshly baked varieties to choose from. Buy a loaf of their bread. It will cost you six and-a-half bucks for the loaf. It will be worth it. Unless you are very lucky, the bread will be the best you've ever eaten. That might be all you care about, but there's a lot more to your loaf than meets the eye. It was made with grain grown a few miles away in one direction, and milled a few miles away in another. It was baked with heat from wood grown next door to the bakery. And to say it was crafted with love might be an understatement.

Like many of the world's great ideas, Wide Awake Bakery was conceived over a great meal shared among friends. Three people — Stefan Senders, who began baking bread at home as a release from the stress of his academic career, his wife, Liz Brown, and their friend Thor Oeschner, a local organic grain grower — were enjoying a meal together, with one of Stefan's loaves at its center. He had baked it with flour from Farmer Ground, at that time a new project of Thor, miller Greg Mol, and Erick Smith of Cayuga Pure Organics. "This is the best bread I've ever eaten," Thor told Stefan. "You should start a bakery and bake with our flour."

Stefan's response? "I thought, 'That's a really stupid idea.' But I was kind of intrigued." He stayed awake all night thinking about how to make it work. He talked to his wife the next day, and told her, "This could actually work!" Putting his anthropology background to work, he started calling bakers — all over the world. "They were incredibly generous. And what's really amazing is I never heard a negative story. They were all incredibly positive," he said. "There was tremendous satisfaction and belief that they were doing the right thing."

Stefan knew he could bake great bread, but the challenge was finding a market for it. "We decided to create a community-supported bakery, like a CSA farm, to create business stability," he said. They partnered with local vegetable CSAs to create a distribution network, beginning with Sweet Land Farm, which "was so helpful to us," he said.

The other critical aspect to running the bakery is now literally at its center — the oven. "Billy O'Brien in Trumansburg is one of our many local geniuses," Stefan said. "Billy and I designed and built this oven — it may be the best in the world. It's right up there."

The oven is a marvel. Constructed of nine tons of brick, steel, stone, and insulation, it contains a warren of spaces through which wood-heated air moves and is released or retained as needed. It's fired with local wood, some pulled out of the bakery's own woodlot by Liz's horse, Reno, about three times a week. Suspended in its center is an 8-foot-diameter stone turntable, on which many loaves may be baked at once. Why wood? Stefan laughs. "It's not gas! And it's not coal! It makes better bread, sure, but also I couldn't really see how I was going to live here and run the bakery on gas... it just was not gonna happen."

Now three years old, Wide Awake is gaining recognition in the Ithaca area and beyond for its delicious products and its role in building a sustainable local food system. Tucked into a hedgerow among farm fields outside of Trumansburg, the bakery supplies mostly bread — 50-some varieties — but also pasta, granola, pastries, and cookies to its loyal bread-share members (aka, "Crust Funders") and an increasing number of local retailers. They host baking classes, flour tastings, and trials of heirloom organic wheat varieties, working with the Organic Grains for the Northeast program of OGRIN (Organic Growers' Research and Information-Sharing Network) and New York City's Greenmarkets as part of a network of growers, millers, and bakers working to promote wheat production in the Northeast. They consult with other bakeries to help familiarize others with the challenges and potential of baking with local flours.

"Local flours have variation and personality — they require attention and skill," Stefan said. "We do these trainings to increase skill level so more people can bake with local flours." Three class participants and one former employee have gone on to open bakeries of their own across the country.

Closer to town, the bakery has become a critical link in the chain that begins in the fields of Thor and Cayuga Pure Organics, extends through the millstones of Farmer Ground Flour, and ends in the satisfied bellies of many Finger Lakes residents. Sixty to seventy percent of the flour used in the bakery comes from Farmer Ground. "We have this triad of the farmer-miller-baker," Stefan said. "In that triad, we feel very purposeful in our work. It's a social project."

GreenStar has been carrying Wide Awake's granola (you can find two varieties, one wheat-free, in Bulk) and pasta (in the Grocery section) for some time now, but the bread is a new addition as of August. "We're really happy to be there," Stefan said, and apparently the feeling is mutual. "We've sold out of every delivery in less than 24 hours," Grocery Manager Adam Morris said. "[Grocery Assistant] Lucienne had to double our original order after their first week on the shelf." The bakery delivers on Tuesday and Fridays, bringing four varieties — always a German-style rye, "Gary's Bread," a sifted wheat sourdough named in memory of Regional Access founder Gary Redmond, and a pain au levain, a traditional French-style sourdough. The fourth variety is "baker's choice" and varies from week to week.

The bakery has future plans to increase pasta production, to go solar, to create a mobile pizza oven, and to expand their partnerships with local farms. But foremost, "we're always trying to figure out how to create a business model that supports people, that is actually sustainable — it's very challenging. These are the things that keep us up at night," Stefan said. "We use bread to give people joy, to get people together — the bread is just a vehicle.

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