All this week we'll be highlighting some of the interesting people we've gotten to know over the past year.
Britin and Nick Foster took a big step this year when they opened a storefront for All Good Bakers, their organic bakery that had previously only sold at the Delmar Farmers' Market and via a community supported bakery arrangement. And they've seen success: the storefront on Quail Street in Albany has been one of the bright spots in a neighborhood that's needed a lift.
It's been interesting to watch Britin and Nick build their business -- both because of the way they seem to conscientiously make decisions about ingredients and operations, as well as their savvy use of social media to spread the word about their products.
And we get the sense they're baking up bigger things in 2012...
How's it been to have a storefront? Anything about it that you didn't expect?
Opening our shop has been great. Everyone has been very supportive and encouraging. We really enjoy connecting with people over good food so the interactions we have with our customers are very satisfying. Getting one's feet wet with a new retail food business is challenging, but we've learned from every hurdle cleared, which have all been thankfully relatively minor.
Perhaps the most pleasant experiences we've had this year have involved getting to know our suppliers and customers better. We visited the fields of Farmers Jon Audietis and DJ Stacey at Farmer Jon's Produce in Selkirk every week this year from June to October, and frequently got to pick our own produce (in sun and rain), while engaging in conversations about the particulars of how our food is grown and the challenges farmers face, as well as learning more about their personal lives. The photos on our Facebook page of the summer bounty they provided might just hold us through till June when we can bask in warm fields of sunflowers, tomatoes and corn again. Our daughter particularly enjoyed picking vegetables and herbs this year. Since we can't live on a farm right now, seeing her excitement about getting her hands and feet in the dirt and sharing a dialogue about sustainably grown produce has been a joy and a learning experience for us all.
This summer Sean O'Connor at R&G Cheesemakers in Cohoes began offering us his experiments exclusively (like his Black Pepper Semi-Firm Cow's Milk Cheese and Asiago -- not to mention his Truffle Falls -- all of which we used in our grilled cheese sandwiches this year). He and Nick have had many lively conversations about Sean's locally and responsibly sourced cheeses, and how we can feature them in our lunch specials. We have been overwhelmingly pleased with the outcome of this mutually enthusiastic partnership!
We met Ron of Bulich Mushroom Farm in the Catskills at the Saturday Delmar Farmers Market, who has given us great deals (often bartering for scones and cookies) on giant and baby portobellos, button and oyster mushrooms, onions, garlic, leeks and apples that we've used in many recipes. We started using Randall Grippin's Maple Syrup (Mountain Winds Farms in Berne) exclusively in the bakery this summer - the rich flavor of his Extra Dark absolutely cannot be beat. Our daughter insisted on having her own bottle (no sharing!), going so far as to hide it under her bed. It's that good. Our Daily Eats in Delmar has begun supplying us with their pecans, walnuts and sunflower seeds. Caroline and Paul Barrett, as more experienced small business owners, have warmly shared their knowledge with us and have been incredibly supportive. Dave at 4 Corners Luncheonette started taking our buttermilk for his in-house baked breads and has given us all kinds of pointers about his self-built equipment (plus pancakes every Saturday!).
We've gotten to know Brian Bender at Capital District Community Gardens and the students of The Produce Project this year. They've provided us with potatoes, garlic, herbs, leeks, onions and more. We especially like supporting this organization. They are making enormous strides in getting sustainable foods to those who need them most in the Capital Region, and we look forward to building a deeper relationship with them in 2012. Everyone (fellow vendors, customers and those who organize) from the Delmar Farmers Market has helped us grow and enriched our lives on so many levels.
There are so many new people we've gotten to know since opening the shop this past April - numerous babies have discovered our toy cabinet; we've connected with families, causes and bloggers; held very enthusiastic food swaps with From Scratch Club, helped prepare dinner for Michael Pollan with the Chefs Consortium of the Hudson Valley, raised money with the Regional Farm and Food Project and FarmieMarket for Hurricane Irene affected farmers, donated healthy loaves to Albany Catholic Charities, advocated for backyard chickens, and (hopefully) brought awareness to important issues in Pine Hills. We've gotten involved in in ways we never ventured to before and are so glad (from a personal standpoint) to simply be involved and engaged in meaningful community relationships.
You set up shop in a neighborhood that hasn't had the best reputation lately. What sorts of changes have you have noticed there over the last year? And what would you still like to see change?
The Department of General Services and the Albany Police Department beat officers have been very responsive to our concerns. In the last year, they have replaced several uneven sidewalks, added more trash cans, increased patrols, trimmed trees, scheduled more sidewalk cleanings and responded to nuisance/excessive trash calls quickly. There are some great core businesses on Quail whose owners are friendly and engaged with the neighborhood. Residents have been generally friendly, but there's still a contstant flow of street trash and too-frequent vandalism.
I personally would like to see the city invest in the main corridor of Pine Hills. Street level lighting, pedestrian walkways, plantings, more trash and recycle bins, a program that solves the street trash issue. If some of the lower level apartments were converted to commercial zoning, it would be great to see a bunch of small, independent shops move in.
There's a lot that could be done to add to the overall livability of the area. The housing all needs to be brought up to code -- we've heard a few horror stories from students about their living conditions. So many factions come into play in making these decisions, but the Education District Enhancement Study has been completed for ELEVEN years! It's about time there was a commitment made to implement the recommendations made within it.
You're very savvy about organizing your fans online -- and they often seem ready to help spread the word for you, or post a comment somewhere supporting you. What have social media meant for the bakery?
Thank you! Social media is basically how we advertise and we think it's a great venue for a small business that can't afford traditional advertising. Word of mouth recommendations seem to generate quite a lot of buzz, especially if coupled with newsworthy information. SM allows us to tell our story!
We are often humbled by the interest of our community in our ongoing journey. I think connecting with people in real life helps SM interactions gain traction... friends or customers we've gotten to know over time are generally the ones more likely to share our menu or other info online. The payoffs have been huge -- we connect with followers we might not otherwise, are able to answer questions and clarify our message, and reach more people with more details.
One of the things we've noticed about AGB is that you seem very concerned with both means and ends -- which seems to be unusual in a lot businesses today. You choose to use local and organic ingredients even though they're more expensive. You value family life, so you're reluctant to expand the bakery's hours. How'd you come to the decision to run the business like that? And do you think it affects the products you make?
Our ingredients choices definitely affect the products we make (in our humble opinion). Over time, we have become educated on the deleterious effects of lab-produced ingredients on our bodies and use ethically-sourced materials in our meals at home -- we couldn't in good-conscience use ingredients in our bakery that pose possible long-term health threats to our community.
We chose our hours based on what we felt we could handle by ourselves as we got started (and we rent our kitchen to Gatherer's Granola 3 days per week -- a partnership that allowed us to open without taking out any loans). We feel it's worked well for us so far, but we're working on plans now to increase our hours and services.
How much is too much to spend on a loaf of bread?
I think the answer to that is relative to what ingredients and production methods a person values and feels they can afford, so I expect the limit might fluctuate from person to person. Since we don't have to buy bread, it's difficult to answer that question for ourselves!
What's next? What are your plans for 2012?
Nick was chosen as a rising star chef with the Albany Wine and Dine for the Arts Festival this year (one of six from a field of 190 nominations). The three day event begins January 12 and Nick will be featured in a special pavilion Saturday, as well as participating in the Slider Slam competition Friday night. We are really excited about this event and hope that it solidifies Nick's standing as a chef to watch in our community. We'll continue to develop relationships with our local, artisan food-producing neighbors and build our business based on our "Real Local Food" philosophy.
We have some other significant plans in store for 2012, but they are all in tentative stages right now. We'd love to share details right away but don't want to get ahead of ourselves! After the New Year, we'll have some firm information - we promise to share it with AOA as soon as possible! (Update: the big news was that the store is moving to a new location on Delaware Avenue.)
This interview was conducted via email and lightly edited.
Also interesting in 2011:
+ Sarah Gordon from FarmieMarket
+ Mike Guidice & Jen Pursley Guidice from Hounds on the Hudson and Albany chickens
+ Christian Noe from Nighthawk's Kitchen
+ Samson Contompasis from Marketplace Gallery
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