How we got started and where we are now
How the bakery began
Neither of us knew 25 years ago that we would build a small commercial bakery attached to our house and start baking artisanal whole-grain sourdough bread for a living. But a thread of “bread baking as solace” winds through both of our stories.
Alison’s bread story
I was born and raised in Anchorage, on Rabbit Creek Road. My mom (Terry Arians) was a consummate vegetable gardener, avid bread baker, and frugal homemaker (as well as a high-school English and History teacher). Over the years, I watched my mom make thousands of loaves of bread: eight loaves a week, kneaded in a big metal bowl on a round-backed spindle chair. (My mom was very strong.) When I went off to college in New England, I started to bake bread for myself and my numerous housemates. Having watched my mom all those years, it was simple enough to learn to make pretty darn good yeasted 50% whole grain bread.
After graduating with a degree in Geography from Dartmouth College, I thought I wanted to be a Geography professor, so headed to graduate school in Boulder, Colorado. I still baked bread occasionally, but spent most of my spare time learning to telemark ski. I spent four summers canoeing down the Noatak River in the Brooks Range of Alaska, completing my dissertation, using tree rings and soil science to reconstruct climate patterns and explain treeline distribution along permafrost gradients.
Meanwhile, I realized that academia was not the right niche for me. During this time, I met Dan (his story, below), and fell madly in love. Luckily I convinced Dan to move back to Anchorage and marry me! Then I managed to persuade the folks at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources that a Ph.D. in Geography was just exactly the background they needed for a new natural resources planner. I worked happily for DNR for several years, but toward the end of nine years, the focus of my work changed drastically, and I wasn’t happy. So I started baking again in earnest, focusing on whole grains.
Starting a batch of bread with a sponge that was rising while I was at work, then baking it into delicious nourishment, gave me a feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment that I really needed! And this bread was really challenging—getting high-rising loaves from 100% whole grain flour is a tough problem; one that took a lot of focus, attention to detail, and careful record-keeping. Then I started trying to make 100% whole wheat sourdough bread, using sourdough starter from a friendly baker and chef at the Majestic Valley Lodge. (I’d long since lost my sourdough pancake starter from my mom.)
I had figured out how to bake really nice yeasted loaves, but all that went out the window when I started to bake whole-grain sourdough loaves. It was like starting all over—and I baked brick after brick after brick. I kept asking Dan what he thought I should do. “Add white flour,” he suggested. But I stubbornly refused. “I’m going to figure this out even if it kills me!” Fortunately, I figured out how to get a high-rising whole wheat sourdough loaf before I did anything drastic: 1) using the right kind of organic whole grain flour, 2) a good long knead, 2) two long, cool rises, 3) a warm, steamy proof, and 4) a very hot, very steamy bake.
By then, I’d started giving the bread away for Christmas gifts, and was feeding the bread to anyone who came over for meals. Friends suggested that I sell the bread—they were tired of waiting to receive the bread as a gift, I guess. Meanwhile, our daughter Meredith was born in 2004, and I wanted to be at home more.
Dan’s bread story
My bread-baking experience began later in life than for Alison, but it was no less momentous. After graduating from Swarthmore with a degree in Biochemistry, I worked for several years in Philadelphia at a biochemistry lab before deciding to enter graduate school. I attended The Rockefeller Institute in New York City, working with yeast cells on the genetics of cell cycle control for my Ph.D. I was there for about two years before realizing that I really wasn’t interested in doing this kind of work over the long term. Not a happy time for me… What to do about a half completed graduate degree that I was not whole-heartedly interested in finishing? I was interested, though, in learning how to bake—and there just happened to be a fabulous artisanal bread bakery in my neighborhood, called Ecce Panis (Latin for “behold the bread”). So one day, I walked into the bakery and asked the head baker if I could learn how to bake. The baker agreed to let me watch and learn, rotating me around the bakery to learn from each of the different teams in the bakery: mixers, shapers, deliveries, etc. So by day, I worked in the biochemistry lab, and by night, I learned to bake by volunteering at Ecce Panis. Baking bread gave me a sense of accomplishment of making something real, in the midst of a time of upheaval and unhappiness with my school and work.
After several months of soul-searching and baking really excellent bread, I realized that I really wanted to leave graduate school and New York. So I packed up my car and drove west to Colorado, where I had a couple of friends I’d gone to high school with in Washington, D.C. I know I was ready for a career change, but I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be a teacher, a furniture maker, or a bread baker. So I moved to Boulder, got a job as a baker in an artisanal bakery called The Daily Bread, got my substitute teaching certificate, and began taking woodworking classes at the local community college.
My high school friend Gabrielle happened to be attending graduate school in Geography at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and just happened to be Alison’s very close friend—so it wasn’t long before I met her.
After a couple of disastrous days substitute teaching, the ultimate realization that my baking job was going nowhere fast, and my growing interest in working with wood, I decided to pursue furniture making as a career. While I decided then to be a furniture maker, my experience in commercial bakeries later proved extremely valuable in starting our own bakery. But in the meantime, I learned to build custom hand-made furniture at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine. When I moved to Anchorage with Alison, we built a house and workshop, and I started my own business designing and making custom furniture on commission. For six years, I ran a successful furniture shop, until our daughter Meredith was born, at which point I curtailed my woodworking sharply in order to be a stay-at-home dad. Alison continued to work for DNR, but not perfectly happily.
The birth of the bakery
So in January of 2007, we started seriously discussing building and opening our own bakery. We were researching bread ovens, trying to decide what kind of oven we wanted for our bakery… would we build a wood-fired brick hearth oven? We discovered that there were only three wood-fired brick hearth ovens in Alaska, and Fairbanks had one of them. Alison visited the small whole-grain bread bakery, which was closed for the winter, but was by coincidence, just that week closing for good!
We moved our plans into high gear, working with planning, zoning, building, environmental health and food health and safety professionals to make sure we could build the bakery next to our house. After getting approvals from the proper agencies, we bought all the bakery equipment from the small bakery in Fairbanks. We felt so fortunate to get much of the equipment we needed at a good price, and already in Alaska! It felt like it was meant to be.
Meanwhile, Alison was spending hours of every week in the Building Safety offices of the Municipality. No one had ever tried to build a commercial bakery attached to their house before, and we were proposing to install a commercial oven (a huge gas-fired 4-deck hearth oven that bakes 100 loaves an hour). Everyone we worked with, from zoning, environmental conservation, health and human services, building safety, fire safety, water quality, and all the inspectors for all the different inspections, was very helpful… but so many confusing rules and regulations needed to be sorted out. We were breaking new ground.
When the contractors finally started construction, we were thrilled—but then we were under the gun to get everything finished before the oven arrived, along with the oven installer. Luckily we finished the water lines, electrical wiring, gas hookups, and vents just in time. Bill, from New York, came and stayed for a week to put the Italian oven together. Luckily it was June, and since he finished with time to spare, including a couple of test bakes of bread and pizza, we could take him hiking to Byron Glacier!
After the oven was installed, and the rest of the bakery complete (including copious inspections throughout the construction process), we began baking for the Saturday South Anchorage Farmers’ Market in July of 2007. We started with Alison’s formula for our signature 100% whole wheat levain (the French term for naturally-leavened bread, or sourdough), perfecting our methods for baking hundreds of loaves at a time, rather than just four loaves in our kitchen oven. After several weeks, we started developing new recipes, adding flavors to the whole wheat sourdough base: toasted walnut, raisin & pecan, toasted seed, and others. Then we decided to try baking some breads that included 40% organic bread flour, to make some lighter breads that would have an even broader range of flavors. You can see the bread menu for the bread flavors in our rotation.