Meet a Maker - Born and Bread Bakehouse
If you haven’t yet heard of Born and Bread Bakehouse in Lakeland by now, I’d be surprised. The momentum and buzz of the goods coming from Jennifer Smurr and her team have pulled people from all over Florida. Most serious Orlando foodies have made the trek early on Saturday mornings to try her famous cruffins and croissants.
I met Jen a little over two years ago. At that time she was selling to sold-out crowds every Saturday at the Lakeland Farmer’s Market. The word about her European style bread and pastries was spreading like wildfire. My friends who lived in Lakeland were obsessed, and some even graciously brought me some of her baked goods since I could never make it to the market early enough before she sold out. I was hooked after the first bite of the best morning bun I had ever had.
What she produces you just can’t find many places in Florida. It’s special and deserves all the accolades she and her team has received thus far.
Fast forward to present day and she is still pulling huge lines, but now at her brick and mortar space in Lakeland. She employs fifteen full-time employees that work all week long for the huge Saturday bake that both locals and visitors literally line up for.
She was kind enough to sit down with me on a late Wednesday morning in her beautiful eclectic, slightly bohemian shop, as she sat under her custom neon sign that brightly radiates “American Dream” to all that walk in. As we talked, she briefly took updates from her bakery manager Marin (in her words her ride or die), greeted anyone that came into the shop even though they were closed, all while thoughtfully answering each question I posed with raw emotion and honesty.
We started where it all began. The bread.
LH: If someone hasn’t been to Europe, or tasted “real bread” yet in their life; what is the difference in the taste? What should we be looking for when we take a bite of your loaves?
B&B: It’s not just one sensory thing, it’s using all the senses. It’s the way it looks, the texture, the flavor of the bread.
Growing up in America often we are often sheltered by what we have access to. I liken it to the first time you had a real taco, but you grew up eating Americanized tacos. The taco shell is different, the salsa is fresh; there is more depth. It’s not just a texture or flavor; it gets to the point where you can’t explain what you are eating.
For me, one of the first pastries I fell in love was wasn’t in Europe, it was in San Francisco at Tartine. They create European style pastries as Born & Bread does. There is a slow fermentation process their croissant dough goes through, and it leaves you with so many complex flavors that come at you in a balanced way. It wasn’t one noted, and you could tell they took the time.
When my husband and I traveled to Europe we got coffee, with sliced bread and jam. I found that they had made everything themselves and for them that was a point of pride.
I think until you’ve been immersed in a culture that shows you a different way and takes pride in what they do, you may not fully understand it. We continue to work on our craft daily so that people can have that first “real” experience, not because it didn’t exist before or because we created it, but because we were the first to educate that type of culture in our specific area.
LH: Do you wish people understood your process better, and why for now you are only open on Saturday?
BB: I do. It can be difficult. There are some people that don’t need to know the process because it’s an event for them to take time one day a week with their friends and family. Other people wish we were open everyday. For those people I do wish they knew what our team went through. There are about fifteen of us working full-time right now and we work Monday thru Saturday to be open on Saturday.
When people have asked why we don’t do more or why we aren’t open more, I remind them of our schedule. Our team works all week long to uphold a standard of excellence and consistency so that at least every Saturday we are controlling what we do and are not overwhelming ourselves. Of course, there is room for growth soon.
LH You had an apprenticeship with Zak the Baker in Miami before you began your own business. What valuable skills or life lessons did you take away from that experience?
BB: When I went to Zak’s, that romance and excitement that people have when they are at the beginning of a new adventure was able to fade, and I was still willing to work as hard as I had to so I could be a good bread baker. I could still wake up at midnight or 1:00 AM and still want to do this. Social media can lead you to believe it’s all laughing and fun, and while we do have a close-knit family team, we work incredibly hard together.
I took that apprenticeship alone and I was staying on a friends couch for the three-month duration. Being alone I learned a lot about bread, but also about myself. When I had a bad day I had to reflect on why it was bad. Was it a personal hardship? Was it something that happened outside of work that I brought in to work that day?
Also, regardless of what anyone taught me I still had to fail on my own. At the beginning days of Born & Bread, I made a really bad loaf of bread. I struggled at the Farmer’s Market and I had to get over defeating moments. You have to be OK with not being in control, and being on a journey with a cyclical roller-coaster.
LH: Your apprenticeship was three months with no pay. Why would you recommend to others to take an opportunity like that even without monetary compensation?
BB: Even though I wasn’t monetarily bringing anything in, I also wasn’t investing tons of money into culinary school. In the long game, it wasn’t years of school or tens of thousands of dollars; it was a momentary three-months I could dedicate to giving myself the opportunity to understand my craft as a baker. To feel what it was like to not have the option to come in every day and bake bread, to have to be committed. Those moments are necessary. Especially for people that aren’t sure what they want to do with their life.
LH: Zak taught you about bread, but not pastries, which have taken a large role in what you produce. How did that happen and how hard has it been to make a consistent product?
BB: The story behind the pastries is that I joined a commissary kitchen when I got back from Zak’s, and I was making about 50 loaves of bread for the market. The oven wasn’t keeping temps and would jump from 550 degrees to 300, so the outside was burnt and the inside was raw. It was very defeating and I was second-guessing myself immediately. I went ahead and made minimal pastries took only about 16 loaves I had to the market, and we ending up selling out. I was emotional and exhausted, but I couldn’t give up because I saw there was a need.
After that market, I went and ordered every bread book or pastry book that I could, and found croissants and decided to give it a go. I started hand-rolling and that was the beginning. Consistency was very difficult in a commissary kitchen, but from there it has been tweaking. I’ve gotten to spend time with other bakers that I look up to, and I’ve been able to work with many of them. Having that interaction and hearing their struggles has been incredible. I can’t say we’ve ever produced the perfect croissant. Maybe that’s the beauty of it, the journey in getting there.
LH: Is it important for you to follow as a mentor for others?
BB: Yes. I have three personally that keep me grounded and Born and Bread has had apprentices from around the world. Two of them have asked me to be a mentor. Mentorships are necessary because you won’t always know an answer to a question. You may have a gut feeling, but you need that affirmation or having someone make you think about something because they’ve already been there. You need to help people with necessary steps like a business plan; or if you are a dreamer and you need someone to pull you back down and set realistic goals.
Mentorship is something I recommend to any entrepreneur because you need someone to help you stay grounded and make sure that you are taking the time you need for yourself, but also setting yourself up for success in your business.
LH: What is your advice to those who want to pursue a creative job verses a traditional 9-5 career.
BB: Find how to stay conservative and protect what is stable. Phase out the romance and make sure you actually like it and that you aren’t just a “passion chaser”. What you don’t always see with people that pursue their passions is the incredible risk they’ve taken on. If you are going to take the risk fully, you have to be ready to do anything and everything to make it work. You can’t do it halfheartedly. Be honest with yourself and what knowledge you don’t have. Sometimes people think a little higher of themselves than what is the reality, I fell into that at times too. You have to be patient and know that it takes time to be great at anything.
LH: What made you decide to put roots down in Lakeland?
BB: Before my husband and I got married we discussed moving to another city. After starting the apprenticeship and coming back I figured I would get my feet wet with the business and we would go from there. The more I talked to people, Lakeland started becoming more and more magnetic. I love that we started here because there was a need. Here, there was instant appreciation and love for what we were trying to do, so it was easy to continue to call Lakeland home. Over the years I couldn’t be more proud to be here. I can’t explain how it all fell into place, there’s no true explanation. However, I do think it’s important to know your demographic and where things are already saturated. Lakeland has a unique variety of people that are longing for more; desiring and accepting of new cultures. If we started this anywhere else I don’t know if it would have been any better for us than Lakeland has been.
LH: How has this job fulfilled you more than any other job you’ve had?
BB: At first, it selfishly fulfilled me by seeing people line up, but as I got older and matured that changed. I’m fulfilled when I think about how the business has enabled our staff who live solely on this business that started as a little booth at a farmer’s market. When we have a team outing and they want to buy me a drink with money they earned from something I created; it’s just so much bigger than me at that point.
To have customers that come in and say we take pastries every single week to a sick family member; it makes you think of things in a different way beyond the numbers. When someone tells me how working here impacted something they do at home, how the training we did together has spilled over into their personal life, that is what is fulfilling. You get to see people more proud of themselves and their abilities. There is so much more purpose behind a baked good and I hope I never stop noticing those little things.
Born and Bread Bakehouse is located at 1113A S. Florida Ave. Lakeland, FL 33803 and is open every Saturday from 8 AM - 1 PM. Make sure to follow her @bornandbreadfl for updates and menu items.
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