“We have been really lucky!” is a phrase Breadsmith’s owner Ward Bahlman used at least a half-dozen times during a recent phone conversation about doing business in the throes of a devastating pandemic. Being a “food” store in the vein of supermarkets and other retail food sellers, Breadsmith has been open while much of the economy was shuttered by State order.
Good fortune for sure. Bahlman believes if he had been required to close as many enterprises were, he would be out of business for good, never to reopen. But happily, wheat being the staff of life, his craft and product fell into the essential category.
He pointed to his staff as a reason Breadsmith is getting by nicely in a crushingly disrupted economy. “We have been really lucky that we have four or five really strong employees (who) have been with me, and they got us through the majority of the problems,” he said. The point is that his employees were healthy, able to stay that way, and able to keep the operation clicking in all areas.
One of those areas is retail “walk-in” business, which has been a bit stronger these past few months than was the case last year for the same months, he stated. “We know we’ve picked up walk-in trade because sales here (at the store) are up.” Why? One reason he gave is that people tend to buy more each time they stop in. “People are buying four or five loaves of bread, where before that same customer might have picked up one or two. Also, we are selling a lot more bread that is used for sandwiches, which is just the whole thing of people eating more (of their meals) at home.”
Another part of more walk-in trade is due to new customers, Bahlman believes. “A lot of people who didn’t necessarily know we were here have found us now, because they might not find what they want at other stores—out of stock or just not the right product. So, a friend might say: ‘You ought to try Breadsmith.’ At least, I think that is what is happening,” he said. He is sure there are new faces at the counter and that means new, first-time sales.
Another part of the increase is due to the sweet end of Breadsmith’s business. Scones, dessert breads, muffins, cookies and iced cinnamon rolls are doing well, because breakfast and sweet-tooth items now are more often eaten at the family table rather than at restaurants, coffee houses and the like.
The wholesale side of Breadsmith’s business has decreased some, but with a caveat that is part of the big surprise in this virus-crazy disruption of norms. “We’re doing really well at Pipkins (veggie market in Blue Ash) and Clifton Market, but then places like the Taft Ale House being closed, sales were off there,” he said. But the surprise? Pizza dough!
“Pipkins used to get 15 (units of pizza dough) a week, maybe 20; they’re up to 160 (a week) now. And (here at the store) we’ve had a lot of people asking for it, too, so obviously they’re doing something at home with it. It’s remarkable,” he said.
“We’ve had the pizza dough (raw, ready to roll out and bake) for a long time, but it never seemed to be a large seller. People are now finding out how good it is,” he said. The increase in interest has been so great that the small in-store fridge in the front of the store where it is kept is no longer big enough to accommodate the demand. “I’m thinking I need a bigger refrigerator,” Bahlman said.
Regarding the dough, it is just that: a ball of dough, fresh and ready to be made into a DIY pizza. Included are instructions on how to handle the dough. “Basically, you let it sit out for a while, and then roll it out as thin as you want it,” he said. What you put on your pizza is up to you, of course. As chef, you can bake the pizza in the oven on a pizza stone or on a pizza pan, or grilling works as well, Bahlman said.
At our house, the pizza stone seems the best option, since it creates a dry, slightly charred bottom, which is very tasty-chewy in the eating. The trick that Chef Bob has learned over time—and a few less-than-successful attempts—is to put the pizza stone in a cold oven that is then set to 500°F. Allow the oven to reach the set temperature, thus causing the pizza stone to be good and hot before sliding the pizza onto the stone. Bake the appropriate length of time. I’m betting you’ll like the end result.
See you, masked and socially distanced, at Breadsmith!
3500 Michigan Avenue
Cincinnati, OH 45208