It helps to know people. When I knew I’d be making an early springtime trip to Portland, Maine, I called my friend Rachel, a true gourmand who spends every summer there. She had a great list of advice and fantastic spots for me to try, including this tantalizing bit: “Scratch Baking Co., across the bridge in South Portland. Out of the way, but the best bagels you will ever eat.” Not just the best I’ve had so far, but the best I’ll ever have. Who could pass that up? What I discovered at Scratch Baking Co., in addition to the best bagels I will ever have, long-risen, hot from the oven, crisp and chewy, sprinkled with sea salt harvested from the cold waters of Casco Bay, was an array of tender melting shortbread, generous slices of cake, abundant rustic loaves of rye and seeded bread, perfect baguettes, buttery cookies, dense, dark chocolate brownies, and chewy, coconut-y macaroons. In other words, heaven. I’d called co-owner Bob Johnson earlier to say we’d be coming in with our cameras and questions, and he invited me to come early Saturday morning, because “that’s when the party really happens.” A generous, open-hearted spirit wafts through the air at Scratch (along with the warm scents of butter, cinnamon, chocolate and baking bread) that comes straight from all three owners, who are dedicated to creating a true community bakery, where neighbors greet neighbors and everyone is welcomed with a sense of abundance and cheer. That’s not easy to find these days, so I couldn’t wait to talk to Bob to find out how he, Allison, and Sonja pull it off.
We throw a party everyday.
What is your biggest motivator?
Recognizing how unemployable I really am.
What was your first job?
When I was 10 years old, I bundled up Christmas trees and carried them out to peoples’ cars for tips.
Tell us about your lucky break.
Seeing our bakery building for sale about ten years ago…and making an offer to buy it the same day.
Who is your business idol?
Not so much an idol, but the best mentor I have ever had is my former business partner and Co-Founder at Magic Hat Brewing Co., Alan Newman. Trust me, the dude is far from perfect and could be a complete pain. But most importantly he taught me that having a good product and/or a “classic MBA-ish” understanding of business and finance only allows you entry into the game. From then on, creating a successful business is about tapping into its energy. That brand building needs to be organic and long-term success will only come if you cultivate an authentic relationship with your customer that provides a vibe and an experience. Customers not only need to like what you do and want to buy it, but also to feel a connection with you and how you do what you do.
Words of Wisdom:
Keep it simple. Create a niche and don’t try to be all things to all people. And say “thank you” a lot…feeling it in your bones. Gotta have the gratitude.
What is your favorite cookbook?
Oh man…that’s a tough one. We have so many. But I guess the few that I started with (like a lot of folks) would be Julia Child’s French books, The Joy of Cooking, and the Tassajara Bread book. And I have to mention for its total “style of the times” aspect…the Playboy Gourmet and companion Bar Book. So awesome.
Who is your culinary idol?
Julia. I watched her original show as a kid on PBS.
How do you measure success?
Having some free time to spend with Sonja (my wife and business partner) and our dogs at our summer camp and to ride my bikes.
Where do you get culinary inspiration?
From my other business partner, Allison. She has such a natural and innate ability to make a few simple ingredients come together so beautifully and taste so good. Her grasp of the fundamentals of flavors and food roots is amazing. And she makes it look so easy!!!
What flavors inspire memories for you?
Rotisserie chicken. When I was a really little kid my mom and I would stop at our neighborhood market on our way home from the beach. They had a real butcher counter and did these amazing chickens. She would order one in the morning. When we got to the counter they would know her by name and wrap it up in white butcher paper and tie it off with red and white string. She would make a big salad with a Good Season’s packet using that mini carafe. I still think of those summer beach days and evenings whenever I have Rotisserie chicken. One of my top ten comfort foods.
What’s your favorite ingredient?
I love lightly toasted and coarsely ground cumin. This can go in a lot of directions.
What are you cooking this week?
We are having dinner guests on Saturday…the primary focus will be on a beer can chicken from Farmers Gate Market slow roasted on the grill with Johnny Harris BBQ sauce from Savannah where Sonja grew up. I’ve only eaten there once but it was outstanding. Their bottled sauce is really good. Still not yet decided on the sides.
What gets you to work every morning?
Thinking about my Americano.
What has been your greatest mistake?
Where do I begin…but I guess as in the sense of “learning from my mistake(s)”…is to take my/our time when hiring new staff and to hire for culture as to just looking at skills. The right folks can be trained but you can’t train for culture or personality. We are in small space, being part of a team is essential, and developing relationships with our customers is really important. I have made some bad hires by rushing and only thinking about skill to fill a position void. Now I/we take our time to find a good fit even if it creates short-term pain.
Kitchen Inspirations: Scratch Baking Co.’s Savannah Cookies, a.k.a. Chocolate Chewies.