Larry Lowary may have retired from his 30-year career in baking bread professionally, but he and his partner Gerry Betz still work harder than most people. Every week, they bake bread and pastry in their small bakery, Tree-Top Baking, on the beautiful Whidbey Island to sell at the local farmers’ market to a loyal group of customers. Larry specializes in bread while Gerry is in charge for the other baked goods.
After all these years, Larry is still a man with a passion — or strong interest, as he prefers to call it — for bread.
Larry had been running his typesetting and graphics arts company for 13 years when his world changed. Personal computers became popular, and his customers began using them for the work that they had previously been buying from Larry’s small business. Faced with a situation where he had to either rework the business model from scratch or pick a whole new direction, Larry was ready for a new challenge.
He decided he wanted to do work that was more basic, and — he thought — simpler: “As a typesetter, you’re at the beck and call of clients who are always in a rush and who make difficult last-minute changes. As a baker you produce a loaf of bread, sell it, and your customer consumes it that day, and hopefully comes back for more the next day — or week.”
Larry closed his shop, sold the equipment, and began a new career as a baker, following in his grandfather’s footsteps.
“My grandfather had retired before I was old enough to see him work — unfortunately I know very little about him and his work. But my mother, who was the oldest of her siblings, remembered. And we were brought up in a house where bread and bakery products were always around.” he says.
After taking a one-year course on bread, pastries, and experimental baking in one of the country’s oldest baking schools at the time, Dunwoody Technical Institute in Minneapolis, Larry went to bake bread for a small neighborhood bakery and a downtown boutique hotel in Minneapolis. He enjoyed the work, but wished to return to California one day.
“So, when I met Gerry at a baking convention in Minneapolis and learned he needed a baker, I offered to help him out. I figured I would work for him for several months at his bakery in Grover City, CA, and then move on to another job.” Larry says.
But plans change. Gerry sold his business at the end of the year, and the two moved to San Francisco where they worked for a German man who owned bakeries in San Francisco and Fairfield. From San Francisco, the journey continued to Seattle, where Larry and Gerry both found jobs at a small local upscale grocery chain called Larry’s Markets. Larry managed one of the company’s largest bakeries, and Gerry baked, then managed, then supervised the baking program for the chain.
As years passed, it became harder and harder to find trained bakers, and Larry found himself often pulling double shifts. Tired by the work load, he quit and went to office work for eight years, thinking he’d never return to baking.
Then, when he turned 65, Larry quit the office job. The two sold their Seattle home and became full-time residents on Whidbey Island where they had owned a weekend home for many years.
And Larry found that he was ready for some more baking.**
Having been a member of the Bread Bakers Guild of America since 1993, in 2005, Larry attended an event the guild organized in San Francisco. The three-day Camp Bread event gathered several hundred serious home bakers, professional bakers, millers, equipment manufacturers, and educators.
“It was an exhilarating, uplifting experience and I came home with a determination to return to baking,” Larry recalls.
And already the following year, Larry and Gerry worked with an architect and a builder and constructed a baking studio about 50 feet from their home — a property that’s surrounded by lots and lots of trees and a view of Puget Sound. They bought an oven, a mixer, a proof box, and basic baking equipment, and started baking.
First, they baked for friends. But soon, it became evident that baking small batches of bread was a waste of energy: their propane-fired oven takes two hours of constant burning just to get to baking temperature!
“So, in 2007, we named the place Tree-Top Baking and tried our luck at selling at our local farmers market.”
I asked Larry a few questions about Tree-Top Baking, bread, and working as a baker.
Jarkko: What’s the role of Tree-top Baking in your lives and the community on Whidbey Island?
Larry: Our lives are very wrapped-up in the bakery — probably more than anything should be. During the market season (late April through October and from Thanksgiving to Christmas) we work six to seven days a week mixing, prepping, baking, and selling our products.
Although there are several other small retail bakeries on the island, no one produces the variety or quantity of items we do, and we have been fortunate to have grown a very loyal following.
Because our bakery was started as a hobby and is not full-time, we think very differently than most retail businesses. We aren’t focused on statistics. We measure success primarily in being able to create and sell a wide variety of breads, pastries and cakes to our customers. We think we’ve had a really good week when most everything we baked has been sold and when we’ve gotten appreciative feedback from customers.
I have arrived at a point in my life where I do not want to work any harder than I am working now. As I near 70 years old, I’m very happy I’ve been blessed with good health — but I know things change, sometimes quickly. So, much as I love baking, I want to back off a bit from the schedule we keep. I want to travel, and if I’m lucky enough to continue to have the resources and time, I plan to do so.
Jarkko: You sell at the farmer Bayview Farmers’ Market on Whidbey Island once a week. Why did you choose to focus on the farmers’ market? Do you sell through other channels at all?
Larry: Our bakery is in a residential community — there is not enough traffic to support a retail store. Initially, we decided to sell at the farmers’ market because our county allowed home-baked items to be sold at markets. Since then we have made changes to our operation, so we have a full Food Service Establishment license even though we consider the market our store-front.
We do a small amount of wholesale baking for a local gourmet wine and cheese store but have discouraged other non-market business. Although we have been approached by many restaurants, coffee shops, and caterers, our once-a-week baking schedule does not work for customers who need fresh items every day of the week.
Jarkko: How does this once-a-week baking schedule look like?
Larry: Sundays are spent cleaning the bakery and deciding what we’ll bake the next week. On Monday we generally begin prep work for croissants, coffee cakes, and other items that are frozen and baked later in the week. Tuesdays are often spent procuring ingredients off-island. Wednesday and Thursday we do more prep work.
On Fridays we bake from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. We go to bed at 5 p.m. and get up and bake through the night, finishing about 6 a.m. We shower, shave and leave to sell at the market about 7:30 a.m. We set up, then sell from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. when we break the booth down and come home — generally very exhausted.
Jarkko: I like the idea of running a bakery as a hobby with your own schedule and rules. But you sure work a lot for a hobby! Do you ever get tired and wish you had chosen a hobby that required less work? What keeps you baking?
Larry: I get tired — very tired — every week. And the idea of baking every weekend of the year (when our weather is nicest of the year) takes its toll.
But if we want to sell fresh products, the only way to do so is how we do it—with long hours the day before the sale.
What else would I do? I really don’t know.
Although we’ve found that it’s important to bake on a regular schedule (every week), we have decided to not bake four or five weekends this season. Hopefully, that will help us feel less tied down by the work.
Jarkko: Do you have many regular customers? How important are they for your business?
Larry: We are very fortunate that we have developed a very loyal group of local customers. And during the Summer, these great friends and neighbors are joined by tourists coming to enjoy the beauty of our island.
During market season, we send out an email to a list of about 400 customers who have signed up to get our updates. We invite pre-orders and depending on the week get between 10 and 25.
Jarkko: You bake a rather wide variety of different breads and seem to be changing the offering quite often. Why is this, and how do your customers respond to this?
Larry: We rotate most breads on a weekly basis, and we do so because I like variety and believe customers do too.
Each week we bake a sourdough bread, a wheat bread, a rye bread, and then several other varieties — a total of 10 to 12. We listen to what customers tell us they like and try to bake their favorites throughout the season.
This schedule gives me the chance to try new breads during the year. Although some customers miss not getting a certain bread if it’s not baked that week, most are understanding. And good customers simply try something else.
Jarkko: What do you do when you are not baking? Like now, when you are taking a break from the farmers’ market season?
Larry: Three months not baking seems like a long time, but it isn’t. The time evaporates before our eyes.
We spend the time doing yard work (we have nearly an acre of planted yard), re-visiting friends we’re unable to see during the busy season, working on special projects (right now we’re building a new room to store ingredients), and taking trips. We plan to visit Europain 2012 in Paris in February.
One of the most exciting aspects of visiting other countries is to meet bakers, exchange ideas, learn new techniques, and try new products — I think that’s a pretty universal feeling among bakers. Although some bakers are very cautious about sharing details of items they consider proprietary, I’ve found the majority are open and willing to share ideas and formulas.
Bakers are amazing individuals who work long hours for (generally speaking) low wages. Most stay in their craft because they love producing good bread.
Jarkko: How do you define great bread? How important is the aesthetic side?
Larry: Good bread is any bread that is appreciated and enjoyed by friends, family, or customers. There are so many good breads, it would be impossible for me to pick just one: I like crispy crusts and an open crumb for sourdough bread but consider a softer crust and more tight crumb great for rye bread.
I do believe appearance is important, but taste is most important. A beautiful loaf with a bland taste is very disappointing.
Jarkko: How would you explain your passion for bread to someone who is not a baker herself?
Larry: It’s the same as the passion for anything — it’s deep interest in and love for something that not only tastes good but is nutritious and healthful.
Jarkko: But why bread and not something else, like cheese, for example? Is there something special about bread that captivates your imagination?
Larry: Bread is something I’ve found I can successfully bake. I’ve got a lot to learn (will I ever bake a baguette I really like?), but overall, I think customers are pleased with the product I make.
It’s hard to put into words my passion for bread — it just feels good to watch basic ingredients come together and develop, and turn into a beautiful loaf.
Jarkko: What’s your favorite moment in the baking process?
Larry: There are two. The look and smell of freshly baked bread (and croissants) just out of the oven when the crust sings a beautiful song. And comments from appreciative customers who lavish us with compliments at the market.**
Larry and Gerry competed their last bake as Tree-Top Baking on March 26th, 2016. But you never know — after all, Larry has returned to bread from retirement once before!