Interview With Britin Foster of All Good Bakers in Albany, NY

Before popping over to All Good Bakers for lunch, I sent along some interview questions.  Britin’s answers were so comprehensive that I didn’t want to leave anything out, so here’s the interview in its entirety!

When and how did AGB get its start?

Nick & I started baking professionally in 2004 for a couple of reasons: we couldn’t go two or three days at home without wanting to bake something new and had a bunch of creative ideas we were bursting to try with people other than ourselves, family & friends (like many successful bakers).  We were also looking to supplement our income without working for others, in hopes that we could parlay our efforts eventually into a full-time gig; we like to work together and have found we have complimentary skills. Nick performs 75% of the baking duties, I perform 75% of the business end.  We frequently cross into each other’s territory, which we find makes for a pretty solid foundation.  We are both immersed in all aspects of our business.

Nick started baking breads for the tiny St. James Farmers Market on Delaware Ave. in Albany in the summer of 2004 (going by the name “Foster’s Famous”), while I organized, did all the administrative stuff and helped him work the market.  Then we spent two or three summers at the New Baltimore Farmers Market (we were vegan then and changed our name to “The Artful Vegan”).  After we decided to begin preparing a wider variety of baked goods to include vegetarian items, we changed our name to All Good Bakers in the summer of 2009.  We joined the Saturday Delmar Farmers Market in the winter of ’09, starting just with baked goods.  When an extra bread-vendor-spot opened up at the market late summer of 2010, our business really started to take off.  We’ve had various incarnations as we figured out how to best build our business over the years, but we started officially as All Good in 2009.

Why did you decide to open a retail location, and how did you settle on where to have it?

We actually weren’t looking for a retail location originally!  When we began our Community Supported Bakery in November of 2010, we discovered (via the Health Dept.) that we couldn’t bake out of our home kitchen with our home processors license any longer because we essentially were baking for private customers, which requires a Health Dept. certified kitchen.  We looked for affordable kitchen space to rent for months and must have contacted more than 50 possible locations with no luck.  Our contact at the Albany Health Department, when I asked out of desperation, recommended our landlord, Mark Guido, at 160 Quail.  We quickly negotiated a reasonable monthly rent, found another small-food producer to rent the space when we weren’t using it, and started baking there in November.  Bonus: our landlord is chock full of solid business advice!  He’s been running his own Italian Ice Truck business out of the warehouse behind our shop for 15 years.  He still makes all the ice himself and is a small independent, like us.  He knows Albany & the neighborhood, and isn’t afraid to share his opinions.  We love Guido, we’re lucky to have stumbled upon him as new business owners.

All through the winter, we daydreamed about opening the tiny retail space that “came with” our even tinier kitchen (we have 495 square feet total).  Guido made a good point on more than one occasion: “The lights are on and you’re paying all the overhead already, why not open up?”  The potential we saw in our little shop, combined with this idea, just wouldn’t leave us alone at night.  We spent November through April researching various permits and other hoops we needed to jump through to open, found & repurposed inexpensive furniture, and did a million other things to make our dream a reality.  We’ve both worked in food service since we were 15 and from almost the moment we met, we began talking about opening up our own place.  The shop is close to our home, has a great vibe and is just the right size for us to get started.  Our location kind of chose us and we’re grateful to have it.  

Tell us about the CSB.  How did it come about?  What has the response been like?

We can’t say enough positive things about the Community Supported Business model.  Through our CSB, we have developed a deeper relationship with our community and our core customers; it allowed us to begin baking with all organic flours in November and gave us enough capital to secure our kitchen (not to mention supporting our family through the winter).  We were also able to step up our commitment to sourcing most of our ingredients locally and/or organically.  That was a major improvement for our bakery, and important to us.  We want to impart the food-values we follow at home into everything we bake for our community.  We started our CSB for a number of reasons:

1) Primarily, we needed income for the winter.  Creativity is often born out of necessity.  Nick was getting burned out baking for the Honest Weight Food Co-op, our business was growing at the Delmar Market and I didn’t want to go back to an office job after being a stay at home mom for 4 years.  We weren’t able, for various reasons, to join one of the winter markets that run all year in nearby towns.
2) We wanted to start working together, supporting ourselves & our daughter, by ourselves.
3) I broke my ankle in the summer of ’09 and had unexpected time to delve into a book I had just borrowed from the library called “Radical Homemakers” by Schoharie Valley grass-fed beef farmer & author, Shannon Hayes.  The book contained numerous interviews with people who live frugally outside the mainstream income sphere and highlighted how to turn the skills we already have into a means to support our families.  We could have followed any number of paths; this book inspired us to try to make a living doing something we are passionate about.
4) Our customers wanted our product after market season was over so we needed to come up with a concept to satisfy them.

We were vendors at the farmers market next to a grass-fed beef and pork farmer (JoAnn Tilley, Tilldale Farm in Hoosick) who sold shares of her meats…that’s what got us thinking along the Community Supported lines.  Suddenly, the idea dawned on us that we could offer bread shares and we got to researching the others that are already in place around the country.  We presented surveys to our customers to find out if they would be responsive to the idea, and we were overwhelmed with positive replies.  We ultimately gathered 49 families who split 69 shares, 4 of which were sponsored shares that we donated to Albany Catholic Charities (Mercy House Women’s Shelter and Refugee Resettlement Program).  54 loaves were donated by the end of our 1st season, which ended in May.  We continue to deliver leftover loaves on Sundays to ACC or local churches and hunger programs.  People still ask us about joining our CSB.  When the Delmar Farmers Market is over in December, we plan to resume the program.

What’s the most important to you when running a business like AGB?

Although we work to balance numerous, equally important aspects of our small business, I think what’s most important to us is serving Real Food!  That’s kind of an undefined term, but to us, it means what we serve does not contain lab-produced ingredients.  We don’t use baking materials that contain chemicals, preservatives, GMO, trans-fat, hormones, excessive antibiotics, dyes, artificial or overly-processed ingredients.  We can’t 100% avoid pesticides/herbicides, but we source fruit & vegetables organically or from local farmers we know who use organic practices.  We can’t, in good conscience, serve anything to our family, friends, acquaintances & other customers that ultimately will contribute to the build up of these excessive toxins in our communities and our bodies.

Other values we hold dear are:
1) Sourcing ingredients as locally as possible. We want to support our artisan neighbors and there are so many wonderful, hardworking, small food producers nearby.  We reduce our carbon footprint, form deeper relationships and contribute to the family income of the producers we partner with.  Plus there’s an additional layer of trust and camaraderie that comes with getting to know the people who supply us with our food (for home or the bakery).
2) Exemplary Customer Service: No matter how great anyone’s food may be, without responsiveness, kindness, understanding and going the extra mile at the right time, there’s little chance for success.
3) Transparency:  There’s a lot of “greenwashing” going on these days – we’re transparent and forthcoming about everything we do.  We don’t believe in lying to our customers!
4) A Commitment to Environmental Health: We wrap our loaves and sandwiches in biodegradable, compostable parchment, use environmentally-safe cleaners, compost our produce scraps with Radix Sustainability Center of Albany, recycle about 4 times more trash than goes into the landfill, are focused on no-food waste, and use as little packaging and plastic as possible.  We encourage our customers to bring their own reuseables (we don’t use throw-away cups for instance).
5) Family Balance: We get asked a lot why we’re not open more hours. Nick and I perform almost all of the bakery duties (we have a couple of friends who give us a hand) and have a young daughter to raise. We acquire ingredients on Wednesdays, do our prep work on Thursdays and are in the bakery 12-20 hours per day on Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays.  Mondays and Tuesdays are for accounting, marketing, ordering, research and family time.  To keep our overhead costs down as we get started, we are continuing to rent our kitchen part-time to another small, local producer whose food-values are inline with ours (Gatherer’s Granola).

You’re very committed to local ingredients.  Where does most of what you use come from?

We partner with numerous small, local suppliers:
•    Farmer Jon’s Produce, Selkirk, NY – Farmers Jon & DJ provide most of our in-season produce.  The farm isn’t certified organic, but they employ organic practices and only use organic herbicides when absolutely necessary, and they don’t use GMO seeds.
•    Delmar Farmers Market, Delmar, NY – Mushrooms (Bulich Farms), other produce, fruits and eggs (Kristie’s Barn, Solstice Hill, Blackberry Hill, Raven’s Roost).  This is a producer-only market, vendors must use sustainable growing and packaging methods, and no vendor is located more than 35 miles from Delmar
•    R&G Cheesemakers, Cohoes, NY – Sean provides us with our soft cheeses: goat, chevre, and mozzarella (he sources raw materials from small, local, sustainable farms)
•    Palatine Valley Dairy, Nelliston, NY – Cheddar cheeses
•    Lloyd Spear Beekeeper, Inc, Schenectady, NY – Raw and Spun honey
•    Meadowbrook Dairy, Clarksville, NY – Milk, ½ and ½, heavy cream, eggs, buttermilk
•    Champlain Valley Milling, Westport, NY – Organic Flours; White and Spelt are 100% from NY grain farmers
•    North Country Farms, Watertown, NY – Stoneground Wheat Flour (not certified organic, no GMO, farmers use sophisticated crop rotation, specialized and minimized organic fertilizer applications, no non-organic pesticides/herbicides (used only when there’s significant infestation)
•    This week, we’re going to start making all of our own butter from Meadowbrook’s heavy cream!  12-14 lbs per week, should be fun.

Do you feel it’s important to offer vegetarian/vegan options?  Why?

We have both adopted the vegan/vegetarian diet in the past so we know how difficult it can be to go out to eat and be confident you aren’t consuming certain animal products, and that what you’re consuming was obtained ethically.  Using vegan and vegetarian ingredients is less expensive, healthier and has less environmental impact.  Plus, it’s not hard to create something tasty without using meat!

What’s your favorite thing to bake for AGB?

Coming up with new menu items that customers request or we think will tantalize people’s taste buds are probably our favorites! It’s fun to meet new challenges with our creativity and desire to satisfy people’s cravings.

What do you most enjoy about AGB?

For me, it’s connecting with people our community, without a doubt.  Nick enjoys that aspect just as much, but I think working with quality, raw materials and coming up with something new every day is what’s most exciting for him.  If we didn’t both intensely love offering our food and philosophy to the public, we wouldn’t be doing this!  So that’s pretty exciting.  We’ve got our own bakery/café, finally!

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