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The Job Interview: Canterbury baker lets bread speak for itself

  • Some of the bread baked at the Canterbury Bread Shop.<br/><br/>(Courtesy photo by Jessica E. Hagerman)

    Some of the bread baked at the Canterbury Bread Shop.

    (Courtesy photo by Jessica E. Hagerman)

  • Dane Percy has been running the Canterbury Bread Shop out of Brookford Farm since last summer. <br/><br/>(Courtesy photo by Jessica E. Hagerman)

    Dane Percy has been running the Canterbury Bread Shop out of Brookford Farm since last summer.

    (Courtesy photo by Jessica E. Hagerman)

  • Some of the bread baked at the Canterbury Bread Shop.<br/><br/>(Courtesy photo by Jessica E. Hagerman)
  • Dane Percy has been running the Canterbury Bread Shop out of Brookford Farm since last summer. <br/><br/>(Courtesy photo by Jessica E. Hagerman)

Before Dane Percy became an artisanal bread baker at Brookford Farm in Canterbury, he studied marine chemistry at labs in Bermuda, in the Arctic, in Venezuela and at the famed Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod.

“My 20s were spent just bouncing around the globe, and it was awesome. And now I don’t want to go anywhere,” he said with a laugh.

After Percy decided to change course, he volunteered at a community for people with developmental disabilities in Pennsylvania. He spent two years learning how to bake bread at the baking company on the premises and helping residents to do the same. The baker there taught Percy the old ways: naturally leavening the dough and baking in a wood-fired oven.

After spending four years honing his craft, Percy moved with his family to New Hampshire last summer to establish the Canterbury Bread Shop at his cousin Luke Mahoney’s Brookford Farm. Percy’s partner, Susan, is finishing her nursing degree and caring for their infant and toddler; for now, Percy’s business is the family’s sole income.

Percy spoke with the Monitor recently about his business:

People probably have all these romantic notions about what it’s like to bake bread. What’s it really like?

I didn’t learn to use a chain saw until I became a baker. The oven is as much of a component to this whole idea as the bread . . . and it requires wood, and big pieces. And so there’s a lot of hard work. The flour delivery comes, and that’s 2,500 pounds that I’ve got to put in the bakery. This is what I think about when I hire an intern, you know ­– how awful to make the job description. And it’s a lot of grunt work. The bread is the only real slow time.

What’s it like to run your own business?

This high school kid who had to do (an assignment) came up and asked me, “What’s your favorite thing about being self-employed?” And I said, “Maybe the freedom and the kind of lack of schedule and authority.” And he said, “What’s the scariest thing?” And I’m like, “The freedom, and the lack of schedule and authority.”

And I don’t know anybody with health insurance. That was a big transition: I’d always gotten a check from an HR department. Whether I was a grad student or whatever, I’d always had health insurance, even though it was quite meager. And then I went to an agricultural community, and nobody has it. . . . It’s sometimes good, you actually take care of yourself a lot more, but I pray to God that I’m never going to get in a collision. If we can just wait out, if we can just make it to (when Susan earns her nursing degree), then we’re good.

And I’m sure you’re your own marketer, as well.

That’s my weakest skill set – accidentally, because I have no training in business, and purposefully, because all my business strategies are filtered through Tom Robbins and Bill Hicks and George Carlin, which is like, all that is evil.

What I’ll say is that I am probably a lazy marketer, in that I spend way more time trying to get the bread better than I do trying to sell it. So that, from a marketing standpoint, is probably a big time sink, and not a revenue maker.

Although from a baking standpoint, I would say the opposite. And that might cause a struggle now, but I’m hoping that it pays off in the future. So, from a business perspective, I’m hoping the inherent quality will shine and market itself in a way.

Besides farmers markets and Brookford Farm, where else can people find your bread?

The (Concord) Co-op. I’ve really put a lot of effort into manufacturing a market at the Co-op, especially since the farmers markets ended for the season.

So that’s there three times a week, and the bread is selling very strong. And that’s really important. I’m kind of in the midst of deciding, determining what I am: Am I a wholesale bakery that does farmers markets on the side, or vice versa? Because I’m only one person, I just don’t want to drive around New Hampshire for the rest of my life.

Tell me about your work schedule.

In the summer, it was intense. I was probably working 10 to 13 hours a day for six days. . . . It’s slower now, which is fine. It’s harder to pay some bills, but it’s a trade-off: I’m either never home, and we have money to pay bills, or I’m home more, and it’s tight.

How do you plan? How do you know how much you’re going to sell?

You go through this cycle three times a week, and that’s the experience. And I learned from somebody who cut that number to plus or minus three loaves of bread. . . .

I expected bread to always be around in the bakery, and there was never bread in the bakery.

And that’s because this production sheet behind you is tuned – I mean, because I know the store and I’m guessing and predicting and absorbing info – that is to the loaf, and that’s how I do it, by being in touch with the flow.

What else would people be surprised to know?

I think people would be surprised to know what bread tastes like again. And this is going to be slightly judgmental, but I’ve had so many older people come to me and say, “This is the bread I remember.”

What does give me anxiety is . . . what happens when young people mature, and are they going to mature into this, or am I going extinct? So what I’m trying to do is to surprise people by how nutritious bread can be. . . . People always say that the bread is either amazing or filling or, “I feel great,” because you can live on this stuff. . . . Civilizations were built on it – not the stuff you buy now, but the stuff we do here.

And I want people to be pleasantly surprised by that, and then stick around and buy some.

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