Part 3: Operating an ethical, caring, much less sustainable, small business is a risky and difficult endeavor. Artisan production is by definition not a huge volume business. Small food business margins are very low. Providing employee insurance is a huge strain. Overhead is high. Quality ingredients cost more. That high price tag on an artisan item includes time, labor, skill and knowledge far above that required for a mass-produced product. Turnover tends to be high and burnout common, both physical and emotional. Artisan bread costs two to three times as much as factory bread, yet artisan bakers make less than bakery factory workers in most cases. TwoJunes continued our talk with Jane Thompson, a former small business owner, who paints a vivid picture of that reality and offers some hope for the future.
“When I owned my own bakery in Atlanta, I was always right on the edge between making it and going under. And lots of times, I wouldn’t pay my own salary if I could manage to scrape by, I mean, if was between me and the employees, they were going to paid first, right? Why is it so hard? An accountant, well, they might have some initial investment in basic equipment, maybe an office, but they just don’t have to struggle with the cost of food and labor every month like a restaurant or bakery. There’s this huge overhead—quality ingredients and skilled labor—and payroll taxes are enormous. And then if you are an ethical employer and try to provide health insurance for your main workers, that’s another huge strain. And I wanted to make something really special—not cookies by the pound, but one really extraordinary cookie, say, that somebody would take the time to really savor and enjoy. The artisan worker is always competing against somebody selling something for less, maybe not as good, but cheaper. In America, bulk buying is the par for most people—volume over quality. I think here in Portland the market may actually bear a pretty fair price for artisan goods—I mean when organic flour went up, we told customers that’s why we were raising prices and they seemed to understand. I think as bigger companies move into organics, like Fred Meyer and even Pizza Hut, the prices will start to come down as sustainable farmers have a bigger market share. Here in the northwest, we have good food at our fingertips so easily; it’s a shame not to take advantage.” —Jane Thompson
TwoJunes thinks that we need to really work at involving middle class suburbia in the sustainable food movement. The movement can’t move forward with the only the farmers and chefs and bakers carrying all the heavy weight. Middle class families that could do more, insist they cannot afford to invest in artisan foods. Having two or more children is certainly a financial challenge, and it is the most often cited reason people tell us they can’t afford to invest in certified humane meat or organic produce or dairy. But the truth is that often an HDTV, home computer, annual family vacation, and other American must-haves come first. Our prevailing cultural attitude is that food is simply fuel, and it should be cheap. We live in the world of the $6 box store pie and mega-saver chicken tender bundle. It is not considered wasteful to purchase and heat a 4000+ square foot home, but people will tell you you’re throwing your money away if you don’t buy the cheapest food possible.
Chefs and bakers don’t regret the high cost of supporting sustainable meat, small farms, and local artisan foods businesses because these are the very things that contribute to their quality of life. Everyone dreams of getting a piece of the American pie. But for a small minority, the gathering together over food comes ahead of a big house and fancy electronics. A feast on the table–isn’t that what the good life is about?
Next week, TwoJunes take a break from writing about issues and share our saga, we could even call it a quest, to use up surplus prunes!
Lisa Bell is a freelance producer, writer and editor. She spent the first fifteen years of her working life as a pastry chef, recipe developer, test kitchen director, food stylist and print editor. She has also taught cooking classes, run a small cooking school, and worked as a food scientist. Nicole Rees currently works as a baking scientist. She is also a food writer and cookbook author specializing in baking science. Her most recent book Baking Unplugged, is filled with simple, scratch recipes that require no electric gadgets beyond an oven.