Handmade bread from a handmade oven

Michael Lillegard examines his homemade brick ovenMichael Lillegard is sitting across from me wearing jeans and a t-shirt sporting a picture of his old Boy Scout Troup 15 on it. We're sitting in a lounge at UMD, and he's telling me about building a brick oven in his back yard. Working nights and weekends it took him and his dad four months to finish it. He built the oven to make pizza, and he had no idea that this homemade brick oven would be the start of his homemade breadmaking company, called 'Duluth's Best Bread.' Michael is explaining to me in the school lounge how pizza making led to bread baking when his old advisor walks by and spots us. Michael graduated from UMD last year with a master's in applied mathematics. He could have continued his education at a PhD program but the thought of where that would lead turned him away. "I don't want to sit in front of a computer all day," he tells me. His old advisor, a Czech math professor, walks up to us during our interview.

"Where is my bread?" He asks Michael. He wants Michael to deliver him bread weekly so he is constantly stocked. He does not want Michael making special trips just for him, but thankfully several other professors have already signed up for Micheal's weekly bread program.

Another professor sees us and approaches out of curiosity. She asks what's going on, and she finds out about Michael's homemade breadmaking.

"Is the bread special or something?" She asks.

"It's not really special bread," says the Czech, "it's just good bread. But for Americans it's special bread." He continues: "You get what you pay for, which means [Michael's bread] is probably three times as expensive as that crap Americans call bread."

Michael charges $4.50 for a 1 pound loaf and $7.00 for a 2-pounder. The price has not been a deterrent for any of his customers, who appreciate its high quality. He is backlogged with orders from his dad's coworkers at Essentia, where his dad works as a Sports Medicine Doctor. He sells to members of his church and to his neighbors, too, and one of his customers wants to invest in Michael's company like a venture capitalist. His customers are not just friends and friends of friends, either. Area restaurants have tried Michael's bread and have expressed interest in buying from him regularly and making it a part of their menu.

The bread is much different than bread you buy at the grocery store. Instead of being puffy and light, Michael's bread is thick, "like custard," he says. And it is dense but not hard. The differences arise mostly from the more time-consuming and labor-intensive process that Michael uses. The big companies like Wonderbread make a whole batch in a few hours using instant yeast and a high-speed spinning process that breaks down the wheat. Michael's recipes--although containing only flour, salt, wild yeast and water--are 40 pages long. His most challenging obstacle is working with the wild yeast, which is in a symbiotic relationship with bacteria and infinitely more unpredictable than the instant yeast that store-bought brands use. How the yeast and bacteria grow and interact determine the bread's consistency and taste. Michael lets the bread proof while closely monitoring temperature and texture in a process that lasts over twenty four hours.

He does his baking at his home-built oven or a bakery in Superior, but soon he will expand to a permanent location. Right now he is in talks with the Fitger's complex and hopes to have a space to bake and sell there by end of March.

Michael's original focus was on breadmaking, not breadwinning. "There's the networking and sales [part]--I hate sales," he says, citing how exhausting it can be. And he was reluctant to sell because he himself doesn't like to be sold to. But necessity dictated otherwise. Using the same logic which made him a top student at UMD's math master's program he explains: "I thought [to myself], 'If I don't sell it, then it's not gonna get sold, and it's my own stuff. Well okay, then, I've got to sell it.'" Plus he has confidence in his product and his customer's demand for it. "It's bread. Everybody likes bread."

Especially Michael's older brother Robert, a local food-writer whose articles have been published in local magazines and the New York Times. Their brotherly collaboration on 'Duluth's Best Bread' arose organically out of Michael's interest in breadmaking and Robert's interest in running a business. Robert, who is five years older than Michael, had been looking for something to manage for a while but has had nothing to sell. Their plan is for Robert to be CEO and handle the business-side of things so Michael can focus on the bread. The two are very close and Michael says they are excited about working together. "Robert's like my closest friend," he says. I ask if they've been that way forever. "Not forever. Not before I was born, I guess."

Once they establish a physical building for the 'Duluth's Best Bread' they can bake every day and get a license. But for now Michael bakes a few days per week and says he has a lot of time to think. Even while he's working, when the bread is proofing or baking in the oven, he'll go on walks around his neighborhood in East Duluth or in Superior and ponder hypothetical business situations. Often his mind wanders to considerations like whether there will be enough demand for his bread or whether he can make a living selling it. It's all abstract though; every sale and piece of feedback from his customers has been positive. He takes assurance in this evidence and comes to the same conclusion every time: "It'll either work out in a reasonable amount of time, or it won't, and I'll just get another job."

You can contact Michael Lillegard at lille088@d.umn.edu or the author at fahne006@d.umn.edu.

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