Four years can make a world of difference. Particularly to a bread baker. Back then, Michael Sellers worked a big job in marketing and communications for the hospital industry in New York City. Many of us would never blink an eye with such success in hand. “But I wanted to try something different,” Sellers recalls today. “I kept thinking – what work can I do with my hands, and also benefits the community.”
How many wondered if we had the courage to shift gears mid-life to pursue a lofty challenge? It takes courage and determination. Bread and baking were nothing new to Sellers. For decades, he had tinkered with the process. But in 2016 Sellers dove in headfirst with a bread baking class taught by the esteemed Jeffrey Hamelman, now retired director of the Baking Education Center at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vt. The experience proved lifechanging.
“Jeffrey really opened my eyes,” Sellers says. “He pushed me.”
Having taken a professional class from Hamelman myself helps me understand. The experience inspires one to achieve something truly magical. The joy of baking, the science of experimentation, the gratification of success under the constant pressure of possibly not achieving the desired goal of excellence.
Sellers admits his marketing background kicked in and so he decided to launch a bread-by-subscription business. He studied books and books, including Tartine’s, and went through “lots and lots of burned loaves.” Practice started to make perfect.
“It got to be incredibly popular and after two years I rented a kitchen, working 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. every night,” he said.
Then life found a way to throw a wrench into the whole magnificent thing.
Three harrowing obstacles threatened to bring his momentum crashing to an abrupt halt. It was July 2019. His car exploded. His marriage began to unhinge. He suffered a foreclosure on his home.
One saving grace proved to be acceptance into a Westchester County, NY, program where Sellers would learn to construct a business plan. His theme: Bread as community support.
Within the past year, he secured an investor and found a workspace in Peekskill, NY, a city of 24,000 situated on a bay along the east side of the Hudson River. It’s an hour and a lifetime away from New York City.
By March 2020, Sellers was open for business as a wholesale bakery. He called his business Journeyman Bakery as a nod to the immense challenge he had undertaken to get there. Little did he know what obstacles lie ahead on the day his business officially passed inspection.
Within weeks, as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated to a fever pitch, he threw his business plan out the window. There would be no wholesaling. Ironically, retail sales took over and exploded. His business did $2,000 in retail sales the first week and then settled into an average of about $3,000 a week. His oven, a MIWE condo that he had acquired from baker Josh Allen in St. Louis, was working overtime.
“It has been the ultimate space to work in,” Sellers says. “People order online for pickups Wednesday through Saturday. I expected it to be a lot weirder than it is. People are very patient.”
On average, 10% of his daily bread production goes to donations. That is a crucial component of his business plan to support the local community. He understands how fortunate he is to have a fledgling business that is not only surviving, but prospering.
“I opened in the middle of a pandemic, and we are doing well. People are buying seven to eight loaves at a time,” Sellers says. “I keep pumping out the volume. I am not going to let the situation throw me. I am hoping that once things improve, the wholesale business will come back.”
Looking ahead, teaching bread baking to the community is another ambition. “The space I am in is a retail education center.”
The city is also rich in history. Peekskill is a river town that is famous for producing cast-iron stoves, and the building where Sellers bakes bread every day was once a charcoal mill. Now it is a community of many people looking for work. Sellers knows – and appreciates – that he is fortunate. He bakes bread for a living – and loves what he accomplishes every day.
He recognizes that he is a fortunate one, having shifted gears on a life that could have remained on cruise-control, instead pursing a challenging endeavor during a harrowing time in our history. His life epitomizes the daily experience of the baker, hoping for the best, fearing the worst, and in the end making it work, day after day.
And he gives great thanks to his local customers for their continued support. “Thank god for the community,” he says. “I would not survive without them. It is incredible that this endeavor was so close to being done.”