Rise was the perfect distraction for our family while we navigated the early stages of COVID.
We baked, and baked and baked. We developed new recipes and dialed in our processes. Christina and Brianna would roll sourdough crackers in the basement kitchen late into the night while listening to Elton John’s Rocketman Soundtrack.
I would get up about 1:00 am on bake days to start the fire in the wood fired oven in the backyard then lay on the floor in the family room with alarms set for every 30 minutes while spending the next several hours in and out of consciousness periodically feeding the fire until it reached over 700 degrees. Then, I would rake out the fire, let the oven cool to 500 degrees and load it with the first round of bread. The maximum the oven could take at any one time was 8 loaves and I could get two bakes out of each fire. I then have to start all over and run another fire through it to bake more. We learned to use the walk-in refrigerator we had built years earlier to slow down the fermentation to time the dough to coincide with when the outdoor oven was ready for baking. We ran trays full of dough and baked loaves and bread we had packaged up and down steps dozens of times each day. Billy and Alyssa helped and the family created lifelong memories – all around the production of nourishing food for our customers.
Our sales grew too.
Who would have thought COVID would provide an opportunity to build a business focused on delivering nourishing food. People were reluctant to leave their homes to shop and also realized the impact diet had on their health. Since Brianna had just received her driving permit it was the ideal opportunity for her to practice driving. In fact, we would pack the car Saturday morning with orders and Brianna and Christina would take off for practically the entire day doing deliveries. Our customer base at that time spanned from northern Kent County to the Bay Bridge to Talbot County.
Expanding into the Kent Island Farmer’s Market
When we were approached to sell our bread at the Kent Island Farmer’s Market we had no idea what we were getting into, but we were so glad we said yes! We learned quickly that the community created and fostered at a farmer’s market is something special. In fact, we joked that someone should make a sitcom about life at a farmer’s market.
We built relationships with other vendors and relationships with our customers. We watched as pregnant customers who nourished themselves with our food became mothers and brought their newborn babies to visit us. We met couples who talked about their kids each week when they picked up bread and later proudly brought them to meet us when they were home on college break. We met countless people who suffered from all sorts of issues when consuming commercial bread but experienced no problems when they ate ours. We realized that nourishing people nourished us in return and eventually could envision a life that followed this path…wherever that might lead. We talked non-stop about next steps.
Cooking at home, we were stuck with only sourdough
In the midst of the craziness of COVID we were feeling just as lost and confused as everyone else. We loved the entire family working together but the basement kitchen eventually became too small to support the growing demand for our food. We believe in sourdough bread, but wanted the opportunity to also create all the foods that are the staples in our house we use to fully nourish our own family – foods like bone broth, yogurt, cheese, and fermented vegetables.
Unfortunately, the only food that we could legally make out of our house under Maryland’s cottage industry laws, that are in line with our approach, was sourdough. To make the other foods we would need an approved commercial kitchen. At some point we knew the pandemic was going to be over, the world would return to “normal”, and our little magical bubble would end. We needed a plan. We just couldn’t figure out how to best move forward and create a viable business model that accomplished everything we needed. Neither of us had ever owned a business nor even took a business class!
However, we realized that there were a few non-negotiable things and we needed a model moving forward that supported:
- Working together
- Creating food that we fully believe in
- Continuing to teach in order to inspire and educate others
- Continuing to learn and grow so that we could stay inspired ourselves
Time to take the leap
To achieve anything close to this meant making major life changes. What we were proposing was more than a hobby or cottage industry side hustle out of our basement. Christina was the first to make a major life change to follow this new path. At the time, Christina was the Supervisor of Special Education for Caroline County Schools. Making a change like this meant changing her entire career path in assistive technology, educational technology, and special education. We had talked about it for months, but finally made the decision to jump when our book, Eat Like a Human sold. It was picked up by a fantastic publisher, Little Brown, and provided us the impetus we needed for us to take the next step.
Christina resigned and we dove in headfirst and the family moved RISE into the space at 236 Cannon St.
Decisions just got tougher
For a year, we attempted to create a solution that would have resulted in a fully functioning entrepreneurial operation to co-exist alongside the Eastern Shore Food Lab with both entities supporting one another. However, it became painfully clear that in order to actually realize the true potential of what we have been trying to build for years we would have to work outside of the system. This meant formally separating from the college and making a go of it on our own. This was not an easy decision to make and one we did not take lightly.
We moved to this area 15 years ago solely because I accepted a job at Washington College – a job that I fully intended to retire from one day. Leaving the college meant that I was leaving a career path that I also committed to years ago and spent a ton of effort and money making a reality. In fact, I was (and still am) paying student loans from graduate school for my PhD in Archaeology and Anthropology to be a college professor. I also left a system in which would have provided financial relief for our three kids when they attended college and, don’t forget, we had a high school senior about to leave for college the next year and two more not far behind.
No, this was not an easy decision by any measure.
For weeks, we woke up every morning wondering if we made the right decision and feeling like we were going to get sick. Even now, despite any success or recognition we receive, we still wake up with that nervous pit in our stomach.
But, we both agree that the worry over whether we made the right decision to take a leap is far better than the alternative – worrying about what could have been if we hadn’t.
And teaching our teenage children to follow their dreams has been a very powerful lesson from this whole adventure!
Building our business from the ground up – 1 loaf at a time!
It was not our intention to flood Chestertown with another bakery. After all, we don’t eat all that much bread ourselves (but, when we do it is ALWAYS sourdough) and had dreams and goals of creating all sorts of nourishing food that was even more in line with the way we nourished our own family. But, we needed time to get there and we had already built a customer base on the sourdough products we had been creating.
Christina and I had left our positions and desperately needed to build something that could eventually support our family. And, in reality, our approach to our baked goods was unique and offered something different since everything we created was 100% sourdough and we used absolutely zero refined sugars. To create the Modern Stone Age Kitchen, we needed to begin with just our already existing offerings and then expand.
Framing the Brand
Our model was to build the MSAK the same way we nourished our own family based on the archaeological and anthropological research we conducted over several decades and the recipes we developed over that entire time to turn that research into real, accessible and nourishing food. We wanted to re-imagine familiar foods to make them the healthiest they could possibly be for others the same way we did for ourselves. We figured that our customers using this food to nourish their own families would find it a long term, sustainable solution. Thankfully, we had just published a book, Eat Like a Human, focused on the exact same things and it was full of our recipes. Those recipes became the basis for everything we make at the MSAK.
We had the recipes and techniques down, but on a small, household level. We needed to learn how to scale on a commercial level, create HACCP plans, and send samples to labs for mandatory testing. Then, we had to nervously wait and see if there was a market for bone broth, house rendered lard, and chicken liver pate in Chestertown.
Putting our Do’s & Don’ts down on paper
The first thing we did was to create a list of rules. We literally sat down and sketched out the things we would always do and the things we would never do – this became the basis of all of our food and our rulebook for moving forward.
The second thing we did was to come to the realization that in order to do this properly we must create all of our food entirely from scratch, in house. That translated into scratch at an entirely new level – our goal was that no two ingredients in any food we offered would be put together outside of our walls.
That meant we had complete control over the entire process and could ensure that what we were providing was not only delicious and beautiful, but the safest and most delicious it could possibly be.
- On a food production level that meant in house butchering; fermenting grains, dairy and vegetables; soaking all seeds, nuts and legumes then dehydrating them; making our own butter and mixing our own spices, creating bone broth.
- On a practical level that also meant we had to invest in people. The team we needed to build was going to have to be responsible for ALL the value add on ALL of our food. As we nervously inched forward within the confines of the modern industrial food system trying to create this new model built around tackling the hurdles in front of us to create food we truly believed in, hiring people to help us produce it all the while paying close attention to our ledger. It was overwhelming and exciting all at the same time.
Not all Rainbows and Unicorns
Our welcome to town was rocky. Many were excited and incredibly supportive, some were angry, and many were confused. This is completely understandable because we were feeling all of those emotions as well. Slowly, customers began to trickle in and we tried as hard as we could to share our message with them at every opportunity.
Our team is the backbone
We built our team and slowly increased our offerings. We tried to keep up with the confusing world of masking and not masking, ever changing protocols surrounding what to do if a family member of an employee is sick, and the insecurity of the supply chain. But, it worked. As we crawled out of COVID, our team grew and so did the business.
Ready for Part 3??
We still have a long way to go, but are so proud of how far we have come. We have an aggressive plan for more food offerings, increasing our hours of operation, and taking our shipping game to the next level.
In the meantime, I would like to end this reintroduction of the Modern Stone Age Kitchen with our mission, distilled down to one, powerful statement:
Creating artisan, scratch made nourishing food to help you eat like a human.
And, I’d also like to leave you with a list of the ways you can nourish your family with our food…
Prepared food options:
From sourdough baked goods to yogurt to bone broth come shop with us for the staples to use as the basis for everything you cook during the week. We will be soon be offering all sorts of additional products such as a full range of our nut/seed oil and refined sweetener free condiments and dressings, house made frozen hot dogs and hamburgers made from locally sourced, grass-fed meat and made 100% in line with our nose to tail approach, sourdough buns and rolls.
Dine in and take away options:
- Breakfast – currently we offer breakfast sandwiches on Fridays and a full range of breakfast options on Saturday. We will be adding more days and more options to breakfast soon!
- Lunch – currently we offer a range of sandwiches, salads and soups for lunch from Wednesday to Saturday. As with all of our food every part of every sandwich and soup is made entirely in house – from the meats to cheeses to bread to condiments! We also offer a range of sides from fermented potato chips to sauerkraut. Keep an eye out for an expansion in offerings and days soon.
- Dinner – currently we offer 100% scratch made wood fired pizzas on Fridays. We will be announcing a different dinner option on Saturdays in the coming weeks. We are also starting to include frozen pizzas in our reach-in freezer for those wanting a healthy pizza option in their home a different day of the week.
Low Carb Options – soon we will be launching our Caveman Charcuterie Board which will consist of a range of low carb, high fat and protein options
Shipping: We are building an infrastructure to support shipping a larger range of products. Stay tuned!
The final installment of this three part blog we will reintroduce the Eastern Shore Food Lab. Stay tuned!
And in case you missed it, read last week’s blog and don’t miss the one Christina wrote about leaving her job in “Rise and Shine!”