Friends in Knead
A bakers’ catalogue adds a dash of flower powder to the kitchen mix
When Farley Rezendes was first taking calls on the Baker’s Hotline at King Arthur Flour Co. in Norwich, a woman called in a panic: “Help! Help! My dough is rising all over the place.” He thought it was a crank call, but asked her, “What’s wrong?” She told him, “I used your yeast and my dough is out of control.” Rezendes asked, “How much did you add?” One packet was her answer. Ah, that was the problem: Her one packet equaled one pound of yeast; the recipe called for one ounce.
The Baker’s Catalogue, produced by King Arthur Flour Co., is designed to help home bakers out of similar jams. Behind the scenes are customer-service representatives trained not merely to take orders, but to counsel the confused. Most reps are home bakers willing and able to relate to customers who are just like them. No questions go unanswered, whether they’re from the novice pondering where to buy scalded milk, or the more adept cook wondering why the dough in a salt-rising yeast recipe is too sticky.
Sensitivity to the needs of home bakers has long been a part of King Arthur’s personal touch. In the 1980s, the fifth-generation owners, Frank and Brinna Sands, began to get letters from people who had moved outside their distribution area requesting — along with $20 enclosed — to have the flour shipped to them. The Sandses would go to the supermarket, buy some flour at retail prices and ship it individually. Eventually the idea of a catalogue targeting home bakers gelled in Brinna’s mind. In 1990, the couple bought a small baking company’s list of 40,000 customers that had generated about $100,000 in sales. Today, with a customer list of 1 million and sales of $10 million, The Baker’s Catalogue is on a steady growth track.
Business at King Arthur Flour Co. is grandly complex, because of the history, logistics and geography of the product. Originating in 1790 in Boston, and relocating to Vermont in 1984, the company is now the oldest flour and food firm in New England — making flour “to the same specs for 103 years,” according to public relations director Joe Caron. Those specs call for an unbleached and unbromated product; the chemical potassium bromate is often added to flour to strengthen it in the baking process. Every batch is tested for things like ash and protein levels and color.
The all-purpose flour is milled in Topeka, Kan., from hard, red winter wheat; the bread flour is milled in South Dakota from hard, red spring wheat. The company’s flour distribution reaches at least one store in all 50 states, with a heavy concentration east of the Mississippi.
Back in the kitchen, Rezendes, a friendly, soft-spoken man, is part of the five-member Baking Education Team. A professional baker with an associate’s degree in pastry arts from Johnson & Wales College in Providence, R.I., he worked in a variety of places, including the bakeshop at the Hanover Inn, before coming to King Arthur in 1993. “I’ve been baking since I was 13,” says Rezendes. “I found out about it in Home Economics, and that’s how I got started.”
His team knows how every one of the 800 products in the catalogue works, from bread machines to bread bases, and their job is to support and inform the customer-service people. Rezendes gives short weekly demonstrations to the staff on such skills as using thermometers, the “Quick Whip” for cream or comparing varieties of salts. He also cooks for on-site customers in the company’s retail store kitchen. When the Baking Education Team is stymied by questions, they can go upstairs to the test kitchen, where professional bakers P.J. Hamel and Sue Gray produce wonderful smells and plates of baked goods.
“They ultimately decide what is the best stance the company will take on a product if there is any ambiguity,” Caron says. Hamel and Gray, who recently took a weeklong advanced bread class at the Culinary Institute of America, create the recipes and test the products for the catalogue. Their job, explains Caron, is “to take fundamental concepts and try to bring them to the level of home bakers.”
One of the reasons The Baker’s Catalogue brings in sales is because the products, even with their old-fashioned focus, don’t neglect the realities of busy households filled with people who love to bake but are pressed for time. Mixes, from scones to dinner rolls, are very popular. The chocolate-chip cookie mix supplies flour, white and brown sugar, vanilla, soda and chocolate chips in a neat little bag. All the cook has to do is add butter and one egg. About 15 minutes later, when the home baker is munching on a moist, warm cookie, the attraction of King Arthur Flour is clear.