Who are you and what do you do?
I am Sophie Williams and I own a small bakery—I make whole grain, sourdough bread. I work to be a part of the local food system.
One of the things that defines my business is all of the time and energy I put into sourcing. I wouldn’t do this if I couldn’t do it right which means it is very expensive to do. [laughs] I don’t make a lot of money but it is very important to me to be part of the local food system—that I do my thing without externalizing costs. That means using local ingredients and products that I buy from small farmers.
I don’t think I buy anything from the commodity market which means that I spend a lot of money on ingredients and packaging. My bread isn’t subsidized by the farm bill or the industrial agriculture system. People are often startled to find how much I spend on food but that feels quite essential to me.
So why a bakery?
I wish I had a good creation myth. I feel like those are very useful for small businesses.
I was farming for years before I started baking, and I wanted to stay in the food system and I wanted to stay here. I didn’t feel like there were that many interesting jobs working for other people outside of farming.
I wanted to start my own business and bread was the logical way to go since I had been baking for most of my life. And I really loved the baking community that I met at grain conferences. So I decided to give it a try. It was a total leap of faith. I didn’t know anything about running a small business.
When was that? When did you start?
That was three years ago.
I made a lot of bad bread for a year or so and just failed repeatedly. I think that was the most important and hardest thing to learn—failing publicly. That’s not something we are really encouraged to do.
But it got easier and people were patient with me. That is one of the beauties of being in a small, tight community. People were really supportive, even when I brought them bad bread.
So do you make exclusively sourdough?
Yeah. It’s all whole grain sourdough.
That’s an interesting choice. Why the exclusivity?
Well, whole grain because Fairhaven Mills, our local mill, only mills whole grain flour. Importing white flour from California or from a Montana mill didn’t make sense to me.
Then I kind of fell in love with whole grain baking and the challenge of it because it’s much harder than baking with white flour. But there is so much more flavor, nutrition, and possibility in whole grain baking.
And sourdough because it’s the only way to make bread. It is what makes grain nutritious, gives it flavor and makes it interesting. Fermenting grain does any number of things but it really does make it possible for grain to be a staple food which is what I think bread should be.
It seems like we are presently living in a low-carb, gluten-free world. Does that make your job more challenging?
No. There are still plenty of people who eat bread. I get the gluten-free folks lecturing me at every market. [laughs] They come to tell me they can’t eat my product and all the reasons why. Which is not something always I have an enormous amount of patience for. [laughs]
There are a lot of people who just want to be eating real food. And there are quite a few regular customers who have deviated from their gluten-free diets to try my bread and have found that it works for them for whatever reason. I don’t pretend to understand gluten intolerance and the science–or lack thereof–behind it.
So where can people find you? You mentioned you are at farmer’s markets?
Farmer’s market’s, yes.
I also sell through one big CSA right now. Growing Washington CSA.
I am hoping to get into the Co-op sometime soon. That would open up opportunities for the people who can’t make it to the markets.
The past three winters I have travelled during the market off season. I have gone and worked in other people’s bakeries which has been wonderful. I have learned an enormous amount and received lot’s of inspiration that way. It is always fun to see how other’s grow successful businesses. But I think I am going to stick around this winter so I am trying to figure out how to make that work. I might try a subscription service—something like a CSA but for bread, a CSB of sorts for a couple of months. Then I’ll take that time to do some really serious business planning and come up with a longer term business plan. I’ll punch a lot of numbers and figure out how I am going to get into a brick and mortar at some point.
Where do you bake?
I bake out of the commissary downton—In the Dahlquist building, where Maikham is now. I think there are ten small businesses in there now—farmer’s market businesses, wholesale businesses, and food trucks.
Where did you come from originally?
I grew up in Seattle. Then I spent a few years living in the islands after college. Then I was in Skagit and now I’m in Bellingham. So I guess I have been inching my way north.
So what brought you here?
I was working for an agricultural non-profit down in Skagit and I got tired of rural living. I was lonely. I wanted to be around people again. I wanted to be around young people and things that are happening. So I moved up here and was commuting for awhile before I decided I really liked being in a city of this size. I missed Seattle for a long time. I was very nostalgic about the energy and possibilities being in a big city. Eventually it stopped being nostalgic and now I can’t imagine living with that much traffic and noise.
What is your favorite Bellingham spot?
Probably my house. It is such a gathering place. I live with a bunch of musicians so they are always having practice and teaching lessons. My roommates and I are always having dinner parties. In the summer were always out at the picnic table and in the winter we move the dining room table into the living room and fill it up with people.
And bread! There is generally bread.
What did you study in school?
I studied Geology and Ecology. I did my thesis on soil recovery from industrial agriculture and that kind of led me to sustainable and organic farming.
Which leads to baking?
I guess you can kind of trace a very curved and winding path but it’s certainly not a direct line. I definitely didn’t go to culinary school.
I heard you’re building an oven. Tell me about that.
It was an idea that was born last winter. I thought that I was going to build it that winter, which is ridiculous. I was both travelling and it was raining all winter. I was working at a bakery in B.C. for some bakers. Then I went to Montana on a baker’s bike tour. I started drawing up plans during the winter and then I went on that bike tour and visited a bunch of woodfire bakers and adjusted the plans based on all of the amazing ovens I saw on that tour.
I came back and talked to Aaron Lovitt at Altility and Kyle and Tom and all those folks around the alley district. And it felt like a project that would fit in there—a DIY project that would bring people together. Since there is the Hub there and Positive Negative.
I love the idea of the old world village ovens. Villages used to have a single oven that would get fired up once or twice a week and people would bring their bread ready to bake there and people would stand around and gossip while their bread was baking. So I had that in my head.
I also wanted to learn a little bit about masonry in order to decide if I would like to build a commercial wood-fired oven for the bakery. I also wanted to do something that would further entangle me into the community because I spend a lot of time working alone. It’s pretty isolating to work fifteen hour days by yourself in a commercial kitchen.
I got that project started right before the Wednesday market began and then my CSA bake started and I ran out of time and haven’t done a single thing on it since June. But starting next month I will have two days off a week instead of one day off. So I’ll get back to it. I think that Wednesdays will be my oven days.
And it’s right on the trail, right?
Yeah it’s right at the beginning of the interurban, which felt appropriate since I am entirely bike-based. It’s such a good community there in the Alley District with all of those different maker’s spaces.
Every time somebody asks me about the oven—which they do every week because I talked about it a lot in the Spring—I feel guilty having to tell them that I haven’t done anything. I haven’t been willing to give up my Sundays which would mean giving up laundry and house cleaning and my one day to sleep in. So it is paused for the moment.
But coming soon?
Yeah. Coming soon. In like two or three weeks.
The base is built and the next step is to source insulation and cut the bricks and put together the oven. Then Kyle at the Hub is going to donate some corrugated metal for the outside. Aaron at Altility said that he would build me a chassis, a frame, to hold the oven together. So it’ll happen come September.
So where did the name Raven Bread’s come from?
I really love corvids and they felt like such a central part of the Northwest. I know that they are central to all northern peoples but I have always been fascinated with crows and ravens. I love their role in Salish mythology as the trickster. It felt like a name that fit this place.