Naturally Rising

Like its namesake, the Red Hen Baking Co. reaps rewards for industriousness.

by Tom Gresham

Since 1999, the Red Hen Baking Co. in Duxbury founded by Liza Cain and Randy George has turned simple flour and water into simply excellent artisan bread seven days a week.

There are locks on the doors at the Red Hen Baking Co. in Duxbury, but they hardly seem necessary. Rare are the moments when an aspiring burglar wouldn't find someone stirring inside earnestly at the work of baking bread. In fact, nothing marks Red Hen's business more obviously than its busy-ness.

When Liza Cain and Randy George founded Red Hen in 1999, they had a daring plan to bake and deliver bread seven days a week. The dedication required to maintain such a demanding schedule keeps things buzzing at Red Hen's home, which offers a sparkling view of the Green Mountains from its side-of-a-hill perch just outside of Waterbury. Aside from a brief respite in the early morning hours and this year, for a full day on Christmas Red Hen workers are at various points in the process of turning simple flour and water into simply excellent bread.

Not only does Red Hen deliver bread to each of its customers every day, but drivers also pick up any unsold loaves, which are donated to food shelves and farms. It's a way of ensuring the freshness of the bread that is consumed and eliminating waste for Red Hen's customers.

Remarkably, the seven-day-a-week baking and delivery aspect of Red Hen has been present since its launch, when the staff consisted of only Cain, George and one employee.

"It was pretty crazy," George says. "Certainly it was an ambitious project and we knew that."

"It was intense," Cain says.

Delivery drivers like Bannon Williamson not only deliver bread to Red Hen's customers, but also pick up unsold loaves, which are donated to food shelves and farms.

Cain says workdays, which for several months meant every day for the couple, typically ran from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.

"We always expected that the first year or two was going to be busy," George says. "We were always committed to delivering seven days a week, and we ended up working seven days a week ourselves, quite a bit as it turned out."

However, George is quick to point out that the long hours were rewarding then and remain so today. "When you're working eight hours for your own business, it's a lot different than working eight hours at another job," George says. "It feels like a half day."

"Eight hours is a half day," Cain adds with a smile.

George and Cain often finish each other's sentences. Surprisingly, the native New Englanders had to travel across the country to find each other. Cain, who grew up in Waitsfield, took a cross-country trip shortly after her graduation from the University of Vermont.

She landed in Portland, Ore., eventually living there for 10 years. In 1996, while still in Portland, Cain met George, who was employed in a bakery. George, a Maine native and graduate of Marlboro College in Windham County, had moved to Portland with an eye toward pursuing his interest in bread-making.

Both loved Oregon, but began to feel the nagging tug of home. In 1999, the couple returned east, finding a home in Waterbury. Red Hen was launched in September of that year.

Creating their own bakery had not originally been in the couple's plans. "We started Red Hen here because of a combination of wanting to bake and wanting to live in this part of Vermont," George said. "My motivation was always to make the kind of bread that we're making, but not necessarily to have a bakery. However, I eventually realized that it came down to my needing to become a business person in order to do what I wanted to do."

George believes that having an expansive knowledge and deep appreciation for his business' product makes him a more effective owner than someone solely interested in a profitable investment. Red Hen is an artisan bakery, which means the bread is made with a natural leavening process. Attention to detail is critical.

"It may not be true in certain other businesses, but in one like this where the craft is so important, where there's so much hands-on work, it's important to have someone who has an interest in the product and who pays very close attention to what's going out the door," George said.

It's particularly true at a small business like Red Hen where George and Cain are involved in every aspect of the operation. George serves officially as the company's production manager and Cain as the business manager, but the titles blur easily. Both often fill in for sick or vacationing employees no matter the task.

Cain, who was a domestic violence counselor in Portland and who knew relatively little about bread before meeting George, said Red Hen was founded and remains fueled by George's passion for good bread. George explains that bread has long had a firm grip on him.

"For me it's about doing something great with very basic ingredients," George said. "It's a medium which is unique in the food world in that you transform something as basic as flour and water into something as exciting as bread. You can take flour and water and completely fail with it; and you can take the very same flour and water and make something that's nutritious, tasty and beautiful to look at. The selection of ingredients is important in making bread, but not nearly as important as what you do to it with your hands."

Cain and George's enthusiasm for bread sends them to farmers' markets every Saturday throughout the spring, summer and fall. They thrive on the relationship with consumers. It's the reason they maintain a retail portion in the front of their bakery, although, they confess that because of Red Hen's fairly remote location, it will never be a money-maker.

"One of the things that I like about having a wholesale bakery in a small state is that we deliver to everybody," George says. "We meet people from all of those areas who have had our bread and that's exciting. I really enjoy that feeling. You get the idea working in the bakery that what you're making is going out to a lot of people. It's a gratifying thing."

George has found many like-minded bread-makers in Vermont. When Red Hen opened, other artisan bakeries already dotted the state's culinary landscape and high-quality local bread had occupied grocery shelves for years. Cain and George said the artisan bakers in the state form a close and collaborative community. Brought together by a bond spoken and unspoken over bread, the bakers avoid the rifts often fired by the heat of competition.

"A lot of people said, 'Look at all the competition you're going to have,'" George says. "I look at it as if they primed the pump for us. They had already gotten people interested in good bread by the time we arrived. And I really haven't gotten the impression that our existence has cut into other people's business."

Cain agrees: "We expected more tension, but we found a very warm group of people. There's this excitement about bread. It's this idea of, 'Great, you keep doing it and we'll keep doing it.' It's a wonderful thing."

Like many of Vermont's other artisan bakeries, Red Hen remains small in scale though it's already larger than Cain and George had envisioned it would be. The staff consists of 15 part-time and full-time workers, including the couple. The bakery boasts about 50 clients approximately 30 groceries and 20 restaurants.

Cain and George readily admit that occasionally their lack of a business background becomes apparent to them, but their diligence, passion and instincts have guided them well. Their current challenge is to keep growth under control in order to maintain a sufficient focus on the quality of their bread. However, they also don't want to stifle growth, which they've discovered offers a number of benefits.

"It's something we're still learning about. I had always wondered about other businesses 'Why do they feel that they have to grow so much every year?'" George says. "I'm starting to get a better understanding of why businesses feel that pressure. For us, I think it comes from a desire to attract and keep really good employees ..."

"... and to compensate them well, too." Cain continues. "And not just with their wages, but also with their benefits and with keeping a good, strong work environment that feels healthy and collaborative. We're learning all the time."

For now, Red Hen will keep growth limited to customers who are already within reach of the bakery's four full-time truck drivers. George and Cain believe their chief opportunity for strong yet measured growth rests with the restaurant field. Toward that end, Red Hen provides services that are tailored to meet the needs of its restaurant clients. Red Hen's bakers have even fashioned special recipes to satisfy a chef's designs.

Michael Kloeti opened Michael's on the Hill restaurant in Waterbury Center in June 2002. He has served Red Hen bread from the beginning. Red Hen's bakers worked closely with Kloeti to create a sourdough baguette recipe especially for his tables.

The selection of ingredients is important in making bread, says Randy George, but not nearly as important as what you do to it with your hands. Baker Kim Kauffman (right), pictured here with Liza Cain, guides that process.

"Making bread is not hard, but making really good bread is extremely hard," Kloeti said. "They make excellent bread. They really do a great job there. Liza and Randy and all of their bakers, they love making bread and they love working hard and it really shows. The guests here really love their bread."

Kloeti particularly appreciates Red Hen's service. "They help me a lot," he says. "If I need more bread, they just bring it to me. It's great to work with somebody that is so flexible." Cain and George say they hope that constant availability will eventually help them get into more restaurants.

The market for quality food made with natural ingredients has been growing fast in Vermont. Red Hen has secured its place in that trend. Most of Red Hen's breads are certified organic, and the bakery is a proud member of the Vermont Fresh Network. Red Hen remains discerning of its suppliers, most of which operate in Vermont. For instance, Red Hen purchases the potatoes for its popular potato bread from a farmer in Johnson and its whole wheat comes from a mill in Bridport.

"We're really committed to certified organic bread," Cain says. "People are getting interested in foods that are organic, and along with that comes an interest in food in general, in eating healthy food and less processed food. As much as ... [processed food is] on the rise, there are also people in our culture paying attention to what they're eating a little more. That also means that people are more interested in local food."

The roots of George and Cain's commitment to organic food run deep. "For me, it's tied into a personal desire for eating good food, supporting local farmers and food producers and trying to keep the economy alive in a rural area," Cain says. "Knowing where my food is coming from and producing good foods can also have a larger impact globally, in terms of keeping our environment safer and cleaner and taking care of our planet better."

Despite the heavy demands of work, the couple has increasingly found time to enjoy their many outside interests. Both are avid bicyclists, particularly George "He'd live on a bike if he could," Cain says. They often ski together in the winter, usually cross-country or telemarking. Cain also tends her garden and volunteers at a domestic violence shelter in the Barre-Montpelier area.

After almost three years of tirelessly operating Red Hen, George and Cain took their first vacation last summer, spending a week canoeing in Maine. They remained pointedly and blissfully out of reach of the telephone. When they were married in 2000, the couple worked the day before and the day after the wedding. They hope to bicycle around Nova Scotia in the not-too-distant future for a belated honeymoon.

The couple recently purchased a house in Moretown about five and a half miles down the road from the Red Hen. They bike, run or ski to work just about every day. It's the kind of life they hoped to find in Vermont.

"I loved living in Oregon, but I couldn't find a small community that I could make my home," Cain says. "Ultimately Oregon is not Vermont. Vermont is a pretty special place. I love it here in this rural area. If I want to go for a hike, I can just go down the road. I don't have to say, 'OK, I'm going to take an hour drive and go to that place where everybody goes hiking.' The quality of the outdoor options is really magnified here."

Most important, there's the bakery. Cain says Red Hen contains its own little tight-knit community. The closeness that has evolved among the staff all around a shared interest in baking bread helps make the long hours worth it.

"It's hard to imagine it any other way," she continues. "Sometimes we wish we had a little more time together, but then you think of the alternative, and I don't like the alternative. I don't like the idea of not being here."

Originally published in February 2003 Business People-Vermont