Provider of our daily bread
by Heleigh Bostwick
When California native Stewart Ruth opened Stewart’s Bakery in 1987, his idea for baking bread like he had known growing up in Europe was ahead of the curve. Today, his Williston company is an institution.
One of Stewart Ruth’s favorite memories as a youth in Veyrier, Switzerland, a town that straddles the border of Switzerland and France, is riding his moped at age 14 to the bakery in France to buy bread for his mom. “I went every other day,” he recalls. “We lived just outside the town and it was about a 10-minute ride.”
Ruth, the owner and founder of Stewart’s Bakery in Williston, was born in California, but moved with his family to a town outside Zurich when he was 3. “I grew up speaking Swiss German to my brother and three sisters, but English with my parents,” he says.
He and his family also spent time in Tokyo, where, from age 9 to 11, he attended a German school, before moving to Westfield, N.J., eventually returning to Switzerland and settling in Veyrier, near Geneva. “My father was an engineer for RCA and was sent to different countries to integrate technology in different companies,” Ruth explains.
When his brother started college at the University of Vermont, Ruth was attending boarding school in Geneva. “My English was lagging behind and my parents wanted me to be truly bilingual,” he says, “so they sent me to finish my last two years of high school at a Stowe boarding school.” He later studied creative writing part time at Johnson State but never got his degree, confessing, “I spent a lot of time skiing — more than I should have.”
It wasn’t until a few years later that the seeds for starting a bakery business were planted. “It was the late 1970s and I was living in Stowe with a couple of roommates,” Ruth recalls. “My father visited me from Switzerland and brought bread with him.”
His roommates devoured the bread almost within minutes of his father’s arrival. “They thought it came from a local bakery here in Vermont, but he had brought it from Switzerland. I got home too late to have any,” says Ruth with a laugh.
With that in mind, Ruth contacted an old grade school friend in Switzerland who had inherited a bakery from his parents. “I went to visit him and spent a little time working with him, not so much to learn the baking, but to get inspiration,” he says. “He’s been very helpful. He gave me all his formulas and a training session on running a bakery business. We’ve been in touch ever since, and I still go back there once or twice a year to visit.”
In 1984, Ruth went to work for Gourmet Food Exchange on Church Street in Burlington. His job was to bake bread and manage the bread program. In 1987, he opened Stewart’s Bakery as part of Tinguini’s Market, a collaboration of seven food-related specialty stores. Within two months he was making a profit, largely, he says with a chuckle, “because I couldn’t find enough people to work for me, so I worked a lot of hours.”
Ruth stayed at Tinguini’s for two years, until it closed. “They went out of business, but I was profitable, so I started to investigate buying my own place,” he says. He operated from a space off of Shelburne Road next to the former Amigos Mexican restaurant until 1992, when he moved to Shunpike Road in Williston.
He’s been there ever since.
Ruth credits his success to the fact that he started out with his heart set on making a product he had in Europe growing up. “I’m very passionate about it and my motivation is to bake the bread I grew up with,” he says, adding that he makes only European bread and nothing else — small and large baguettes, crusty rolls, sourdough Italian with olive oil, and French country bread.
“Something unique to us is our Three Korn Bread, a Northern European dark bread made from three types of kernels: flax, sesame, and sunflower seeds,” says Ruth. “It’s a very dark sourdough bread made from a German formula. We also make challah bread, Portuguese sweet bread, and beer and sweet potato bread using fresh sweet potatoes and beer sourced from southern Vermont. That’s a Swiss formula.”
When he started out there wasn’t much in the way of specialty bread. Now, he says, there are probably six to eight specialty bakers in the area. Ruth doesn’t see them as competition, though. “I still concentrate on my products,” he says. “I see the increase as a cultural development: more bread available to more people.”
All of his clients are local. “Montpelier is about as far as I go,” he says. City Market, Healthy Living, Hannaford, Shelburne Supermarket, and Cheese Traders all carry Stewart’s Bakery products.
Cheese Traders in South Burlington has been carrying Stewart’s products since 2007. “We’re very happy with him,” says owner Robert Bachofen. “He’s very flexible and always willing to accommodate any last-minute requests. He has a nice crew working for him as well.”
Ruth stays away from baking pastries, except for croissants, which he sells in three flavors — chocolate, almond, and raspberry — and cinnamon rolls. “I like sweets too much, so I don’t bake them,” he says with a chuckle.
Sarah Clayton, co-owner Shelburne Supermarket, has known Ruth since 1987 when he was part of Tinguini’s. She laughs while recounting the story of how, when pregnant with her son, she craved the raspberry croissants from Stewart’s Bakery. Recalling how they started doing business together, Clayton says, “I was a manager at Amigos restaurant and he would come over to have lunch. Soon after that I met my husband, who owned Shelburne Supermarket, and we started carrying Stewart’s breads. He delivers every day, seven days a week, and is the only company that does that.”
When Ruth started out, he was the baker and hired three part-time people to help with everything else. Now, 26 years later, he has seven employees, preferring to keep the business small. “We add a few new accounts every year, but mostly what happens is that our existing accounts find new ways to use our products,” he says, citing City Market, which recently started using his Portuguese sweet bread to make French toast.
“I am very fortunate that I have excellent employees and don’t have to work 60- to 70-hour weeks anymore,” says Ruth. “Each person has a specialty. Mike Couchon is in charge of distribution from the time the product comes out of the oven to packaging, invoicing, and final delivery. There are two delivery drivers. Jen Rein is one of them, but is eager to learn how to bake. It’s a position that Ruth thinks she is well suited for.
Every day, there are two or three bakers on duty as well. One of them, Ganesh Adhikari, is originally from Nepal, and has been with Stewart’s for about a year and a half. Ruth sees the potential in him and has placed him in a position of high responsibility. “Even though he doesn’t speak fluent English, he’s picked everything up very quickly, with excellent technical skills,” says Ruth, adding that he enjoys working with a multicultural staff and feels comfortable communicating with non–English speaking employees because of his own experience growing up in other countries.
Production at the 2,400-square-foot facility starts at 10 o’clock the night before. “I used to do this day in and day out, seven days a week at first, and then six days a week,” says Ruth.
Twelve years ago that schedule changed abruptly when Ruth was in a bicycling accident, suffered a severe head injury, and almost died. “After my accident it became clear that I didn’t need to be here all day, every day,” he says, adding that he was in the hospital for two and a half months and the business ran fine without his being there all the time. “I finally started making that connection, that my employees were very capable,” he says. “Now I basically work two production shifts a week. I’ve become a business manager, and it’s OK with me.”
During his off hours, Ruth enjoys alpine and cross-country skiing and is a member of the Green Mountain Club. He maintains close ties to friends and family in Europe and visits Switzerland a couple of times a year.
At 59, he has thought about selling the business, and even hired someone to represent the business in preparation for sale. “She put together everything — the financials, company history — and gave me the brochure to read,” he says. “She was just waiting for me to call and say yes.”
Then he read the brochure and thought to himself, “This is a pretty cool business. It’s going well, I get to take time off, and I don’t want to have to figure out what to do with the 188 hours a week I would now have off,” he says, laughing.
So he took the business off the market and paid the consultant for her work. Even though he had to pay someone in order to figure it out, Ruth says he’s now sure what he really wants to do for the next 10 years. “Bakers are famous for not being able to retire.” •