I met up with Sadie Scheffer, founder of Berkeley-based gluten-free sourdough bread company Bread SRSLY in late February — a time that seems so far from reality now. We met at her headquarters and production facilities, where I got a behind-the-scenes look at where Bread SRSLY is made and packaged, something that would not be possible or safe to do now. Then, COVID-19 struck, the world changed and running any business suddenly became a huge challenge.
But now, more than a month into sheltering in place, while the coronavirus is still top of mind for most of us, we’re also distracting ourselves from it. Lots of us are baking sourdough bread, which got me thinking it might be a perfect time to check in with Scheffer again, to see how she and her nine-year-old company are holding up during the crisis.
It turns out Bread SRSLY is having somewhat of a banner moment.
“Business is doing really well,” Scheffer said in an email to Nosh. “People with food allergies are having a really tough time finding safe foods with grocery shelves so bare, and we’ve been able to get tons of bread out to people all across the country. It feels amazing and lucky and in alignment with our mission. We’ve also been posting videos with instructions to make a sourdough starter, so I think customers (and non-customers) are way into that!”
“People with food allergies are having a really tough time finding safe foods with grocery shelves so bare, and we’ve been able to get tons of bread out to people all across the country.” — Sadie Scheffer, Bread SRSLY founder
Bread SRSLY’s mission is to make products that more people can enjoy — most particularly, people with food allergies and intolerances. Bread SRSLY offers six types of sourdough products: three loaves (classic, seeded and sweet onion), sandwich rolls, dinner rolls and Pullman loaves (extra-large versions of the classic that are intended for restaurant use). Not only are the breads gluten-free, but they’re vegan and nut-free. The company’s two units at Berkeley Kitchens, the commercial kitchen space shared by many talented local food makers, is not only dedicated gluten-free, but kosher and void of wheat, dairy, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, fish, shellfish and sesame.
In 2009, before founding Bread SRSLY, Scheffer had a much more singular mission and a target audience of one. A lovestruck mechanical engineering student at MIT, Scheffer dropped out and followed her unrequited crush, Jesse, to San Francisco. She found herself baking — a lot — in order to win the affections of Jesse, who had gone gluten-free. At first, he wasn’t swooning, but over time, Scheffer’s gluten-free baking skills grew stronger and so did Jesse’s feelings for her. In the meantime, she realized she also had a gluten-intolerance, which further fueled her culinary experimentations. A fan of fermented foods, Scheffer was drawn to sourdough and in a couple of years, she had perfected a wild-fermented gluten-free loaf that she and Jesse loved, and which she felt many others would too. Bread SRSLY became San Francisco’s first official gluten-free sourdough bread company in 2011.
A lot has changed since Scheffer founded Bread SRSLY as a hobby business out of her home kitchen in Cole Valley. For one, Scheffer and her company moved across the bay. What’s more, Bread SRSLY has grown from a one-woman operation to a team of more than 30 (including Jesse, who is not only Scheffer’s partner, but the Bread SRSLY facility project manager). During the pandemic, Scheffer has been able to keep her full staff, and has even hired a couple new employees on a flex-schedule basis. “Our team is my favorite part of Bread SRSLY, so I am extremely grateful that we are able to retain them right now,” Sheffer said.
For the company’s first two years, Scheffer delivered loaves to customers on her bike; these days her products are sold online nationwide, at a kiosk at the Temescal Farmers Market, and in too many stores across California to pedal to customers. Recently, Bread SRSLY was chosen as one of eight food and beverage makers to join Chobani Incubator, a three-month class that helps small businesses through equity-free investment and mentorship.
While demand is high for Bread SRSLY products, Scheffer and staff are not currently operating to the hilt in order to maintain safety for staff. “We have a strict cap on production, which is tough because it’s fun for people to push the limits and find new efficiencies in production,” Scheffer said. “However, we found that when we exceeded this cap, people had a hard time staying 6 feet apart from one another in the rush to get bread out the door.”
Still, production is up, and Scheffer said the company is following a new set of checklists and stringent cleaning procedures to ensure safety. Scheffer has also sewn face masks for all employees for use on site.
On my visit in February, we peeked in as bakers were preparing loaves. Bread SRSLY uses sorghum, rather than wheat flour, for its starter, which it combines with a mixture of organic flours sourced from Giusto’s in South San Francisco: Sorghum gives the bread flavor and body; millet provides color and white rice affords the bread a nice stretchiness. The recipe also includes arrowroot, an ingredient that Scheffer adds to give her bread lightness, something many other gluten-free breads lack. But what differentiates Bread SRSLY products from other gluten-free breads, Scheffer said, is water — her bread uses lots of it. The extra hydration keeps the breads from being dry and crumbly.
During our original interview, Scheffer told me she was looking into running a pop-up at the storefront on Carleton Street next door to Morrell’s Bread. “I used to know all my customers by name and face,” Scheffer said. “Doing a pop-up would allow me to have that customer-facing side again.” When I checked back with Scheffer about those plans, she said she still hopes to move forward with it one day, but only “when restaurants and retail spaces are thriving once more.”
As for Bread SRSLY’s Sunday appearances at the Temescal farmers market, the kiosk is still open and selling its five retail products, but there are some changes — no more samples, and credit card payments are preferred over cash, for the safety of staff. “We’re also staying super cautious, so we expect to be absent from the market more often as health/comfort/environment dictates,” Scheffer added.
Although Bread SRSLY is fortunate to find success during this time when so many other food businesses are struggling, it still hasn’t been easy, Scheffer said.
“I hit my peak stress about two weeks into the shelter-in-place order, and was really down for a few days. The mental strain of being the final decision-maker is enormous right now, and I needed my whole support network to help me through that low. Speaking with my staff, hearing their relief about having a good job and getting to come to work as a source of normalcy in their lives helped get me back on my feet, and excited to dig in to how we can operate more and more safely. Have I mentioned how much I love my team?”
Bread SRSLY has a stand at the Temescal Farmers Market on Sundays. It can also be found at Berkeley Bowl, Market Hall Foods, Star Grocery, Three Stone Hearth, Monterey Market and many other local stores. Customers outside the Bay Area can purchase it online through the Bread SRSLY website in larger portions.