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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rising commodity prices and labor shortages: a perfect recipe for a bakery burnout

Almost 30% of small businesses closed in 2020. But for bakeries that made it through the COVID-19 era, it has never been harder to survive.

“I can’t think about what’s next because I feel I was meant to be in the kitchen,” Blissful Whisk owner Tiffany Cable said, holding back tears. “But I have nothing left.”

Bakeries can be as different as Breaüxdoo Bakery, a rock n’ roll-themed pastry operation in Spokane Valley, to Great Harvest, a co-operative bread bakery in Spokane, but all bakeries share a need for the same few commodities: eggs, diary products, wheat and sugar – all of which have drastically spiked in price for independent reasons.

“We’re fortunate to have weathered COVID and avoided shutting down, but ever since then, at any given moment, there’s a shortage in one ingredient or another,” said Sara Kersey, Great Harvest general manager.

The national average price for a dozen grade-A eggs increased 120% in 2022 due to the avian flu outbreak, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Due to a drop in demand for dairy products during the pandemic, dairy farmers across North America were forced to limit milk supply by thinning their herds and even pouring product down the drain.

The effects are still being felt.

From August 2021 to August of 2022, consumers paid 16.1% more for whole milk. During that time, cheese and butter prices shot up 13.5% and 24.6%, respectively, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Last week, U.S. Department of Agricultural data showed one-pound butter hit an all-time high of $3.40.

Severe weather has caused a shortage of sugar stockpiles around the world which has affected sugar prices.

Raised sugar prices are mainly due to poor yields caused by the El Niño phenomenon that occurs every two to seven years, the Federal Agricultural Organization said in a report from the Economic Times.

The climate event started in July and is associated with dry weather conditions that affect major sugar exporters like India and Thailand.

“When I first started purchasing four or five years ago, a 50-pound bag of sugar was $17,” Kersey said. “They’re around $50 now.”

Russia and Ukraine are the first and fifth largest wheat exporters, accounting for 20% and 10% of global exports, respectively, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, where 38 countries work together on these issues.

On Feb. 21, 2022, the price of a bushel of wheat was $8.53. Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Four days later that price increased to $12.09, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Luckily, Pacific Northwest bakers could count on consistent prices from Shepherd’s Grain, a flour supplier that fixes its price for a full year. Annually, representatives meet with regional farmers to tally all costs associated with the production of wheat.

Shepard’s Grain then pays farmers the sum, adds 5% for themselves and sells to bakers for that price for a full year, according to CEO Jeremy Bunch.

“Right after the (Russian-Ukraine) war, flour prices shot up, but our price stayed the same,” Bunch said. “That’s the beauty of what we do: not letting global events affect prices locally.”

But in August of last year, a mill in Pendleton, Oregon, that supplied the whole region burned down, leaving bakers scrambling to find a substitution.

“One hundred years ago, every town had its own mill,” Bunch said. “Now, if one goes down, you’re going to see real shortages.”

Though the company resumed operations at a new mill in Blackfoot, Idaho, about three months later, Bunch said the hiatus hurt bakers.

“Those conversations were really tough because it hurt them in so many ways,” he said. “The whole reason we exist is to connect farmers and bakers, and we weren’t doing that.”

Gage Lang, owner of Breaüxdoo Bakery, used the supplier at the time of the fire.

“It was a hard time to get decent flour, and prices had come down for other commodities but it’s just different now,” Lang said. “Prices are constantly fluctuating.”

Fluctuating prices makes Kersey’s job more difficult.

“I make multiple orders every week and I quite literally have to reach out to suppliers, item by item, and ask for their current price,” she said.

The difference can be shocking.

“I recently got a bag of sugar for $63 but then looked at URM and it was $47,” she said. “So, if you’re not putting in that extra work, you’re going to really hurt your business.”

Though it is difficult, there are ways to respond to sporadic commodity prices, she said.

You can get creative with the menu to rely on more abundant ingredients or raise sales prices to compensate for increased input prices.

Other bakers have less freedom.

“People are still going to buy an expensive $18 burger or maybe even a pricey loaf of bread,” Lang said. “But nobody wants to pay $6 for a cookie.”

For baked treats, prices are forced to stay low, he said.

“We can’t adjust our prices every week based on the market like restaurants can because they’re still serving a sustainable meal,” Lang said. “But baked goods are harder to justify because they’re more of an indulgent thing.”

Lang and Kersey agree that the most pressing obstacle to success is faced by all bakeries: labor.

“You need to make product every day to have something to sell and that takes people who are willing and able to get up at 3 or 2 in the morning for a job that is physically laborious,” Kersey said. “That’s a tough combo – a true killer.”

Lang compared bakeries to restaurants.

“Somebody orders a burger, you make it and then serve it to them; it takes a cook and server,” he said. “But bakeries make everything in advance which requires preppers, bakers, packagers and somebody to sell.”

Lang’s bakery wholesales pastries, which he said he must do to stay afloat. And that takes a lot of workers.

“We have cooks that spend hours just scooping cookie dough because it’s either that or we buy machines for those tasks, which costs tens of thousands of dollars,” he said. “We try to mass produce because we would have no chance.”

Lang said his friends in the industry who own much larger operations than his are also struggling. He believes the larger operations have tenure and savings that will keep them alive during this time of uncertainty.

For smaller operations, like his and Great Harvest, he is unsure.

But he and Kersey agree they have no shortage of one thing: persistence.

“I’ve worked my (tail) off to build the business I have and enjoy what I do too much to give up,” Lang said.

“Sometimes I wonder why us bakers don’t buy a gas station or something a little more simple,” Kersey said. “Running a bakery is demanding and tough in many ways but it’s what we do; it’s a labor of love.”

The end of the road

Grief and loss pair together like coffee and a scone.

For Cable, the loss of her bakery is all but finalized.

Cable rents property in Spokane Valley just north of Interstate 90 near Barker Road, where she operates The Blissful Whisk.

By the end of next month, she must inform the property owners if she will renew her lease that ends May of next year.

As it stands now, she will not.

Cable’s eyes began to water at the thought of what she will do after the closure.

“I don’t know,” she said.

Staring down at the Blissful Whisk logo on the table, she took a deep breath and mustered, “This was it.”

After nearly four years in operation, Cable recently offered to sell her business in the hopes that a new owner could step in and operations could resume .

“It would be hard because I gave everything to this place,” she said. “It’s my baby.”

Selling her dream isn’t a great option, but she said she is willing to do whatever it takes to continue her work.

Beginning at 3:45 a.m., for 11 hours, six days every week, Cable bakes.

Even at the operation’s peak of 12 employees, she made all of the bakery’s pastries from scratch, partly out of love and partly because she has no choice.

“I have competent people who could do it,” she said, “but no one wants to get up at three in the morning to do this work.”

The Blissful Whisk is now down to five employees

“The core group is still here,” she said. “But now they do twice as much work for the same amount of money.”

Cable informed her devoted employees that shutting down was imminent during a staff meeting.

“We just cried,” she said. “They all told me that they would stay until the end.”

Cable said multiple things hurt her business. Increased commodity prices, the Pendleton mill fire and the extended closure of nearby Baker Road off of 1-90 all impacted her business.

Additionally, she said remote working has had an impact.

“People don’t come and pick up baked goods to take to the office anymore because nobody’s in the office,” she said.

Cable began baking every Friday for the robotics business owned by her and her husband, which became a popular day in the office.

“No one took Friday’s off anymore,” Cable said.

When her family eventually sold the company, she used her share to pay for pastry school tuition and as seed funding for the Blissful Whisk.

During her education at Spokane Community College, she learned she had developed carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands.

She fought through persistent discomfort and pain to finish the course. Afterwards, she had surgery, which helped.

“They’re better,” Cable said. “But I have really bad arthritis, so every day is a challenge.”

Today, Cable uses a few recipes inspired by her grandmother who taught her to bake.

The recipes required hours to perfect in a commercial setting.

She said it took 50 tries before her cinnamon roll recipe came out how she wished.

That recipe won her an award in 2020 from The Spokesman-Review for the best cinnamon roll in Spokane.

With funding from the sale of her previous business and an award-winning product, Cable thought she would be limited only by her physical capability.

“I thought my body would let me go another 15 years,” she said. “And then I’d go a little longer.”

But as a pastry shop, she too said profit margins are narrow.

“I’m at the point where I’m basically selling at cost,” she said.

“It feels like I have failed, but I don’t care much about telling my sob story,” she said. “I’m more worried the art is going to be lost.”

She has traveled around the country to try other baker’s pastries, and she spoke with her pastry school teachers who all describe a dying craft.

Still, she is dedicated to keeping the art of baking alive for as long as she is.

“I joke with my children that they should cremate me in the rotary oven in the back because it’s big enough,” she said.

Though the future of baking is undetermined, one thing is not.

“I will never stop baking,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Oct. 16, 2023 to specify that that lease for the space used by The Blissful Whisk ends in May of next year.