|by Yasmin Fahr
Wafting into the warmly lit and bustling room is the delectable and mouth-watering aroma of freshly baked bread. Amy Scherber, owner of Amy’s Bread, is fixing the lighting above the rows of artisan breads with one of her maintenance men. Though she has opened three successful stores across Manhattan, she remains intimately involved in each store’s daily activities. Scherber always wanted to open her own business, and, after attending culinary school, working for David Bouley, and studying baking in France, she gained enough experience to achieve her goal. Amy’s bread is now open in Chelsea Market, the West Village, and on Ninth Avenue, as venues for her handmade breads, sandwiches, and pastries. Scherber shares her background, her experience as a woman in the industry, some details about the back-breaking nature of her work, and how she manages to balance it all.
Yasmin Fahr: Are you originally from New York?
Amy Scherber: I’m from Minneapolis, but I have lived here so long that I consider myself a New Yorker.
YF: Did you grow up baking with your family?
AS: My mom and grandmother always baked, but they didn’t exactly want my help, so I watched and learned as I grew up. I worked in a restaurant first and then decided to go to culinary school. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do stay in savory or pastry; after culinary school I worked as a pastry chef and realized that I wanted to be in baking.
YF: So you did attend culinary school? Would you recommend it for someone who wants to get into baking?
AS: Yes, I went to the New York Restaurant School in 1987. I knew that I wanted to open a restaurant, which is why I chose that school – we were required to write a business plan for our own restaurant. I think culinary school gives you a foundation and a base. You work 2 or 3 years in a kitchen before you learn anything, and if you haven’t gone to culinary school you won’t be able to compete with other people who have. As culinary school is so expensive these days, you should work in a kitchen before you go to make sure you want to do it.
YF: You have a store in one of the highest priced real estate markets in the country – New York’s West Village, plus two other Manhattan locations – how do you manage the economics?
AS: When first opening a store or restaurant, you have to start with a small base then build your way up. My first store in Hell’s Kitchen was small with cheap rent. [Once we knew it worked], we began adding on sweets and expanding our production. Slow, steady, and managed growth is essential. After I expand, I usually spend three years at a plateau where I really don’t spend money just to make sure that I can manage. I opened a store on the Upper East Side (before the West Village store) – it was a small place with expensive rent. We weren’t breaking even, and I had to close it.
The West Village store is a little smaller and has higher rent, but it’s much busier [than the Upper East Side store], so it could sustain itself. You need to constantly study and analyze food costs, labor costs, and the unexpected costs. There are things that break and equipment that needs to be replaced or repaired. In our Chelsea store, we had a little graffiti etched into one of the large window panes; insurance covers some of it, but then my insurance goes up! There are a lot of little things that you just don’t think about but have to take into your costs.
YF: Is most of your production done in the Chelsea market store? Or a little bit at each store?
AS: Chelsea makes all of our bread and sandwiches, and the sweets, cakes and brownies are in the Hell's Kitchen store.
YF: Does most of your profit come from retail or wholesale production?
AS: It’s about 50:50 for retail to wholesale. They go head to head all year with wholesale leading a little bit, but then Thanksgiving sales always knocks out wholesale. It’s usually our busiest time of the year.
YF: What do you look for when hiring?
AS: When people apply for a job, you can tell who wants it. If someone really wants to be in this field, then they will find a way to move up and be in the kitchen or even be involved in operations or administrative work. There has been so much growth in the industry which is great and people should be eager to work hard and do whatever it takes if they really want to make it.
YF: There have been a series of articles done recently about women in the culinary industry. Do you feel that you have been treated differently or faced any challenges as a woman in this field?
AS: I did see those articles, they were great. Bread bakeries are usually composed of men because there is a lot of physical labor and heavy lifting involved in making the dough. You have to lift it into the mixer, stir it, and lift it out again. We produce about 3,000 kilos of bread a day, and that breaks down to about 1200 kilos per person. When I first started, I had never met bread bakers who were women, but now there are such wonderful people like Pamela Maurice at Balthazar and Nancy Silverton, who just does everything.
As a business owner, I haven’t faced [different treatment] because I am the one who sets the tone and makes the decisions. I am open to and accept both men and women. I do find that it is harder to retain women as chefs because of the physical strain, and challenge of having children. Women want to work with their hearts more, but have just as much stamina if not more than men. I think that sometimes they realize they can do more than just stand like a stone all day in front of a hot oven [and still work in food]. They can do consulting, PR, marketing or writing while meeting the demands of the family. We’ve had a lot of women who have loved the baking side, but then want to move over to the managing and administrative sides of the business. I owned my bakery for 12 years before I had my three year old son because I was really dedicated to my work.
YF: When you studied baking in France before opening Amy’s Bread. Would you recommend studying there?
AS: There were no women in France, and no one could understand why I was there. I’ve met a couple now, but there were none while I was there. Today, I wouldn’t suggest studying there. We have better education in the United States and more information about ingredients and techniques. Plus, our breads and flour are different in the US than in France, and you would have to relearn baking here. I would recommend going to professional classes with established bakers to learn more about baking.
YF: Are there any new trends in the industry that you’ve noticed? Have you incorporated any of these trends into your baking?
AS: There has been a movement toward simple breads with good crusts and not much mixed in except maybe an olive or a nut. Restaurants are using more sliced bread instead of dinner rolls which I think is great. We use to be a dinner roll city, and now restaurants are presenting a variety of breads in their baskets with less loaves and rolls. We are also building our organic breads; most are rustic breads – they go with everything and are becoming more popular at restaurants.
YF: Are you exploring any new options at this stage in your career? Or any plans for future expansion?
AS: As my business has evolved, I can do more of what I like. I’m more involved in marketing, PR, product development. It’s nice because I can be more artistic and creative. I also go to all three locations each week and work with the people who make the sandwiches – the breads and sandwiches are my babies. I use to teach but now I really want to spend more time with my family. I also just published a cookbook with my co-author and executive pastry chef Toy Dupree that will be out in October 2008.
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