A One-Woman Bakery RisesCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | In her Clinton Hill apartment, Carla Finley hits her sourdough stride. Published: May 04, 2021
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Remember the sourdough craze of last spring? I don’t know about you, but in my household, that ship sailed fast. Baking bread — especially sourdough — is technically demanding and time consuming, and my husband and I quickly realized that we’re better off leaving it to the professionals. (Kudos to anyone who nailed it, by the way: you are infinitely more patient than me.)
If you dropped the ball on your sourdough, too, fear not: Carla Finley is here. After being laid off from her restaurant job due to COVID, the She Wolf Bakery alum started making sourdough in her Clinton Hill apartment; soon her friends were buying boules off her, and within a couple weeks, the lockdown diversion spawned a bonafide business: Apt. 2 Bread.
Since her first official sale through Instagram on April 1, 2020, Finley has launched a website with e-commerce and a subscription program; this month, she’s turning her guest room into a fully operational kitchen for expanded baking capacity (and to get her personal kitchen back for some work-life balance). Keep reading for our conversation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You grew up in Texas; how did you get into baking and what brought you to New York?
My baking background is a little unique. First and foremost, my parents own a Texas barbecue restaurant in San Antonio, and they have for over 35 years, so I grew up in that environment. In high school, I got a job on an apple orchard in the Texas Hill Country that had its own bakery, and that's when I started baking and when it caught on for me. Then I moved to Austin for school and found a job at a bakery called Sugar Mama’s Bakeshop, where I [worked] for four years. I really loved the owners and became very close with them. I did everything there, but I ended up as a baker. Around 2012, I thought, I want to experience another end of the restaurant world. My boyfriend at the time and I both wanted to leave Austin and move to New York and dive a little deeper into our respective careers. I wanted to learn operations, and so in 2013 I started here with a very small restaurant group called Public House Collective. And I was with them doing everything on the back end for a while, and then eventually I found that I loved doing events, so I delved into private dining and ended up at NoHo Hospitality Group in 2016 and was deep into the event management world with them until 2019. In 2019, I was like, "You know what? I think my dream is to study bread and become a bread baker." Specifically, naturally fermented breads — sourdough. So I quit my corporate job and followed that.
I just have a connection to dough and the way that it feels. And I'm so fascinated with the fact that it's been around for forever, since the beginning of humankind, pretty much. The sourdough movement had kicked off by 2019, of course, and I was watching it and I was just so interested in it. I almost went to the San Francisco Baking Institute, but I got a job at She Wolf [the cult-favorite bread bakery in New York City] instead. I was like, I'll just learn on the job. I worked at She Wolf for almost a year, and then I worked with Il Buco Alimentari. I had met Sheena, the head baker at Il Buco, previously, and she contacted me later in the year being like, "Hey, I have an opening. Are you interested?" I loved She Wolf — I learned so much, specifically about volume, because they just pump out bread. But I really wanted to home in and learn more on a smaller scale, and working in a restaurant that makes its own bread offered me that. I was still at Il Buco in March when I got laid off because of the pandemic and then, yeah ... Apt. 2.
Were you surprised when you got laid off?
No, not at that point. A lot of my friends’ restaurants had closed down three days before that. We were the last ones hanging on. There was that crazy shuffle with unemployment that everyone went through, and then at the same time my boyfriend was moving in, so we were trying to get that figured out. But I do remember making this decision in my head: I am used to touching dough every day, so I’m going to keep making bread at home. I hadn't made a lot of bread at home before, not to the point where I was really comfortable doing it. I told myself, Let me figure out my own system here at home. I can do it. So I just started doing it. And then a friend of mine was like, "I'll buy bread from you. You should start selling your bread."
So you never had plans to build it into a business?
No. My first order was on April 1st — at that point it was all through Instagram — and then it just took off. By May, I had hired a friend to make my website and we got e-commerce set up so that I didn't have to [handle payments] through Venmo anymore. That felt pretty legit. I set up subscriptions … I want to say right now I have 25 subscribers who get bread weekly or bi-weekly. I was also doing delivery, but I had to stop because my days were getting too long. I started by making four loaves a day and now I'm doing 15 or 16.
You live in a typical Brooklyn apartment, which is to say, a small apartment. What's your relationship to the space (especially the kitchen) like now that it houses your business?
I love my kitchen. It is my sacred space. I spend too much time there, to the point where I've had that internal talk with myself about creating a boundary: "Now you're starting work, and now you're ending work.” I share my apartment with my partner, so I have to be mindful of his time in the kitchen, which is part of the reason that I'm expanding into our guest room. I'm taking the month of May off to work on the expansion because I'm waiting on a bunch of equipment and I want to take the time to really get comfortable in there.
Tell me more about the expansion.
We have a very small room at the front of our apartment which used to have this big wooden built-in bed attached to the walls. So we gutted everything and got some electrical work done so that it will be the operational bakery [for Apt. 2 Bread]. I have a fridge that already arrived and I’m still waiting on my mixer, my oven, and some miscellaneous stuff. I did test a few commercial spaces, but nothing worked out, everything was too expensive. So I decided to go this route and now I don't have to move my location. My landlord approved everything, which is awesome. And I'll be able to do way more, which is so exciting.
How would you describe your baking style?
I don't want to say like hard and fast, but rustic ... I'm not trying to get it to look perfect. You'll see a lot of that online, there's a style of this really dainty way to do it and that's fine, I respect that, but I prefer to have it a little weird. I used to record all of my temps and my hydration additions, but I stopped doing that and now I just go by hand, which has taught me a lot. I use my thermometer daily, of course, but it's different every day. I'm going with the season and I'm changing with the temperature outside. So that's been a huge lesson.
Sourdough boules fresh from Carla’s oven / Photography by Hannah Wederquist-Keller
Are you planning any changes to your offerings when you reopen in June?
Yeah, I want to tune up my recipes a little and offer a couple more things. I'm looking to add some sort of wheat loaf ... I think I'll do a dark wheat with sesame, something that's more fibrous. Maybe I’ll add rolls, something like that. I plan to do a lot of testing this month.
How would you characterize your community?
The community that came along with this evolution of Apt. 2 has been the biggest surprise of all for me. The most pleasant surprise, I'd say. It started with close friends — I don't really have any family here — and then turned into an Instagram community. And then that turned into customers who came to visit to pick up their bread, and I always have a quick chat with my customers, so they’ve become repeat customers and have really rallied for me in a way that I never expected. Friends have told friends … It's no longer just through Instagram. I've been noticing more people in Clinton Hill are coming, which is what I want. I want to be that little neighborhood bread spot where you can go and pick up your bread weekly. Other chefs and bakers have shown interest, which is super cool and flattering.
You are part of a wave of cottage industry bakers that swelled in peak pandemic times. Do you think people will return to their old jobs once the city really and truly opens back up?
For the most part, I feel like all these people — myself included — are here to stay. I've put in a ton of work, and working for myself this past year has been the biggest gift ever. I have no desire to go back to [another restaurant job] ... I don't mind working for other people, I love learning from other people and that is something that I'll have to continue to do while owning Apt. 2, but it's more about being able to create opportunities for ourselves during times of crazy economic hardship. And that is this amazing gift that we can do. We can all band together [via] pop-ups. We can support our community fridges and our mutual aid funds. I have asked myself the question, Where is Apt. 2 going to go? I've looked inward and thought, Do I want a brick and mortar one day? And the answer is no. Maybe that'll change, but the identity of Apt. 2 Bread is that it is this cottage bakery within my home. It does have a limited capacity, and I like it that way. I don't want to grow into this big thing. I really like the small community vibe.
And just to confirm, this is all you, right? No staff?
That’s impressive. Last question: Do you feel like COVID has impacted how people incorporate small pleasures into their daily lives? In other words, are people more likely to indulge in a kick-ass sourdough boule just because?
Definitely. I think it's [more about] people wanting to support the businesses in their area. For anybody who's trying to make it in terms of a small little project, people are just behind you with it. I think we all kind of had that wake up with COVID. A lot of people got laid off, and they’re looking at the economy differently. You start looking at what you can do to support the people around you who are hurting. What comes along with that is the trend of supporting and eating these beautiful things and these handmade things.
How to help:
- Pre-order a weekly or bi-weekly subscription here
- Support the Apt. 2 Bread expansion here
- Follow on Instagram for updates on Carla’s reopening
Until next time,