Just three years ago, Jennifer Smurr returned from an internship in Miami and brought to our city the beauty and trade of freshly baked bread. Since its premiere at the Lakeland Dowtown Farmers Curb Market, Born & Bread Bakehouse has made an array of buttery, flaky, freshly made morning croissants a reality. It reminds us that naturally leavened can’t be born overnight. And neither can the best of bakeries.
photography by Tina Sargeant
Stepping into the storefront, to your right stands a wall covered in American flags. To the back are cozy booths, reminiscent of a well-lived-in diner. To the left, a comfy couch and set of chairs, with neon lights hanging above that read “American Dream.” But, despite its homey, well-adapted appearance, Born & Bread Bakehouse is still rather new to this expanded space, though it’s hardly new to Lakeland. This past weekend, on March 17, the bakery celebrated its three-year anniversary and record sales, to date.
Over the last three years, Jennifer Smurr returned from a baking apprenticeship, launched a business, and settled into a brick-and-mortar (along with Patriot Coffee, owned by her brother-in-law, Chris McArthur). She has helped our city rediscover what true bread should look, feel, and taste like, and in the meantime created a need in many of us: the cruffin. In many ways, Smurr’s launch and progressive development of Born & Bread Bakehouse has been exactly what many in Lakeland would define as a modern-day American Dream.
Though Smurr will hardly say it’s exactly the dream she planned for.
AN AMERICAN DREAM
“Since the beginning, this was a goal,” says Smurr. In February 2018 she announced Born & Bread’s expansion, and within a six-week turnaround celebrated its three-year anniversary, revealing a spacious kitchen and cozy interior, styled by Lisa Malott.
Producing nearly 10 times the volume of pastries she began with and leading a well-oiled machine, Smurr now runs the bakehouse with six full-time employees, one apprentice, two weekend part-timers, and is currently looking to hire four more people. Though this current setup is not exactly what she imagined for Born & Bread three years prior.
“I think maybe during the first two months of opening at the [Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market], I was like, ‘One day I want to have a bakery, and I want there to be a neon sign on the wall. I don’t know what it’s going to say, but maybe, ‘American Dream.’”
After deciding the store was going to be something she would inevitably open, Smurr received a neon sign for Christmas that said ‘American Dream.’ Yet, she says, “I don’t know without certain things happening at certain times that I wouldn’t have gotten here the way that I did.”
Prior to the bakehouse, Smurr worked in the fashion industry. One day while working with a client, the designer for that client approached Smurr and said, “Hey, I was thinking about you the other day, and I see you started baking. You should check out Zak the Baker.”
Smurr jumped to it, visiting Zak Stern’s bakery in Miami, with a pen and paper in hand and prepared with some questions simply to equip herself as a better baker. Zak answered her questions but told her, “As much as I can answer all of these questions for you, you have to experience this. You have to touch the dough every day.” In order for Smurr to really hone her skills as a baker, Zak suggested she consider an apprenticeship, offering one at his bakehouse in Miami.
“‘I’m not sure if it’s for you,” Zak told her. “It’s full time, no pay, long hours, early mornings.’” And I was like, ‘Yeah, I think I want to do that.’ And he said, ‘Did you say that you were just married?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know … maybe you should talk to your husband about this first.’”
Sure enough, Smurr made the move for a three-month apprenticeship, gaining baking skills, lifelong mentors and friendships, and an eye-opening reality of what life as a baker would mean. “I think what I learned the most through that apprenticeship is that I was just romantic about it. We get romantic in life about a lot of things — the idea of them, without the experience.”
She completed the apprenticeship, returned home, and prepared to introduce Lakeland to Born & Bread.
Many have viewed the growth of Born & Bread to be a progressive business strategy: launching at the Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market, the wholesale of Smurr’s perfectly tart sourdough loaves (served at the likes of Black & Brew, Cob & Pen, and The Corner Store), transitioning into a brick-and-mortar, a recent expansion, and the glorified cruffin, which has evolved to be the trademark pastry of the bakehouse.
Smurr can’t help but smile and laugh at the thought, assumed of many business owners, that each step of her business venture was perfectly planned out in advance. Contrary to popular belief of Born & Bread’s success due to some five-year plan, if anything Smurr and her bakehouse have progressed because she has learned to roll with the punches.
“When I came back, I joined Catapult, and they had this tiny electric bread oven — a Rofco from Belgium. I had worked with it before and mixed 45 doughs for the first market. And I couldn’t get the thing to hold temp. It would skyrocket above 500 degrees and drop to 300. And for bread you need some kind of consistent temp.” Smurr was on edge at the risky venture, depending on a temperamental oven to assist the launch of Born & Bread and her first-ever time selling at the Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market.
“I remember going into Catapult at about seven the night before. I turned the oven on to preheat, and all night it was up and down. I cried — I mean, Catapult has to have a video of the meltdowns,” Smurr jokes. “I can still remember a friend coming to visit and knocking on the Catapult door, and I remember sitting at the bottom of the stairs, losing it, saying, ‘I never want to do this again. This is not what I signed up for.’”
With 16 of the 45 prepped loaves, Smurr arrived at the market, and there, waiting for her, was a line. And she knew then that the first market wouldn’t be her last. I have to do this again, she recalls thinking. I have to figure this out! But the trick was finding another product the Rofco could handle.
“So I couldn’t do bread. I knew that.”
Eager to return with more baked goods, she quickly studied the complex art of the croissant. Spurred on by the quick turnaround for demands and inspired by a croissanterie in Australia called Lune (famed for the cruffin), Smurr developed a formula which she says “has changed a thousand times since.” The next week, Born & Bread returned with croissants, morning buns, and cruffins.
Before leaving the kitchen at Catapult and moving into her own space, Smurr was producing 350 pastries for the market.
“Sometimes, as things go wrong, you don’t need another opportunity. You just need a mindset change,” she says.
On the weekend of its third year anniversary, Born & Bread served over 3,700 pastries and 160 loaves of bread.
“It’s organized chaos, but somehow we know what we’re doing,” says Smurr.
The mere effort to meet demands brought the bakehouse to its current kitchen, expanded space, and weekly operation.
“We are a Monday through Saturday production right now,” says Smurr. The largest production and first half of the week revolves around croissant dough, due to its lengthy process. “Mondays mean mixing croissant dough and butter blocks,” Smurr notes on the weekly schedule. “Tuesdays mean more dough, butter block prep, and then prep for fillings. Friday is mainly shaping the dough, and filling and finishing off things before they’re baked. Then they’ll go in the cooler, and the next morning we get started at 12:15 [a.m.] and work until the doors open.”
Born & Bread has carried a seasonally evolving menu from day one, serving everything the team of bakers can concoct, from goat cheese and sundried tomato pastry, to berry white cruffins, and toasted brioche topped with thick layers of fresh ricotta and strawberry jam.
Recently, the bakery’s menu has expanded to include galettes (the most popular being caramel apple, strawberry, and almond cream), hand pies, and its most recent addition, the transcendent chocolate cake. Rotating sourdough breads every weekend, each is naturally leavened, offering up flavors such as country loaf, cinnamon raisin, olive, pecan cranberry, and corn grit with jalapeno. Born & Bread’s recently explored breakfast sandwiches have quickly become its most popular product. Made just as Smurr would prepare it at home, Benton’s breakfast sandwich highlights a “thick, smokier-smoked bacon,” she says, that’s cured in Tennessee.
This past anniversary weekend, with the largest production of pastries to date (selling over 250 Benton’s breakfast sandwiches), brought Smurr to reflect on the bakery’s earlier days and the difficult departure from her apprenticeship. “I didn’t know anything then,” she says. “But the journey has been amazing.”
The unique opportunity that the bakehouse offers draws several apprentices from out of state and overseas. Born & Bread’s journey continues to evolve as Smurr recently had to say a few more goodbyes, this time to her own interns, with three of them returning home: one from Texas and two from Switzerland.
The demand is high, the learning process concentrated, and the turnaround quick — a two-month apprenticeship. Some months, Smurr may receive a request every day or every other day on apprentice opportunities. Born & Bread’s apprenticeship offers students the opportunity to learn the ins and out of the baking and business process, with many of them returning home with freshly honed skills to launch their own baking businesses. “I can’t explain why I choose certain people,” Smurr says. “I think it’s maybe the way that they write or the story that they have.”
Her first international apprentice traveled from Ecuador. “Isa.” Smurr notes the name with clear strings tugging at the heart. “She went back. The economy is really terrible in Ecuador.”
Another, an Australian apprentice, recently opened at her farmers market the same Saturday as Born & Bread’s three-year anniversary, March 17, selling out in only two hours.
Suchali, an apprentice from India, returned home and last year opened her own bakehouse and is already selling wholesale to several coffee shops throughout the country. “Isa traveled to India and helped Suchali open her bakery, then returned and spent three more months with us,” says Smurr.
“You really get to know these people. I don’t think there’s any apprentice I’ve had that I haven’t cried when they left, or they haven’t talked to me once a month since. They break my heart though, so I’m going to take a break after this one.”
Born & Bread’s apprenticeships are a minimum of two months. “Most of the time they’re not going to learn everything they want to in two months. It takes a lot of skill, a lot of practice. But what’s great is that they get to lean on our dime of how to screw up some bread.”
Apprentices are responsible for their own housing, and as long as they’re within 10 minutes of the bakery, they’ll have a ride each day. While it’s not a paid internship, apprentices are expected to work alongside the team whenever they’re working. So if it means a Thursday from eight in the morning to seven at night, or a 12 a.m. start time on Saturday morning (which is when you will find the team prepping your weekly cruffin), it offers apprentices a true picture of the process.
“They learn to bake, they learn to proof [the time the yeast is activated in a pastry, which allows the pastry to begin to rise and create shape before going in the oven], a lot of fermentation, they learn about efficiency and the way a bakery operates.” Each week the team meets, Smurr answers any questions they have. Every other week focuses on the bakery as a business: how to create a business plan, cost analysis, and the fundamentals to keep the business running.
While many apprentices arrive with next to zero baking experience, some come with a culinary background, such as current intern, Cory. “The two boys (from Switzerland) were chefs,” says Smurr. “So they have kitchen experience, which was a super-easy transition for them. But the time of dough we do doesn’t come naturally to anyone. So it wasn’t like the first day they were slinging some dough. But by the end, yeah, they did the entire final bake by themselves the week prior.”
NEW DAYS AHEAD
Currently, Smurr anticipates possible expansions for the bakery in the days ahead. “A conservative growth,” she suggests, and considers expanding its hours to a potential weekday evening, and a soft opening by the end of April, dependent on staffing.
“If we opened on a Wednesday night, I could see maybe doing a French baguette. The timing with that doesn’t allow us to do it on a Saturday morning, but I think on a Wednesday evening that would be amazing to have house-made butter and French baguettes. Like a BYOB kind of atmosphere.” But rest assured, it will be a dessert-based evening.
With spring’s arrival, the team has been crafting the new seasonal menu. “This morning we were talking about it being Girl Scout season. We try to have very balanced pastries, so nothing you get should be overly sweet to where you couldn’t finish it and say, ‘I think I want another one.’ This week, the team is talking about recreating the Samoas cookie into a twice-baked croissant for this weekend. And maybe introducing a strawberry rhubarb galette.”
As far as the foods that keep Smurr fueled personally these days, “On a Saturday I look forward to if we could make an extra breakfast sandwich [if they’re not already sold out] … I really want a breakfast sandwich. And a chocolate croissant has just been my thing. But it changes all the time.”
It may be Smurr’s spirited and ever-evolving taste buds that keep such a lively menu and expectant line of customers at the door every Saturday morning. But, at this point, even if the menu were to stay the same, you can pretty much count on that line.