Natural Start Bakery Postmortem

I spoke with the current owners this week of what was formerly the Natural Start Bakery. They are leading the coffee shop in a new direction after almost two years of being part of a high profile experiment in sourcing all of their ingredients for baked goods from local and organic sources. As the locavore movement caught the imagination of Spokane, the Natural Start Bakery folks were kind of a flagship business getting all kinds of media attention, most notably this article in the Spokesman.

I asked last week if the demise of the bakery was a sign of the limits of the locavore movement. Here's what I found out.

One clarification is that technically the bakery wasn't sold as I had reported. One partner in the business venture, Gibran Sharpe, essentially bought out the other partner, Marc Gauthier, and is taking the coffee shop in a new direction. It's not new ownership now, just solo ownership as opposed to a partnership.

In my conversation this morning with Gibran he said that it wasn't so much problems with the concept of sourcing local food that led to the change but rather an unsustainable business model. He explained that in order for them to succeed with the baked goods they would need to produce on a much larger scale because the margins are so low and the fixed costs like electricity to run the ovens, etc. are so high. He said they've learned a lot in the process, most significantly that you really have to do a detailed analysis of how much they would have to sell and at what price points they would need to set in order to make it work.

One problem with the local sourcing he did mention is that it takes tremendous time to go all over town getting ingredients from farmers and nurturing those relationships, and that it's near impossible to recover the cost of that time spent through the price of the product. This is one of the ongoing dilemmas of farmers at the farmers' markets in Spokane. In Seattle area they are able to charge more of a premium to re-coop expenses. Spokane is a more challenging consumer market. (That's a nice way of saying we're kind of cheap.)

He also mentioned a need to simplify the business model in order to make it fit with his family life. They will be getting their baked goods now from the Rocket Bakery and Taste. I ran into him this morning at the Rocket in Millwood, where he was picking up some wholesale baked goods for his shop. That takes less time and controls the fixed costs and risk in a way that the other model couldn't do.

One thing that isn't changing is offering up organic Doma coffee.

When it comes to the locavore movement in Spokane the changes at Natural Start point to some of the limits of sourcing local foods for businesses,most notably time and money. But the greater lesson is that these are the limits for every business venture. A sustainable business model is essential for the success of businesses that seek sustainable models of supplying food.

The Main Market Co-Op is next up in Spokane as a locavore based business venture. It will be interesting to see how that goes.