Sadie Scheffer is the founder and CEO of Bread SRSLY, San Francisco's first gluten-free sourdough bread company. The story of how this company came to be is truly a love story at its core - after dropping out MIT, Sadie moved to San Francisco to follow her crush, Jesse, who she quickly learned was gluten-free. In an effort to spend more time with him, she began spending all of her free time experimenting with gluten-free recipes. Many of her attempts ended up in the compost, but when one would come out well, she would invite Jesse over for a taste test. She soon developed a good understanding of gluten-free ingredients, even perfecting a few recipes along the way, and in August 2011 began to sell her sourdough to the public. Three weeks (and many bicycle deliveries) later, Bread SRSLY catapulted into being a full-time business, and can now be found in six different states, and in grocery stores like Whole Foods and Erewhon. Bread SRSLY also proudly employs 19 people - one of which, is Jesse, who is now her husband.
Sadie shared her story as the first of three in Real Food Real Stories’ ‘self-made changemakers’ winter series hosted at Thumbtack in San Francisco - an app that allows you to find skilled professionals in your community.
Fondest food memory:
One of my recurring fond food memories is making stuffing over Thanksgiving. I usually use about six loaves of our sweet onion sourdough for it. The first step is to dry up the bread cubes, then and I use bread that was baked that day - I don’t like old bread. So I cut them into big cubes, put them in the oven, and toast them on a pretty high heat. Not so much that they dry out, but just enough so that they get really crispy on the outside. It’s basically like making a ton of cubed pieces of toast. When you do it that way, they stay soft in the middle, and you retain the quality of the bread.
Then I just throw whatever I want into it - I love using things like dried figs, and roasted chestnuts (which gives it a really beautiful texture). I’m not really a mushroom person, but mushrooms would go fine in there too. I do a lot of kale, fennel, and celery root. Sometimes, I even put in Japanese sweet potatoes! I’m just looking for things that are flavorful and have a lot of starch to compliment the texture of the bread. Then it becomes this magical stuffing experience.
Pei-Ru Ko: Thank you so much for chatting with me this morning! It was really wonderful to hear your story at the gathering last time and learn more about the power of sourdough. When I look at bread now, it feels very different.
Sadie Scheffer: Excellent.
PK: When you spoke with us last, you were a part of the Real Food Real Stories’ Winter season, which was centered around the theme of “self-made”- people that have chased their dreams, no matter what. During the gathering, you said that you have had a complicated relationship with what people/the public perceive as “success” which has lead you to stop telling people “you look like you’re doing great!” Can you explain that a little bit, and how you deal with the inconsistencies between your public image and personal life?
SS: Yeah, that’s an ongoing learning experience for me, and it’s interesting because I think it’s the complete opposite of what I’ve been saying for most of my business. I always defined success as other people thinking I’m successful, which is now the complete opposite of what I want. I didn’t quite realize that until you asked the question just now. Last year, I was in a pretty bad place - we were moving houses, and I was sleeping at my aunt’s house, plus we were moving offices and renting temporary kitchen space, and temporary storage space and everything felt so unstable. So every time someone told me that it looked like I was doing great or that it looked like I was so successful, I felt totally trapped. I couldn’t express what I was actually feeling. So that’s what made me step back, reconsider, and then put a lot of effort into grounding in my personal life so that I could actually enjoy my business. Which itself has been a journey, and I think it’s a successful journey, but we’re still going. Now we have stable housing, we’re in a permanent kitchen and a permanent office, so luckily that’s all straightened out. I’m now just focused on making sure that the rest of my team feels grounded around me, so that even if I’m sort of having a funky day, I can sort of pick up that stable energy from the people I work with, which has been really helpful.
PK: It sounds like “success” - both your own perception of it, as well as how the outside world’s, is multi-layered.
SS: I still think there’s a big element of truth in other people thinking that you’re successful. And maybe that’s just me realizing that success is not a thing that needs to be measured and talked about, but rather something more personal. My own well-being is much more important to me than “success” right now - maybe once you achieve personal well-being, success is sort of a given. Maybe not! I don't know that I’ve had both at the same time.
PK: What are some of the ways that external success can influence personal success?
SS: There’s always been an element of performance - when I started my business I was really shy, quiet, and not confident. Whenever I had to get myself to go networking or go to an event or give a class, I literally envisioned putting on a hat. I had a very specific extrovert hat, which was different than my teacher hat, which was different than my employer hat, until I really got into the habit and finally adopted those characters into myself. Now I’m a total extrovert, and hardly ever shy, which is interesting.
PK: That’s a really nuanced understanding of the outside vs. the inside and how they influence each other. Let’s talk a little bit about your gluten-free experiments back in the day. There’s something kind of romantic about your story - you in your kitchen in San Francisco, choosing a new ingredient each time, then learning everything about it. What was a time when a recipe totally flopped and what did you learn from it?
SS: The very first thing I made when I moved here - I had made buckwheat fingerprint cookies and it was sort of like eating a sandbox. It was so foul. It was really revolting. It had the worst texture, and this bitter taste. I threw it right in the compost, and I think that’s the thing that really sealed the deal - that I was really going to do this because I took it so personally, that failure. I was so ready to be good at something that I really put my mind to it after that.
PK: And then you started a business! You talked about how, especially in the early days, there was a real emphasis on community, and knowing your customers. You were even biking and delivering all of the bread! So when you grew, and the operation moved away from bike delivery, did you miss that part of the operation? And if so, are there plans in Bread SRSLY’s future to incorporate that component?
SS: It’s definitely like, way diminished. Even after I stopped biking, I still did the company’s customer service up until three years ago. And when I was answering phones and emails, I was sort of building relationships, digital relationships, even though it was a lot less fulfilling. And since then, I’ve passed that off, I’m not really doing in-store demos anymore, and only work events. But I think I get most of it by going to events like Real Food Real Stories, and being out there, and networking, and going to other people’s talks, and things like that. So I still get to network - I’m not necessarily networking as Bread SRSLY, I’m more networking as Sadie - but I think that those people know me as the Bread SRSLY owner, so it sort of is still the same. But in order to build it back into the company's DNA, we’re actually planning out a brick and mortar bakery so we can build a space that fosters community, and relationships, and allows us to share more information about why we make sourdough. A lot of it is to experiment and get feedback from customers. So I’m really excited about that, but also a bit terrified and intimidated because it’s not something I’ve done before. It’s going to be a big year of experiments, and planning, and flops, and we’ll see where it goes.
PK: Again, balancing the inner and outer evaluation of success. Did you have any interesting stories from the customers you’ve delivered to over the years?
SS: Oh gosh, I’m sure thousands. Let me think - early on, one of the things that sort of snowballed me into a full-time business was my very first bread week. Jesse had emailed all of his friends that I was selling bread, and one of his friends emailed her friend who happened to be celiac, but she also worked in an allergy clinic. So she came and bought the bread - three loaves in the very first week, and then three loaves every week thereafter. Then we started trading bread for appointments so that I could go to this allergy clinic. Then whenever one of clients tested gluten intolerant or allergic to gluten, she would send them my way. So I had all of these sort of strangers ordering the bread, including a few people in a parents group in Glen Park, which got that whole group on hooked. Then one of those customers was a writer for Daily Candie, and that was like, the thing. So that was the first press I ever got, because she was not only a writer for the SF Foodie, but she was also celiac. So it was perfect! Then once that article came out, it was like this waterfall effect of other articles coming out, and the business went full time like three weeks after that.
PK: Wow. It’s beautiful how your relationship paired with a little bit of serendipity really kicked you off.
SS: I feel like I could tell a story about a chain of lucky events happening not only when we were getting the business off the ground, but also when we were trying to keep it off the ground. It’s always been this sort of a crazy amount of coincidences, luck, and good fortune. And running into the right people at the right time. I try not to depend on that as the main tool, but it sort of happens when I need it to (laughs). Which is bizarre and lovely.
PK: And you’ve been in this gluten-free bread game for a good amount of time now. Are there other people in this community that are doing good work and that you respect?
SS: Absolutely! There aren’t that many people making gluten-free bread. There is a newish company called Young Kobras that’s making a gluten-free sourdough. and It’s interesting - a lot of people ask me if I’m nervous about the competition, but this is my personal mission. I realized this past year that I want to really make sure that people understand the benefits of sourdough, and see it as a viable option, if not the first option they should take. So it would be very hypocritical of me to then be upset when there’s another sourdough on the shelf. I think it’s fantastic, and they’re super nice people making a really good product. So I’m excited about that. There’s also Grindstone Bakery up in Rohnert Park that does - they don’t call it a sourdough, they call it a yeast-free bread. But it is a fermented product and it’s also green, and actually, Grindstone has been around a lot longer than I have.
PK: Let’s talk a little bit about your sourdough starter. You talk about it being kind of like a pet. Does it have a personality? And what is your relationship with it?
SS: My relationship is pretty distant now, because I handed it over to my baking team, but it definitely has a personality. It’s kind of cranky in the winter, and too hyper in the summer. But it’s pretty steady now. It lets us know - usually visually - what it needs. We’re literally looking at the shape of the hump it makes when it rises to tell us when it’s ready, when it’s too young, or too old. When it’s too young, we just have to wait for it. When it’s too old, it turns into sourdough starter instead of dough. So it’s pretty vocal about that. And of course, if we miss a cue, maybe if they have someone new on the line, or if I step into the bakery (I always mess things up when I go into the bakery), we might bake a batch that’s too young, and it comes out like bricks.
PK: And it’s 7 ½ years old now, is that right? Can you share a little bit about the “old dough method” here? How you keep it alive?
SS: Yeah! So I’ll start with a bigger overview of the sourdough process. To make a sourdough starter, you literally just leave flour and water in a bowl, maybe covered with a towel. It can be any kind of flour - it can be wheat flour, rye flour, rice flour, almond flour, you name it. Anything that has a protein component and a sugar component. So you basically collect these, and while bacteria and fungi are in your atmosphere, and in your apartment, or on your hands, or grew on the grains, you’ll start to see it change. You’ll start to see a bubble - it’ll start to smell kind of funky, and sour, and you basically provide it food. You've probably heard of feeding a sourdough starter. That just means adding more flour, so that once the microbes have digested all the proteins and sugars, they still have something to help them multiply. So the traditional method of making sourdough is having that master starter, and using a little bit in your dough.
But another method is called the old dough method, which is the method that we use. Instead of using a bit of sourdough starter in your dough, you use a little bit of that in your next dough. So you basically use all of your sourdough starter in your dough to make 1 ½ loaves of dough, then save that half loaf. Then you bake your loaf, save a little bit of that dough, and add it to your next batch. The sourdough's still alive and thriving because it's got a ton of food, and was just fermented. Also, I always recommend to salt your bread. Turns out that unsalted bread is really gross. We’ve done it a couple times by accident. So, you’re saving all that dough so it’s a different creature, basically because it’s got that salt in it. Ours has binders, it has psyllium husk or xanthan gum as a binder, but it’s great because it eliminates the step of keeping that sourdough alive.
PK: Part of my brain is like, “Huh?”
SS: I’m always trying to figure out how to explain this. Keeping a sourdough starter was something that I found really intimidating, and I didn’t understand for a long time, which kept me from starting my sourdough. And it turns out that it's so simple, but I sort of need to illustrate it on paper to make it sound clearer because there's a lot of words, and a lot of steps, but it really is just like, giving it flour.
PK: And in your sharing, you describe yourself as impulsive, and a self-starter by nature - are there any other projects of yours that we don’t know about, that you’re really passionate about?
SS: Well, I do artwork when I’m not doing work work, and this is sort of the first time that I’m making a lot of artwork and deciding not to turn it into a hobby business. Which I’ve learned from my previous hobby businesses - I ran, let’s see, two t-shirt companies, and a bicycle accessory company, and basically didn’t track anything. I just made stuff and then sold it, then made more stuff, and sold it. It was fun! There was no end goal other than to not accumulate all the things that I was making. But I love production. So right now I make pottery, which takes up a lot of space. I also make paper flowers out of crepe paper, which is super fun, and there's endless inspiration because flowers are everywhere, and there’s a zillion different types, and you can make up your own.
PK: You’re a creator in nature. So my last question is - how can eaters participate in what you’re building and join the Bread SRSLY movement?
SS: Ooh, that’s a great question. I mean, try the bread, that’s a good first step. Then tell a friend about the bread, or share this podcast. And just keep checking in on us! See if we’ve got that brick and mortar open, see if we’ve started selling at a farmers market, and come say hi! We’re still trying to figure it out- what’s the order of operations here? How do we just open a brick and mortar? When we know nothing about that, or if people would even come, etc. So all of that support would be confidence inspiring for us, and give us a boost to get that off the ground. But if you want to just find the bread, you can find it in the refrigerator section of a lot of local grocery stores throughout the West coast. And if you’re not local, you can find our products online at BreadSRSLY.com. Yeah!
PK: Is your website the main medium to get to you? Or social media?
SS: Our Instagram is our preferred social media. We have Melissa, our Marketing Director, who is a photographer, and she makes some gorgeous content. So head over to Instagram for fun food photos, and giveaways, and news, and things like that.
PK: Thanks so much Sadie, we’re really excited for you, wherever your next steps will be. We’ll be there cheering you on. And thank you for sharing so much about who you are, your belief in getting sourdough out in the world, whether people are gluten free or not. It’s just really inspiring, thank you so much!
SS: Thank you Pei-Ru! I’ve had a really great experience telling my story.