Persephone finds its niche in Jackson


Opening a business at any time is risky, but doing so during a prolonged economic downturn seemingly increases the risks. However, national economics didn't deter Kevin Cohane and his wife Ali Scheier from opening Persephone Bakery, a specialty wholesale operation in Jackson, Wyo., in June 2011. Naming your business after a Greek goddess often associated with wheat also doesn't hurt to swing good karma your way.

"The timing was right for us," Cohane says. "The recession will recover eventually and then we'll really be ready to go."

Time also was of the essence. The couple had met in Jackson but left so Cohane could train at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and acquire some "real" bakery experience at Fox & Obel in Chicago. "We had this plan to open this bakery for years, but while we were in Chicago, another artisan bakery opened up in this area," Scheier says.

The couple knew they had to strike before the small market of Jackson became saturated. While scouting locations, they originally planned to open a small retail operation as well. However, rents in downtown proved prohibitive and the costs of bringing sites up to code were too high. They instead found a location in an industrial strip mall, and they still toyed with opening a small retail shop but the site didn't allow for customer parking, so they decided to focus on specialty wholesale. The bakery sells to a variety of restaurants and local grocery stores. It also participates in the weekly farmers' market during the summer, which accounts for about 15 percent of bakery sales.

Difficulties of location

Operating a bakery in Jackson introduced some unique challenges. The permanent population of the town is only 8,000, but the area sees a huge influx of tourists in the summer and winter. In the summer, more than 3 million people visit the nearby Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks while skiers flood the mountains in winter. What this means is two extremely busy seasons followed by two slow periods in the late fall and early spring.

Feast or famine

"It's booming in the summer but it's tough," Scheier says. "Summer is so intense here. Kevin works 14 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week. That downtime in the offseason is almost welcome. Obviously, we don't want it to last as long as it does, but it does give us a little bit of a breather before the next tourist season and it's a great time for us to figure out new directions. It's a great opportunity for us to play catch up."

To help offset the lost business during the offseason, the bakery offers a bread of the month. Business is too slow to keep producing all the different bread varieties, but the variety of the month keeps people interested and allows the bakery to try new flavors on a smaller scale. Beer bread made with beer from a local brewer and cheddar cracked pepper were some recent bread of the month offerings.

The more transient nature of the population also can make it hard to find employees who are willing to work the hours required in a bakery. Currently, Persephone has six employees in addition to Cohane and Scheier, including two drivers, a pastry chef, two bakers and a kitchen helper.

Another challenge the couple faced early on was the elevation of the town. Jackson sits at 6,200 ft. above sea level. "We had to do a lot of reformulation because of the altitude; adjust hydration and baking times and temperatures," Cohane says. "It took eight months before I was happy with the baguette."

The high elevation also causes large temperature swings from night to day, which also required some formulation changes to doughs that retard overnight.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment for Cohane was adapting his product line to what customers wanted. For a baker well versed in artisan methods and techniques, product integrity was important.

"Unfortunately, we found that most people want their breads cut and bagged," Scheier says. About three-quarters of Persephone's artisan loaves are sliced and packaged.

"We should have expanded our product line from the beginning to packaged goods; that's just our fault and lack of experience," Cohane adds.

Signature breads

Bread varieties run the gamut from baguettes, pan au levain, multigrain and ciabatta to buns and rolls. The best-selling multigrain is made with organic wheat flour and organic grains like flaxseed, millet and cracked wheat. The grains are soaked overnight and the dough features a 50 percent flour weight levain. It is mixed in the morning and bulk fermented for about three hours before it's divided and shaped. Then, it retards overnight, or about 18 hours, and is baked for 45 minutes at 475°F.

The long bake time at a high temperature gives the bread the dark caramelization that has become Persephone's trademark. (The signature dark bake was stressed by Pamela Fitzpatrick during Cohane's time at Fox & Obel.) Multigrain is offered in a rustic loaf as well as a 1.5-lb. sliced sandwich loaf.
The pain au levain also is made with 90 percent organic wheat flour and 10 percent organic rye flour. The dark, caramelized crust balances the creamy, slightly acidic crumb.

Focaccia and brioche are extremely popular at the farmers' market. The focaccia is flavored with fresh thyme, rosemary and extra virgin olive oil. The traditional French brioche is made with 100 percent European butter with a flaky golden crust and tender crumb. The brioche cinnamon roll is one of the bakery's best-selling products; it sells by the hundreds at the farmers' market. The laminated Danish dough is sheeted, egg washed and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar before rolling. Then, it's cut into disks and frozen. The cinnamon disks are the only product in the bakery that is frozen. The rolls are baked for 35 minutes at 445°F.

Shortly after opening, Persephone diversified into bun making. The area is big on sandwiches, and it also is an easier product for the bakery to produce with a limited labor pool.

The cake side of the business also is growing more rapidly than expected for a bakery whose original focus was breads and viennoiserie. "The special order business has grown tremendously because there's nowhere to go to get a birthday cake," Scheier says. "And the wedding business has been taking off." The bakery averages between one and two wedding cakes a weekend, and during the offseason can produce as many as four.

"When we opened, we wanted to make bread and rustic pastries, mostly viennoiserie and things like that. We ended up doing a lot more cakes. It fits the market and no one is doing them on a high-end level, so we go after it," Cohane adds.

Cohane and his bakers begin mixing doughs and baking retarded loaves at 4 a.m. The first delivery of breakfast pastries and viennoiserie leaves the bakery at 6:30 a.m. When the drivers return, they package the bread and baguettes as soon as they are cool. The second delivery leaves about 9:30 and hits the grocery stores. A third delivery leaves between 2:30 and 4 p.m. for restaurant orders.

Quality control

One of the biggest challenges Cohane and Scheier faced was that once the product leaves the bakery, care and handling is out of their control. "When we started and were still trying to make a name for ourselves, we had some pretty strict stipulations like they could only sell the croissants for one day because it's a one-day product. If we're putting our name on it, we don't want it sold for two days because we don't sell it for two days," Scheier says. "We had to pull out of some retail places because we were new and it was more of a reflection on us than them. But we realized over time that it is really their product, and for some locations, it's best for us to not put our name on it and just let them do what they want. We've really had to relax a lot, and that was hard for us at first."

In the grocery stores, where the bakery does have a little more control, it sells all its products in branded packaging with the bakery's name clearly visible.

The couple also struggled with the same thing many new business owners have difficulty with: being bosses. "We didn't know how to be bosses, frankly," Scheier adds. "When you're the same age as the people you work with, it's hard because the respect level isn't always there and there can be a lack of boundaries. It's been a struggle." The couple has become much better at clarifying what exactly is expected of the employees.

While Jackson poses many challenges for operating a bakery, the small town does have one great benefit: word of mouth. "Most of our marketing has been word of mouth," Scheier says. The town is very supportive of its own and likes to buy local.

Cohane and Scheier are still looking for that perfect retail location, which would make it easier to get product directly to consumers. But as a young bakery, the future is wide open. "I do ask daily, 'What did we get ourselves into?'" Scheier laughs.

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