Dough business: Nick Wheeler stirs up new career from scratchWORTHINGTON — It seems appropriate that a heavenly aroma wafts through the halls of St. Mary’s Catholic School in Worthington. What is that smell that immediately sets the mouth to watering and the stomach to rumbling?
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — It seems appropriate that a heavenly aroma wafts through the halls of St. Mary’s Catholic School in Worthington. What is that smell that immediately sets the mouth to watering and the stomach to rumbling?
Mmmmmm — there’s no mistaking the enticing fragrance of freshly baked bread, which now fills the halls of the parochial school on almost a daily basis, thanks to the handiwork of Nick Wheeler. Nick, a graduate of Jackson High School who now lives in Lakefield, is utilizing the school’s kitchen facilities for his bread-baking venture, Wheeler Bread.
Many area residents became familiar with Wheeler’s products during the warm weather months at farmers markets. Having met with success in that arena, Nick has now delved into a commercial enterprise called Wheeler Breads.
Nick gained his first commercial baking experience in North Dakota — Wahpeton, where he attended junior college and met his wife, Carrie.
“I had applied to work at the meat department at Econofoods in Wahpeton, because I had worked in the meat department in Lakefield,” Wheeler explained. “They didn’t have any room in the meat department, so they put me in the bakery.”
When he moved to Fargo, N.D., Nick worked on and off for two years at the artisan chain bakery Breadsmith, also putting in a stint in the bakery at Hornbacher’s SuperValu stores.
“They had five stores in Fargo,” he said. “I helped open the fifth bakery, then I went back to Breadsmith.”
But Nick didn’t envision a career in baking. He attended Rasmussen College in business management, moved back to his home territory and went into insurance while Carrie is employed in the accounting department at Habilitative Services Inc. in Lakefield.
The yeast, however, had gotten into Nick’s blood, and he went back to baking as a sideline.
“I started doing the farmers market in Spirit Lake last year,” he recalled. “I’d come home on a Friday, bake all night, then take the bread down there on Saturday morning.”
When he was laid off from his job in February, the baking became more than a way to earn some extra cash. When the season rolled around this year, Nick began taking his wares to more farmers markets — Worthington, Spencer and Sioux City, Iowa.
“I was doing it out of my house. I had three and a half conventional ovens,” Nick detailed, explaining that the half oven was a smaller oven on top of a range. “I’d utilize everything and have the next thing ready to go when one came out. I could do six loaves at a time in each oven, on average. When all my markets were in full swing, I did 1,300 pieces in one week out of my house.”
With the end of the farmers market season in sight, Nick decided to pursue bread baking as a full-time business operation. With the help of the Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp., he worked out a deal to use the commercial kitchen at St. Mary’s School. It can get a bit crowded when lunch is being prepared for the St. Mary’s students, but he enjoys interacting with the youngsters and made all the hotdog buns for a recent Grandparents Day event.
As part of his business plan, Nick secured three permanent locations to sell his products — Schafer’s Health Food Store in Worthington; Coffee Choices in Jackson; and The Market Community Co-Op in Spirit Lake — and he anticipates working out some deals to provide bread for area restaurants.
On Tuesday through Saturday, Nick offers his creations for purchase at those locations. There are eight “daily breads” available every day along with “daily sweets” such as bear claws, cinnamon rolls and two sweet breads. On his fall menu, there are additional selections — from three to eight — for each day of the week, such as cracked wheat on Tuesdays, bacon onion cheddar on Thursdays and marble rye on Saturdays. Nick probably bakes 100 to 200 pieces of bread on any given day and uses 100 to 150 pounds of flour, which he buys in 50-pound bags. In a week, he’ll go through about 10 pounds of dry yeast.
“I developed all my own recipes,” Nick said. “There are about 50 different products that I can do.”
The butter bread — a daily offering — used to be a customer favorite, but Nick has noticed a shift in buying tendencies with people trying other products.
“Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve had regular customers,” he noted. “Some buy the same thing every week, and then some come up and ask what the specialty breads are that day, and they’ll buy those all the time.”
The butter bread is also Nick’s own personal favorite.
“I like my French toast out of it,” he said. “The stores all have a book with the recommended uses for each bread. For instance, the ciabatta is good for dipping in oil and sauce or for a Panini. They have that resource.”
For the upcoming Christmas season, he wants to develop recipes for Italian panetonne and German stollen and will consider adding some other holiday and seasonal varieties.
Once the bread is all baked and cooled, Nick also does all the packaging and delivery. It’s always a guessing game to decide how many loaves to slice, since some people prefer their bread presliced and others don’t, although there are certain varieties, such as the cheese breads and baguettes that he never slices.
The packaging and cleaning of the equipment, as well as doing the bookwork, are the tedious parts of the process.
“I enjoy the baking part more than the other parts that go along with being a small business owner,” Nick reflected. “But those things have got to be done, I guess.”
Starting a business from scratch hasn’t been easy, but Nick is determined to make a go out of baking and selling artisan breads.
“The more bread we sell, the happier we are,” he said. “I’m willing to work hard as long as it pays off.”