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We’ve all attempted to make bread in quarantine, but Rize Up Sourdough is taking it to the next level by turning it into a business. We sat down with owner Azikiwee Anderson to learn about how he got started, how he’s handling COVID, and lessons he’s learned along the way (as a baker, skater, and a chef)
How did you get started as a small business owner?
I’ve been many things in my life. I used to be a pro athlete, a skater, and roller blader. I worked with the X-games where I was a judge, built skate parks, and traveled a lot...I did whatever you could to make a living in that industry.
Eventually, I opened a retail store for skating, and that ran until about 2008 when the U.S. economy collapsed. So, like a lot of people, I had to dig myself out of the hole after that. I became a stay at home dad for a little while And I cooked a lot while I was at home.
Ever since I was 13, I had worked in kitchens, but I never thought of it as a profession. I enjoyed cooking for my family, as well as the creativity and the process. Thinking about what I wanted to do next in life, I realized it could be this.
I was very much a businessman despite never having gone to business school; I learned a lot on my own. Having experienced the difficulties of the DIY route already with skating, I didn’t want to go that route again.. So as I was about to dive into a different industry, I thought: “I should actually go to school to figure this out instead of googling stuff in the bathroom on work breaks.”
So, I went to culinary school--San Francisco Cooking School--as a way to test this. If I could hack it there, I knew I could hack it for a living. The school was so fresh and connected and committed to helping their students succeed. I was nervous at first, but I excelled. I graduated and started private cheffing high-end catering for private parties, helping with cook books, and also test kitchens. I loved all these aspects, especially teaching.
I like to say “the ‘why’ is more important than the ‘what’ in cooking. Once you understand why you’re using a certain oil or pan, you can expand and grow. Cooking is a very intimate thing, and people are nervous to mess up. Once you get over that and realize your chef messes up sometimes too, you feel more comfortable asking questions and learning. I’m all about making it accessible, letting people get dirty and have fun. I think people appreciate when something is made accessible to them.
Tell us how COVID hit you, how you’ve been adapting?
Unfortunately like a lot of people, I’m not doing as much of that in person teaching and event stuff. I found myself with a lot of time.
This feels completely different from the 2008 collapse. 2008 was about business and money where now is about slowing down. I’m seeing it in a lot of different ways. Before COVID, I used to see my kids a total of 7 hours a week. Now I’m around them 24 hours a day. Things feel slow, but it’s given me space to be creative. So if I can earn money, be at home, protect my family, and start a business...that’s actually a great thing. Before the pandemic, there was no way I would have slowed down enough to spend the hours to learn about taking my business online. I was moving too fast before. This time has allowed me to craft my skill, to make mistakes, succeed, and really nail these recipes.
How did you manage to start a new business right now?
I had some friends who owned and operated a bakery in San Francisco called Outerlands who make amazing bread. With my chef background, I asked if I could do an externship and meet their head baker. We covered baking in culinary school, but it wasn’t a big interest for me at the time.
But, sourdough bread has always been my favorite bread, now that I had moved my focus, the idea of making it began to appeal.
For sourdough...it takes 36 hours to get a starter ready, and the secret is the starter. To start, I was making a bunch of starters at home, waiting 36 hours, and seeing that they they came outjust OK. That’s the point where most people say “well that wasn’t worth it” and give up.
At one point, my friend from Outerlands offered me their starter and it was like a golden goose. I had a bite of the bread and I thought: “oh my God, this is how good it can be?”
So I started baking and posting on Instagram. I had a lot of friends from my skating life reach out and say “I’ve seen the bread you’ve been posting, you have to send me some of that.” And I thought of multiple reasons to say no: “it’ll stale, it’s too expensive,” which they responded that they didn’t care, and to ship it to them anyway. So I took a photo of me shipping this bread and sent it in the mail.
I was doubtful it would work. But I woke up the next day and had 60 orders.
And from there it got bigger. It was one of those “build it and they will come” things. So now I was a chef that baked, which is different from being strictly a chef. Bakers are rigorous, almost scientific. Chefs are creative: they make foams and sauces and add ingredients on the fly, and in that way, I’m not a normal baker (and wouldn’t consider myself a normal chef sometimes either). As a baker, I think like a chef and consider profiles and get creative.
Will baking sourdough last past the pandemic?
I intend to ride this past COVID. I had Matthew Dolan--a Michelin star chef-- at 25Lusk, try my bread and tell me he really believes in what I’m doing. Shortly after that compliment, he said: “if you’re thinking about growing, I’m working at half-capacity, you can work in my place.” So now I have a professional kitchen.
The cool thing about bread, besides the air and refrigeration, the overhead is low since it’s just flour, water, and salt. This makes for decent margins since it doesn’t take $15 of raw goods to make $20 like other dishes. No matter how cool other dishes are, that margin is hard to grow with. Bread is the opposite of that. The challenge ends up being to keep the marketing up and maintaining artisan quality.
Based on what you know about owning a small business, what do you wish you had told yourself back when you first started?
Enjoy the process. Oftentimes I think we get really tied to the bottom line: money. With starting a small business, you’ll tell yourself: “I need to get to this size” or “this makes me this much money, so I need to do this no matter what.” It sounds cliche, but, life passes you by quickly. You don’t have a lot of time, and there are many things to be stressed about. It’s hard to make it all work. I think there should be a support group for small business owners by small business owners, honestly, because it’s so hard for people to get it unless you’ve been there.
If you get joy out of doing what you’re trying to do, you’ll have a better time, period. It’s so easy to be stressed. The act of building something needs to be fun, like when you’re a kid and you just do things for fun. That should come into your work. We need to get rid of this attitude of: “I gotta do [X] so I can go do the thing I enjoy.” No, you gotta enjoy what you do on a daily basis and stop measuring success by money. Measure it by if you’re happy all day. I don’t care if you’re mopping floors or staring at a computer, just love what you’re doing.
I love making bread. My kids come down and get so excited in the kitchen with all the loaves and the smells, and that is amazing for me to see. I of course mess up. One day I had a bad day where I messed up a bunch of orders, and my son encouraged me by saying: “well, at least you learned what not to do.” And I thought to myself: “wow, that’s a good point.”
I’m just enjoying what I’m doing And maybe I’ll grow more. We’ll see!
Find Rize Up Sourdough on instagram at @rize_up_sourdough or www.rizeupsourdough.com