Made in New England: Meet Nicole Walsh of Clear Flour Bread
While Clear Flour Bread isn’t new to Boston, their now owner Nicole Walsh is. Growing up in San Francisco and working in bakeries from a young age, Nicole always appreciated local food made with real, simple ingredients. So when she had the opportunity to take over the New England bakery, she jumped on it (along with a one-way flight to Boston). We got to chat with Nicole to discuss her composting practices, local partnerships and and how she’s bringing her California vibes to the NE brand.
R.K.: What made you start your brand? How did you first get the idea?
N.W.: My husband and I just purchased Clear Flour from the former owners—Christie and Abe Faber—who had been running it for 35 years. My husband and I met in San Francisco and had been there the last 10 years. I had been working in restaurants, bakeries and all things food in San Francisco and developed a big passion for local, organic and daily composting. So we met with Christie and Abe because we wanted to build a bakery like Clear Flour in San Francisco. But when they met us they came up with this idea that we could take over their bakery and continue to run it—sticking with traditions of real food and evolving over time.
We didn’t build this brand but we’re making a lot of positive changes! We compost 95 percent of our waste now, working with a local CERO Compost company. I’ve also instituted some wellness programs for the employees where they have a stipend every month to use toward things like acupuncture, a new mattress for back pain or massages. It makes the employees feel taken care of beyond flexible scheduling!
R.K.: How do you source your ingredients?
N.W.: Christie (the former owner) has many years of recipes! Since I am coming from California, the winter really killed my enthusiasm. As the seasons begin, I have started connecting with local farms and we are now getting products more locally sourced.
We’re big on using real ingredients; our flour isn’t bromated and it comes from Maine Grains Farm up in Maine. We try to use most of that flour in our breads!
Freshness is also important to us, and we can notice the difference between two-month-old flour versus weekly. Nothing is sitting around or old; we’re on top of it! We make more than 17,000 pounds of dough a week, and Thanksgiving is almost double that! Our Scharffen Berger Chocolate is amazing, and I’m starting to bring a little more of my California side to things. We’re in the Brookline Farmers’ Market so I’m looking to showcase some new products with their fruit in a pastry or danish to sell at the market to bring it full circle. We also wholesale bread to Allandale Farm. It’s a lot of research and building relationships with people!
I won’t sell anything that I wouldn’t eat myself. I would like to go 100 percent local, but sometimes we like to have a little splash of fruit in the winter! My family has a farm in Northern California with an acre of blueberries and raspberries and makes organic wine so I can’t turn back. I know how good it is right off the plant itself, so that’s going to be coming through this summer. It takes more work to use fresh fruit, but it’s worth it!
R.K.: What did you have to learn the hard way? Any particular challenges along the way?
N.W.: I definitely didn’t envision myself shoveling out our entire bakery during the snowstorms this past winter! It was very fun the first time and not so fun the next time. Also making sure that we are staying true to keeping our employees happy and feeling supported. We pretty much have bakers around the clock leaving and clocking in at 3 a.m., so my husband and I are available 24/7 if anything happens. Scheduling is always a challenge, as we have 40 employees! It’s a big operation.
R.K.: What would you love to see in the New England food and wellness scene that you don’t now?
N.W.: It kind of bothered me that composting wasn’t a big thing here, so it’s important we make decisions that help the environment. Pretty much everything in-house we compost or recycle, so we really want things not to fill our landfills.
I struggle with some of the trends that are happening. I really want to have more small businesses highlighted—be it a bakery or small café—because people just forget about them when there are larger bakeries popping up. I wish that there was more of a focus on small businesses; in California pretty much everything is a small business except for Starbucks.
I’d also like to educate people about who is making their food and the story around who is making their food. We’re starting a baker’s spotlight because I’m not the one making the food 24/7, and I want the customer to meet the baker and for the baker to create something that has a story for them. I’ve been asking our bakers about the foods they grew up with, connecting food with people through these stories. You can really tell when someone makes a baguette in a bad mood! If someone is really passionate, it tastes better. I really hope we can build that story line.
R.K.: What other local food and wellness brands are you a fan of?
I was really sad when Brookline Grown closed because we sold our bread there and they carried a lot of local products. They’re still keeping their Freight Farms, where they take shipping containers and they build a hydroponic farm inside. Allandale Farm is my favorite here! I was introduced to them many years ago before I moved here, and I still love going there and trust what they have.
I try to go to local places where I know people value what they bring in and sell to the customer. I’m in Brookline and like anything family-owned, like Mei Mei; the owner, Irene, is incredible and totally killing it. She’s on fire, and always happy to make a new connection! She got us hooked up with Project Bread, and we did 1,000 trailmix cookies for people for the walk.
R.K.: Who has been the greatest influence or role model in taking over this business?
N.W.: The former owners were really so warm and supportive! I would say honestly the employees and management team here have been our greatest role models; the welcome that we got was overwhelming and I choke up a little bit when I think about it. When someone takes over a business that’s already running and half the age of former owners, you don’t expect such a warm welcome. It influenced and encouraged me that we can do it! We all put our heads together; it’s a 40-person show and we all support each other.
My husband’s family is here so they’ve been really supportive too. One of our employees, Daisy, has been here for 14 years, and owns a bakery she’s trying to make work here. To be an entrepreneur herself and be so supportive to me is wonderful; she influences me and has been someone I’ve counted on a lot!
R.K.: Do you have a favorite quote or business mantra?
N.W.: “Make real food. Eat real food.” It’s important to nourish yourself with healthy food but in moderation. I’m all about the real food, and don’t like when things come in a bag. I love a potato chip but if I can make my own, I’m going to!
It makes me happy to do what I do. I’ve been doing it since 16 and owned my first bakery at 18. Also self-care is important; maintain that and take the day off when you need it.
R.K.: Where do you hope to see Clear Flour Bread in the next two years?
N.W.: I hope to be composting 99 percent of our waste! I’d like to have built really strong relationships with farms over the next few years. My ultimate dream for five to 10 years is to have education about where your food comes from! We could have a Clear Flour Farm with classes to learn how to make things and pick the fruit you’re going to use to make the fruit tart. This would help create education around farming, while building an incubator for food education to help youth build careers in baking.
I also want to build a good kitchen culture where you can get paid well and teach others about what we do! I envision field trips to teach young kids about where their food comes from—like how the croissant comes from cows who eat grass.
R.K.: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own wellness or food business?
N.W.: Don’t give up! If it doesn’t happen, it’s not the right time, but don’t get discouraged. Look for support when you need it; don’t try to be the hero. Keep putting out positive thinking and it will happen. I didn’t expect to be in this space but once I started thinking it was going to happen no matter what, it did. I’m here. I believe that can happen for anyone else!
R.K.: Here at The W.E.L.L. Summit we like to say “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” How would you describe your vibe?
N.W.: My vibe is a little funky, a little weird, and pretty goofy but I have high expectations. I work really hard, but I also have fun really hard. I definitely like to do both, and I’m only serious when I need to be. I’ve been coined as “Happy Girl Baker” and that is the name of our company that bought Clear Flour: Happy Girl Baker, LLC. I’m a very smiley happy girl for the most part!
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