The Masonic Temple on West Liberty seems an unlikely place to find a food entrepreneur, but when The Chronicle arrived there one Tuesday morning earlier this month, Mary Wessel Walker was already aproned and baking at the commercial kitchen there.
“I’m experimenting a lot with recipes I haven’t tried in large quantities,” she says, opening a jar of honey that had crystallized from the cold. Those large quantities are for her customers – eight families who’ve signed up to buy a weekly amount of baked goods from CFK Bakery, Wessel Walker’s newest venture.
It’s a pilot program, she says – thus the experimenting – lasting just eight weeks and ending in late February. It works like this: Each week, Wessel Walker emails her customers with a list of items she’ll be baking. She generally includes a quick bread, like blueberry muffins; cookies; some kind of yeast bread; and a breakfast item (often granola, though the week we visited she was making brötchen, a German breakfast roll). You pay upfront for the entire eight weeks, based on the number of items you want per week. A two-item order costs $96 for the full eight weeks, or $12 per week. If you want additional items on any given week, you can order more for $6.50 each.
She uses local ingredients almost exclusively: Flour from Ernst Farm, milk from Calder Dairy, blueberries (for the muffins) from Locavorious, which freezes produce bought in season (and is owned by Rena Basch, who’s also the Ann Arbor Township clerk). If Wessel Walker can’t find a local source, she buys from the People’s Food Coop.
The kitchen at the Masonic Temple is a bit weathered, but it’s well-stocked with equipment, including an imposing 12-quart Hobart mixer that looks like it dates from the 1950s or earlier but which, as Wessel Walker notes, is probably indestructible. Having an industrial mixer is important, she says: When you mix dough for eight loaves of bread at once, “that’s beyond the capacity of anyone’s wrists.”
On the farm: Community Farm Kitchen
The subscription-based bakery is a wintertime outgrowth of her other business, the Community Farm Kitchen, coming up on its third year. The concept is similar, but Community Farm Kitchen is linked to a partnership with the Community Farm of Ann Arbor, a membership-based entity that Wessel Walker’s family has belonged to since she was a child. Each season, the farm – like other community supported agriculture (CSA) groups – sells “shares” that entitle you to a certain amount of produce each week. The type and quantity of the produce varies, depending on the harvest at any particular time throughout the season. (Sometimes, you get an awful lot of kale.)
If you sign up for your weekly allotment but for whatever reason you don’t want to deal with it, Wessel Walker and her crew prepare the food for you. The service ranges from something as simple as washing the lettuce to making complete dishes, including soups. They can or freeze some items as well.
Last season, almost two dozen families and individuals signed up with Community Farm Kitchen, and Wessel Walker employed seven part-time workers. She does the cooking for that business out of the kitchen at the Anthroposophical Society on Geddes, part of a movement founded by Rudolf Steiner.
The economics of the CFK Bakery’s pilot project made renting space at the Anthroposophical Society too pricey this winter. So Wessel Walker scouted out other locations and eventually found the Masons. (Interestingly, this isn’t the first time The Chronicle has encountered a story involving the search for a commercial kitchen.) The Masonic Temple building is for sale, however, and Wessel Walker expects to return to the Anthroposophical Society’s kitchen come spring, when her work again focuses on the Community Farm and its produce.
How Does One Become a Food Entrepreneur, Anyway?
The Anthroposophical Society is a good fit for the Community Farm and for Wessel Walker, too: The farm uses biodynamic farming methods, which evolved from lectures that Rudolf Steiner gave in 1924. And Wessel Walker majored in philosophy and math at Bryn Mawr College.
When she returned to Ann Arbor after graduating in 2006, she worked on the farm that summer. While talking with others on the farm about how to get more people involved in CSAs, one idea floated was to offer a food-preparation service for people who were too busy or not inclined or equipped to turn the produce into meals. Wessel Walker thought something along the lines of, “Why not?”
“I did not see myself as a future entrepreneur,” she said. “But I think those disciplines (of philosophy and math) taught me to think things through.”
She’s still thinking through her summer business – this coming season, for example, she might offer a week-by-week option for people who don’t want to sign up for the entire 22-week season. That’s attractive for families who usually prepare the food themselves, but for whatever reason – a medical emergency, a trip out of town – need some one-time help.
She’s also had requests from people who just want the food prep part of the service: washing and chopping, but not cooking. She has concerns over how that might work, whether some of the food would stay fresh that way. “I don’t want the kale to be all limp and sad.”
In addition to her two food ventures, Wessel Walker is active in the local food movement – she participated in the Local Food Summit in January, and is involved in some projects evolving out of that event. And though it seems unrelated to food, she’s also a fan of Scottish country dancing.
Or perhaps not so unrelated: When one of the Masons, Karl Grube, walked into the kitchen to offer up a cup of coffee, Wessel Walker said, “Karl, I just thought of this – there’s a Scottish dance called ‘The Mason’s Apron!’” The Chronicle must report that no demonstration of the dance took place that day.