Every once in a while, when Dave Zoesch is putting loaves of Nature’s Bakery bread on a store shelf in the Madison area, someone will buy one right away.
“I want to say, ‘I made that,’” said Zoesch, who has been working at the Near East Side bakery for 20 years. “I don’t say it, but I think it.”
For 40 years, Nature’s Bakery whole-grain breads and other products have been sold in Madison and areas beyond. Because of the way the cooperatively owned business divides its duties, the person who made the bread also might be the one who delivers it and even stocks it on the shelf.
He or she might even be the person who does the books or orders the ingredients and, at the end of a good year, gets to share in the profits.
“When people call up and say they want to speak to the owner or the manager, I get to say, ‘We’re all owners,’ Zoesch said. “That’s kind of fun. It throws people off.”
Nature’s Bakery has evolved over four decades from one woman making bread for a grocery co-op to a group of eight managing a business that provides a variety of products to grocers as large as Woodman’s Markets.
Nature’s Bakery makes 65,000 to 68,000 loaves of bread a year, as well as 56,000 pounds of granola and 45,000 vegetarian burgers. It all comes from the bakery at 1019 Williamson St., which also does a brisk walk-up business.
None of the original owners is still involved in the company. Zoesch has the longest tenure of current staff.
In addition to baking, each owner-member has a management area of the business to run. Someone who can balance the books might be a better fit than a fine pastry chef.
“Our hiring process is pretty extensive,” said Rebecca Lamson, who has been at Nature’s Bakery five years. “We’re not only hiring someone to work, but to take on ownership.”
That was part of the appeal for Robert Miller, who came to Nature’s Bakery eight years ago after retiring from the Verona Area School District. He lives in the Willy Street area and wanted a job in the neighborhood.
“I could not bake a loaf of bread to save my soul,” he said. Now, in addition to baking, he’s the bakery’s financial manager.
Miller came to Nature’s Bakery at a key time in its history, he said. Much of its product was distributed by North Farms, a Madison-based natural foods wholesaler that went bankrupt in 2002.
“That was a big void,” he said. “Fortunately at the same time, Willy Street (Co-op) was starting to grow as well, so it got us back to doing the local thing.”
The bakery began doing its own wholesale work, and Miller said the worker-members deliver the same amount of their business locally that the distributor did throughout the Midwest. They also make deliveries to Milwaukee and ship by UPS.
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“We’ve diversified more on a local basis,” Miller said. “Willy Street is a good account for us, but we’ve got more accounts around town.”
Nature’s Bakery has outlasted many of the collective and cooperative businesses that began to emerge in the U.S. in the 1960s and ’70s, many dealing with natural foods.
According to a colorful history of the bakery written by former owner-member Dan Durica, its history began with whole wheat bread baked by Gini Lopez for the Whole Earth Grocery Co-op on East Johnson Street and her own small business. As that grew, she joined with two other bakers in September 1970 and moved into a space at 1101 Williamson St., which is now Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse.
Other businesses joined them at the space, making bars and granola. Tax problems and personnel challenges came as the business grew, as well as aborted attempts to own a farm for its own grain and honey and expanding delivery to Chicago.
Nature’s Bakery officially incorporated in 1975 with the purchase of its current property. The building also has a four-bedroom apartment that adds to the bakery’s bottom line.
Paying off the mortgage for the building in 1998 helped bring financial security, as has formalizing the business structure. Ingredient costs in recent years have been a challenge. A 50-pound bag of whole wheat flour shot from $10 to $35 and has now settled to around $18.50, Lamson said.
The bakery has a streamlined schedule. Bread is baked on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Frozen products such as the burgers and calzones are baked on Tuesdays. Granola is baked on Thursdays.
Owner-members, who are paid an hourly wage, sign up for baking and delivery shifts and work in time for their business duties. There are early 5 a.m. shifts, but none of the all-night hours that can be part of a baker’s life.
“We’ve set it up so that we can have a life outside of work and not overwork ourselves,” Lamson said.
And in a rare perk for any business, there is a shoe allowance of $50 a year.
“Your shoes really get destroyed by all the flour and everything,” Lamson said. “And you need good arch support. I’m not sure when that idea came along, but it was a good one.”
Many of the products have been made from the same recipes for 40 years, taking some customers back to a time when whole grains were part of the counterculture and not the mainstream.
The counterculture beginnings continue to be part of the Nature’s Bakery image, even if it’s not always accurate.
“People view co-ops in general as burnt-out, old hippies listening to the Grateful Dead all day,” Zoesch said. “That’s not us. We’re a real business. We wouldn’t have been around for 40 years if we were just burnt-out, old hippies.”