The Free Bake Interview

The Free Bake Interview - Valentich Goods

I'm so excited to begin this interview series. Over the coming weeks, we will be featuring NEW food businesses, because if you can open a food concept in the middle of a pandemic, you can do anything. It has been so inspiring to see how many people have embraced the unknown to follow their passion. Take a break from reading yet another sad story and find some hope from one of these creative food entrepreneurs! 

"In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity." 

Without further adieu, our first interview is with Kat Lewis of the The Free Bake. Over the last few months, Kat has turned her kitchen into a bustling sourdough-focused micro bakery. You are going to love her story! 

Kat Lewis of The Free Bake eats a cookie

Let's start with the basics. Where are you from? How long has Denver/Boulder been home? What's your professional background? 

I'm originally from Houston, TX but I've lived all over the country - Santa Barbara, Michigan, NYC and beyond. This is my second time back to Denver and I've been here a little over 4 years. The first time I came out was because of a promotion and 10 months later I was promoted again and it took me back to Texas. As much as I was excited, I knew I needed to find a way back here. There was something mystical in the mountains that kept pulling me back, later I realized it was because here is home.
My degree is in advertising photography but my background for the last 20 years has been in retail. I spent the bulk of that career creating training and development for brands and the last half I got to spend in community outreach, event coordination and social media strategy. Because of Free Bake taking off the way it has, I've been able to step away from retail and focus my energy here with a few social gigs on the side. Which, to be quite honest, I'm still like "Wait, is this real?!"
Sourdough Pre Proof
"I was thriving in flour with the ability to escape to my own creative realm where nothing could bother me and I was in complete control."

I read on your site that you started baking while recovering from knee surgery. Can you elaborate? 

Totally! Who knew you could wake up on the other side of major knee surgery and have this need and new found skill of baking? I was out camping, hiking 14ers with my best friend who was visiting - you know, living the normal Colorado adventure girl life and then as we were walking across the street back to the car after hanging out at some falls my knee popped and I went down. August 9th 2019, never forget. As I was going through physical therapy pre-surgery to rule out issues I was left with all this time on my hands. I picked up knitting, macramé, went to every day of crush walls and got to experience the city in a way I never had the time to before.
Then I find out I actually have a major knee issue, I somehow ripped the root of my meniscus completely out which meant I was getting major knee surgery and wouldn't be able to walk for 6 weeks post op. 5 days before my surgery I decided I was going to attempt my first sourdough loaf having built Dolly [my starter] up for over a week. It was a massive fucking failure but I was determined get at least one loaf right at some point in my life. Mind you, at this time I was just trying to do things to learn and fill my time not change the world with carbs - yet.
Surgery happened on Halloween 2019 and I couldn't walk for 6 weeks. That is a very long story but I will say I drove to Texas with my cat to A. Buy my Tacoma, B. Have previous said best friend take care of me. On December 11th I was able to be weight baring again and a few days later I was baking.
The urge came out of no where but it was like a curiosity bug bit me and I couldn't stop the deep dive I was on. The learning, problem solving, failing and most importantly eating gave me this renewed sense of worth that I hadn't experienced in a really long time. I was thriving in flour with the ability to escape to my own creative realm where nothing could bother me and I was in complete control.
 Sourdough in progress

What gave you the idea to start Free Bake? 

Wow, what a question! After testing my recipes for a few months with friends, aka force feeding people carbs, and the pandemic, I was faced with this opportunity to run as fast as I could with this passion of a slow rise and good conversation. The name Free Bake came from a conversation with my friend Addie where we were solving the worlds marketing problems and decided it was best if we started a zine. Among the many wonderful names we came up with I said "Free Bake!" and we were both sold on the idea but then quickly got inspired by something else and moved on. So here we are now, Free Bake as a micro bakery.

You operate Free Bake out of your home under the cottage law. Could you explain how that works? What are the challenges of working out of your kitchen? 

The long and short of cottage laws is the ability to produce a product with a low probability of hazard ie: doesn't need to be refrigerated, all while communicating this with your customer. Each state is different with their nuances so I stick to breads, cookies, jams + anything I can naturally leaven and or jam or pickle. The hardest part for me right now is the not being able to use cream or utilize my banging ricotta recipe but currently touring commissary kitchens and making friends with people who work in other kitchens to see where I can land. If anyone has kitchen space available and wouldn't mind a short, tattooed, loud Ukrainian girl in it - hit me up! I will feed you sourdough cookies and pay you in real money, too!
Ukranian Pierogi Pudahe
Sourdough Bagel w/ Jam

Sourdough is humbling. Just when you have it figured out, you're thrown a curve ball. Personally, that's been the hardest part in my sourdough journey. All that time and effort for a rock solid loaf! What was your biggest baking mishap? How do you deal with the inevitable failures? 

Oh man, let's pull a Brene Brown and get vulnerable and transparent shall we? I have forgotten salt in a few batches of bread, realized it and had to dump the whole thing and start over. I'm sure there are people out there like "If you would've done XYZ and that would never happen" but that's not real life, because in real life you forget salt sometimes and you can either yell, cry or laugh. I tend to do all three at once. This entire process is about learning and finding your balance. In the beginning, I was so focused on the perfect crumb that I lost sight of the process.
That's the ego speaking to you, crumb shots are ego shots and once I let that go I realized I was actually producing some amazing things. The feedback I was getting was overwhelmingly positive and so I started to believe it. Finding ways to get out of your own way: Making dope ass playlists, crying to Lizzo while you dance, removing the emotion from the situation to look at the facts so you can work back logically. I've moved to a space where I'm pleased when [the crumb] is gorgeous but I'm normally too busy shoving it in my mouth slathered in butter and jam. My last bit of advice is remember you are a human with a life outside the flour, water and salt of it all.
That perfect crumb
"...crumb shots are ego shots and once I let that go I realized I was actually producing some amazing things."
Sourdough & Jam

The pandemic has turned many businesses upside down. Obviously, the restaurant industry has been especially hard hit. It's difficult to see a silver lining, but I have found comfort in watching businesses pivot to accommodate our new normal and it's been especially inspiring to see how many new businesses are sprouting up all over the place. It's so important to find the opportunity in times like this. How has the pandemic affected Free Bake? Would there be a Free Bake without it? 

The pandemic forced me to look at what I was doing with baking as a real passion to pursue. I was only back to work post knee surgery for 3 weeks before we were on lockdown. Mind you, I had been on disability for nearly 7 months before I made it back, the last 3 I was baking nearly every day honing in my skills. Day 3 of lockdown and I walked across the street to the Senior Support Services and asked how I could help... and oh I baked. They called me back and said they'd take donations of baked goods as long as they were wrapped and with that I was baking for people. From there, my friend and mentor Rachel, who is a former chef and restauranteur, was like "So, what are you doing with this?" and I was like "ha ha what do you mean?" and that turned into "So you're going to do something with this, like now, and I'm not going to let you stop."
After that conversation, I bought a website with the only intention being to write a blog and then a week later had my first menu posted and my first 12 orders! I have literally not stopped since. This was the end of April. Free Bake would not be where it is without this pandemic. This pandemic as much as it has been a nightmare has been a part of the human condition's upheaval. We're having to face some serious truths, not only about our country but about ourselves. We've all been forced to sit with ourselves for longer than the 30 minutes of "self care" we attempt to do weekly. Through all of that, people are seeing value in community and why it's so important. People are good, you just need to give them the opportunity to show up sometimes.

It looks like you sell out just about every week. How have people learned about Free Bake? 

Oh lord help me, yes I do. Which can be a good and bad thing - FOMO may be real but it can also be really annoying too, so I totally get it. How most people have found me is through word of mouth via social media. People are sharing their carbs with the masses and other people want to be a part of that conversation. Which is extremely humbling, honestly. People want to eat my carbs and tell me all about it and I'm so here for it! Like right now I just received a video of someone enjoying their carbs and telling me all about the excitement around it.
This community of Free Bakers just blows my mind. I've also been featured a number of times on 1000 Things to do in Denver and I'm so grateful for Kayla and what she sees in me. She believes in what I'm doing and thinks the product is delicious to boot. You can't pay enough money to have wonderful people like that in your corner. Total fucking honor.
Something fun to mention is that each week I test out a new recipe with everyone who orders by giving them a sample with the only expectation being that they give feedback. So any time you place an order you're part of that weeks sample test group! It's a way for the customer to be a part of building the business. They're the reason there are bagels on the menu and sourdough cookies.
When I rotate in new bread flavors it's because it went out as a sample and the customers asked for it to be on the menu. There's a big social media engagement piece where I have them vote on what they want to see next as well as anything they'd like me to make going forward. I can't stress the importance of talking to your customer and getting to know them as people, it brings everything to a whole new level not only for them but for you.
Sourdough Bagelz

What are your must-have baking tools? 

Silicone spatulas 4EVA! The rest is details. I also have no idea what I would do without my scale. She is the real MVP in all of this baking.

What's your favorite thing to make with the discard? 

Sourdough salty chocos all day. Dear everyone, Make cookies with your sourdough discard, it will change your life. But please, for the love of carbs, let your cookies cure for at-least 24 hours in the fridge and then freeze them for a day before you bake them. No more bake same day cookies. We're evolving the cookie game one day at a time. Love, Kat
Sourdough Discard Salty Chocolate Chip Cookies

Current baking playlist? 

Free Bake Summer 2020 or #HelloSocialAnxiety both available for jamming on Spotify. The latter is a co-created playlist with my friend Addie who has been a HUGE Free Bake supporter from before day 1. She helped push me to feel confident in even thinking about making this a reality and I'm forever grateful. Never forget our Queen City hangs with feeding the baristas my baked goods & googling cottage laws. Fun fact: For 2 months straight I baked exclusively to the Talking Heads. One of the better life choices I've made.
The Free Bake Pastries

Any advice for new sourdough bakers? 

The only question you should be asking yourself is "Does this loaf taste good?" and if it does, high five yourself because you just rocked that loaf! Yeah you! And trust the process. Everyone making sourdough is doing the exact same thing but in their own way which can be extremely frustrating to understand when trying to find "exactly how to do it." I found a bread guru in Sarah C Owens as she taught me the importance in understanding the feeling of the dough at each stage but there are many wonderful bread guides out there to find and follow.

Any big plans for Free Bake on the horizon? 

Once I'm in a proper kitchen, oh yeah. The real dream is a brick and mortar for production and limited retail mid-afternoon on Fridays and early Saturday mornings + retail shipping.

And, finally, where can people get your goods?!? 

Right now you can get them via Menu goes live every Saturday at 7pm unless otherwise noted on insta @thefreebake. Set those alarms if you're wanting to get in on the action! Bread and the weekly rotated items tend to sell out rather quickly. The future is bright, so keep your eyes peeled for fun new things coming soon.
"I can't stress the importance of talking to your customer and getting to know them as people, it brings everything to a whole new level not only for them but for you."
Kat & Her Loaves
Kat is doing such great things, so let's help spread the word! Please share this post with someone who could use a bit of inspiration. And don't forget to head over to her site to get your orders in for next weeks sourdough drop! 
Be Well,