Many successful entrepreneurs talk about the power of turning a passion into a business. In the case of Babette van der Walt, founder of artisan bread-baking company Babette’s Bread, her passion for the art of bread-baking led her to making the ultimate career pivot in her life.
LoA chatted to Babette at her incredible bakery in Johannesburg to find out more about this pioneering artisan entrepreneur who is on a mission to turn the city’s residents into artisanal bread enthusiasts.
What does your company do?
At Babette’s Bread, we bake 100% natural artisan bread. We use only the best local and natural unbleached stone ground flour, salt, water and yeast / sourdough. We use traditional artisan bread baking techniques, as well as a good and slow fermentation process, which allows for a bread with great character and flavour, which is also easy to digest.
"At Babette’s Bread, we bake 100% natural artisan bread. We use traditional artisan bread baking techniques, as well as a good and slow fermentation process, which allows for a bread with great character and flavour, which is also easy to digest."
What inspired you to start your company?
Consumers have a right to know exactly what goes into their daily bread. At the bakery, people can observe the bread making process and talk to us about all the ingredients, methods and techniques that are used to create every loaf. No nonsense - only the good stuff!
Why should anyone use your service or product?
People who are interested in Real Bread and natural food will be happy to know how the product is made and the philosophy behind it. Real, wholesome food. Real bread requires time, patience and passion. We also run workshops for home bakers who wish to learn how to bake real bread at home.
"People who are interested in Real Bread and natural food will be happy to know how the product is made and the philosophy behind it. Real, wholesome food. Real bread requires time, patience and passion."
Tell us a little about your team
Our business currently consists of two people: myself and Mr. Washington. Prior to Washington joining me a couple of months ago, I was baking and running everything by myself. Washington has quickly become an integral part of the business and we have a great time working together.
Share a little about your entrepreneurial journey. And, do you come from an entrepreneurial background?
I was supposed to become a lawyer, but during the last 2 years of my BA LLB at Wits University, I became very interested in bread baking. I baked obsessively and soon my mom stopped buying bread (as there was suddenly a surplus of bread in the house). We started giving bread to friends and neighbours and soon people asked whether they could start placing orders. Upon graduating, I realised that I didn't want to pursue the law and decided to go to Vermont (USA) to become an apprentice to a French baker. There I learned all the traditional French bread baking techniques. I learned how to create and maintain my own Sourdough culture (her name is Maggie and I brought her back from the States with me). We baked in traditional wood fired ovens and even the fermentation boxes were made out of wood! Needless to say, it was beautifully natural and old school. Upon returning from the States, my parents helped me set up a small bakery in one of the outside rooms on my mom's property. I started baking for and taking orders from friends and neighbours. The business grew by word of mouth and soon I created a mailing list and and started sending out emails to people who were interested in the product. I would state when and what I would be baking and people would order their bread and collect it from my mom's house. Eventually, I decided to approach a few restaurants/delis and they soon started to order bread from me. This continued for some time - until I reached a physical and practical limit. Physically, I could no longer keep up (the heaviest dough that I would mix by hand weighed about 28kgs and I would do around 4 or 5 of these per baking day) and the oven capacity did not allow for a faster output of bread.
At this point, I decided to make the jump to the Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburg. My fiancé and his business partner have a business there already, the "Concept Store" at 274 Fox Street and they were looking to add a food/café offering in their space. This gave me the opportunity to have a shop front for the first time and for customers to walk in off the street and talk about the product. People can observe the baking proces through a window that separates the bakery from the café and they are free to ask questions about the products, ingredients, methods and techniques used. Maboneng is such a great location in this regard, as it is a hub for new and interesting businesses, tourists, curious locals and friendly people. There is a great sense of community here, as everyone knows each other and supports each other's businesses. Many of the restaurants in Maboneng now buy bread from us. It has been such a great time of learning and growth and there is a genuine sense of support from the Maboneng businesses and residents. We have also recently started hosting workshops for home bakers who are interested in learning how to bake real bread at home. These have been great fun and have become very popular.
"I was supposed to become a lawyer, but during the last 2 years of my BA LLB at Wits University, I became very interested in bread baking. Upon graduating, I realised that I didn't want to pursue the law and decided to go to Vermont in the USA to become an apprentice to a French baker."
What are your future plans and aspirations for your company?
I would love to grow the business and supply more people and restaurants with Real Bread. It would be great to see a bread movement and culture in Johannesburg and South Africa - as is already happening in Europe and the States.
What gives you the most satisfaction being an entrepreneur?
Baking bread is very rewarding. It is extremely physical but most enjoyable. Seeing people enjoy and appreciate the product is also very satisfying. Being an entrepreneur means that conventional working hours don't apply to you - even less so when you are in the baking industry!! The working doesn't ever truly come to an end... But you eventually do also get to a point where you can decide when to work and don't have ask for permission.
"It would be great to see a bread movement and culture in Johannesburg and South Africa - as is already happening in Europe and the States."
What's the biggest piece of advice you can give to other women looking to start-up?
Start small. Start with what you can afford. Keep going and grow slowly. Be conservative with your money. Spend only on what will be most useful at that particular time. Don't give up. It's tough. But it is SO worth it and rewarding!
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Why LoA loves it….
At LoA, we love the stories of women entrepreneurs who follow their passions in life and who often make courageous life decisions to turn those passions into viable businesses. Their unbridled passion for what they do is contagious, and in the case of Babette van der Walt, her passion for artisanal bread-baking is simply wonderful to see. She is not only creating the finest quality bread products for people to enjoy, but is also enthusiastically educating consumers to know more about the food they eat and the way it is made. Her company Babette’s Bread, is a shining example of how artisanal food producers are positively changing our food and eating habits for the better. --- Melanie Hawken, founder and CEO of Lionesses of Africa