|Producer of the Month: Red Hen Baking Co.|
by Jon Megas-Russell
It all started in the kitchens at Marlboro College 25 years ago when Randy George, founder of Red Hen Baking Company, started experimenting with baking breads. The chef of Marlboro College at the time was very supportive of bread baking and encouraged Randy and friends to exchange ideas and try baking different loaves. Randy even remembers heading off campus to the Brattleboro Food Co-op to buy O Bread and Baldwin Hill, which were quite popular at the time. One of the big things that Randy took away from his time baking at Marlboro College was his passion for naturally leavened breads. To this day Randy believes that this is one of the secrets to the flavor and texture of his bread.
After his time at Marlboro College, Randy bounced back and forth between Seattle, to his home state of Maine, and then back west to Portland, OR, baking bread at all stops along the way. While in Portland, he was given the opportunity to build the staff and facility of an organic bakery. He loved constructing the operation from the ground up and his experience as a baker grew exponentially. Around this time he met his wife, Liza, and they decided it was time to move back east. Since Liza was originally from Waitsfield, VT, they thought northern Vermont would be a great spot to start their own bakery and family. So what did Randy do next? He bought a bread oven in Portland during the summer of ’99 and drove it to Vermont!
Upon arrival, he started baking breads and selling them wholesale from Duxbury, VT. All of the breads were and still are of a European style: organic, naturally leavened, and only using a few ingredients—they are composed primarily of flour, salt, and water. A naturally leavened bread uses natural yeast found in the flour and the air, a kind of sourdough recipe that dates back at least 5,000 years. Randy believes that building the flavor and texture of bread takes a long time; how you handle the dough is of the utmost importance. He even calls himself a “yeast farmer” since this is so vital to the process. In fact, he mentioned that the real magic is found in the invisible stuff from the air that interacts with his yeast. Most of the starters for his bread sit for at least seven to eight hours to ferment, then rise for another two to three hours, and then they are baked in a hearth oven. Each of these processes are important for flavor and texture, and to break the grains down so they are easier to digest. All the breads are handled with care, and the bakery is running 24 hours a day to ensure that the bread is as fresh as possible. When tasting a Red Hen bread, you will find the crust a bit sweet, dark, and crusty, with a moist subtle sourness on the inside.
Randy always sources organic and focuses on local whenever possible. He has partnered with two local farms in Vermont, Aurora Farms and Gleason Grains, to obtain his grains. Gleason Grains in Bridport, VT, grows close to 60 acres of organic wheat and stone-mills it just for Red Hen! Gleason does sell to a few other bakeries and stores, but Red Hen uses about half of what he produces annually. On average Red Hen receives 1,000 pounds of wheat a week from Gleason Grains. Randy even sits on the board of the Northern Grain Growers Association and is learning about the challenges of growing wheat in the northeast. Additionally, Red Hen has a new partnership with Moulin des Cèdres, which grows and grinds wheat for them in Québec. This is exciting because Red Hen can now claim that 90% of their wheat comes from within 150 miles of the bakery! He hopes to continue to partner with more farms, whether they are in Vermont, Canada, or even down south as he seeks to expand into a corn bread. One of his prize breads is the Cyrus Pringle, which is 100% local grains, named after an old Vermonter who was pivotal to grain growing in the 1800s. Local and organic is of the utmost importance to Red Hen Baking Company.
The team of people that work at Red Hen Baking Company is a dedicated group of bakers, pastry chefs, sales folks, café workers, and delivery drivers. In fact, they employ 45 people, and Randy touts that many see baking as their career. He and his wife provide living wages, and the governor’s recently signing of the minimum wage increase took place at their bakery! They have always offered paid sick leave and have long advocated for the paid sick leave bill, which the Governor signed into law in March. Red Hen Baking Company is a member of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) and is proud to have their top six retailers be Vermont and New Hampshire cooperatives!
When we talked about growth and dreams for his business, Randy mentioned small goals such as creating new bread recipes and more fresh sandwich options in his cafe. He also dreams of helping more local farmers grow grains in the northeast. Since sourcing local and organic is key to the quality of his bread, he can only grow his business as much as his sourcing allows. The future is bright for Red Hen Baking Company, and it will be a pleasure to watch them grow and prosper as a staple in the Vermont community. We welcome you to visit
We welcome you to visit the bakery and café in Middlesex, VT. It is a wonderful spot filled with tons of great bread to purchase such as their Miche, Waitsfield Common and the local bread Cyrus Pringle.
They also have other great food, pastries, coffee and a relaxing atmosphere with a fantastic view of the bakery! You can sample the Red Hen Breads on April 12th from 11am to 1pm here at the Brattleboro Food Co-op.