Celine Underwood has dedicated much of her life to the pursuit of the perfect loaf of bread. She started baking during a tumultuous time and later founded Brickmaiden Breads in Point Reyes, CA. The Bay Area is known for sourdough bread, and in this competitive market, Brickmaiden stands out as an iconic bakery where the most common review is, “best sourdough I’ve ever had,” even when at their peak they’re making 500 loaves a day.
The final episode of our first season brings you into the world of bread baking (what goes into the perfect loaf?) and gives you a behind-the-scenes view into the day to day of running a food business (ready for 2 am training?)
As we celebrate Brickmaiden's 21st anniversary, Celine opens up about her decision to sell the business. We explore what led her to this transition point, and go back in time, to the early days, to the story of how it all began, what has kept her going, and what it’s all meant.
What You’ll Learn:
[2:10] What bread baking lit up in Celine from the beginning.
[3:30] Growing up on a West Marin ranch, in fog that was so thick you couldn't see past your outstretched hand.
[5:08] How food fit into family life.
[6:32] The moment bread baking turned from hobby to obsession.
[7:57] Brickmaiden's founding story, jumping right in, and why there was no walking away.
[10:54] Starting a bakery without much experience and learning on her feet.
[12:12] Expectations coming into it vs. reality.
[14:48] What has kept Celine going all this time.
[17:50] What goes into the perfect loaf.
[20:21] The tough decision to move on.
[22:49] What Celine envisions for the future.
[24:24] (Audience Q&A) The owner of another local business, celebrating 25 years in business, calls in to share his story.
[27:31] (Audience Q&A) The story of a customer who had his own idea of "brick maidens."
[28:43] (Audience Q&A) Celine's approach for developing her team into comprehensive bakers.
We used to go, to drive, to Petaluma to the old Lombardi's Bakery, and you could go at different times of the day and they'd be pulling fresh bread out and you could just get a hot loaf of bread. And Lombardi's was the sourdough bread around town at that point in the game, and that was just, like, the best thing in the world to have that crusty loaf of bread, break it open. It's all soft on the interior, it's hot, it was like heaven. So I think just actually through eating it is really what developed my desire to make it.
This is Making Us, a podcast about makers, artisans, and creators. We dive into their story, how they approach their craft, and the meaning behind the things they make.
I'm Mike Giordani, and in the final episode of our first season, we have a different story to tell. So far, we've featured the entrepreneurs behind early-stage businesses. Today, you'll meet a founder who started out back in 2000. She's a baker at heart who has dedicated much of her life to the pursuit of the perfect loaf of bread. The Bay Area is known for sourdough bread. And in this competitive market, she has built an iconic bakery for the most common review his "best sourdough I've ever had," even when at their peak, they're making 500 loaves a day. After 21 years, she's made the tough decision to move on and sell the business. We'll talk about what led her to this transition point, and go back in time, to the early days, to the story of how it all began, what has kept her going and what it's all met. My guest today is Celine Underwood, the founder of Brickmaiden Breads, based in Point Reyes, California.
When you think back to your introduction to bread baking, it seems like you loved it from the beginning. And I'm curious to hear what you think it lit up in you.
The process of baking is, it's like easy, it's so basic and so easy, and at the same time, the result that you're going for is so far, like it's always something that you're grasping at, and the conditions constantly change, especially with sourdough. And I think that's what inspired me towards sourdough. As I started to learn, bake more bread, and learn about it. Then sourdough became the thing that was like, how do you do that? And what's the culture? And what does all this mean? And what are these? What are they talking about, and what's a chef and what's... so like, just it just got my imagination flowing and just want I wanted to learn more, I wanted to figure out how to achieve it, I wanted to find success with it, I wanted to it just was something it just put me on this road of trying to develop it and learn more, as much as I could around it, and is very obsessed with it and engaged with it. And so maybe that's my personality, maybe that's the perfectionist kind of part of me that wants to just like result. It's so satisfying and beautiful and tasty, you know?
Yeah, this is opening up my mind to the complexity that goes on behind the scenes that we don't always appreciate as consumers. If we were to go back in time for a moment, can you set the scene for what your upbringing was like?
I moved to West Marin, when I was about four years old, from Southern California, we first landed into moss Bay State Park. And I remember that from that point on, it was just the happiest place for me. I loved it. I loved it. I loved the nature around me. I loved being in a quiet space. So I really think I took to the landscape a lot. And then growing up out on the point half my childhood was spent in fog that was so thick, you couldn't see past your outstretched hand. And I had a horse out there that we were able to pasture with the cattle and so I could ride my horse like I was alone a lot. I had siblings but we were alone a lot. We played in the fields who played in the trees. We hung out on the ranch had our friends over sometimes, but I really enjoyed that space and I really enjoyed the landscape. And I didn't really want for much in terms of that. Ranch life was such the my stepfather, he was a fisherman, he was a foreman on the ranch, so we were really immersed with, our hands were in everything, whether that be animals or selling fish, like whatever it was. West Marin was a source for fresh fish. It was a source for grass fed cows because that's what they were doing, they were just eating the fields. So we're always engaged physically in our landscape and things that we were eating doing.
That's beautiful. I love how you describe that. And I can totally relate. I grew up in a little farm town, and did a lot of horseback riding spent a lot of time out in nature. So we share that connection. How did food fit into family life at the time?
Food wasn't really a big thing in our family. There was nobody who was a good cook. We got fresh meat from the ranches as part of the trade for work, or payment for work. And so we had a freezer full of beef all winter long, we had fresh milk that was actually pulled in straight from the cows letters that we'd put out, let the cream come up to the top. I didn't like that. I thought it was gross. The meat... nobody knew how to cook it, so I thought it was gross. My mom was pretty bland eater so the vegetables we ate weren't very exciting. She didn't really know how to cook them. And my mom always baked so there was always desserts going on. And there was so... she was always baking, and she did bake bread, it was yeasted bread. And we always had fresh food. So I wouldn't say there was nothing within my family. There was no base, but there it was just not a gourmet base or a well developed base. But I was interested in food still. But it took a long time, I think to start to experience... just to develop a palette from not having people around me who knew what they were doing with the food, even though we had access to so much fresh and amazing stuff.
So fast forwarding a little bit... When we talked before this, you mentioned that there was a time when bread baking went from being a hobby to being an obsession.
What was going on that sparked that change for you?
I started doing a lot of yoga, I did Ashtanga which is very physical and intense. And I'd practice a lot. I started baking at the Bovine Bakery in Point Reyes and doing bread for them. And I'd ride my bike from Marshall to point rays, bake bread, come home ride my bike home, I ran I started running a lot too. And I'd run every day, a lot of miles. So I had a lot of physical energy that needed expression I was I needed that motion to soothe my mind. So I did all this in combination with starting my bread baking. And it took me through my late teens and early 20s which felt like a pretty emotionally tumultuous time for me. So baking became all of it became a bit of an obsession just challenge to challenge myself.
It's so powerful to think of motion, and the physicality of bread baking and how it helped you through that time and, and help you become the person you've become.
So let's get into the birth of Brickmaiden. Can you take me back to 21 years ago and, and tell the story of how it all came to be?
I had been working for the Bridget Devlin at the Bovine Bakery, doing bread for her. She encouraged me and helped me develop my skill set by sending me to read courses and just really she definitely, you know, supported that growth and me for whatever reasons, and I think she was interested in starting another place. And I think she saw like the potential and me being available to do that with her. And so we started envisioning a bakery and what that would look like, and for me, it was always like it'd be so cute to have this like little kind of cottage going on in the woodfired oven there and it's just peaceful on a rainy day and people can come in and get a cup of coffee and you smell the fresh bread and you can have some pastries and and so it's like we started envision that together and start to look for places and we really wanted to do it locally. But there wasn't anything really available and but at that time, Chad Robertson of Tartine in his wife, Elizabeth, they both are very intrinsic to making Tartine successful, they were living in Point Reyes and Chad had built a brick oven. And they had this vision of a bucolic countryside bakery also.
So he had actually come to the property and leased it on the spot where brick main is now built the original oven there had been baking out of it. And I had met him on the ranch that I lived on. So I got to experience Chad going up there in the early morning hours and baking with him and seeing what he was doing. And he was pretty much doing what I wanted to do. So I got to see it in action. And I was just like it just further inspire me. Yes, this is what I want to do. I want to bake in a woodfired oven. I want to have my hands in dough. I want to live this lifestyle. And so we came up against a dead end finding a location but then actually Chad had to leave his spot And so he contacted us and asked if we were interested. And so I had already made a decision that I wasn't interested in working at the bovine anymore. And so I was ready to just move in a different direction. So I'd gone back to college was finishing my degree when she called me and said, "hey, this is available. Are you interested? I can help and I'm there to back you and help you figure it out." So we went and talked to him, and it seemed a no brainer. It was inexpensive. It was like a really good place for me to start. It was like, here's your, here it is, you can do it. It's right in front of you. And so I thought about it for a minute. And then I remember telling Bridget, I said, I'll do it. I'll try it for three years. And if it doesn't work out, then I can always walk away. And she's like, "yeah, yeah, no problem." And so I always think about that, because it was like, by three years, it was there was no good. There was no walking away. It was like I was just getting into it really just getting immersed in it.
Can you paint the picture of what those early early days were like what it felt like for you as you were getting getting it off the ground?
I didn't have that much skill set behind me actually going into it, I had to basically go and purchase purchase the business or the equipment and stuff go in, learn how to use it all learn how to bake in a brick oven, because I'd never actually baked in a brick oven before, which is it's like an entire animal in and of itself, these brick ovens, I had to develop recipes. I'd never developed my own formulas before. So I was like, okay, now I need to develop formulas that are going to be working in this oven. And this way. I had to figure out the timeframe. Basically, you're creating an entire world and operation just and I had to just do that overnight. With no backdrop. I didn't have that much professional history. I didn't have anything really except for like just this kind of desire to do it. I wrote a business plan. But it was super basic. I really didn't put that much thought into it. I was just like, I'm, this is just what I want to do. I just want to do it. And so really, it was like learning on my feet. And like within I think a week or two of getting in there I was selling my first loaf of bread.
Wow. What would you say was a mismatch between what you expected coming into it and reality?
I'd been baking and I knew baking was long hours and it was hard work but I didn't really realize how much work I was getting into. And I thought I'll be open four days a week. And I'll do this setting the other and the moment I got into it, I realized I kind of overextended myself because the hours were extraordinary. Even then I wasn't waking up very early considering what we do nowadays. But it was a lot my never, I'd always baked in the afternoons going to surely somewhat early in the evening. So suddenly, I was just beholden to an entire system. So I had to be available to feed my starters and build them to make my dough several hours in advance of suddenly I just everything was on schedule I was on on a schedule that I could control but it also controlled me. And so the depth of that of what I was getting into it I didn't understand that until I did it being beholden to that starter schedule, being beholden to the dough time and the length of time that it makes takes to make sourdough especially professionally multiple loaves and then also you're building your fire so you have to be there every night at a certain time exactly to rake your coals and to damp down basically the whole situation so that the residual so the heat can saturate the bricks. You have to let it cool a certain amount of time before you can get in there and bake your bread and so it was for 15 years it was like I gotta be here at this time to feed my starter, I gotta be here at this time to feed my starter again, I got to be here to start my dose at this time, I got to end my dose at this time, I got to rake my coals at this time, feed my starters before I go to sleep, wake up bake my bread, you know, start all over again. And so it was a 24-hour process day after day and that intensity was something that... once it got going it was this motion that didn't stop get it know how to stop it and it's basically still going on to this day.
There's that, like, momentum once you build the momentum... And... it reminds me of Newton's first law of motion, right? Something around like an object in motion stays in motion unless something happens.
Yeah, and I guess that's why the three-year thing is so laughable at this point because it was like three years in I was just like on this you know treadmill, I was like oh my god, I don't even I wouldn't even know how to jump off if I could. [laughs]
Oh my gosh. This sounds like a lot, you know, to stay committed to for as long as you have. What has kept you going all this time?
I was talking with one of my bakers the other day, and we were talking about, well, what's the driving force? And when you're in the food industry in general, it's unforgiving. So why do you do it and what keeps you going. I think that there has to be an element that's self serving in it. So that my pursuit of making the best bread that I could or just even just like, what I considered good, what, what was that perfect loaf, like I was always in pursuit of it. I bake bread, ultimately, I bake it for myself on one level but what keeps me going is always striving for that, that perfect loaf, but also just connecting with the people around me and the relationships that have been developed over the years, the relationships that are built by working alongside other bakers. And the relationships are part of that community aspect. So whether you own your own bakery, and you work with others on a regular basis, or you're new to it, and you're learning and you're going out, and you're seeking other bakers to learn from, you work alongside somebody, and it's like being in a car, your hands are in motion, it's really easy to start talking to people and to share with them and to connect with them, you're with them for hours at a time. And you can work quietly, and there's definitely moments of silence, you can put music on and enjoy a great soundtrack. But inevitably, in working for consecutive days with people, you're gonna start chatting, and you really start to develop a relationship that's unique to that space, and time. So you're sharing a lot of intimacy and connection that you wouldn't normally share with somebody. And I think that what I said about driving in a car is just about because you're in motion, you're comfortable. And you're not looking directly at them, you're not you really just to get to the process itself is driving kind of that connection and conversation and relationship, and you're in a comfortable place together. Like you're both working for the same goal in this physical way. Those relationships that come out of that space, whether they're just a moment in time or last a long time are pretty unique and special.
We talked about the expression of breaking bread when you're enjoying it with somebody and the connection that comes from that but I never really thought about what that feels like to be baking bread together, and how collective that process can be behind the scenes at a bakery. You said something just now, which is that you've been striving for the perfect loaf, and I'm going "hmm, what do you mean by that?" How would you describe the perfect loaf?
So what you're looking at these different elements, and there's so many elements in sourdough baking, especially in a wood fire, brick oven, the perfect loaf is so difficult to attain, and it's all about so the flower originally, what's the flour like? What did it feel like when you were working with it? How do you think it's gonna perform? How can you modify and/or finesse things to get the best out of something that may not be exactly perfect, or what you want? So there's that beginning journey there. And then you're shaping it. And if did I get this shape? Did it... is the dough coming together in the way that I want? Is it, you know, is it shaping in the way that I was it just where you just feel it when it shapes well, where you're like, oh, that's perfect, so great, it feels so great. And you go through the rising process, the fermentation rising process. And once you've developed your formula, you kind of know this should taste good, all the elements are there, but then you're going through the fermentation process and you're trying to catch that loaf at just the absolute perfect moment in its rise. Then you're putting it in the oven and that oven, you've gotten to the absolute perfect temperature, it's got two elements, the high heat, the low heat, the side II and your brick oven is all perfect. It's all the bricks have saturated perfectly, you've let it rest perfectly all those things and and you steam it and you get just the right amount of steam on there and you've scored your bread and you've scored it and those scores have laid down just absolutely just right on and then you put your loaf in there and you've steamed it just so just so those cuts will open nicely and then you go through the bake process and you pull out that loaf and it's has, you can see that you did let it rise perfectly. You can see the scores did open up so you hit it with the seam, you've hit it with the score and you've hit it with the fermentation and and you feel the crust on it and you have beautiful bottom crust you have beautiful top crust. So you break it open. You look at the cell structure and it's just it's gorgeous, it's chewy, it's has moisture, but it's not overly it's baked properly. So there's just so many components looking at it and assessing it and thing, this is perfect.
So we're entering this pivotal moment for yourself and Brickmaiden where you've decided to make a transition, and I'd love for you to speak about how you came to that decision, and what this all means for for yourself and the business.
We just celebrated our 21st anniversary on October 16th. And just prior to that, I came to the conclusion that I was ready to move on and to transition into a new phase of my life and let brick maiden go. And for me, that meant that I am selling the business and that I'm ready to step away from baking in general, at least on a professional level. So that coming to that place, and Brickmaiden is so personal to me, because I literally grew up with it and raised my children within the walls and lived there, partied there, ate there, breathed there. My bakers, some of my bakers lived within those walls, too. I was young woman starting this out and a lot of people have grown up with me. I don't know how many of my bakers have gone on to start their own businesses and, like, seeing that it's just incredible. It's incredible. It's incredible to, like, be like, I'm so proud of everybody on their journey through their lives and through their bread lives. And so I think that I feel, I feel much more grounded, and I feel stronger as a person and I feel like it's been a really fabulous journey. And so it's got a lot of history and stories and Brickmaiden is my identity, and so it's a really huge thing to make the decision to say I'm ready to transition out of this place of both, like I call, like "queen of my domain," and to say like, oh, well now who am I and to have to reframe myself in the world. But to me, that seems like a really exciting place to be. And I've always felt that this is one element of who I am, that kind of got me that caught me in it on such a deep level that it took away that took away all of our space to have other parts of myself that I could cultivate or manifest. And and so I'm ready to open those spaces up again and to hand the reins over to somebody else, hopefully, who will be ideally it's a baker, somebody who has a vision, somebody who really understands the the, you know, concept of sustainability and connection on the levels that I've tried to promote it over the years.
With this new chapter, right around the corner, have you, have you had a chance to think about what, what you might envision that's exciting, or what you might want to manifest for yourself?
I think what I'm really excited about right now is manifesting space, running a business has been bread baking is one element. And it's only recently, since opening a retail property on the property I retail shop, that I've been able to actually go back into the bread house in two years and bake bread. So what I recognized in that was that I love what I do, and that I was actually found a piece that I hadn't felt in a long time by being back in that space and baking bread. And it did make me think, How can I simultaneously be loving this and letting it go at the same time. But what the reality is it just brought me back to the beginnings and to recognize like the the the space that breadmaking cultivates in me is really important. And the business itself actually takes a lot of that away. Yeah, so I haven't had a lot of space in my head or my spirit anywhere for a really long time. So I'm looking forward to actually having some quiet and to cultivating that part of myself that I really enjoyed as a kid out on the point which is go stand in the fog for a while go stand on an empty beach, just look at the horizon a little bit, take some time and not feel like I'm engaged in something or some thought process every moment every second every day. So that's that's the first place I want to head to.
It's time for Q&A. You submit a question, and today's maker will answer it
Q&A Participant 24:24
Hey Celine. This is Adam Violante from the Pint Size Lounge in San Rafael (California). I don't know if you know this, but the Pint Size turned 25 years old last week and I'm very, very proud of its longevity. I'd also like to congratulate you on 21 years. I feel like I know what it takes to weather many storms that I'm sure you do too, but at some point it became really obvious that my business had become a bigger part of my town than I had ever expected. I was woven into the fabric of my community. I imagine you've felt the same. It was one of the best feelings that I've ever felt. Now, after 25 years, getting ready to... fully reopen. And there are so many questions and uncertainties that I don't know the answers to. I was hoping that you could share with me some of your biggest trials and tribulations over your journey, and potentially share them with us. And I'd also like to know, what were some of your biggest accomplishments, the things that you're fondest of. I'd like to hear what your story is.
So you put so much into your business and so much into the people that, whether it be your customers or the people that you work with. And it's a difficult journey to have those relationships with so many people, and to build them and also be having to let them go during COVID, I lost a lot of long term staff and some of those relationships, like just that thing of seeing people go when you're still there, and wishing them well on their journey while you're still there, and you're and you're going like I'm making a choice to be here, and this is part of it. But it's also it's really starts to wear on you over time. And I think that was finally it was like I just can't keep building relationships, and then letting them go and building relationships and letting them go. And so that's a turning point for me. It's about the positive and negative of the work that I've done.
You chose one that has a... it's a double-edged sword there.
Hmm, yeah. But I love his description of being interwoven with his his community. And it's true. It's not like meeting the demand in terms of the market. It's like meeting demand in terms of just life and community. And it's like this spiral and it builds and you find yourself building with that and trying to keep up with it. It's beautiful, and it's difficult. And there are a lot of unknowns ahead and and it's all our own personal space to find that place when we can't do it anymore.
Q&A Participant 27:31
Hey Celine, this is Caitlin. You make my favorite bread of all time and I just want to say thank you for bringing such deliciousness into the world. I have a question for you. I'm sure that over time, you've heard many stories from customers. Is the one that stuck out to you the most that you could share?
There's just so many stories that people have shared and written me letters about and really talked about a moment in time and the importance of breaking that bread with family or friends. But the one that pops into my head actually, that's actually a silly story. It's just, it's like, what!? It was a customer at the farmer's market, he would come in every week and buy the bread and he had this whole vision of brick maidens living in this house together. Like he had this whole version of this. It was very weird, like far out thing about the brick maidens living in this house and they bake bread and they get over there realize like, okay. [Laughs.] There's funny ones out there, and there's really significant ones.
He really... he really made it his own [laughs.]
Yeah, he definitely... [laughs].
Did you have to break it to him that's not real?
I did. It's like, that's not really how it is. That's not how it is at all. I was like, that's okay, you can take that home with you. It's fine, you want to do that.
I love that.
Q&A Participant 28:43
Hi there, congrats on your 21st anniversary. I think that's one of the beautiful things about your profession is the ability to pass it on to new generations. I was wondering if you could talk about how you train up-and-coming bakers. Thanks.
I'm training two right now. We've been focusing on bread specifically but the last couple of years have also been training people up on pastry as well. It was like, okay, I'm going to start you on your journey. You're training them in the logistics of the space and timing in the system and all those things. We like to train people in all departments so that they're really actually a comprehensive baker, some bakers you go in and it's very compartmentalized, so you'll only shape or you'll only mix or you'll only bake. It's hard to for your mind to really take in and absorb to become a really good baker, when you only have one component of it. So we usually start with shaping it's just a more basic thing to learn and then we go into mixing which has if you mess the mixes up a lot or a lot less difficulty in remedying that situation, but you're training them on mixing and then they're getting real feel for the dough. They're learning different aspects of the fermentation and then we finally train on the bake the morning bake and that's usually just because it's a very early shift for us, you're not in the best mood at 2 am to train people and it's hard for them to know what they're looking for when they haven't had the other experience behind them.
Thank you for joining me today, Celine.
Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.
That's Celine Underwood from Brickmaiden Breads, based in Point Reyes, California.
Brickmaiden lives in the hearts of so many people, and I hope the right person comes along to carry Celine's legacy forward. As I think about this moment for Celine, Maya Angelou's poem comes to mind, "Love Liberates." When I heard it the first time I was confused, I thought how can you love something or someone and let them go? And of course that's my whole point is true love liberates. True love lets go. I don't know if this is what it feels like for Celine, but my interpretation is that it might be very much an act of love. Saying goodbye is is an act of love.
You can find a full transcript and notes from today's conversation on our website, MakingUs.com. Season 2 comes out in early 2022, so we hope to see you then. This episode was produced by the team at Flowship. Thanks so much for listening to Making Us.