How One Ambitious Kansas Baker Turned Her Bread-Making Hobby into a Home Business
Forming dough into baguettes, Cathy Drabkin uses her hands like a Swiss army knife, each anatomical feature a practiced tool. Her fingertips lift, stretch and fold. The straight side of her hand presses a trench. The heel of her palm flattens a seam. Her forearm coaxes each rope of dough from linen to balsa board to pan. Every move is quick, intuitive and gentle.
Since starting Cathy's Breads, her home-based microbakery in Hays, Kansas, nine years ago, Drabkin has seen her weeks fall into a similar well-tuned rhythm. Customers place orders by Tuesday morning, choosing from loaves, rolls, croissants, pies, cookies and more. That day, Drabkin tallies lists and buys groceries. On Wednesday, she preps: Toasting nuts. Weighing fruit. Making glazes. On Thursday, she mixes doughs, which will proof overnight, before a Friday fervor of dividing, shaping, rising and baking. Saturday morning, Drabkin hangs an Open sign on her front door (and releases next week's menu).
For years, Drabkin baked for fun in her free time. She taught rec center classes, but opening a bakery felt daunting. Then in 2013, somewhat impulsively, she registered for the town's new farmers market. Her 30 loaves, including a wheat-white-rye blend studded with dried fruit, sold out. Hays is a little college town dropped 180 miles from Wichita in the flat expanse of cattle country—surrounded by wheat, yet suffering for good bread. Drabkin had, quite literally, delivered manna. "The wonderful thing about small towns is that you can have an impact," she says. "There's a lot of opportunity to create change."
When market season ended, Drabkin kept going, selling preorders from her home. A year later, she dropped her stall, opting to bake fall through spring and enjoy summers off with her husband, a professor. She has hired an assistant but doesn't see growing more: "I've been approached about a cafe-bakery, and I come close, but I know that's more work and commitment than I am ready for at my age. Had it been 30 years ago? I might have. But this suits me." And it seems to suit the lucky citizens of Hays too.
Related: Sweet Quick Breads You'll Love
One Artisan Bread Dough Recipe, Infinite Possibilities
A serial experimenter, Drabkin makes a huge variety of breads, including more complicated sourdoughs. But everything shown in this story is a variation on one recipe—a four-ingredient dough that you can stir together with a spoon and adapt with different flours, flavors and fillings. Here are a few favorites.
In places where cottage laws permit selling food made in home kitchens, microbakeries have flourished during the pandemic. Four more to explore:
Pie Bird Pies
In Des Moines, married couple Kristen Daily and Andrea Piekarczyk turned a furlough into a dream. They sling pies in flavors like Apple-Cherry-Cardamom at farmers markets and pop-ups.
Upper Crust Bread
Customers arrive each Saturday at Jeffrey Moll Jr.'s St. Louis apartment to pick up naturally fermented sourdough. Try a traditional Country Loaf or smoky Paprika and Rosemary.
Butter Cream Flour
Chicago-area attorney Laura Riff petitioned her municipality, River Forest, to permit home bakeries in 2020. She takes special orders for her artfully decorated cakes and cupcakes.
The Cottage Bagel
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, Angela and Tony Ochoa hand-roll and boil bagels that marry Montreal and New York styles, in all the classic flavors, including a lineup of gluten-free options.