Battle Creek

Backyard baker in Battle Creek finds ways to raise dough by making bread

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Dave Schweitzer’s retirement includes plenty of loafing around. 

Schweitzer, who retired 10 years ago as the owner of Schweitzer Construction, spends the latter half of most weeks making dough for the artisan loaves of bread he sells on Fridays from his home on the south side of Battle Creek.

Each week, Schweitzer and his wife, Nancy, send an email under the moniker “Bread by Hand” to a list of more than 400 people. The email message includes musings from Schweitzer about how he decided on the bread selections for the week and lists the types of loaves for sale. Of the 25 or 30 varieties of bread Schweitzer makes, he offers four each week.

“The one I do every week is a multigrain because it’s healthy and has lots of minerals and eight different grains besides whole wheat flour. I usually do a sourdough of some kind and the other two vary,” he says.

Among the more popular loaves are those containing kalamata olives, cheese, or chocolate. These are specialty loaves which cost $2 more than the $3 charged for loaves that don’t contain higher-priced ingredients.

“A lot of it goes towards ingredients,” Nancy Schweitzer says. “We try to at least get back what it costs us to make the bread.”

While the money is important, it is not what compels the Schweitzers to fire up their wood-burning oven and bake 80 loaves of bread each week. Whatever is raised over and above the cost of making the bread is frequently donated to a nonprofit.

“We often do fundraisers and donate the ingredients and our time with the proceeds going to multiple organizations,” Nancy Schweitzer says. “We also do a big summer party and raise money for a specific organization.”

Among the organizations that have been the beneficiaries of the couple’s dough-raising efforts are the Calhoun County Trailway Alliance and the Food Bank of South Central Michigan. They have raised money to purchase stoves for humanitarian efforts in Guatemala, as well as helping   a family with limited financial resources take care of a 6-year-old who was battling cancer.

More recent efforts include money raised to purchase teaching supplies and tools for a friend who is volunteering to help female immigrants being detained at the Calhoun County Jail. They even helped with making up a shortfall for  a program operated by the Franklin Neighborhood Food Pantry, which provides backpacks for children.

“A lot of people will show up and give money even if they don’t buy bread,” Nancy Schweitzer says of their fundraisers. “Instead of $3 for a loaf, they will give $50 or $100 because they want to support whatever the cause is.”

Out of the 400-plus individuals on their email list, about 40 show up to buy bread on a regular basis. Customers are limited to a certain number of loaves each week and any loaves that are left over, when someone reserves a loaf of bread and then does not pick it up, are donated to the Haven of Rest.

“When I first started it I didn’t even think about the money,” Dave Schweitzer says. “When it took off I had to figure out what to do. I took that money and bought ingredients and then it turns out that there was some money left.”

Making a different kind of dough

Long before Schweitzer retired from his family-owned business, he was making bread. It started while he and his wife were living in Bloomington, Ind., in the early 1970’s after they went to a craft fair where they saw a man making rolls.

“I couldn’t figure out what was so special about this and he told me that bread is an art and I should get a clue,” Dave Schweitzer says. “I was interested. It was the beginning of the health food period and everyone wanted to eat healthy. I bought a book and it turned out that the guy who wrote it was a professor of geology and an amateur bread maker.

“I bought a really nice (bread making) bowl and started making all of my family’s bread.”

In 1981, the Schweitzers moved back to Battle Creek with their then 2-year-old daughter, Vanessa to be closer to family.

As he got busier, Dave Schweitzer limited his bread-making to special occasions. But, his fascination with wood-burning ovens continued. His wife gave him a book that described a man who designed and built those ovens.

“I bought the plans from his estate and started building an oven in 2010,” Dave Schweitzer says. “It was my first major retirement project and I did most of the work myself.”

He baked his first loaves of bread the following spring. The oven was designed based on the idea that he would be using it primarily to make pizza. 

“I chose a medium-size oven and when it got built I decided I  would definitely have to try bread. I did a batch and it turned out great,” Schweitzer says. “It is an amazing tool for a baker. It’s all radiant heat so you don’t get dry spots and it traps the steam for the dough.”

Schweitzer says the oven works best for bread when the oven is full of dough, so he did about 20 loaves of bread and then wondered what he was going to do with all of it.

“Making 20 pounds of dough by hand is pretty hard,” he says. “I had my own little roadside stand and put the bread there and put a screen over it and people started buying it. Nancy suggested putting an email list together.”

The growth of the list increased the amount of time Schweitzer would spend on his retirement venture. He says he works a couple of hours on Wednesday and Thursday and gets up at 5:30 a.m. on Fridays to form the dough and bake the bread. The first batch is out at about 1:30 p.m. and the last batch comes out at about 4 in the afternoon.

“It just sort of kept evolving. A lot of people on the verge of retirement have talked to me about it,” Dave Schweitzer says. “I sometimes fantasize about it being a business, but there’s so much labor involved. 

“It’s a long day on Friday. It’s a lot of exercise. It’s heavy when you do 20 or 30 pounds of dough at a time, but, it’s a big sense of community.”

“People often stay and hang out for a beer,” Nancy Schweitzer says. “I think people are seeking out things like this where they can meet new people over bread.”

And many of the people who buy bread have become the Schweitzers' friends.

“Anytime someone says there’s nothing cool in Battle Creek, I tell them to bring them over here,” Dave Schweitzer says.

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.
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