Unlike the millions of people who turned to baking—and eating— lots of bread during the pandemic, or those who went from one career path to another, Scott Kluger of Hartford Baking Company made the big pivot to both almost fifteen years ago. As his company continues to expand, and the worst of the pandemic feels over, Kluger looks back on his transition. He reflects on how one wise move gave rise to an opportunity that satisfied a quest for more both professionally and personally.
Think Wall Street. Post 2008 financial crisis. It doesn’t take much to remember the whirlwind of chaos that became for many industries. From banking to the housing market and everything in between, the global effects caused a max exodus. Kluger was amidst the settling dust, so in 2009 after working for a few years in mortgage-backed securities, he found himself at a crossroads. Always entrepreneurial, however, he left Wall Street for his home in West Hartford, Connecticut and married the comforts of home with his business acumen.
Those comforts of home? His mom’s baking. Percolating in the back of his mind was the desire to share the delicious baked goods his mom had always made. He felt fortunate that he grew up with fresh bread and pastries and knew such delicious, fresh treats are rarely a bad idea. As many great food stories begin, Kluger’s new path began with learning mom’s recipes and selling small batches of the products at nearby farmers markets. He continued researching and began a year-long apprenticeship. By 2010, he was ready to embark, and, since there wasn’t a bakery in town, he decided it was the right place at the right time. And where better to try out a new business venture then in your own backyard, an area you know well and where support is at the ready?
The first few years of business, as he says, were “quite the education.” There were very long days spent experimenting with ingredients, hiring and training employees, ordering equipment, crunching numbers, etc. Now, HBC has grown to 50 employees with three cafes and a factory. The pandemic threw them for a loop, and, like everyone else in the industry, the bakery had to take a good hard look at every line item, space and location, processes, and determine how best to maneuver during a trying time. Kluger was able to take his experience in finance amidst his Wall Street career and make adjustments along the way, and more importantly, question everything. From portions and timelines to vendors and food costs, no stone was left unturned.
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Kluger’s wife Katherine, who also works as the company’s public relations and marketing manager, admits, “His financial background is the reason the business has done so well. He created this successful venture, without a formal background in food, without an investor or a restaurant group, unlike many in our area.”
HBC had a leg up. Assessing and reassessing are forever essential. During the pandemic, that instinct kept them going, but that doesn’t mean things always work out perfectly. “Maybe there’s something on the menu that just shouldn’t be on the menu,” says Kluger. “When you look at the big picture, you ask, ‘what does this product do? Is it a top seller, does it just provide variation on the menu? And, you have to even ask yourself why do we do this?’ If the answer is, ‘well we’ve always done it this way,’ then that’s not a good enough reason.”
For example, in 2021, Kluger tried out an idea that had been germinating for a while, called Citizen: Chicken and Donuts. Simple enough, right? Fun concept, right? Is it delicious? Yes, yes, and yes. However, given the unpredictability of the pandemic, staffing issues, rising product costs, and a location snag, the venture did not create a happy trifecta. Customers absolutely loved the product which they tried out first at the bakery, and yet, upon reflection at the end of their first year, things just didn’t add up. Customers begged them not to close, but after much deliberation, Kluger says, “Sometimes you have simplify.” That said, it can be difficult to look at things objectively when you have a business born out of passion.
Pass the Bread
From French Country or Country Sourdough to Honey Wheat, Ciabatta, Brioche, and more, HBC takes its time. For some loaves, they need a full 24 hours for the fermentation, proofing, and baking process to then supply their three locations and the various restaurants and stores that ordered from them. It’s all about quality over quantity and feeling like customers are getting the next best thing to fresh baked bread out of their own ovens. As much as possible, the bakery determines products, especially pastries, by the local farm they partner with and the fresh fruits or vegetables available.
Like bread and butter, the elements of business and creativity can go hand in hand to. “I love it,” Kluger says. “I am exposed to everything. Running HBC not only enhances the creative side but everything in between, from learning about graphic design or contract and tax law, to working with lease agreements, etc.”
Today HBC has a few things up its sleeves. In addition to working diligently to maintain consistency of product and updating their branding, they are considering next steps. “We’re excited to get back to wholesaling,” Kluger says. “And cake. We want to bring back big slices of cake.” Sadly, it was one the things that had to go during the pandemic. And that’s not more. With a liquor license and talent just waiting to be tapped, they’re waiting for the right moment to launch their next concept.
They also plan to expand their community outreach, which Katherine explains is a crucial part of their family business. It was very important for them to have ‘Hartford’ as part of the company name, having great pride of place and home. And, in so doing, giving back to the community feels like an extension to what they do every day when putting bread on the table from their bakeries. In addition to being on the board at Hillstead Museum, where HBC [explain participation] they are also long-time partners with Camp Courant which ensures all children in the area have the opportunity to have outdoor excursions and camp experiences.
Now what’s more wholesome that that?