AJ Brown is no stranger to the healing powers of making sourdough bread. At his bakery, Knead Bakehouse + Provisions, which he runs with his wife, Kirsten, AJ and his team of bakers make hundreds of loaves of bread almost daily.
“Getting your hands in dough and just feeling it throughout the stages, I think there’s definitely that soothing feeling,” AJ says. “It lends itself to cooking, it lends itself to gardening, but just getting your hands active in general with the food you’re preparing, from gardening to cooking or bread making, there’s definitely a helpful meditative or therapeutic aspect to that for sure.”
In recent weeks, under shelter-in-place orders due to the COVID-19 virus, people are now learning what AJ and his team already know. Across the country, social media feeds are filled with photos of bartered sourdough starters and packets of instant yeast used to bake beautiful loaves of bread at home.
These ingredients, essential to bread baking, have become increasingly harder to find as the pandemic spreads, but not at Knead, which has always offered its sourdough starter for sale. Since shelter-in-place orders were issued in the St. Louis area and then across the state, though, AJ says demand for Knead’s seven-year-old starter has picked up at a crazy rate.
“Right from the get-go, the community began to rally around us, what we were doing and what we were offering,” AJ says. “Absolutely, we saw a spike at that point for our sourdough yeast in general, which we thought was interesting. Once we put it online and the pandemic actually hit, there were days that I couldn’t make enough sourdough starter.”
Sourdough starter is only one in-demand item at Knead right now. AJ and Kirsten say that customers are still buying a lot of their bread, although now it sometimes comes with questions about how they can replicate similar loaves at home. The couple are soon hoping to draft formal instructions for how to best care for their starter at home as well as recipes to make with it, but so far, they’ve just been too busy.
From Farm to Curbside
In addition to offering their bread, sourdough starter and baked goods such as kolache, donuts and cinnamon rolls, the Browns have begun selling groceries out of their bakery. The grocery selection started as a way to support the local vendors the Browns work with every day, including Ozark Mountain Creamery, where they source whole milk; egg farmer Ben Roberts who provides them with fresh eggs; and D&M Farms, their bacon supplier.
Kirsten said the idea helped solve two problems. Staples like milk, bread and eggs were often selling out quickly at area grocery stores, leaving customers unsure where to safely purchase them. The Browns also worried about their local vendors, though; as restaurants were temporarily reducing business or permanently shuttering, profits for purveyors were steadily dropping as well.
“We’re a small restaurant, and vendors supply multiple small restaurants, which makes up a lot of their profits, and so how do you also support the vendors that have provided for you?” Kirsten says. “Not only are you providing groceries for people who maybe can’t get them at the grocery store or maybe don’t want to go to the grocery store, but we’re trying to provide for the farmers in the small way we can.”
Although their contribution may seem small to the Browns, it’s garnered a big response from customers, with groceries often selling out weekly. When available from local farmers, the Browns have added fresh produce to the grocery selection, too, as well as meal kits including a pizza kit and Italian salad kit for customers to assemble at home. AJ adds that he’s hoping to add even more kits soon — possibly one for making sourdough pancakes at home.
For those interested in purchasing items from Knead, whether that be bread and sourdough starter or fresh produce and eggs, simply visit the online store, place your order and then head to the bakery for contactless curbside pickup.
“When we moved over to curbside, we wanted to keep it as safe as possible for us working every single day and then also for customers coming in and buying from us every single day,” AJ says. “And so having that non-contact mentality, people drive up in the car, there’s a table set out in front of each parking space, and we just bring the bags out. We put it on the table in front of the parking space and then we go back from the restaurant and people get out of their car, they can go grab the bag and get back in the car. There’s no human contact in that process.”
The community’s overwhelmingly positive response to Knead’s new offerings has humbled the Browns, they say. In general, the couple adds, just watching how St. Louisans have supported small businesses in general has lifted their spirits.
“I think that’s a really cool silver lining to everything that’s been going on, just to see that there is this unity and this togetherness to support each other throughout this,” AJ says.
Meals for Medical Workers
AJ and Kirsten are working hard to support Knead for their employees and vendors, but they’re also actively giving back to the community. As the COVID-19 virus began to spread across the St. Louis metropolitan area in March, Kirsten reached out to administrative staff at BJC HealthCare asking to donate food from Knead to health care workers.
That desire to give back evolved into a partnership with John Perkins, chef-owner of Juniper in the Central West End, with a program called Meals for Meds. Founded by Perkins, the Browns quickly joined the cause, merging it with the work they’d already done with BJC.
Meals for Meds launched with seven restaurants, including Juniper and Knead, and has grown to include more than 20 and counting, with Kirsten helping to connect chefs with hospitals in their area to provide meals for health care workers. The model is simple: Customers can donate funds toward meals from specific restaurants through online purchases, and then meals are then prepared and delivered to area hospitals.
That chain of support, as Kirsten calls it, between customer, restaurant and hospital, has been incredibly inspiring to her during this time of uncertainty and loss. It speaks to Knead’s very mission, she says, to support not just the bakery and its workers, but to help the greater St. Louis area as well.
“It’s really layers of people supporting each other,” Kirsten says. “I think that’s one of the coolest things for us, not only the unity, but just the support. People are wanting to do something, and this is an easy way for us to serve others, and that’s why Knead exists — to serve not only the St. Louis community, but to hire people, to have vendors and farmers that we support, and now this is just another outlet of how Knead gets to serve the St. Louis community.”