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Local baker inspired to make "organic" a cornerstone of her business

Erika Jane Hanson of Oven Mitt Bakery talks about how she got started creating treats for Rowster coffee shop and what she envisions for the future of her business.

/Denise Cheng

Underwriting support from:

Oven Mitt goods that have made an appearance at Rowster

  • Raw granola
  • Biscotti
    • Chocolate orange
    • Almond anise
    • Lemon lavender
  • Matzo bark
    • Brown sugar toffee, dark chocolate, crushed pistachio and sea salt
    • Muscovado sugar, dark chocolate, basil and dried cherries tossed in vanilla bean
    • Dark chocolate, crushed coffee beans and cinnamon
    • Coconut and cacao nibs
  • Vanilla cardamom ice cream for Rowster's vegan affogato (ice cream drowned in espresso)

Shuttling between her Fulton Heights home and the certified kitchen of a nearby church*, Erika Jane Hanson squeezes in her roles as baker and chocolatier for Oven Mitt Bakery during her daughter’s naps. Hanson juggles her new bakery with her life as a full-time mother and artist, and designing a spring 2012 kids clothing line and working Fridays at Marie Catrib's Restaurant.

"Adam [my husband] helps a lot. Agnes helps by taking naps and being well behaved. Right now, she doesn't help," she joked.

Hanson has been delivering her creations to Rowster New American Coffee on a weekly basis since July. Stacked on the coffee shop's bowling lane countertop are chocolate matzo barks, an assortment of biscotti and raw granola by the jar. All the treats are organic and vegan.

An avid cook, Hanson has worked at bakeries in Chicago, Seattle and Manchester, Vermont. She is a Grand Rapids native, and Oven Mitt began as a conceptual bakery among four friends who already teamed up every once in a while on catering jobs for events like Wake Up Weekend.

"Our original vision was to have a bakery and maybe a very limited breakfast and lunch menus," she said. "We put together a full menu of what we hoped to sell in our store and got together a mailing list through [Wake Up Weekend], and we just really felt like it would happen."

Soon after, though, one of the women moved and the other two decided to focus on their careers.

Right now, small enterprises such as Hanson's can take one of two routes: either producing out of a state-certified kitchen to sell through third-parties like coffee shops or cooking from the comfort of their homes and selling directly to customers at farmers market booths, roadside vending or other similar opportunities. Each are time consuming in their own right, but both allow entrepreneurs to stay small and test the waters with their products.

"Right now, I like that it's small and manageable so I can do both [baking and designing a clothing line]," said Hanson, whose goods are exclusively available at Rowster. "I love this place as a business, so I'm happy to be a part of it." She plans to keep any growth small so that it remains manageable. Currently, she parcels out about ten hours a week for the creation of her products and basic business needs of Oven Mitt.

Rowster, meanwhile, hopes to cultivate partnerships with fledgling businesses like Oven Mitt.

"We like someone who can work along with us to create something," said Stephen Curtis, vice president at Rowster. "We want something that we love to present to people, so we have to go out and find someone who's doing something similar and is willing to be collaborative."

Hanson wants her treats to be accessible and works hard to reflect that in her pricing. Her most immediate goal is to get her food cost down. She’s currently forming a business plan to help track product success so she will know where she can purchase in bulk without increasing her already-inflated food cost. As a general principle in the food industry, food costs should account for 30% of pricing, but Hanson's costs range from 50-70%. "Which is fine because I don't have to pay overhead for all the equipment."

Even though costs are currently high, she cites Bleeding Heart Bakery in Chicago as proof that it can be done. “Most places want to keep their cost down and they assume most people wouldn't pay the extra just to have an organic muffin. I think that they kind of proved that people would do that," Hanson explained. "I actually tried making [my] biscotti with nonorganic flour just to see how it was and I had to throw it away because it was that different just from that one ingredient.”

Her daughter has started to recognize Mom’s products when she visits Rowster. "Mommy!" Agnes will say and point to the jars of granola. "Now that I will allow her to have a little bit of sugar, I want her to have places she can come [where I] know that it's really good ingredients … Her and some of her little vegan friends will be watching their friends eating an ice cream cone and wishing they could have that. Just to have places in our community that will give them that [experience is my inspiration]."

"In the beginning, I just was going to see if this could even work. That's why I said, 'we'll see how it goes' because I hadn't even put together a business plan. We're still figuring it out because it's so new.

"As long as I just keep doing something, I'm making progress."



*CORRECTION: The original article erroneously stated Ms. Hanson as a cottage industrialist. Rather, as a small enterprise, she could get her products to customers in two ways: working through a state-certified kitchen to sell to third parties or selling directly to customers as a cottage industrialist. Currently, Ms. Hanson uses a commercial kitchen for preparation to distribute to a third-party vendor, and the article was adjusted to reflect this on Sept. 19.

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