Entrepreneur Says Goodbye,
Wall Street, and Hello to Salad Days
by Rachel Travers
It’s 1967. In the movie The graduate, Benjamin Braddock has recently finished college but doesn’t know what to do with the rest of his life. At a homecoming party, he is approached by a business associate of his father, who passes on his best advice: “I have one word for you—plastics!”
Fast-forward over 40 years, and shift from the movies to real life.
It’s 2009. Lawrence Hester, 27, has been a successful trader for a bank on Wall Street, isn’t excited about work anymore and has an epiphany at a potluck of delicious food made by friends. He has brought his ever-present, always uneaten banana bread, the only thing he knows how to make. But at this party inspiration arrives in a single word—“croutons!”
And here’s where our story begins.
Croutons became the answer for what to do with the bereft banana bread, tasty but always upstaged by even tastier appetizers and desserts. Hester sliced it up and put it on top of a salad.
And in the middle of our economy’s “bad times,” Hester quit his well-paying job and moved from New York, house-sitting for 2½ weeks in a honeymooning friend’s apartment in Boston. He was happy to be near a handful of close college friends from Brown who were entrepreneurial, and he determined to make a better crouton. “I was convinced croutons were what I wanted to do,” said Hester.
Hester quickly found a Cambridge apartment of his own and began doing market research, using an analytic business school model. What he found was there weren’t many different flavors of croutons—either garlic and butter, seasoned or Caesar. “And they all tasted stale,” he was quick to add. Since his mother, Emmie, was the first to point this out, she got the credit—and Emmiez Croutons were named.
As luck and love would have it, Hester met Dawn Leaness, 26, director of development at the Codman School in Dorchester. They started dating just as Lawrence was working out the details of the banana bread crouton idea. Dawn was there from the start and pointed out that his banana bread was too soft and crumbly for croutons. So Hester learned to bake a good cranberry pecan bread. This satisfied his desire to have a sweet flavor profile but he also wanted a savory one and a spicy one.
Rosemary Parmesan croutons seemed a more savory take on a classic Caesar version. And Hester personally liked the idea of a jalapeño cornbread crouton, envisioning it in a great Southwestern salad or in chili—even in a taco salad. “My first big tasting with a lot of people was to watch the Vikings-Saints game, and it was really well-received.” touchdown!
Over the next three months of baking three or four days a week, Lawrence nailed down his three recipes. he did a double baking, let it cool, then cut it and put it on baking sheets to dry out in the oven.
People were shocked that he was “wasting a perfectly good bread,” because his croutons are made directly from fresh bread. But it became a direct path for an innovative product.
Then he got in touch with JD Kemp at the CropCircle Kitchen in Jamaica Plain, a licensed kitchen available for start-ups. Hester thought they’d be baking immediately, only to find he needed label design and packaging before they could even begin baking at CropCircle. JD gave him a list of what else they needed to start using the facility—manufacturer’s license, insurance. “It takes 10 times longer than you think it will,” said hester.
“When we first got into this kitchen, I had my brother [Zachary, 23] come into town to help us out,” he said. “We’d never used a convection oven, or a stand mixer that could hold up to 50 pounds of mix. And we never really imagined how long it would actually take to bake and hand cut. We thought we’d mix it, cut it, dry it out, so we brought a computer, a movie and a bottle of wine. But lo and behold, we were on our feet forever.
“That first day we did the equivalent of 30 loaves at one time. We thought we could easily double that and do 64 loaves in one night... We started at 9pm and by 5am my brother realized he had been he’d been standing at the sink cleaning off trays for hours. We worked nonstop, and for the 64 loaves, we didn’t leave until 10am the next day.”
It didn’t take long for Hester to redo the math. He realized everything was being done inefficiently; they didn’t know how to cut properly and they were throwing away a lot of bread because it was crumbling.
“But we got our first client in mid-August, which actually put us ahead of the game for a small food business. We got into Marshall’s Farmstand in the Fenway, a place that has a lot of local and new products. Our next step was to get into City Feed and Supply in Jamaica Plain, less than half a mile from where we were baking,” said Hester. It was their first real pitch and tasting, and City Feed found Emmiez Croutons to be innovative and delicious.
Emmiez is now in 12 places in the Boston area and one in New Orleans, Louisiana. And just having done The Fancy Food Show in San Francisco in January 2011, they are now in three stores in San Francisco and two in Los Angeles.
And they’ve only just begun. New packaging—a box rather than the bag container—is in the works, as is a chocolate cayenne crouton, which he imagines pairing with baby spinach and pea tendrils. Hester is thinking about going into some farmers markets this summer, as well as going into bulk production rather than hand cutting each tasty little square they produce.
“Scaling up is where it really gets challenging. You have to take a leap of faith that what you have is going to work because you need to know that the demand is there without necessarily having the orders in your hand,” says Hester. “But I think we can make it with croutons. It’s a smaller market than most niche markets. But croutons are so different—and ours are so snackable, it’s almost a hybrid product.”
Emmiez Croutons and Bakery
Rachel Travers is a freelance food, travel and lifestyle writer who contributes regularly to the Boston Globe and Edible Boston, as well as many other regional, national and online venues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.