For those of you were able to join us at our wonderful Bull City Food Exchange on May 6, you met Ari Berenbaum and his great team of Berenbaum’s. This creative enterprise is founded on an Open Source concept – folks pay what they think these amazing treats are worth (Ari’s pastry is ridiculously…perfect) – there are no price tags. Although we wrote about it a while ago, I was so curious to find out more about the man-philosopher-baker behind those ridiculously perfect tarts. So we were fortunate to interview Ari and learn more about the genius behind the magic!
1. How does this Open Source work, and why did you choose to go this route?
We are open source in the way that we disclose recipes, techniques, and business processes. If you have an idea on how to make us better, we welcome all helpers. If you would like to volunteer with us, we’ll take you. I feel that this is in keeping with our sliding-scale pricing — we are focused on inclusivity and equability. Also, we live in a technological age where the internet has democratized nearly anything that can be manufactured, including food. We are not in a race to the top by any means — we just want to bake as best we can.
2. Do you think food companies and the food industry will go the way of pay-what-you-want? What challenges does this model hold?
I’m happily surprised by Panera’s selective adoption of pay-what-you want, but ultimately, there are too many ways for corporations to squeeze a dollar – board members answer to shareholders, and shareholders generally don’t understand a business model like sliding-scale. I think for non-profits and privately-owned businesses, it might be an option. The reason why it works for us is that we have a collegial rapport with the customer. If we were anonymously selling out bread online, I think people would pay much less (I think this happened to Radiohead when they released a pay-what-you-want album). No one wants to feel ripped off, so customers naturally project themselves into our shoes when they decide what to pay (i.e. “Am I paying enough? Does this cover their costs? Am I a good person if I effectively tip a dollar extra?”). I think sliding-scale gets tricky at larger scales not just because of possible anonymity of the transactions, but there is a transaction cost associated with deciding what to pay (i.e. the time and sometimes consternation that goes along with picking a price).
3. Have you found the model profitable for your business? What are the challenges?
We are profitable right now. I make enough to pay myself and the two or three other folks that help out in any given weekend. We do get unpaid or “underpaid” volunteer help frequently which helps. The money is really secondary for me, but if it was unprofitable, I think it would be harder to justify the entire enterprise. One challenge is that sometimes I would like to source a fine ingredient (like Valrhona chocolate), but the person who is buying an item sliding scale might not be able to infer that cost based on our product description alone. For instance, we used more expensive cheese than usual (sourced from Reliable Cheese) last weekend, but that did not mean that we necessarily got a higher per tartlet price. People just see a savory tartlet and price accordingly.
4. How did you get started baking?
I messed around at home for a bit, and then during the economic dead zone of 2009, got a job as baker at 9th Street Bakery. When you go from thinking about food for three meals a day to thinking about food 8-10 hours a days as your job, fortunately or unfortunately it becomes a habit that is hard to turn off.
5. How do you come up with your recipes? How do you decide what to make?
Our recipes are an amalgam of cookbook, family, historical, and internet inspirations. When I say historical, for instance, next winter, I want to attempt a stollen as it was made in the 18th century. Or last year I tried to make matzo as it might have actually tasted in the Egyptian desert. Whatever the recipe, most go through a series of home-testing that might last between a week and years. I am currently on my 9th iteration of bagels, and have been making and refining one chocolate chip cookie homage for almost four years!
6. What are your family’s baking/cooking traditions?
My grandmom on my mother’s side makes great mandelbrot, so that was the inspiration for that product. My grandmom on my father’s side made great knaidlach, which is a beef-filled matzo dumpling. Mostly, my inspirations from my childhood revolve around several Jewish bakeries in and around Newton, MA, where I grew up (Diamond Bakery, Tuler’s Bakery, Lederman’s, Rosenfeld’s Bagels).
7. Is Durham a special place for this model to work or do you think it will work anywhere?
Of course Durham is special!