Sweet on sourdough: Self-taught Modesto baker finds success
When self-taught artisan baker Bonnie Ohara published her first cookbook this year, she had hoped a few friends might buy it and it would help some beginning bakers.
The Modesto resident, who founded Alchemy Bread Co. out of her 1920s bungalow, released her book “Bread Baking for Beginners” in late October. Then, in early December, a beginning baker happened to buy her book and it helped her. It also just so happened that beginning baker was former “The Office” star Jenna Fischer and she posted about her experiences working through Ohara’s cookbook on her Instagram feed to her 1.7 million followers.
Since then Ohara’s book has steadily climbed the bestseller list on Amazon. It has reached No. 2 in bread cookbooks and No. 10 in overall baking cookbooks, sitting ahead of offerings from the wildly popular TV series “Great British Baking Show” as well as the world-renowned James Beard Award-winning San Francisco bakery Tartine.
The unexpected boost caught Ohara by complete surprise. She was checking her Instagram feed when a direct message popped up from someone who tagged her saying she was using her book to learn bread baking. Ohara had received other such messages, and she would cheerily reply back to them. So when Fischer’s message came up she wrote back without thinking, “Hey, good luck with your first loaf!”
And then she looked again and thought to herself, “She has the same name as that actress.”
It wasn’t the first time an out-of-the-blue message took her life in an unexpected direction. In January of this year, she saw an email in her inbox that read, “Possible Book Deal.” At first she thought it was spam, but opened it just in case. Indeed, it was a real offer from the Emeryville-based Callisto Media. The company specializes in algorithm-driven book publishing, meaning they analyze data to see what people are searching and then publish books about those topics.
They saw the need for a book about the bread baking basics, and they found Ohara through her website’s blog. She had posted an article she wrote for the Bread Bakers Guild of America’s magazine which impressed them. So they reached out to her. At first Ohara was hesitant, worrying it would be too time consuming.
She had her hands full — quite literally — kneading, shaping and baking out of her home, just south of downtown Modesto. She fulfills orders for her regular monthly subscribers as well as weekly first-come, first-serve bread buys. People are known to line up around her block, waiting to get her fresh sourdough, baguettes and other seasonal specialties. Upward of 200 loaves and other bakes come out of her kitchen each week.
But her husband encouraged her to give the new project a shot, because she had always wanted to write a book. She majored in art and writing while at Modesto Junior College. So she started writing in February. The photos were taken in her home kitchen over two sweltering 100-plus degree days in July. Then the book was finished in August. Ohara wanted to help other new bakers to avoid the mistakes she made along the way.
“I wanted it to be a real tutorial starting from the basic premise for people who don’t even know what bread is made of,” she said. “It’s for people who have never baked anything before. Because that’s how I started — I didn’t have a cooking background. So if someone opens this up and learns to bake more quickly than I did it would be worth doing.”
Her book is meant to be followed chronologically, from explaining the fundamental ingredients, terminology and techniques and only then taking readers through about 30 different kinds of breads of increasing levels of difficulty. She finishes it with her signature Alchemy sourdough loaf.
After the book was published at the end of October, she was told by her publisher they were in it for the long run and not to expect a lot of sales at first. Most bestselling cookbooks are written by celebrities. Still her editor at Callisto Media, Pippa White, said there was something special about Ohara’s cookbook from the start.
“I actually got goosebumps the first time I read the intro to the book. Bonnie has such a warm, inviting voice on the page, and as soon as I read those first few pages, I knew this book was going to be great,” White said. “We’re thrilled that Jenna (Fischer) has found the book and loves it! Her experience is just what we’d hoped – that the book would find its way to novice bakers and lead them, step-by-step, through the exciting world of baking bread.”
Ohara just hoped her book wouldn’t get too many one-star reviews on Amazon. But then Fischer, who played long-suffering receptionist Pam on “The Office” for nine seasons, started posting. Now the book is sold out until after Christmas on Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com and Walmart.com. Her publisher said Fischer’s impact on sales is hard to assess, because the book has only been on the market for a few weeks. But they noted a “sharp increases” in demand online whenever Fischer posts about it.
Fischer has posted about a dozen times, over a more than two-week period, about what she calls her “bread adventure” using Ohara’s books on her Instagram and Twitter feeds. Since that first unexpected message, Ohara and Fischer have texted and called each other several times — with Ohara offering her bread expertise and tips.
“This cookbook is really cool because it starts by having you make no-knead breads and then kneaded breads and now enriched breads,” Fischer said in a pinned Instagram stories video where she held up Ohara’s cookbook. “More gift ideas, if you have someone in your life who wants to start making bread and they’ve never made bread, get them this book. I found it on Amazon, I’ll put up a link. It’s great.”
Ohara is most proud that her book has helped beginning bakers, like Fischer, grow confident in their skills. Still, despite its success, she has no plans to change her hands-on, craft approach to bread baking. The only significant change from when she started baking in 2010 is this year she bought a small stone mill and started milling locally grown heirloom wheat for her bread.
And that now, besides the some 1,000 local customers, she has at least one famous fan.
“No one would have predicted the universe and internet would combine to create this strange situation,” Ohara said.
Find out more about Alchemy Bread Co. at its website www.alchemybread.com. “Bread Baking for Beginners” retails for $17.99 and is available through most major booksellers online and in stores. It is also available in a Kindle edition.