In 2015, Troy DeRego made the leap. He quit his day job as a UX (user interface) designer and went full time into the business of baking bread, opening DeRego’s Bread on Main Street in Starkville, Mississippi.
Baking bread had been a hobby he’d taken more and more seriously over time—learning about sourdough at the San Francisco Baking Institute, for instance, even while still an amateur. When he decided it was time to take the plunge and start a business–as guy in his 40s, with a career, a wife, and a mortgage–it was a pursuit he took seriously and carefully, always experimenting and working on potential products to see what would please his customers and sell well.
DeRego credits the Bread Baker’s Guild of America for giving him the opportunity to learn some of his craft from people who know the business, and who know baking. His bakery in Starkville grew, he honed his craft over a few years and came to believe the business was sustainable.
He also noticed something interesting by watching people in the Guild who were a little further down the same path he was on. Owning a small bakery can be rewarding, but the growth in that model isn’t necessarily all that promising.
“It was a little disturbing to see that without making a change I could keep growing, but it would always be close to to a break-even business. That’s a really scary notion,” he said. “But I felt lucky that at least I could see that before over-committing to anything. I knew I had to search even harder for the right path.”
His goal was to find products that could gain a wider audience than just local baked goods. His freshly baked products had a short shelf life (around 24 hours), so shipping was rarely an option.
Unless, that is, he could come up with a baked good that did last quite a bit longer.
“I baked my first loaf of bread out at sea in college–I spent a semester at sea. In fact, I baked my first loaf in the Bermuda Triangle. Maybe it gave me superpowers for baking,” DeRego joked. “We studied a lot about maritime history and the food. Historically, ships were filled with crackers that would last through the absolutely worst conditions.”
Armed with the thought that crackers could have a long shelf life and be shipped around the country, DeRego fell back to another memory—sourdough and the San Francisco Baking Institute.
“After a sourdough experiment that went wrong, there was some (sourdough) starter that had to be disposed of; if you toss it in the trash it will keep fermenting,” he said. “So you put it in the oven to kill it off. When you do, you come back in the morning to find a nice, crisp, beautiful cracker; with a pinch of salt it tasted really good.”
The next step was experimenting with grains, which is a natural for sourdough bakers. He decided to try spent beer grains, feeling they were a natural fit for sourdough crackers because of the shared fermenting process; spent beer grains baked into sourdough crackers, as it turns out, can taste great. The sourdough fermentation process—which is similar to the beer fermentation process—was the key to bringing out great beer flavors in crisp, palette-pleasing crackers.
“Different grains make different aromas, textures—they make it very exciting,” DeRego said. “It’s a totally unique product that needs to be shared with the world.”
DeRego credits brewers in the state for being “super-supportive” allowing him to visit their breweries, collect spent grains on the days that they dump their mash (it needs to be moved quickly) and to reclaim this food source that can be “delicious and nutritious.”
In 2017, he announced the spent-grain beer flavored crackers with a Kickstarter campaign that Kickstarter itself promoted; he found him selling crackers around the country, and he’s been shipping crackers from the bakery ever since.
While DeRego is passionate about baking, he’s also extremely business-minded. “I’m 48. I had to convince my wife that this was a really good idea… I walked away from a steady paycheck. I made promises that it would work and it wouldn’t become a money pit.”
He credits the farmer’s market as a testing ground for products and giving him an opportunity to “do it for real”—find out what will sell and what won’t. And he recommends groups like the Bread Baker’s Guild, where you can network with other likeminded entrepreneurs and share ideas that help solve problems before they become unwieldy.
Being in Mississippi has been a blessing in some ways—DeRego moved to Starkville because his wife, an English professor, got a position at Mississippi State University, and he did UX work mostly for a research center at MSU.
He said he might not have started his bakery if he wasn’t in Starkville, because many other places would have had more competition in the artisan bakery space. At the same time, he realized he couldn’t grow significantly if Starkville—or even the state of Mississippi—was his whole market.
DeRego’s Bread is rebranding the crackers to Grain Elevator, and DeRego himself is thinking a lot about the balance of his time between local baking and building a national (or international) brand.
“For now, my goal is to put the product out there, develop the brand and connect with my audience. I want to figure out who they are and how to reach them, and what they want from beer grain crackers.”
Ultimately he’d like to partner with a large independent brewer, scale up and get on the shelves in Whole Foods, Krogers and “everywhere else,” he said.
“That’s still the challenge—how to make that giant leap and become a truly national brand that could spread out into some bigger wholesale accounts. Obviously brands do it,” he said, “but there’s no one path and that’s the biggest part of the journey—figuring out how to navigate the next big leap.”